[In May and June of 2020, a time of pandemic isolation, economic collapse, and intense partisan rivalry, videos of Minneapolis cops lynching George Floyd — a Black man with his hands cuffed behind his back — sparked nationwide mass protests against widespread police brutality and systemic racism in America.]
U.S. history is full of surges of activity — to end slavery, allow women to vote, organize industries and crafts, integrate public accommodations and schools, establish voting rights for African Americans, end the Vietnam war.
Yet we have today versions of all that has been protested and "reformed" in the past — human trafficking, immigrant labor exploitation, voter suppression, corporate anti-union drives, worldwide military occupations of countries and torture of their citizens. We know, but these travesties are largely just part of the landscape that we live in.
Mississippi has elected the highest number of African American public officials, but still has the Confederate emblem on its flag and a legislature that won't ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to say women should have the same rights as men.
In late May and early June 2020, the black and white, mostly young and local, protesters against racism and injustice in at least 23 Mississippi communities numbered in the thousands for the first time — a very welcome surge for those of us who have labored for decades in movements for change and kept sidewalks warm for this generation.
So I appeal to you — unless you just like the idea of surging onto the streets then dispersing, over and over, with no apparent end to the cycle — this time let's do things differently.
Let's be clear that every one of us can play a role in breaking the habit of advancing and retreating.
Vangela Wade of the MS Center for Justice said it well: "The truth is that there is no one coming to rescue us. We are the ones who must scramble."
And that means preparing and spending the time.
As a veteran of 1964 Freedom Summer, I have often thought that "we" stopped too soon. Some early 60s black activists suffered PTSD from the violence and stress of organizing efforts. Most black and white volunteers signed on for short stints and soon returned to out-of-state homes or colleges. Many advanced to teach at colleges and universities and became part of an "academic model" of professor / teacher in front, everybody else audience — not unlike the upbringing of many of us with preacher in front and everybody else congregation. We forgot that Ella Baker said "Strong people don't need strong leaders" and the Movement mantra of "Let the people decide."
The academic model is pervasive in almost all spheres today. Even public forums have speakers or panels, then "allow" a set time for questions and answers, often with little or no discussion, and soon it's time to close. We can do better.
We build schools with one teacher at the front, and auditoriums, theaters, and arenas where a few people speak, perform, or vie for victory while we watch.
We can learn to talk with each other, wrestle with ideas and problems and hopes and dreams, and plan paths to change.
Individuals who've won elections operate within established processes, and few of the rest of us know much about what they do, never mind have anything to say about it unless we are able to take them to court and wait years for a judgment. Elected officials need to urge us to work with them, not meet without our knowing. They need our experience and questions and skills.
What happens in schools and public bodies is usually decided by small groups, and many a teacher or officeholder can get mighty peeved if we want to talk about alternatives.
And there are alternatives or hints of them all over the internet and in the full range of skills and knowledge of people in our communities. We can figure out good ways to house and feed everyone, govern, do justice, teach, make and use money, communicate, cooperate, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and all the other tasks of democracy and human decency.
Protests in the streets may have to continue for some time, if current holders of power won't see the light. Peace departments must be larger than police departments, with mental health and conflict resolution specialists. Force can be replaced by preventive services, including inclusive Medicare for All without debt and delay.
Emerging from those protests are the challenges of participation and openness and dedication.
Who will attend meetings of the county election commission, achieve widespread advance notice of the meetings, become familiar with the voting technology and details of preparation and election-day processes, ask questions and speak out on issues as they arise?
Who will attend sessions of the county board of supervisors, municipal council, levee district, school board, Transportation or Public Service Commission, or the Mississippi Legislature, learn about its responsibilities and powers, find out residents' needs and problems, and ask questions and speak out on issues as they arise?
Who will dive into the intricacies of how local, state, federal and world economies now work and collaborate with others to devise ways to make monetary, commercial, governmental, and regulatory systems serve people's needs?
Who will learn to build sustainable, affordable housing then teach and encourage others to do it?
Who will help improve methods of serving people in poverty, while working with others to make poverty only a relic of the past?
Who has the people skills to bring neighbors together, raise funds, or explain complex facts?
Who will plant the organic gardens, cook the organic meals that keep us healthy, keep wastewater out of the rivers, or devise ways of reusing masses of plastic and paper? Who will improve solar batteries, wind turbines and other technology so dangerous and expensive power sources can be eliminated?
Who will learn from Socrates, Marva Collins, Freedom Schools and so many others and transform our schools into thinking, learning, nurturing, and empathizing places that children delight in attending?
And who will contribute the art, music, dance or other talents that will keep us all on track for generations to come, ever improving in ways and at speeds not yet known?
I beg you, don't get tired, don't get distracted. There are miles to go and we are the vehicles to get there.
Copyright © Jan Hillegas, 2020
[Jan Hillegas lives in Jackson and works toward establishing a resource center for the movements we need today. Ask your questions and become a colleague at Conversationsms@hotmail.com.]
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