Lynching, Police, and Black Lives Matter

Front page of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 28, 1900, after Charles was killed

Front page of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 28, 1900, after Charles was killed

New Orleans   A book on lynching is really not the kind of thing that a lot of people would pull off the shelves for a summer read, but they might be wrong for thinking that way, at least if listening to Dr. Karlos Hill on KABF’s Wade’s World is any indication. Dr. Hill, a professor now at the University of Oklahoma and formerly at Texas Tech, was talking about his book Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory. Although he was writing largely about the history of lynching between 1880 and 1920, he argued that history shapes the crisis in police-community relations that exists to this day and that the roots of these experiences also branch directly to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although the rural communities of the Mississippi River delta along Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi are infamous as the heartland of racially-based lynching, Hill notes that lynching was a national phenomenon equally feared and a part of community experience and consciousness in cities from Atlanta to New Orleans to Los Angeles. Hill draws direct connections between lynching and vigilantism that many mythologize as part of the Wild West, Gunsmoke, and cattle rustling. In the post-1880 period, such vigilantism meted out rough justice in areas where there was either lawlessness or a sense that white officials would not handle crimes against black individuals. There were cases of blacks being lynched by blacks for major crimes like rape or murder. To put this in perspective, Hill examined the actual cases that he could identify during that period from his research, 14% were black-on-black hangings, while 86% involved blacks being lynched by whites.

Hill also noted that there was a change in the way victims were seen over the 40-year period he studied. In the hands of some, like muckraking reporter Ida B. Wells, victims began to be seen in a different light not in the brutish, “black beast” framework, but more as figures of resistance who were almost heroic. The week long fight of Robert Charles in New Orleans after an altercation with a policeman there was perhaps the best example.

Before anyone dismisses all of this as simply a shameful oddity of long dated history, think for a minute, as Hill and I did, about the powerful legacy such experiences have embedded in the black community and experience. Even more so consider how little modern police force and modern community policing has done to moderate this painful legacy. I can still remember my first arrest at an action in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every one of the members, black, brown and even white, were convinced that if arrested, the police would beat you. Period. No question. In fact, when I was arrested, even though I was going voluntarily and telling people to be calm, there was a tug-of-war between the police and the members with me in the middle, because the members felt this so strongly and felt obligated to provide protection for what they saw as inevitable.

Reflecting on the police killings in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge and elsewhere, Hill was careful to say that though some have seen these actions as modern “lynchings,” that they are not, but though different he believes they come from the same historical and evil seeds. Before Dallas,  he thought for a brief time there might be a real reassessment of community policing and its impact on minorities, but he fears that moment may have been lost in the confusion between black lives mattering and blue lives mattering.

In truth all lives matter, and change has to come. Hill is right: history matters. For the present we have to accelerate the process to achieve justice, because without justice, as the chant goes, there can be no peace.


The Routinization of Charisma

the_better_angels_coverNew 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”


Post-Ferguson: It’s Not the Tactics, It’s the Troops

713Highway Blocked

Boston highway blocking

New Orleans     Historians, celebrities, names in the news, and old warriors of the civil rights movements are being put in the uncomfortable position of being asked by the press as so-called opinion leaders to comment on everything from the movie, Selma, to the tactics of protestors in the post-Ferguson moment of pushback and leap forward for more racial equality and rights.  A lot of the talk seems fuddy-duddy and old fashion as too many try to both line up with the drive to end injustice but shrink from the tactics, often seeming to channel school marms and old aunts.

Street blocking has been a favorite tactic of current protestors with dramatic impact.  In Oakland several weeks ago the interstate along the east Bay was blocked for hours attracting wild publicity.  More recently several dozen protestors chained themselves to 1200 pound concrete barrels and blocked a highway coming into Boston for hours there as well.  There are reports of “speaking truth to power” actions where protestors interrupt lunches in restaurants with largely white clientele to demand that they deal with the issues.

All of this invariably leads to the general wet noodling by outsiders that adopt the standard line that they agree with the goals, but abhor the tactics.

