Tag: Black Lives Matter

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.

On Right-Wing Political Violence

Yesterday, I wrote the following:

[T]he main worry I have is that the gap between disorganized political violence and organized political violence is minuscule, and is already being jumped over.

Today brings word that five people protesting police violence in Minneapolis were shot by three white supremacists in front of a police station. Some reports have the cops refusing to render aid to the wounded and macing the protestors, which is entirely believable. Thankfully, the specific Nazi scum that opened fire on the crowd are poor shots and those targeted were just wounded and not killed. However, this is not an anomaly but is instead a reflection of an ongoing march of right-wing political violence.

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.

A Short Follow-Up To The Previous Post on Black Lives Matter.

I wish that I could find the words to describe how I feel right now. Maybe I will figure them out by the time you finish reading the following passage from Stephen Crockett’s story at The Root describing the meeting between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activists from Boston:

“Things took a turn when Clinton asked the activists to explain policy changes they wanted to see enacted.

‘I stand here in your space and I say this as respectfully as I can, “If you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what to do.”‘ Jones said. ‘What I mean to say is, this is and has always been a white problem of violence. There’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.’

‘Respectfully,’ Clinton answered, ‘if that is your position, then I will only talk to white people about how we are going to deal with these very real problems.’

‘That’s not what I mean,’ Jones said. He added, ‘But what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. You were saying what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts is to …’

Clinton told them that she isn’t interested in changing hearts, but rather policy.

‘You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through that you might change some hearts,’ she said.

‘But if that’s all that happens,’ she continued, ‘we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation because we will not have all of the changes that you deserve to see happen in your lifetime because of your willingness to get out there and talk about this.'”

I want you, the reader, to step back and think about the scenario that has unfolded in the preceding passage. These activists get a private hearing with a candidate who is, at the moment, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Not only that, but this potential Democratic candidate leads polling aggregates against every potential Republican candidate for the general election as well, meaning that it is plausible that you are having a meeting with the next President of the United States. They get a very simple question, yet it is a question that most people working for social change would kill to get from such a high-profile political candidate:

“Well, the next question is, ‘So what do you want me to do about it?'”

The answer is so stupefying, yet so telling, that it bears repeating.

“‘I stand here in your space and I say this as respectfully as I can, ‘If you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what to do.’ Jones said. ‘What I mean to say is, this is and has always been a white problem of violence. There’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.'”

The answer is impressive only in its ability to say absolutely nothing at all. No policy. Not even a nudge in a general direction towards something where a policy might be crafted. Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house faster than that statement could see any type of policy.

And not only that, but do you know what led into that garbled mess that you see above?

“The piece that’s most important….”

….is, apparently, telling Hillary Clinton that there is nothing that they, Black Lives Matter, can do about any of this. No advocacy. No policy agenda. No concrete plan. Nothing. Asking them to have a plan or a policy agenda? That is….victim-blaming. I am not kidding; that is what happens on the video.

I have alternated this entire day between befuddlement, bewilderment, and other nouns used to describe an unyielding state of confusion.

Just off the top of my head, there are at least three things that they could have asked for: a guaranteed right to protest without fear of ending your demonstration with a criminal background, legislation that bars police officers from earning pay while an investigation into a police shooting is ongoing, and a national limit to the amount of money that cities can make off moving violations and parking violations. Would those be my top three issues for the Black working class were I to receive the same audience? Absolutely not. But my goodness, it would be something more concrete than a response full of Intro to Sociology-style ephemera.

And for a series of protests that handwaves about “accountability”, it would have been beneficial to make concrete demands with which you could actually hold this person, you know, accountable. But what they allowed Hillary Clinton to do was completely evade any discussion of things that might actually get done if she becomes president in favor of allowing her to school them about the most fundamental premise behind policymaking institutions, which is to make policy.

Because if policy change is not the goal of this group of activists, then I am honestly wondering what the hell we are all doing here.

Black Lives Matter and The Failure to Build a Movement.

Black Lives Matter has become an embarrassment.

Even if I were not a supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination (though I wish that he would run as an independent), I would feel this way. Proof of their wholly unserious treatment of serious issues can be found in this sprawling Facebook post, replete with Beyoncé-based hashtags and all, that manages to spend hundreds of words saying nothing of note:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.45.55 AM

And then there were tweets like this, which abounded social media:

For a group of people that are fond of telling people to Google It, these folks seem either unwilling or unable to find out what Bernie Sanders actually stands for. However, since I am an organizer (and part of that role is to educate), here are the facts:

