Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

A National Day of Service Is No Honor to MLK

MLK in Memphis

(AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

The fact that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a National Day of Service bothers me. It bothers me perhaps even more than when I realized that, as a child growing up in Virginia, we didn’t have a King holiday. We celebrated “Lee-Jackson-King Day”—that is, Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson of the Confederate States of America, alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But at least Virginia wasn’t pretending to care about King’s legacy.

It’s one of the more unconscionable façades the United States maintains. Today, there is deep reverence for King—or for the King that makes Americans proud of their history. There is deep reverence for a message about love, peace, brotherhood and such easily appropriated themes. King is now an icon for colorblindness, which has become the overriding philosophy on how to deal with racism. No matter your political stripe, you pay homage to the man who was derided as an un-American communist agitator during his lifetime.

In some ways, the commitment to depoliticizing figures of great historical importance in order to fit into the narrative of American exceptionalism is quite impressive. Think of how much erasure had to be done in order to have Reince Priebus honor a man whose life work was to dismantle the system of white supremacy and fundamentally alter the American way of life. We’ve come such a long way.

Sure, every year journalists, activists, academics, and anyone who is committed to the idea of justice trots out their “the real MLK” quotes and articles and books, and we have a short memorial of what has been lost. We can all pat ourselves on the back for that. We are, in our way, doing the work of reclaiming King’s legacy.

But the King holiday still remains a national day of service, and that is upsetting. Because it isn’t a day of service in the way King served his people and his country, by disrupting the status quo. It’s a day of service in which we’re all expected to lend a hand to the “less fortunate” in the grand tradition of charitable giving. We aren’t asked to write our congresspeople, in service, to implement a federally funded program for full employment, as King advocated for in the Freedom Budget. We’re asked to serve soup to the homeless. We aren’t asked to demonstrate in front police precincts, in service, to demand an end to police brutality, an issue King mentioned during that famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but is never brought up in polite conversation. We’re asked to read books to poor children.

And I don’t mean to make it sound as if those charitable works are meaningless, particularly when so many suffer and whatever can be done to alleviate their pain, even momentarily, is surely welcome. But let us not pretend that we are honoring King when we are only assuaging our own guilt.

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King’s legacy lives on Ferguson, in Oakland, in Cleveland, in Chicago, in Boston, in New York City and everywhere else where young protesters are taking over highways and disrupting brunches and dying in at malls. Is it annoying some people? Yes. King annoyed people. He was one of the most hated men alive. You don’t get to be that way simply because you preach about loving your neighbor. He was hated because he was a threat to the American empire. He helped to expose America as perpetrator of violence against its own people. His tactics were unorthodox and they made millions of people uncomfortable. There weren’t great swaths of America welcoming the protests he led with open arms. There were police ready to beat, shoot, and kill if necessary to keep black folks in their place. For all the talk about progress, the tactics of suppression haven’t changed.

As a nation, we aren’t prepared to embrace the radical vision of King. We aren’t in a place where we are willing to sacrifice our national identity in order to see the true ideals behind King’s dream. The least we can do until we are is not pretend that our yearly call to service is somehow in line with his legacy. If we’re going to keep that up, we might as well all be celebrating Lee-Jackson-King Day.


Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on how we'll need an economic program to make #BlackLivesMatter

Ava DuVernay: ‘Selma’ Is the ‘Vision of a Black Storyteller Undiluted’

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay at the National Board of Review awards earlier this week. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Ava DuVernay is brilliant. Completely and awe-inspiringly brilliant. When I say that, I hope I don’t come across as if I’m shocked. I only mean to state it as fact. But it isn’t something that can be said enough.

She’s currently exposing that brilliance to the world in the form of her latest film, Selma, a historical drama about the campaign for voting rights among black people in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The film’s star, David Oyelowo, lobbied for DuVernay to come on board as director after a number of big names dropped out. For that, Oyelowo, too, can be called brilliant. There is no other director, to my mind, who could have so deeply tapped into the richness of the black experience in America, combined that with this compelling history, and retained the humanity of people we, as a nation, think we know and those we’ve never heard of. DuVernay did all of that and more.

