Category: Social justice

Another Harvest In An Orchard Of Strange Fruit

It was a cold night in the fall of 2002 when me and my then-girlfriend pulled up to the public parking lot at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to relax and snuggle a bit. I was 17, a country kid from southeastern Virginia who had just moved to the area with my father the previous summer to start college.

Doing this in the front of my car was not a particularly comfortable experience, so we decided to hop in the back seat. I had to clean it out first, of course, so I did just that before we settled in to watch the moonlight glistening off the lake. It was to be, it appeared, one of those nights that sticks with you long after the moment has passed. Not because anything dramatic happened, but because we tend to remember those little instances in our coming of age where things might have been a bit simpler and sweeter, particularly as the grind of adulthood makes such moments difficult to come by.

And, without question, that night has remained stuck in my mind. I wish that I could tell you that the memory was positive; it might have been, were it not for the Minneapolis Police Department.

I saw the police car entering the parking lot just a minute or two after we had settled in. I tensed up a bit — my parents gave me The Talk just like any other — but I figured they would just pass us by and leave us be. That changed when the cop in the driver’s seat flashed the spotlight into my car. I am thinking, “Oh God, I hope they don’t think I’m trying to fuck out here.” Figured that I would just explain to them how my parents would not particularly approve of such behavior and hope that they would just let us alone.

“Is this cup yours?,” asked the officer with the blinding spotlight.

In my rush to clean the car, snuggle for a bit, and then get home before it got too late out, I had forgotten to pick up a Wendy’s cup that I had dropped due to my hands being full of trash from the back seat. I stated that it was mine, apologized profusely, and went to throw it away. I figured that would be enough. But while one of the cops looked over my driver’s license, his partner kept getting more and more agitated.

“Oh, so you think that you can just throw your shit all over the place whenever you feel like it, huh? You think we’re gonna just pick it up like mommy and daddy do at home?”

You can probably imagine that I do not particularly care for people who speak of my parents this way. But having grown up with the highlight reels of Your Friendly Neighborhood Law Enforcement Officer At Work  — Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell — I knew that getting angry would result in a situation even more unpleasant than the one I was currently facing. So I simply stood my ground and said that he did not need to take it there and asked for their last names.

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you spoiled bitch?!”

At this point, the officer checking my driver’s license has to, basically, hold his partner back and tell him to calm down. My driving record was obviously spotless, and the officer handed back my license after a few minutes. With an admonition to “pick up your trash next time,” the two Minneapolis cops drove away in their patrol car. I never got their names. I never got their badge numbers.

When that cop stood there on a cold Minneapolis night and disrespected me so forcefully, every bit of anger and bile inside of me exploded. I yelled. I pounded the roof of my car. I spit. I cried. I punched my steering wheel.

And then I did something stupid: I got in my car, turned it on, and said that I was going to go after those cops. My girlfriend begged me not to do so, but I was not listening to anything she had to say. She was quick to pick up on this, and threw herself across my lap in order to prevent me from driving anywhere. I did not chase after those cops, which is probably why I am here to tell you this story in the first place.

I felt powerless then. And on July 6, 2016, that feeling of powerlessness came flooding back to me as news of a police shooting in St. Paul, Minnesota came flooding through Facebook in graphic detail.

An Open Letter to Rep. John Lewis.

Representative Lewis,

Yesterday, you stated the following about Bernie Sanders’s record on fighting for civil rights in the 1960s:

“I never saw him. I never met him. I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved with the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed (the) voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President (Bill) Clinton.”

We are going to ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl, or that you once stated to a Clinton biographer that, “[t]he first time I ever heard of Bill Clinton was the 1970s”, or that it has already been well-established that Sanders worked with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. We are also going to leave aside the fact that every mention of Bill Clinton in your book Walking With The Wind described an instance that he opposed some policy that you cherished.

Instead, we are going to talk about another person that you never saw or met.

On Solidarity and Flint

A lot has already been written about the ongoing atrocity in Flint, where a city of 100,000 people that is largely responsible for building the conditions that created prosperity in postwar America has been deliberately poisoned with lead and legionella by a dictatorial emergency financial manager system created by Rick Snyder, the sitting governor. The widely-reported reason of why the poisoning happened (to save a comparatively small amount of money) has also come under question, adding another dimension of horror to what’s already a horrible story. In a just world, what has been done to the people of Flint would result in a cigarette, a blindfold, and a firing squad for a lot of right-wing technocrats. We do not, however, live in a just world, more’s the pity.

The Value of Small Changes: A Canadian perspective

(Allison Sparling is a social democratic political activist from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This post was originally posted on her blog Always, Always Something.)

