Melissa Harris-Perry’s Critique of the NAACP and Her Call for the “Bloody Years”

New Orleans   In a provocative, important, and much discussed op-ed in the New York Times, Melissa Perry-Harris, professor at Wake Forest, former television commentator, and widely regarded African-American public intellectual, jumped in feet first and fists swinging into the question of the NAACP’s board’s recent decision to change leadership to set itself on a more dynamic course in this age of Trump and in this challenging and activist time for the black population in America.

Her case rested on three points.   One, bemoaned the tediousness of the daily tasks of organization for a far flung, institution like the NAACP with a long and storied history. Another called for more activist and diverse leadership for the organization and in a larger way for the struggle itself.  Both of these points warrant serious discussion, and I’ll address them at a later time, but the more powerful and dramatic argument that Harris-Perry makes, which is the flash point for much of the attention it is getting, is her call for a renewed struggle evoking the “bloody years” of the civil rights struggle to be re-engaged now.

And, when she talks about the “bloody years,” this is not just a rhetorical flourish for her. The NAACP has had a mixed history over its 108 years, but she powerfully pulls up evidence of the terrible, racist killings of NAACP leaders, writing:

One night in June 1940, police in Brownsville, Tenn., dragged Elbert Williams from his bed, beat him, shot him in the chest and dumped him in the Hatchie River for the transgressions of helping to form a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and trying to register voters. On Christmas Day 1951, a Ku Klux Klan bomb ripped through the bedroom of Harry Moore, the director of the Florida N.A.A.C.P., killing him and his wife, Harriette. In June 1963, the white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the group, in the driveway of his home, in Jackson, Miss.

Make no mistake, Harris-Perry’s call to action goes way past the NAACP, broadly signally a call for more than mere picket lines and protest posters.  She is calling for a more visceral, face-to-face, confrontation and direct action which involves organizational and even personal risk.  She flatly argues that the NAACP, and by inference, other organizations committed to act for justice, social change, and racial equality, have to step aside or step up.  In her words, the NAACP,

… must be ready for a return to the bloody years. It must become radical and expect a time when people will be mocked and potentially even harmed simply for being aligned with it.  This will happen only if the organization commits itself to making substantive change that disrupts the balance of power for the most vulnerable.

 

Harris-Perry is asking everyone to take on some heavy weight now.  She’s unabashedly demanding a course correction.  This is not a North Carolina professor calling for a two-handed approach, either this or that.  This is not a call for simple resistance.  This is bold and has brass, so hear it clearly, because she’s really talking to all of us, not just the NAACP, and she’s saying we all “must be ready to return to the bloody years.”  We all “must become radical” and be ready to “be mocked and potentially harmed.”

She wants to move past debate.  Let’s see who answers the call.

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Shout Out to Deportation Fighters!

New Orleans   There are a lot of very hard organizing jobs in the country these days, but it’s a feat to claim that any organizers are tasked with a more difficult and heartbreaking struggle than preventing deportations of undocumented people from the United States. Organizers like to win, but the immigrant rights organizations and their organizers claim their victories in the hundreds while witnessing deportations carried out swiftly in the thousands. This is not a new struggle, but in the age of Trump, it is getting more attention. In that vein it was good to see a featured story in the New York Times Magazine by Marcela Valdes entitled “Is It Possible to Resist Deportations in the Age of Trump?” The answer in the piece was “yes,” but not often, and frequently when there is some success it is thanks to efforts by organizations like Puente in Arizona, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) nationally, and organizers like Carlos Garcia, who directs Puente.

I was fortunate to be working in Phoenix regularly before and after the passage of the draconian SB 1070 by Republican legislators attacking immigrants and clearly targeting all Hispanics in the process and often intersected with NDLON during that process and got to visit frequently with Garcia. Their boycott of Arizona cost the state “over $200 million in canceled business conferences,” according to the Times, but more powerfully they were the face and force of resistance in Arizona. NDLON and Puente argued that Arizona was in effect the “Mississippi” of the immigrant rights movement. In the warm glow of the aftermath of the Obama election in 2008, when I was doing a bit of work with several immigrant rights organizations, they were often one of the few and loudest voices pointing out that the emperor was wearing no clothes and that investments and strategic resources needed to focus on resistance and that ground zero was Arizona, even when they were drowned out too often by beltway advocates and money handlers. In the hopes of winning critically needed reform on immigration, many advocates wanted a more muted response to the record breaking level of deportations under Obama’s ICE and Department of Homeland Security and the Secure Communities Act which enabled Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror. In Arizona, the world looked different and organizers had to respond on the frontlines.

Garcia and Puente’s organizing strategy in the wake of this crisis was classic community organizing translated into effective resistance by creating neighborhood defense committees or comites del barrio like those in Cuba and Nicaragua in order to build a base for real resistance among threatened families. Building such house-to-house strength in recent years required huge courage for immigrants to know and stand up for their rights, and paved the way for the more intense direct action required these days.

The stories of immigrant families being torn asunder in this national eviction are rending and dispiriting, but the terribly difficult work of these organizers and organizations is inspiring. In my house my well-worn “Legalize Arizona” t-shirt from the great Phoenix march against SB 1070 and Arpaio is worn more gingerly now, and we need a new one these days, but it should now say, Legalize America.

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