I had the pleasure of speaking to DuVernay about this amazing film, the current movement to protect black lives, and much more. Our conversation only further convinced me that her brilliance isn’t something I, or anyone else, can convey. You simply have to experience it for yourself.

We spoke on December 27, 2014—two weeks after DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director, and on the day the city of New York held a funeral for Officer Rafael Ramos, who, along with Officer Wenjian Liu, had been killed a week earlier.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mychal Denzel Smith: You started making this film before Ferguson grabbed national headlines, before Michael Brown was killed, before there were a hundred-plus days of protest, before any of the backlash to the protests. But now this film exists in a world with all of these things on our minds. How do you feel about releasing it into this political climate?

Ava DuVernay: I think it’s just an honor to have something that might add to the conversation in some way. People are coming into it with heightened feelings. People are walking into this film about history feeling like it’s speaking to the present. For a filmmaker or storyteller, telling a story about the past and for it to feel current and urgent and immediate, through no doing of mine, but because of the time that we’re in is certainly moving and certainly an honor for us to have something to say during this time. It’s really just trying to provide some connective tissue between then and now and to just remind folks that this is not now, and maybe just illuminating that fact in some way might change some of our ideas about what the next steps are. If you know that what we’re taking is not a first step, but a step from a journey that’s been decades long, centuries long, then that perhaps changes the way you walk.

MDS: I’ve heard you say multiple times that you’re not a fan of historical dramas, and I can understand that because most of them are just really, really boring. They all seem to follow the same script. Selma is a big departure from that because we get this intimate look at the characters and the humanity of the people involved. But I feel there’s something special about that with regards to talking about black people because we don’t get to have our humanity explored on the big screen in that way.

AD: A film is a groupthink in a lot of ways. A lot of people put their hands on the thing by the time you’re at the end of it. I was in a very unique situation where I was the one who was able to have my hands at the wheel. But it was rare and it was because of Oprah, who made a way for me to be the one to tell the story and would not allow that to be compromised at any turn by anyone, no matter who wanted to. It’s rare. You know, you have someone like Spike [Lee] and Malcolm X. He had his hands on the wheel through that film—not to compare the films at all, but just to talk about the process of movie-making and the way it usually goes—but it is rare to have a black storyteller have some autonomy over [the] story. Also it’s just rare to have a black storyteller telling the story when it comes to history, period.

So I think when you don’t have that, you have this kind of groupthink that turns into a homogenization of the events, turns into us not being at the center of our own story, as people of color or women or what have you, and this kind of smoothing of the edges starts to happen, and that starts to contribute to this whole idea of “ugh, the same old thing.” And so with this I was very focused on not letting that happen. For whatever people think about the film, whether they love it or hate it, it is the vision of a black storyteller undiluted. For whatever that means for the way we are presented as people of color on screen. I think part of the reaction that some people have to history, particularly around black history, is just the way that it’s been told and by whom.

MDS:And with that, you’re telling a story in which the center of it is Martin Luther King Jr., but the name of the film is “Selma.” People could read this as an MLK film, but it really is about this community and it’s about this movement. How did you avoid making it just King?

AD: [I] just [didn’t] write it as just King. I wrote it for what it was. There’s a King story, and there should be a film that’s just King, but this film was about the voting-rights campaign. It’s about this small town that had been ripped apart by segregation and oppression and state-sanctioned terrorism, and the people who were living under that and who decided “no more.” And that’s fascinating. Why would you not tell that story? Just the idea of being able to paint a picture of King while looking at the larger portrait, the larger landscape… I think his story is told. To try to tell his story in the context of the people that he led is really, I think, a great way to tell the story of a leader. And in order to tell that story you have to bring in the people, you have to bring in the people who were around in him, you have to bring in the people that he led, otherwise you’ve got a story of a caricature of a leader. If you’re trying to tell a story of a leader and you are not talking about the people who [they] led or the context in which [they] led, you’re not really, I don’t think, interested in telling that story. You’re interested in upholding this iconography and this caricature and that’s what we were all opposed to.

