Alabama Surge Does Not Change the Story on Voter Suppression

Gulfport   Voter suppression is a mark of shame in a democracy. In fact, it beggars the question of whether a democracy exists at all. The principle of any democracy has to be a maximum effort to provide access to all eligible voters to the polls in order to exercise their franchise and give voice to their opinions on the direction of the country and its leadership.

There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. Any part of the political establishment’s attempts to suppress the free expression of voters at the ballot box is anti-democratic. Period. There are no two ways about it. It’s not just politics, it’s an attempt to erode the fundamental values of the country.

A headline in the New York Times read, “Black Turnout in Alabama Complicates Debate Over Voting Laws.” Baloney! The fact that African-American voters were able to overwhelm the obstacles imposed by voter suppression and voter ID requirements does not complicate the debate whatsoever. What was wrong is still wrong. That doesn’t change just because people were able in this one instance to climb over the barriers successfully. The exception simply proves the rule in the Alabama race. Furthermore, as everyone from Republican Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell on down in the anti-voter Republican Party has said, this is a one-time thing in Alabama. How many times can voters find themselves confronted with political choices that are so utterly Manichean with good and evil presented in such stark contrasts? With voter suppression in place, and even more comprehensive in a host of other states, like Texas, a merely bad and terrible Republican would have had a good chance of winning, where the face of evil only lost by less than 2%.

The founder of Alabama’s Black Votes Matter was quoted saying, “Historically and traditionally, there has been a strong voice of resistance to those that are undemocratic,” she said. “I don’t think that this is new; I think that has always been the role that black voters, particularly in the Deep South, have played.” She’s right up to a point. Southern and, frankly, non-Southern states have been suppressing black votes for hundreds of years. I just finished reading a book called, The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields, by Cris Dier, who presented it at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse recently. It was the horrific story of more than 100 African-Americans killed in a parish abutting New Orleans in the effort to suppress the post-Civil War Reconstruction voting base of the Republicans.

My point: suppression is suppression. Violence is of course worse, but so is trickery and legal shenanigans when the purpose is the same.

I worry about the Times on this beat and not just because of the headline. Hardly a week before the election they ran a story that essentially argued that African-American voters were not engaged and were ho-humming the whole affair, didn’t know Doug Jones, didn’t care about Roy Moore, and we’re sleep walking the election. Then a week later they are arguing that voter suppression didn’t work therefore the discussion about state by state efforts to suppress voters is now “complicated.”

We’re living in different realities in the United States for sure, but at the point we can’t even consistently agree of bedrock democratic values, the debate is over, and the country has lost.

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Black Lives Matter Lawsuit is a Reminder of the Importance of Structure

New Orleans   Last year at a meeting organized for nonprofits by Tulane University, there was furious head scratching when everyone was asked what workshop they would volunteer to lead, and I had written down my willingness to do one on the importance of structure. Asked why, I argued that too many organizations without thinking or with the advice of lawyers and funders, not organizers, in a knee jerk fashion decided to incorporate and file for a tax exemption without reckoning with the critical weight of the decision. In matters of structure, I have always argued, the “beginnings predict and prejudice the ends.” In other words, form can determine function. Not surprisingly, I’m still waiting for the call for that workshop!

But, Judge Brian A. Jackson, a federal judge sitting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in a lawsuit stemming from the police-inspired mayhem involving the protests around the killing of Alton Sterling, an African-American, by a white Baton Rouge policeman, has issued a decision which should serve as a reminder of why choices about structure are vital for those involved in organizing social change. An unnamed “John Doe” policeman filed suit against Black Lives Matter and activist/organizer DeRay Mckesson claiming he was hurt in the melee when hit by an object. The headlines in the news whether the Times or the Post or NPR or whatever are stupid. Some say the judge ruled that you can’t sue “a hashtag.” Others said the judge ruled you can’t sue a “movement.” Neither are true, but both are structurally important.

The suit named Black Lives Matter as “an unincorporated association” which is a perfectly appropriate organizational formation, whether movement or not. Such a designation is how all labor unions are organized for example. The judge had no beef with BLM as a defendant. Organizations form corporations in order to shield and protect the actions of individuals by creating an entity that will take responsibility for all actions “as an individual.” In some ways operating a structure as an unincorporated association protects the organization first, rather than any individuals. Not creating a corporate entity means that an unincorporated association forces a plaintiff, whether an individual like this policeman or an arm of the government, to prove the actions of specific individuals in order to assess any liability or stop any activity. The judge ruled that Joe Doe failed to prove that DeRay Mckesson, as an individual, caused the harm, therefore the suit failed.

In organizing with welfare rights in the late 1960s where arrests for civil disobedience were common, we would never incorporate because, like unions, we wanted to be able to resist broad injunctions being filed to stop our actions and activity, forcing the state to have to enjoin individual leaders or organizers. This allowed members to continue to act on the standard organizing principle that if one falls, another steps into place. Had we been a corporation, we would have been stopped in our tracks. ACORN from 1970 to almost 1978 was an unincorporated association of groups for the same reason, until our national expansion forced us to incorporate as simply a nonprofit. We never filed for tax exemption, because we never wanted our activities to be curtailed.

Structure is so critical that I’ve included an entire chapter on these questions in my forthcoming book, Nuts and Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing. So, sure you can sue a movement and an association, but the movement and association can’t be stopped if it is an unincorporated association, only individuals, and individuals matter less in movements – and most organizations for change – than the ability of the members and masses to act. Judge Jackson and Black Lives Matter are teaching a fundamental organizing lesson here, so brothers and sisters, pay attention in this class.

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