Can We Keep A Movement Alive
If you read my commentary last month you know I recently was in the center of the organizing for a major march and rally against police brutality here in New York City. The event went well, with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people marching across the Brooklyn Bridge into downtown Manhattan. The protest was on a Thursday afternoon and it felt great to completely block traffic and the normal flow of commerce all around the City Hall area.
It was also great to be part of an effort that so completely crossed racial lines. In the more than 2 months of public activities in the aftermath of the police murder of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, New Yorkers from many constituencies found themselves shoulder to shoulder. Our confidence in the correctness of our collective criticisms of the New York Police Department, the energy and commitment expressed in a host of protests, combined with an all-too-rare missing experience of cross-constituency, united action and fed the perception of many long time activists were on the edge of a mass movement.
Being part of a movement is very different from participating in - even organizing - a lot of different activities and events. What made the work against police brutality feel like a movement was the constant and varied nature of the public protest, the way that activities took place all around the city and the fact that the numbers kept growing. Add to this the diversity of the people coming out to these activities and you couldn't help but feel like something we haven't had in New York City for a long time was unfolding: a movement with clear demands expressed in many ways by all types of New Yorkers. In other words, the righteousness of the issues and the timeliness of the protests all combined with a palpable sense of solidarity.
It's almost four weeks since the largest action, the April 15th march and rally. Where are we now? Sorry to report that we seem to be nowhere. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that we don't seem to be any further ahead than we were before this eruption of activity. Yes, the community groups that have been doing anti-police brutality work for many years are still out there on the front lines of this issue. But what many experienced organizers saw as new momentum seems to have disappeared.
Why? No, it is not as if the problem has gone away or we have won our demands. No, it is not as if we have been dealt a crushing defeat and therefore people are demoralized. No, it is not as if the mass media has confused people and they no longer think there is a problem. So what is it?
A partial answer comes from the context, or lack thereof: the outburst of activism did not happen in the context of an already unified progressive movement in this city. Lots of folks have been active on a host of important issues and in many different communities. But that's a far cry from a comprehensive organizing approach - dare I say strategy? - that brings people and issues together, that consciously works to build solidarity.
In addition, there are problems specific to how the anti-police brutality work unfolded these past few months. Instead of building from the base that had been constructed by the hard work of several community organizations and the families of people murdered by the police, some people acted as if they were now the leaders of this movement.
A little less than three weeks before the April 15th demonstration a meeting was held where a 10 Point Plan for changes in the New York Police Department was put forth. While a few minutes was set aside for comments on the plan, it was clear that there would be no serious consideration of new points or changing the language. It was at this meeting that the April 15th demonstration was announced, as well as the plan to raise a million dollars for TV and radio ads to promote this event. (No, they never came close to raising that much money.)
It was, on some level, impressive to see the numbers of African American, Latino, and even some progressive white elected officials at the meeting. Indeed, it was almost humorous to watch as many of these folks who in the past had been so critical of Rev. Al Sharpton practically fell over themselves to be seen standing next to him. (Remember, he had taken the leadership immediately following the Diallo shooting and was doing an excellent job.) Also at the meeting were key people in the labor movement in this city, some religious leaders, representatives of the African American business community and a few - too few - representatives of community groups and the families of others murdered by the police.
One thing was very clear by the end of that meeting and over the next few weeks of organizing for the demonstration. A small number of men with some degree of power were in charge. It was great to see that some of these people who had not publicly done anything about the problems with the police in NYC before the Diallo shooting were now prepared to take action. The problem was they never found a way to bring the community activists and families to the table. And I don't think they were even looking for a way to do that.
At the end of my commentary last month I raised some of these same issues. I raise them again because the problem has not been solved. For instance, in the three weeks since the April 15th mobilization there has been no call for a meeting to discuss next steps. The outburst of activism is gone. The people who stepped in to "lead" this movement seem to be nowhere in sight on the issue...even though the high-profile police brutality Abner Louima civil rights trial is taking place in Brooklyn every day.
It's exactly experiences like this that make so many people - including political activists - weary of elected officials, heads of major organizations and other "leaders." Meaningful social change leadership must mean a commitment to include diverse constituencies at the decision-making table. It has to be about sharing power, not just being a "good guy" with the power you already have. And, if nothing else, it has to be about helping people stay in motion as we all develop new ways to press for the changes we seek.
But don't despair - there is some good news to report. Those community groups that have been doing this work for so long are still hard at work. In fact, the NYC Coalition Against Police Brutality which for the past several years has organized the annual Racial Justice Day demonstration is busily preparing for this year's march. And again, I want to urge all of you in the New York City area to join this critically important expression of the ongoing, community-led demand for an end to police brutality.
Here are the details: Thursday, May 20th at 4 p.m. Rally at South Bronx High School - at the corner of St. Anne's St. and Westchester Ave. (Take the #2 or #5 trains to Jackson St.) March to the Bronx Supreme Court Building. For more information call 212-473-6485 ext 105.
I hope that after Racial Justice Day we can sit down and take a long hard look at how to seriously take this work the next step and what it will mean to build a citywide, multi-constituency, community-based movement here in New York City. I just hope this can be done before more lives are taken by the police. ----------------------------