Protest, Race and the American Future
The protests following the murder by police of George Floyd and the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities push forward our thinking about new possibilities for an American future built around commitment to the ideas and practices of justice for all.
We in the Black community have experienced the American justice system in a variety of ways. Since the days of slavery we have been murdered by police who are rarely punished, railroaded into prisons and seized and killed by mobs and vigilantes protected by local and state governments, especially when white women have falsely claimed sexual assault, or as the old expression goes, when accused of having engaged in “reckless eyeballing.”
The issues raised by the current protests are hardly new. #Black Lives Matter (BLM) itself was formed in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for no apparent reason other than he was young and Black and “out of place,” which to Zimmerman meant he was suspicious and dangerous. BLM, Dream Defenders, BYP 100 and other groups that constituted the Movement for Black Lives have protested this and other such murders in numerous communities since then. We could fill up the rest of the pages here with a listing of Black men and women killed by trigger-happy police or because of vigilante violence.
Clearly, earlier protests against police violence have done little to eradicate such practices, but some important differences are worth noting and applauding. Protesters are much more diverse — Black, White, Latinx, Asian. And unexpectedly, protest has been worldwide. Smartphone technology has played a major role in gaining outraged attention on police violence and violations of civil rights, making it impossible to ignore the issue and highlighting the kind of protective lying far too often engaged in by establishment authorities.
But while technology has captured the injustice of policing, it has taken a pandemic to understand the underlying conditions that have produced this rage.
Ironically, the inequities plaguing our society today are more visible because of the impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities. The virus has laid bare the fact that African Americans continue to experience the highest overall morbidity and the most widespread occurrence of disproportionate deaths. American Public Media (APM) Research Lab reports that the Black mortality rate across the U.S. has never fallen below twice that of all other groups, “revealing a durable pattern of disproportionality.” If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, reports APM, at least 14,400 Black Americans, 1,200 Latino Americans and 200 indigenous Americans would still be alive.
We mourn George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and the thousands of others killed by police, but the startling approximately 30,000 deaths of Black Americans in the last 120 days reflect a larger, more systemic problem. Not only have these communities been disproportionately devastated by this virus, but this impact highlights failures in health care and education which, like police violence, have been matters of great inattention by much of the nation’s political leadership.
Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the president of the United States issuing orders forcing workers in the meat processing plants to go back to work. The processing plants, in order to maintain profits, have not refitted their plants to protect the workers from the coronavirus, knowing that many of their workers will become ill or die.
The so-called American justice system is totally blind to the profits-over-people decision by big business to send workers to their deaths. While they are blind to these criminal acts of the ruling class, they pay laser-like attention to Eric Garner’s selling loose cigarettes, Michael Brown allegedly taking one or two items from a store, and many other petty actions that amount to little or nothing in terms of the tragic consequences they caused ordinary citizens. In addition to focusing on the inconsequential, the purpose of the police is also to clear the poor from the sight of the wealthy. Therefore, the homeless, the mentally ill, and those hustling to make a dollar just to survive are treated harshly and inhumanely.
As we make the call to end economic exploitation — which we define as owners of land, factories and capital who pay the labor that they use little or no wages — defended by sometimes-brutal police tactics, we have to look beyond the police budgets for the housing requirements, social service needs, food necessities, health care and education required in Black and Brown communities. The trillions of dollars necessary will have to come from the taxes paid to the state, local and federal governments. The problem is not a lack of resources, but how those resources are allocated and who benefits from them. The federal government spends over $20 billion annually to support the big agribusiness companies. In addition, companies such as Alcoa, Intel, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Shell and Nike have received billions of dollars in federal subsidies.
It should also be noted that tech companies such as Tesla, Google, Apple and Facebook have received millions of dollars in state and federal subsidies. All of these companies have trillions of dollars in market capitalization and are highly profitable. The support needed to ensure that the needs of all Americans are met is not one of money, but one of will. The will to support Wall Street, big banks and big business have been quite evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the nearly $6 trillion expended over the last four months, almost $5 trillion of it has been used to support the capital markets and big business, with little or no accountability.
But the lack of political will to make the necessary investments in Black and Brown communities is also evident in the way society approaches policing.
The usual solutions suggested with regard to police violence: body cameras, police sensitivity/diversity training, community police boards, and other proposed resolutions, while worthwhile, do little to address the problem. The assumptions that govern the criminal justice system lie deep in the U.S. culture of white supremacy and privilege. For example, the first instinct of many police departments is to protect their own no matter how egregious and unjust the actions of any particular officer. This is reminiscent of gang culture. Often the police close rank punishing any who cross that “blue line.”
