[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. ]

Black Lives Matter and the State of the Union

Mike Miller June 23, 2020

We live in the worst of times. We live in the best of times. The outpouring of righteous anger on behalf of George Floyd and all those who have been victims of police brutality is great. But I fear for the future, and have these observations if George Floyd's six-year old daughter is to be proven right, "My daddy changed the world."

The Opportunity

At no time since the early-to-mid 1960s has there been such energy for racial and economic justice. We are in the fourth week of demonstrations against police brutality that: have reached into rural and small town America; are, as far as polling can tell us, supported by a majority of Americans; include Black, Brown and White people in large numbers, and; have by-and-large overcome the negative press accompanying the property destruction by a small minority of protesters, probably joined by agents provocateurs.

The corona virus pandemic revealed each day to large media audiences two major things: first, corporate rip-offs ranging from the medical-pharma-hospital industry to others throughout the economy that pocketed subsidies intended for workers, consumers and communities, and, second, vast inequalities based on race, ethnicity and class. The televised string of police and vigilante murders of Black men and women made clear far beyond those who already knew that racism is alive and well in the United States, and that the criminal justice system is one of its most powerful institutional expressions.

It appears there is a major shift in American consciousness. People are saddened and angry. They want significant reform.

The Challenge

Will our side be able to translate protest into power, power into policy, and policy into appropriations, institutional restructuring and implementation? That remains to be seen. Therein lies the challenge.

Now is a good time to look at the early-to-mid 1960s when another period of optimism for "freedom now" existed. Important gains were made: legal segregation and denial of the right to vote ended; a larger Black middle class was created; Black elected officials became common place; anti-housing discrimination legislation passed. There were others.

But: Black segregation, poverty and deprivation due to racial discrimination persist, and are in some ways worse than they were when we were doing our work in the 1960s. Democratic participation for poor people of whatever color beyond casting a ballot, except for those few who are organized in a decent union or in an effective community organization, is mostly form and little substance. Voter suppression threatens to undo what was won as Republicans and the Supreme Court they control seek to limit the African- American vote.

SNCC veterans drew different lessons from their experience. Some concluded black power meant winning elections. Some thought the failure of things like the MFDP challenges demonstrated the hopelessness of reform in the United States and were drawn to one-or-another expression of Black nationalism. Some went to work in particular problem areas—health, education, police, housing, employment or others, and found ways to fund their activity by creating or becoming part of "community-based nonprofits" or entering mainline institutions. Whatever the benefits of each, and they are often substantial, the whole is smaller than the parts. None of these led to power, policy and implementation sufficient to break the power of institutional racism. For democracy to be real, sustained people power organizations as well as dramatic mobilizations, good programs and voting are required.

What Constitutes Police Reform?

From everything I've read, seen and heard, including my on-the-ground experience as a community organizer in Northern Black communities, African- Americans repeatedly say they want two major things from the police:

  1. a respectful presence in their communities so that when a cop is needed one is available and does the right thing, and;

  2. an end to police harassment, brutality, verbal abuse and other unacceptable behavior.

They also want to take important things out of police jurisdiction. Among them: mental health crises, drug use, homelessness and other problems better dealt with as public health, social welfare, housing, employment and other public policy solutions. But ending a police presence is not one of them.

When an African-American resident looks out her window and sees someone breaking into her car parked in front of her home, she should be able to call "911" and get a fast response from a respectful cop. That the person breaking in is unemployed is surely a matter requiring action; it's a different and related matter. Unemployment and more may explain the break-in; they don't justify it.

On the first two points, if both aren't said and pursued, there is a likelihood that advocates don't represent where the majority of people in the Black community are. You don't have to pay too much attention to what African- American leaders and everyday people are saying to know this. Failure to represent that majority leads to marginalization and/or cooptation — whatever the justice of a cause. A broadly-united African-American community and its allies may still be marginalized—especially with this President and U.S. Senate, and in many states and local jurisdictions across the country.

Slogans and Programs.

"Defund the police" is a divisive slogan. "Demilitarize the police" is better. "Re-imagine or Restructure the police" captures the idea that more than tinkering at the edges is required—but the Devil is in the details; flesh has to be put on the skeleton.

I watched the Minneapolis City Council President try to extricate herself from the implications of "Defund the police." CNN's Chris Cuomo was doing everything he could to help her; she didn't do very well. Her clarification was better than the slogan—suggesting the latter should be replaced. Slogans should sum up content in a vivid way, not require elaborate explanation.

There are examples of substantial reform working. Under the administration of Police Chief Chris Magnus—white and gay—in majority minority (Black and Latino) Richmond, CA significant reforms were implemented.* According to a Los Angeles Times report, "Community mistrust has gradually given way to collaboration, thanks to deepening bonds between officers and the neighborhoods they serve." Magnus acknowledged things remained to be accomplished, but his presence made a difference. The Times report continues, "Community mistrust has gradually given way to collaboration, thanks to deepening bonds between officers and the neighborhoods they serve...[Magnus] disbanded roving street teams that had focused on arrests, replacing them with neighborhood-based policing. Officers attend neighborhood meetings and give out their cellphone numbers." Magnus introduced Ceasefire, a demonstrably effective gang violence prevention program. After Ferguson, he held a "Black Lives Matter" sign. Since his 2015 departure for Tucson, there has been some backsliding. But the point I want to make is that with political will, the right policies and the right personnel, change can take place.*

[* See the Richmond, CA story in "Top Cop." Steve Early. Washington Monthly. November/December, 2016.]