David J. Garrow, the award winning and great historian of the civil rights movement is a good example of a less than helpful tendency to scold and deprecate.  Saying to the Times:


…the impromptu protests that had erupted in recent months were not comparable to the strategies used by civil rights groups of the 1960s, which had clear goals such as winning the right to vote or the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter. “You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational,” Mr. Garrow said of the new waves of protests. “There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?” Mr. Garrow compared the protesters to those of Occupy Wall Street. “Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?” Mr. Garrow said. “Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I’m aware of.”


Even Rev. Al Sharpton, who knows something about protesting, took some shots by saying of the protests,


“I think some of them are absolutely what we need,” he said. Of others, he said: “I think some of them are hustling the media, they have no real following, no real intent, and they may not be around in four months.”

Rev. Sharpton knows something about working the media, and part of the tactical dilemma faced by today’s civil rights protestors, just as by others 50 years ago, is how to get enough attention to convert the protest to pressure.

From an organizing perspective the tactics don’t seem problematic to me.  The fact that the actions are small and broadcast a limited base is what worries me.  You can’t make change without troops, and putting lots of people in motion, and the choice of tactics in some of the more dramatic actions has been more about a vanguard leading, than building a movement for change.  A movement for change can’t crystallize around folks watching YouTube videos of other people engaging risk and taking action.  Unless this generation of organizers and activists starts assembling tactics that allow broad engagement and participation, the naysayer army is always mobilized and will drown them out and beat them down.  If we look small, we quickly become irrelevant.  Organizers can’t allow that to happen on campaigns of this importance.


Stop the Militarization of Local Police Departments

11129568566_505d15bc38_oNew Orleans     The aftermath of tragic violence and protest in Ferguson, Missouri has reignited recognition of the continuing racial divide in the United States. It is hardly a surprise that African-Americans and whites continue to see things so differently, but while searching for an area where there is high agreement, I think I’ve found one. Both whites and blacks oppose the extreme militarization of local police forces!

Of course the opposition is not exactly the same. According to polling 65% of whites believe that military grade weaponry should be kept with the military, while 80% of blacks believe that, but any way you slice it, the public seems to have a high level of consensus that they would rather hope that the police are there to protect them, rather than worrying about whether they are in danger from the police.

I also call New Orleans home where this is not just a sensitive issue in the community, but an article of faith that people are well advised to give the police a wide berth. Recently a 17-year prison sentence for a former police officer was reaffirmed by the courts for his having burned a dead, post-Katrina victim of a police shooting in a car along the Mississippi River levee. Long heeded advice from parents to children and residents to tourists has been to make sure that if they witness a policeman beating someone in the French Quarter do not get involved, or you will also go to jail. In recent years, the district police station was located down the block on my street while their flooded station was rebuilt. Weeks ago, we all felt safer when they moved. The only good thing I saw in the chart of where military surplus had been distributed was that the New Orleans police department seemed to have only received night vision goggles. If they actually look before they shoot, that would indeed be a gift here.

Why in the world would Randolph County, Arkansas need a military airplane? What possible need could they have for such a piece of equipment? Randolph County is in the northeastern part of the state. Pocahontas is the largest city, but it’s not large. There are only 17,000 people that live in the whole county, abutting the Missouri state line. 96% of the county is white. Are they thinking about seceding from the state of Arkansas? What possibly could be their plan?

New Mexico ended up with more than forty anti-mine, armored vehicles, topping Texas with thirty-six. Is this what Governor Rick Perry and others think might be useful in stopping refugee children coming to the border?

You have to wonder how many SWAT teams we need to have, dressed in full-military gear. Are police preparing for the “zombie apocalypse” already? What type of officers are we trying to recruit with these war zone fantasies replacing the mission of community policing and public safety?

The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

When 68% of the American people agree on anything these days, especially in the racially charged atmosphere of Ferguson, it should not only be cause for celebration but an urgent cry for immediate action. The consensus from black and white is that the federal government needs to stop enabling the militarization of local police departments, and they need to step back from some of their gung-ho, GI-Joe stuff, and look harder at protect-and-serve, rather than shoot-to-kill with the bombs bursting.