  1. This was not a Bernie Sanders rally. It was a rally in favor of expanding Social Security and Medicaid. On the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, polling in multiple swing Senate races and House contests found that Black voters overwhelmingly supported the expansion of Social Security. In Arkansas, one of the most conservative states in the Union and a state that twice elected the dad from 19 Kids and Counting to the state legislature, Black people supported the expansion of Social Security by a 9-to-1 margin. Do their voices matter? Maybe they are also “white supremacists”, as one of the protestors called the attendees of the rally.
  2. Bernie Sanders has one of the best civil rights records of any person to run for president. I know that some former foreclosure lawyers might feel some kind of way about discussing this, but it is important that we discuss things that people have actually done. So here are Bernie Sanders’s ratings from civil rights organizations throughout his career in Congress. Here are the bills that he has sponsored over his time in Congress. All of that, of course, is in addition to the work that Sanders did during the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe someone who made their money off making poor people homeless (even if she did cry about doing so, all the way to the bank) does not care about such things; I suspect that the people reading this blog, though, might feel differently.
  3. This quote from one of the protestors is stupefying. “‘Bernie, you were confronted at NetRoots at by black women,’ (Marissa) Johnson said before adding, ‘you have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like O’Malley did.'” Just in case you were wondering, that would be Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore who put in place much of the aggressive policing tactics that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray on April 12th. The candidate who has stood at the forefront of civil rights advocacy for over fifty years is now being told by Black Lives Matter activists (and liberal columnists) that he needs to be more like, you know, the guy who gave thousands of Black men across his city arrest records for the ridiculously minor legal transgressions. It is a perfect example of the triumph of form over substance in politics.
  4. The notion that these activists are putting anything on the line with these protests is hilarious. You have to chuckle a bit at the notion that these activists are putting their lives on the line….at a rally for expanding Social Security and Medicaid in Seattle. Perhaps they feared the septuagenarians tossing their fair trade Starbucks at them on stage? In any case, whenever the “hooriding” on Republicans commences, please let the rest of us know. Hell, I would be happy with them simply “hooriding” on Hillary Clinton, but we hear that doing so might require actual work, so maybe we will not see that, either. If these folks can’t pull together a coherent, disruptive protest against Hillary Clinton in the way that climate activists just did, how is there any chance of them successfully challenging police violence?

But as much as this series of protests might irritate me as a Sanders supporter, my frustration is not really about him or this ridiculous protest. I am frustrated by what one of the protestors called “the biggest grassroots movement in the country right now” and their lack of interest in winning any tangible gains for those that they claim to have as constituents.

The Acceptable Social Construction: Racial essentialism and a reactionary “social justice”.

I have a friend that I know from my time in Minnesota. She identifies as a white person, which is not all that uncommon in a state that Chris Rock famously described as having a Black population of two (Prince and Kirby Puckett). If you saw her walking down the street, you would never suspect anything different: very light skin and an accent straight out of a scene from Fargo or Feeling Minnesota. Partnered with a Black man, you would not be able to tell the two of them apart from any other interracial couple (and there are many) in the Twin Cities.

But my friend ain’t exactly descended from Vikings. You see, she is at least a quarter Native American. In Minnesota, a state with a large and politically active Native community, that can be quite beneficial when you are going through either of the state’s university systems. This is because of the legacy of oppression towards Native people in the state. For example, my alma mater, the University of Minnesota Morris, was formed in 1960 by adding a liberal arts component to the University of Minnesota’s West Central School for Agriculture (WCSA). The WCSA was founded on the site of the old Sisters of Mercy-run Morris Industrial School for Indians, which had closed in 1909, the year before the WCSA was formed. Due to this history, any person that can prove their Native background to a certain degree receives free tuition.

Although my friend did not attend UMM with me, it is not hard to find such programs at many of the state’s universities. I used to ask her why she did not avail herself of those opportunities; after all, there were a ton of “Native Americans” at Morris that you would be hard-pressed to find at a pow-wow (a common event at the University) or at a Circle of Nations Indian Association student group meeting. She would simply say, “I was raised as a white woman. I was not raised as a Native American, and it would be wrong for me to claim a community that is not mine simply to get financial benefit.”

Makes sense, right? But judging by the reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter chair in Spokane, Washington who was born to white parents but identifies as Black, and now University of California Riverside professor Dr. Andrea Smith, sensibility no longer appears to be on the menu.

Dolezal’s road to perdition, as most people living in non-rock-based domiciles will be able to tell you, began when her parents dropped the dime on her born ethnicity. From there, all hell broke loose. It was the major story in every news outlet imaginable. By the time the story began to wind down, Dolezal was enough of a known quantity to warrant my receipt of not one, not two, but three breaking news alerts from different media outlets to my phone informing me of her resignation from the chapter presidency of a NAACP branch in a city with a Black population of barely two percent. The Andrea Smith story does not threaten to explode in the same way that Dolezal’s did. This might be due to the fact that, in the wake of nine dead at an African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina and at least seven church burnings in the last couple of weeks, people have decided that other things may warrant their full attention.

But we should not be under any illusions that absent such inhuman barbarity unseen in the United States since the days of Klan night rides through the South, the Smith story would not have been one that blew up in much the same way. I have blogged a lot about identity politics and the ways in which individual instances have manifested in some incredibly nasty and solidarity-killing ways. But it is time to go beyond the sturm und drang of social media slap fights to examine just how we got to this point. How have we arrived at the point where putatively liberal and progressive activists, organizations, and websites are enthusiastically repeating the foundations of an ideology once confined to far-right reactionaries?