The rhetoric of “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” is one of the most tired, toxic debates of the past year. My own opinion is relatively common- the latter is clearly not true in our society, and thus the former is clearly not true until things change.
“All lives matter” is the cry of people who in one way or another don’t see black Americans as equal to themselves. This stretches from dime-a-dozen racists to immensely powerful people. A politician can say “all lives matter”, then go to the floor and vote for mass incarceration, for cuts to social programs, against police accountability, and all matter of policies that reinforce white supremacy and create second-class semi-citizens. The victims of the War on Drugs are not only caught in a cycle of poverty, they have an inferior set of civil rights. American political and social leaders exalt freedom and liberty, but draw clear lines on who is to receive them and who is not deserving.
As the tweet states, perhaps my favorite summary of the issue, we should not be surprised by the disingenuous use of “all lives matter”. The United States is built upon hypocrisy. Of promising one thing and delivering another. Just like “all men or created equal” was based on a very narrow definition of who is a person- male, free, and white- it is abundantly clear that in 2015 the lives of people of color are not worthy of consideration. My previous post about police intimidation of activists saw a law enforcement official create a line between “true citizens” and those that challenge the system. I doubt the author of the email thinks that all lives matter equally.
Liberty and justice for all? Hardly.
Courts are a model of efficiency when they impose mandatory minimums for crimes of survival, but have no interest in capitalist looting of society. Property is valued higher than certain types of people. A CVS was damaged in Baltimore? Clearly people of color can’t control their anger. An irate officer tackles Sandra Bland after arresting her for nothing? Well, she should have just cooperated with the officer- the officer didn’t do anything wrong!
This is the latest of many episodes where the core hypocrisy of the American state is exposed- a state built on the bones of indigenous people, and fueled by the forced labor of people deemed unworthy of being included in the statement “all men are created equal.”
The Sanders campaign understands transformative politics. His supporters have not, at least yet.
Transformative political movements need to be able to adapt and respond to social crises. They need to see criticism as valid and important. We now live in the post-Seattle Sanders campaign. What has happened in the last three-plus days with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows the candidate and his staff are willing to evolve and transform. His base of largely white progressives have not taken interruption and criticism well at all, and has fallen back on arguments that I frankly find insulting.
The campaign has hired Symone Sanders, a black woman with a background in justice system activism, as a national press secretary. Also brand-new is a racial justice campaign platform that I think is pretty comprehensive. It divides violence against people of color into four distinct categories (a structure that as a sociologist I appreciate for its clarity), and deals with police reform, mandatory minimums, voter disenfranchisement, the War on Drugs, all tied into the established (but previously whitewashed) economic policies.
I think besides him lagging far behind Hillary Clinton in campaign staff diversity, Sen. Sanders and the core, experienced people who are running his campaign get it. The activists who interrupted the Seattle event and those like them know that. They target Sanders because he was the most likely candidate of either party to respond to their concerns. They were right, and a bunch of activists have said that the Democratic candidates have been in touch about incorporating racial justice into what they do.
One would hope that this process will be a learning experience. An example of how parts of the social justice movement can combine to become stronger. The wider base of Sanders supporters has made me discouraged though. Without the people who will ultimately decide his fate in the primaries accepting Black Lives Matter as an integral part of the process, this will just be a wise decision from the top with no larger social currency.
My friend Chad posted this picture up. He’s a Socialist Alternative member who moved from San Diego to Seattle recently to work with a local SEIU chapter. He took this during the period of silence in remembrance of Mike Brown, after the planned event was interrupted.
Adding “There was a mix of fists in solidarity and middle fingers raised in defiance.” So the the two fingers here were not isolated but widespread.
My friend Max, who has deep connections in the Democratic Party machine, added in the aftermath “many consultants and strategists I know are saying that isn’t Bernie’s poll numbers or lack of $$$ that might doom him, it could very well be his strongest supporters.”
The level of discourse in the last few days has varied wildly, but I’d like to isolate some things being said that are both insulting and short-sighted.
There was a lot of talk of the Seattle interruption being part of a conspiracy. Who was behind it varied- I saw people claiming Hillary Clinton’s campaign was behind it. Others said the GOP. One person specifically said it looked like something Karl Rove would do. This talk, almost all from white people, is denying black autonomy. It is saying that these two black women are paid agents of white people. There are few ways to be more demeaning and offensive.
There was a lot of talk about the tactics being used are counterproductive. I wrote this just after the Seattle event.
There was talk that Bernie is the “best ally” of black people and it’s self-defeating to target him. It ignores that being the best of a poor lot on racial justice is not an excuse for leaving him along.
There was talk of why Black Lives Matter activists don’t interrupt Clinton events, or GOP candidates. There is plenty of pressure on Clinton, but she also hasn’t been drawing the massive crowds that give exposure like Sanders does. Targeting the GOP is useless because they don’t care and never will. Activists are intelligent people and can make estimates of how much can be gained with a finite amount of time and resources.