Fundamental reform is now possible...if our side doesn't blow it.

What Do We Want? A Parable

A group of old friends is sitting around in a St. Louis coffee shop planning a summer vacation for their families. Several have very definite ideas: Hawaii, safari in Africa, Great Barrier Reef. They argue back-and-forth about the respective merits of each.

One of them who had been quiet asked, "How much money do we have for this vacation?" After a moment of silence, each puts on the table what they can spend.

"Well," said the one who raised the money question in the first place, "I guess we should start planning for California or Florida."

Debates about political program are often like that. The currency of politics is power: votes, boycotts, strikes, disruption, public embarrassment and other tactics express it. People power requires a wide base of support. With people power, these tactics can lead to substantive negotiations between status quo power and insurgent power. Without it, little changes.

In our SNCC challenge and response slogans we said, "What do Want?" "Freedom!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" Those who want significant change sometimes observe, "We are on a long march through the institutions." I agree with that. The path to change begins now, but the results will take one, two, three or more years to achieve. If the current demonstrations don't lead to sustained, broadly-based/mass-based organization there will be cosmetic change in police departments and elsewhere in American life and not much more.

The Danger

We need to remember these things: From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to more-or- less the mid-1960s, there was broad support for civil rights. But: in 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenge to seating the racist "regulars" at the Democratic Party Convention was defeated. In 1966, there was the greatest shift in representation in the House of Representatives from one party to another since the 1930s — except this one was from Democrat to Republican. By the end of 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was spiraling into nonexistence. The Martin Luther King, Jr/Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)-led "Poor People's March" in 1967 was a relatively marginal effort. In 1968, an integrated Mississippi Democratic Conference (MDC) delegation was seated at the Democratic Convention—but MFDP delegates were only one-quarter of its members.** In 1968, largely using his racist "southern strategy", Richard Nixon was elected President. He was re-elected in 1972 by a huge majority, defeating George McGovern in all but two states. George H. W. Bush similarly used race to beat Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

[**The Politics of Change— The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of the Rise (and Fall) of Insurgency. Rachel B. Reinhard; abbreviated and adapted by Mike Miller. Soon available at Amazon.com.]

Backlash was real.

In the North, despite the civil rights movement even at its peak, these things were taking place: "urban renewal = Negro removal" was a slogan and fact; Federally-funded highways were doing the same thing; unemployment for Black adults was twice that of whites, and twice again for Black teens; police harassment and brutality combined with police absence when they were called and needed; red-lining and disinvestment in cities was the rule; exploitive absentee landlords; cheating merchants; payday loans; on-and-on. These issues persist. The massive destruction of African-American and Latino equity during the 2008/09 recession took place during the Obama Administration. Banks were protected; homeowners weren't.

The power to achieve significant reform wasn't there.

Lessons From The Past

The current reform campaign is fraught with the danger of divide and conquer. The reformers must attend to that possibility. The concern about marginalization and cooptation is not new for me. As a community organizer for the past 55 years since my SNCC days I have wrestled with these problems, sometimes with more and other times less success. I know this: police reform will not be easy. Nor will reform in any other institutional arena if it is to get to the root of the problem. My great fear is that those who are clearest in their indictment and understanding of institutional racism have not drawn the necessary prescription from that analysis to win.

I hope that out of this massive outpouring of positive energy there will be young people who draw the same conclusion drawn by the 22-or-so young African- Americans, mostly southerners, who dropped out of school and became SNCC's first full-time organizers.

I hope some will go into the exploited workplaces we've seen during the COVID- 19 pandemic and become internal union organizers, as some have already done; some will go to work as full-time union organizers; others will become full- time community organizers in existing organizing networks, some will develop a new SNCC, one that learns from the mistakes we made and creates something capable of building the people power required to sustain "the long march".

I hope this generation of protesters will learn from: Bob Moses-led SNCC and united freedom movement work in Mississippi; Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants and others' SNCC work in Lowndes County Alabama; the life and work of SNCC mentor Ella Baker; Saul Alinsky and his tradition's work in Black, Latinx and White urban, suburban and rural America; Fred Ross, who Cesar Chavez called "my secret weapon," and from Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gil Padilla and others who were at the center of what became the United Farm Workers of America.

I hope they will dig into labor history and see how strong democratically- controlled people power organizations were built in workplaces that had agendas dealing with all the issues—workplace and community—faced by their members.

I hope a new generation of organizers, leaders, members, supporters and activists will read Rachel Reinhard's The Politics of Change. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of the Rise (and Fall) of Insurgency. It is powerfully relevant to what faces all who share the idea that Black Lives Matter. Observing MFDP's fate, in his book foreword Charles Payne, author of I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement wrote, "...this is an important cautionary tale, suggesting that creating organizations...is only a step; they have to be built to withstand specific challenges external and internal."

Anyone interested in pursuing this conversation is welcome to write me at mikeotcmiller@gmail.com, and to explore the ORGANIZE Training Center website www.organizetrainingcenter.org.

"Freedom," we used to say in SNCC, "is a constant struggle." Never in my lifetime has it been more important to remember that.

We are on a long march through the institutions of power. If we fail to build people power that is both broad and deep, we will not make it to the end.

[Mike Miller's background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), co-coordinator of the farm workers union Schenley boycott, and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His writes often on labor, community organizing and politics.]

Copyright © Mike Miller 2020

 


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