Getting Past the Grand Jury
SNCC Legacy Project
December, 2014

Cops killing young black men is hardly a new story. Nor is the white supremacist assault on black and brown communities anything new. Individuals and organizations have fought both for centuries, and continue to do so today; so ours is neither the first nor the only voice to be raised urging that struggle continue. It does appear to us, however, that a new movement is emerging and spreading across the nation, and that young people in particular have taken the lead in fighting police thuggery. We applaud and support this and stand in solidarity with them.

We cannot help but respond to this development in terms of our own mid-20th century history as young organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). A half century has passed since those days, so parallels cannot be exact; times do indeed change. Some things are relevant; some not. We were born in protest against now-outlawed racial segregation, but quickly learned that protest, while necessary, was not sufficient for tackling the larger issues we soon encountered. Therefore, we became an organization of organizers.

Understanding our evolution is crucial for understanding the relevance of then to now. As we thought about what was to be done to really effect change, the conclusion we came to was to organize for political power, challenge and confront police brutality, and to probe the possibilities of economic development in disenfranchised communities. This required that we embed ourselves in those communities, listening and learning how best to assist local people find their voices, and to organize for the change they wanted. This was neither dramatic nor speedy and was largely ignored by the media. And obviously, not everything that needed to be accomplished was accomplished given the issues we face today.

One of the things we learned, however, was that the oppressions affecting the communities where we worked were systemic. And that continues to be true today. We are not, for instance, faced with a bad cop here and a bad cop there going violently rogue. As a recent article in the New York Daily News noted, over the last 15 years — since the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx — of 179 deaths involving on- duty New York policemen, only three cases led to indictments and just one of those to a conviction; that convicted officer served no jail time. Eighty-six percent of these killings were of African Americans or Latinos.

Deep in the culture of American "law enforcement", there is contempt for black and brown people, especially if they are young or poor. Although they are loathe to admit it, in many departments police are encouraged not to think of black people as human beings. In a December 6 Washington Post article that looked at a St. Louis website called Cop Talk, former policeman Reddit Hudson wrote, "It became so full of racist rants that the site administrator temporarily shut it down. Cops routinely called anyone of color a 'thug,' whether they were the victim or just a bystander."

This attitude goes back to the days of slave-catching in the early years of this country, or in our more recent past, to lynching.

There is ample evidence establishing that a properly trained police officer usually can defuse a potentially violent confrontation without the use of deadly force. However, taking the first step toward getting this kind of police training requires a desire to provide it. Much of the political establishment is either antagonistic or uninterested. And much of this establishment defends police brutality as necessary to combat terror in black and brown communities, sending a signal to many in this nation that non-white lives do not matter.

Angry as we are at the failure of the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, there is an urgent organizing mission to be taken up that takes us into communities more than into street protests. Such protests serve the important purpose of mobilizing people, many of whom have not previously been involved. Many of us in SNCC first became involved in this way. Demonstrations also, at times, attract useful media attention. However, as some organizers are already pointing out, they do little to end the daily violence that will return to black communities after such direct action ebbs or ends.

In general, such grassroots community organizing must aim at empowering the black community. This may not sound "revolutionary." But it is critical and doable. How this can be done will vary from place to place. For example, in Ferguson, which is two-thirds black, a total regime change is possible with effective organization. And that is a conversation we hope community leaders are already having in light of the fact that in the last municipal elections only six percent of eligible black voters came out to vote. In this particular case, we believe that every elected official now in office can and should be turned out of office when the next municipal election is held. In other cities, counties, and states the numbers exist to dramatically affect government, even where black and brown voters are not a majority of the population.

In any case, an organized black community is an empowered black community. And this need not be a solely black effort. There is a great need to encourage the involvement of the total community and its religious, educational and existing community organizations. As we learned in the South, bad government for black people almost always means bad government for white people, too, especially poor whites. So coalitions with like-minded people are essential in our view.

It is worth repeating and emphasizing that community organizing is tedious and time-consuming work. However, here in the United States, it is the instrument that those who hold political power and hold our lives in their grip fear the most. Again, we recognize that some of this work has already begun, particularly led by young people, and we will do all we can to offer whatever, if any, support is desired.

Of course, not all issues affecting the lives of black people and poor people will be solved simply by electing officials to office. Holding those officials and police accountable is of paramount importance, and that, too, is an organizing mission. But these first steps put us on the path to gaining enough power to seriously challenge and demolish the inequities that today affect the lives of so many. We salute the youth, especially, who have courageously begun to walk this path.

Copyright © SNCC Legacy Project, 2014


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