There was gratuitous mention of Sanders’ background in civil rights- SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. That is all well and good, but that was forty-seven years ago. Mike Brown was killed a year and two days ago. This is a new civil rights struggle that requires a re-commitment to justice and equality.
There was a discussion of how inconvenient the interruption was, and how people came to see a program that involved Sanders speaking. These white progressives are either ignorant of history or fine with being hypocritical. Protest is inconvenient, that’s what separates it from regular day-to-day activity. What happened at Stonewall was a violent riot against the New York police. Civil rights activists shut down a lot of Birmingham for over a month in 1963. Black resource centers and academic curriculum came from events like the Cornell takeover, where radicals fought off a fraternity attempting to violently drive them out of a occupied hall, compelling the occupiers to bring in firearms to defend themselves. I helped shut down the Port of Oakland in late 2011. That cost a lot of people millions of dollars. Do I think that makes my action unjust? Not even a little bit.
Finally, there was just plain mean, borderline racist shit. It’s weird to see white progressives attack conservatives for calling black activists “thugs”, but then use similar language whenever black women do the same kinds of actions.
Sanders will not win the primaries by just getting the non-white vote. But he will lose them because people of color don’t show up in numbers to back him. Clinton has many advantages, including the overwhelming approval of her husband among Black Americans.
Since Peyton Stever wants modern data that says the same thing, I’ll link to this story that shows Hillary with a new +68 rating. The Clinton brand has always tested well, during and after the Clintons’ stay in the White House. Sanders has to build name awareness with a supporter base that’s a ready source of ammunition when the primaries actually close in. How will social media screenshots of racist talk from people with Sanders logo profile pictures play in black-heavy media outlets? Anyone remember how racist Hillary supporters were a massive headache in 2008?
Just because Sanders promotes policies that would economically help people of color doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for him. He needs to be responsive and show that he genuinely cares. His campaign is on aggregate doing a good job as of late. The large amount of volunteers scattered around the country, on the other hand, need to open their minds.
As Robespierre once said during the French Revolution- “Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?” A revolution is a very particular process. This is a very far step from status quo Democratic Party politics. Going to events, reading media accounts, talking with supporters, it is not surprising that many are unable to see this as an opportunity to run something distinct from the Hillary campaign, or the Obama campaign in 2008. Sanders wants a grassroots movement to change the country. What I see is a grassroots movement to get Sanders elected, with very little outside of that narrow goal.
Thus when there was a negative reaction to how the Seattle event went down, I was not surprised. A political revolution involves liberation struggle. The business-as-usual tack was to insult these women, tell them they were self-defeating, and place their actions in the confines of two-party partisanship. I saw a lot of that. I just passed my six year anniversary of deregistering as a Democrat. This fiasco is a big part of why I did so, even before I became a radical in the proper sense of the term.
I was wondering yesterday how I would articulate the system oppressing black Americans, were I given a chance on the open mic at a protest rally. It distilled down to a single sentence:
The names change, but the system stays the same.
Sandra Bland is just the latest of an ever-growing roster of unarmed black people killed due to the actions of law enforcement. What happened in that jail is something I don’t know. But the talk of murder vs. suicide cannot overshadow the fact that both are different variations of the same injustice. Bland should never have been pulled over, never been arrested, restrained, booked, jailed. Her death is the result of how little we as Americans restrict the acceptable behavior of the police. She joins four centuries of victims of structural racism.
What keeps coming up in all these interrelated struggles- against the murder of trans* individuals, against corporate actions that attack working class people and pollute the environment, and against US-NATO imperialism all over the world- is that there is a group or institution that is well-defended and there is another who are open to interrogation. Why did that transgender person make those men angry? Why should burger-flippers make a living wage? If they don’t want to get bombed, why don’t the Palestinians commit to the peace process?
These are all questions borne of a certain unjust system, which put the vulnerable on trial for the misdeeds of the secure.
I have no need to defend the police. They don’t need me even if I wanted to. They have their own lawyers, union reps, and politicians to defend them. They have a vast majority of the media who rely on the police for stories and tend to accept their side of the story as more valid and official. The justice system simply does not prosecute police officers, and even when charges are brought they are usually watered down to something far less than what they actually did. The whole world tilts towards them in this fight.
What the world needs are people willing to defend the undefended.
This will be the first of several posts written in the aftermath of Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, held in Portland, OR from June 24-28.
A workshop I wandered into on Friday was “Class Diversity: Exploring Our Past, Building Our Theologies”, which was an interesting take on why class-diverse Unitarian congregations are rare exceptions- the socioeconomic strata of membership being very similar to what it was in the 19th century.