We live in a society in which white supremacy and privilege drive many of the institutions that affect our lives. This is cultural as well as political. The base assumption of the American justice system is that rich people can do no wrong and the role of the police is to protect them and their property. The other base assumption is that most criminality exists in poor communities and in the urban areas; that has generally meant Black and Brown communities. This is not written into law but certainly exists in practice.
The demonstrations have been successful in bringing to the attention of the American public the violence used by police to maintain order. The demonstrations have been impressive, both for their diversity and for the variety of locations where they occurred: in large urban cities, suburban areas, rural communities and in small towns across the country. We’ve even seen images of white people protesting alone in white communities — standing, or in wheelchairs and on walkers — with signs proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter” or “No Justice No Peace.”
The size and diversity of these demonstrations were not accidental or spontaneous. These demonstrations were the product of years of resistance by the Black community to the pervasive system of Jim Crow that was developed to protect and serve white supremacy. Today’s demonstrations had their beginnings in the resistance of Black soldiers returning from World War I. In a 2018 article featured on Time.com, Brandeis University Professor Chad Williams noted that, African Americans “had labored and shed blood for democracy abroad and now expected full democracy at home.” Williams wrote that, “The war had changed African Americans and they remained determined to make democracy in the United States a reality.”
Williams quoted a May 1919 editorial from The Crisis magazine founder W.E.B. DuBois, titled “Returning Soldiers”:
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Make way for democracy.
We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah,
we will save it in the United States of America,
or know the reason why.
For most of the 20th century, the resistance of the African American community to Jim Crow was spearheaded by the NAACP, particularly its local branches. It is not often recognized how connected the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was to the groundwork laid by the NAACP. Brown v. Board of Education which, despite being imperfectly implemented, nonetheless resulted in ending school segregation as the law of the land; the lynching of Emmett Till; the successful 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first mass movement of the modern Civil Rights Movement; the courage of the Little Rock Nine — all helped create the climate that led 17- and 21-year-olds to challenge the system of segregation with sit-ins and Freedom Rides. The legendary civil rights strategist Ella Baker, who was the NAACP director of branches in the 1940s and later executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), provided the guidance and organizing philosophy that grounded SNCC’s grassroots work in the Black Belt.
She plugged SNCC into the network of NAACP branches she had helped organize – as well as her many other contacts — enabling us to work effectively on voter registration in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere in the South. As a result of the combined work of the NAACP, SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and SCLC, today there are a number of Black mayors, legislators and Black people on juries throughout the South.
Many have commented on the diversity of protesters, taking special note of the involvement of white people. This, too, is not new. The work of the Civil Rights Movement to resist white supremacy has always involved the white community, first because of the need for allies in the struggle for human and civil rights. Certainly, Ms. Baker’s contacts with white progressives, such as Anne and Carl Braden of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) and Myles and Zilphia Horton at Highlander Center, were important to SNCC’s work. The white community was also involved in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, participated in large numbers in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, and, of course, most recently, in the Movement for Black Lives demonstrations. Second, and equally important, civil and human rights issues are important to others besides Black and Brown communities.
Therefore, there should be no surprise as to the size, scope and scale of these diverse demonstrations. And, as is often pointed out, these demonstrations have been greatly aided by the ability to document the atrocities on smartphones.
However, we need to note that while hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Black people are also dying at twice their percentage of the population from COVID-19 because of the underlying conditions caused by economic exploitation. Even as legislation will be passed in the Congress and in state legislatures to ban chokeholds, no-knock entry, and the harassment of Black people for inconsequential activities, millions of African Americans, poor whites, LatinX, Native Americans and Asians will be lining up for food, be evicted from their homes, and will die because of lack of health care and because they continue to receive an education that does not prepare them for the 21st century information economy.
In short, when we say there is a systemic problem, we mean that we live and are governed by a system that fails millions. We cannot run away from the enormity of this fact. Even as we tinker with various reforms, we should keep in mind that real change — the kind that leads to a better society — requires tackling these hard realities.
Courtland Cox is a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) veteran and chair of the SNCC Legacy Project (SLP). He is a former director of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Journalist and author Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a SNCC veteran and SLP board member. His latest book is This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed—How Guns made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.