Something that’s struck me a lot, especially since living in Toronto, is how frequently we mistake progressivism for some sort of brand to be consumed instead of a movement dedicated to tackling hard changes to save the planet and make humans more equal. When Conservatives decry the latte sipping elite, it’s a facile stereotype but they’re not wrong: social justice is not about what kind of coffee you can afford to drink, even if it treats its workers better.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t drink coffee that treats its workers well! This is good. This is important. But this is the one of the smallest parts of a social contract that needs to change. Businesses that exist in this type of economy need a competitive edge to justify their cost and continue their existence so they amplify their social good as a form of marketing to make you feel like this small choice is what you needed to to do end inequality, save the planet, justify your spending $3 when there’s cheaper coffee elsewhere. And if you spend that $2-3 at a locally owned business that treats its workers well, that’s even better.

But that’s still not social justice.

Labor Rights Are Civil Rights.

I debated whether I should write this. I feel like this far too often when I sit down to write lately, especially when it comes to addressing something as thoroughly empty as anything dealing with Black Lives Matter. That goes tenfold for anything that happens regarding Black Lives Matter within that razor-wired echo chamber known as social media. In fact, I had not planned on writing anything more about this, and I plan to go back to doing so once this piece is finished.

But witnessing this breathtaking display of rank stupidity compels me to point out a couple of things:

  1. People associated with Black Lives Matter have managed to put out precisely one detailed list of demands. Those demands are tightly focused around one issue. If you abhor the quick death of a policeman’s bullet but are hunky-dory with the slow death caused by out-of-control unemployment, health disparities and outcomes, and the degradation of America’s contract with its working class, then I have to ask which Black Lives Are Supposed To Be Mattering with these demands? And if you cannot articulate a comprehensive plan of action for your community of interest, then what are the protests if they are not symbolic?
  2. The March on Washington….For Jobs and Freedom. Look up those demands sometime, if you ever want an example of what an actual plan for liberation looks like. If you are the kind of person who likes substance and detail, perhaps the Freedom Budget, championed by labor leader and March on Washington organizer (and a Black man to boot!) A. Philip Randolph is more up your alley.
  3. Related to that last point, a Black man is head of America’s second largest labor union. A Black man (and an immigrant) is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO. Black people have been the largest supporters of an expansion of labor rights, and they have been the backbone of one of the most successful labor campaigns in a generation, the Fight For 15. Black people are also more likely to identify as working class rather than middle class or wealthy. The notion that pointing out this fact, as well as pointing out that economic inequalities are reduced where workers can collectively bargain, is akin to someone saying that “all lives matter” is, well, out-of-touch with reality. And history.
  4. And since we are talking about Bernie Sanders not protesting with Black Lives Matter, maybe this has something to do with it? It is not really about him, but the amnesia that comes over certain sectors of online activism when it comes to this one candidate has gotten to be really bizarre.

I hate writing about this stuff because it honestly bores me, even more so when you can see the fast-approaching end game of all this. I would much rather be working on my blog piece about histories of leftism in the South, or be researching my dissertation, or be outside enjoying the abundant splendor that is life in Detroit.

But at a certain point, it becomes necessary for there to be a transcript. One that will let people who look back upon this stuff know that the conversation was not one-directional, and that there were people who legitimately cared about liberation and freedom who nevertheless opposed this mild reformism, infused with radical posturing. And one that states the painfully obvious: that if every police officer put down their guns and fully disarmed tomorrow, that this would do little to put food in the bellies of hungry children, or put a roof over the heads of the approximately 20,000 homeless in Detroit, or give our kids an education system that treats them as humans, and not just numbers or dollar signs.

Labor unions have been at the fore of fighting for all of those things. And not just that: the strength of a nation’s labor movement has been shown to positively affect the responsiveness of government to its most vulnerable (Bartels 2010) as well as the size of its social welfare state (Goldfield 1987; Esping-Anderson and Korpi 1983). The backing that the fights for civil rights, Medicaid, and Social Security had from the labor movement, and their successes, should prove that in multitudes.

Labor rights are civil rights. And if we really intend to make Black Lives Matter, perhaps a simple recognition of that easily researchable historical fact should be recognized.

Anatomy of a Bad-Faith Argument.

In the previous post on this blog, I included the following statement:

“For now, though, this is in support of someone who has dedicated their life to the liberation of communities of color here and abroad. And it is support of one simple concept: if we do not have good-faith debate and discussion, then we do not have successful movements. And without those, we have no change.

I really should not have been surprised that people on social media would completely skip over that part of the discussion. However, intentional misreadings are as much a part of the handwaving and brand-building that goes on there as favorites, retweets, likes, and shares. Since much of the offline world is probably baffled when they hear me talk about this stuff, I figure that I would give an example of such an intentional misreading.