This was on the day that the Supreme Court announced same-sex marriage was a right under the 14th Amendment. Right outside the room this workshop was being held in, a massive rainbow banner had been constructed and signed by hundreds upon hundreds of people.
A woman came up during question-answer and gave an emotional statement that I think really dug at the heart of how Unitarian Universalism can have clear biases with regards to class. I don’t know how many people ever thought of the day as an exercise in classism, but her remark made it clear to me that there was a double-standard in play at Assembly.
Her question is this post’s title. While the court ruling about marriage equality is landmark and an important victory in the 21st century civil rights movement, it was not the only important ruling that week. The day before, the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act, which threw a lifeline to millions of poor Americans:
The latest filings show that about 10.2 million people had signed up and paid their insurance premiums through the exchanges as of March, and 6.4 million were receiving subsidies to help afford coverage in the 34 states that had not set up their own marketplaces.
Those consumers stood to lose their subsidies, worth about $1.7 billion a month, if the justices had agreed with the challenge.
These two rulings affected several million people directly. Being unable to marry who you love and being unable to pay for live-saving medical care are both serious social problems which were addressed to some degree this week. But there wasn’t a banner out in the convention center hall celebrating that 6.4 million people could keep their health insurance.
And I think if a banner was appropriate to celebrate a civil rights victory, a third banner should have sat there as well. The same day as the ACA ruling (Thursday afternoon), and the day before the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court enacted a significant change in how the law deals with discrimination cases. It allowed for a new type of argument in cases of housing discrimination. Previously you had to prove intent in a very strong standard- basically a smoking gun saying “I’m denying housing to this community based on race”. Obviously it was hard for those affected to successfully sue; now something called disparate-impact theory can be used- if evidence shows that a law statistically promotes housing segregation, that can be enough. If this is to spread to other places- disparate-impact is used for hiring in some circumstances, but not many other places with potential for discrimination, it will be just as important as the marriage equality and ACA cases.
So why only one banner? The housing case is also a discrimination issue, and both are part of the modern civil rights movement. The ACA ruling in terms of dollars is a big win for the working class. I don’t know why there was only one banner, though I’ll offer this potential theory:
What makes marriage equality different from healthcare subsidies and housing discrimination is that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects everyone regardless of race or class. In a faith that skews white and upper-middle class, the presence of one banner (and one banner for that particular case) is evidence of implicit bias. I agree with the woman who spoke up, she added a concrete sense of what classism is that the workshop really needed to be worthwhile.
The next post will tackle how the Black Lives Matter movement caused tension and strife, both across racial lines but also generational ones. Certainly if Black Lives Matter, a step towards ending racial discrimination in housing (with its ties to the ghetto and redlining) should be celebrated. How does Unitarian Universalism grapple with its own diversity questions, the balance between support and paternalism, and being a leading force for change versus being earnest and strong followers?
Saturday afternoon brought a couple hundred activists together in San Diego, in solidarity with the much larger Millions March NYC, which had in 50-60,000 protestors in Manhattan. What has been happening is a crescendoing grassroots movement against police violence and racial injustice. The killing of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many others have stuck together and strengthened a social movement. It is encouraging to see people connecting these incidents into a broader realization: that the justice system in this country isn’t giving justice to communities of color.
The march was long, probably too long for those that aren’t cut out for extended walking. Turnout was good, larger than a similar event last week in a different part of downtown. I came in solidarity and part of Socialist Alternative– we ended up having eight members involved, which is a great showing given the newness and size of the San Diego operation. We provided water and distributed information about our public meeting in Ocean Beach on the 19th. It was exciting to see Stephane, a member who is also an immigrant from Belize and a Marine vet, asked to speak at the rally.
What was less exciting was a woman interrupting his speech repeatedly, which caused him to lose his place and ultimately not give the end of his planned remarks. That a black man speaking to a rally that says Black Lives Matter would get heckled, it was unbelievably rude and insulting. It was heartening to see many people, including other speakers, come to him later in the march and talk, and to sympathize. Staying united is vital, and it was good to see cross-group support.
Several die-ins occurred, including in front of a highway ramp (the Patrol were out in legion to make sure the march did not attempt to block the freeway) and on the trolley tracks in downtown. Community support was strong- most were at least curious if not interested or supportive. It shows the value of street protest- sometimes issues have to be brought in person to the population at large.
The most powerful image for me was this picture below. I missed it initially, and only saw it later when going over these pictures. In this mass die-in at an intersection that led to I-5, two men, one white and one black, hold hands high in unity. That is solidarity- standing together, and seeing the power that each of us can give to the movement- if we rise above ego and self-interest. This is a fight for black Americans to assert their rights and strength. Let them lead the way.
