New Orleans Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the funeral. Al Sharpton says he’s on his way to visit. The Mayor, an African-American woman commented about herself, the newly elected prosecutor for Baltimore, also an African-American woman, and the newly confirmed first-ever African-American Attorney-General in the United States, that in so many words if we can’t get justice and peace in a community from three black women at three different levels, then you simply can’t get justice and peace in any community in America. Uh-oh!
I’m still struck by an expression repeated to me from a discussion of the events of Baltimore at the weekly meeting in New Orleans of the free-floating coalition and forum, Justice and Beyond, that spoke of the “routinization of charisma.” The phrase was not a complement, nor should it have been, but it speaks to a huge vacuum. The question as always at the street level is “who has a base?”
Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, makes the point about violence globally that whether in ancient or modern times the absence of the state leads to a dispersion of power in groups defined by tribe, warlords, and of course gangs. Reading about the late-in-the-day effort by some ministers to reach out to gangs in Baltimore to try to find common ground to stop the insurrection there, reminded me of that point. Having the military in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the same as having a government or state with the consent of the people. The same can be said of too many cities use of the police as an occupying, militarized force, and it seems in too many places a power unto itself without the support of the community or the effective supervision by the political structure.
It was interesting being in North Carolina recently. It is frankly surprising to hear of the NAACP as a leader of protests, rather than being part of the infrastructure of continued reform. Rev. William Barber from Goldsboro, North Carolina, built a base through the Moral Mondays during the legislative sessions there in 2013. Organizers and leaders were waiting for his call for the current session of the legislature. Here is charisma that seems to work, starting with a clear base and expanding that base through action with his own and others.
Moving away from the base builds the dangers of the “routinization,” and therefore the dilution of leadership becomes acute. The vacuum of widespread, membership-based organizations in lower income communities now with the dissolution of ACORN and other grassroots efforts also exacerbates the issues of voice and agency.
One thing we all know, you can’t solve a communities issues outside of the community. As the mayor of Baltimore has noted, having African-Americans in power makes a difference, but having Obama as president didn’t solve intractable issues in low-and-moderate income urban communities, especially with federal austerity and anti-people Congressional policies and programs, and it won’t bring justice and peace in Baltimore or elsewhere. It has to come from the bottom and the base has to propel and develop their own leaders, they can’t be grafted onto a community.
Mavis Staples “Eyes On The Prize”