Yesterday, an unusual series of nationwide events were held on college campuses and in hospitals. Medical students marched in white coats and staged demonstrations against police violence. They staged die-ins in public areas. I was at the event at the University of California, San Diego, which was held in the highest-traffic area on campus. At the end, all in attendance raised their hand and recited the Hippocratic Oath (the modern version).
It was quite an event. The events were planned well- public areas, the use of a distinctive symbol of medicine, and the use of the Oath as a unifying statement- all great, and less common than they should be. Medical students are not on the front lines of the social justice movement in the way law students or politicized undergraduates are. That is a shame, because medicine cannot be apolitical.
The reality of medicine is that world conflict and society place obstacles in front of doctors and aid workers. Certain populations and areas of the world face political oppression and in some cases genocide. If doctors accepted and only treated people where it was legal to do so, they would be condemning others. The Red Cross is a great institution of neutrality, but that sometimes their inaction can cause harm. Why do Doctors Without Borders exist? Because they thought the Red Cross were undermining the duty to heal by staying out of certain conflict zones. But to practice medicine without heed to borders means going outside the system. Whose lives are saved is at some level a political decision.
In the United States the political establishment has intruded on medicine. In Florida is now illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership, and whether that gun is safely stored. Guns are a major political issue, but they are also a major public health problem. Owners using a convenient gun to kill themselves, or the dozens of children shot and killed by other children who found an unsecured gun are something physicians have a clear duty to prevent. But they are being prevented from doing so in Florida, and many other states are considering similar laws.
With regards to abortion, physicians have been tied by unfair standards in their clinical practice, all to prevent them from performing a legal medical procedure. In states like Ohio, efforts are being made to restrict what doctors can talk about, what information they provide, and preventing doctors that perform abortion from providing sex education in schools. Laws are also attempting to provide anti-abortion doctors cover to lie to their patients, even though such conduct is grossly unprofessional.
Doctors are confronted with a healthcare system that is grossly inefficient and still very expensive. Their expertise has always been in conflict against insurance companies who will only pay for certain treatments and drugs, and stretched by patients who have no money to pay out-of-pocket. A dysfunctional system has led to incredible rates of infant mortality, obesity, and heart disease.
And why is the rate of infant mortality so high? One key part is the terrible poverty many kids are born into- the gap widens postnatal, not prenatal. Poverty is a public health crisis. There are diseases of the poor, and life expectancy drops dramatically based on race and income.
At the event, I saw a medical student with a sign stating “Homicide is a Public Health Issue”. Of course. Doctors must deal with the after-effects of crime, including violence by police officers on suspects. Physicians cannot heal those that the police kill, and unnecessary force is a danger, like smoking and not wearing a seat belt.
The health of a society is rooted in political decisions. Economic inequality due to tax breaks, black poverty caused by bad schools and unjust police action. Thousands and thousands of unsecured firearms that doctors in Florida can no longer ask about. Doctors are not the only experts being hemmed in and told how to do their jobs- mandatory minimum sentences have swelled prison populations while crime itself has gone down. Judges used to have wide discretion and take each criminal case as unique, but now laws have tied their hands. Not to idolize judges or doctors, but their education and experience is important, and shouldn’t callously be discarded by legislation.
Get onto the streets, medical students, residents, fellow, and fully specialized physicians! More of these events need to happen, the medical lobby is powerful but also conservative. The rank-in-file need to push for a healthier world, and that requires wading into politics. The American people sure need a new, clean bill of health.
Two things linked these two actions. One was that in the middle of various chants about justice and wages (“Que quemos?” “Quince!” “Cuando?” “Ahora!”), people joined in the now-legendary “Hands up, don’t shoot!” chant.
The second, and more substantial similarity, was the presence of many first-time activists. Fast food workers are usually underrepresented in labor actions, as those with disposable income and flexible schedules can be the most involved in justice movements. But thousands have participated in strikes and walkouts, despite corporate pressure. At the police march there were many people of color that had experienced discrimination and intimidation, but had been involved formally. And in both marches- children, some a third my age.
I am not a professional hellraiser, but I do go to meetings and participate in actions. There is a core of activists, and we all know each other. However, justice will never be found by that small group. Regular workers need to liberate themselves. So to see new activists joining the fight is encouraging. Political protest is stale in the United States- we are not in the 60s radicalism or the all-but-in-name wars between unions and the government. Fresh faces will bring about real change.
Occupy also had an injection of new activists. The homeless, establishment Democrats, political but apathetic college students. This continues, and over time they become effective members of a movement.
As a member of the Socialist Alternative branch in San Diego said, many of us are new to radical politics. Many have no real grasp of what socialism is, or how to organize a labor action. These times are where we cut our teeth and learn how to succeed. There is no substitute for experience, and as people attend meetings, go to marches, and read the news and literature, they become smarter and stronger. We need all the help we can in this unjust world.