MDS: There’s an ordinariness to many of the characters, but they still remain vital to the telling of the story and also the movement itself. Part of why this is noteworthy to me is that with the way we’ve lionized King or Malcolm X or whoever, it feels like we’re telling stories about these extraordinary people who respond to extraordinary times, or that they’re superhuman and they do it by themselves. But the way you told this story, it’s about the entire community. From the 80-something-year-old man who needs help walking to be a part of the protests to the woman who is cooking for these activists/organizers when they all descend on her house, these are all “ordinary” people that play a role in this movement.

AD: Absolutely. And beyond them it’s also just the idea that these are not superhuman people. We really have to deconstruct our heroes. I think that’s our job. We can’t just hero-worship. You have to know what you are looking at and what you are holding up. I’ve had people come out of screenings talking about the scene where you see King eat a biscuit. He eats!? Yeah, he eats. He smokes?! Yeah, he was a smoker. He laughs? He plays with his children and tussles around? He gets upset, he’s depressed, he has an ego? Was he mad about Malcolm? Like, was he mad about the ideology or was he mad that his wife was in love with Malcolm?

The things that I’ve been hearing from people are just fascinating to me, because so much of it is just him walking, breathing, and being a normal brother from Atlanta. And the fact that all that has been stripped away and he has been reduced to these four words, “I have a dream,” and that’s it. I have a dream, I believed in peace, and then I died. And that’s really about the broad strokes of what most people know. In terms of knowing anything more about the radical ideas and the bold tactics that went into his thirteen years as the de facto leader of the civil-rights movement, [they don’t know any of that]. It’s a shame, I think. And that’s what we were trying to do, just tell more. That’s all. There’s so much more to tell. And did we get it all? No, but hopefully it sparks some interest in him as more than just a kind of…this yawn and the roll of the eyes people do sometimes when you say “King.” No, no, that [making a caricature] was done to him. So it deserves a closer look.

MDS: Part of the movie that sat with me and made it so I was saying to myself, “This is a phenomenal film, I don’t know if I can watch it again,” was the violence and the way it’s portrayed. It’s deliberate that you slowed it down, and make people sit with what exactly was done to these people. But I wonder about the limitations of our sympathy or empathy for seeing black bodies tortured in that way. I understand the purpose behind it, but I wonder if a general viewing audience appreciates it.

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AD: I don’t know. That’s not anything I was thinking of when I made it. As we were working on these scenes, it was about telling the truth of it. Because ultimately, we’ve become desensitized to violence. You can see people be beat in a night march, but not to jump in and actually see… so you can see someone being manhandled, but to not jump in and slow down and see the look on the woman’s face when two white men put their hands on her and pull her down—that’s something we slowed down to make sure you could see the fear, the humiliation in the face. And that’s important for me, not even to make people take a look at, for me to take a look at as a storyteller. To see Jimmie Lee Jackson shot, and okay, usually that’s the end of the story. The troopers storm out and it’s over.

There were two looks there that were important. The look on [Jackson’s] face, like, it’s over, I’m dying, this is over, this is how it ends for me. And that’s the story of so many young black men in this country—caught out somewhere, not thinking that the minute you walk into that cafe, or the minute that you’re walking home with your Skittles, or the moment that you were on the street corner really minding your own business, that that is it for you and this is how it ends, like so many statistics. So I wanted you to see that look on the face. And the mother afterward who gets that news. You have to look at her. You have to see the morgue afterward. You have to look at that grandfather. Because these men aren’t just dying; they’re leaving broken, shattered dreams, and families behind. That is a fabric of our community. It’s interwoven, it’s ambient in how we live here. The idea of making folks, and really myself, stop and look at that.

There’s one way to shoot and there’s one way to present it and there’s one way to edit it, and there’s another way to do it where you just say, “We will take a moment here and we will honor this moment.” So that was the idea behind it. And I don’t know how much people can take or not because at the time of crafting it. I’m just trying to get to the truth of it. And it may be too much for some, I don’t know. But we just try to tell the truth with that stuff.

MDS: And I appreciate that. I guess I’m just sitting here with the thought, “I wish that those images could move people so that they understand black humanity,” but we watched Tamir Rice be killed, we watched Eric Garner be killed, and people still label them thugs. I’m trying to figure out where the line is drawn, what is the threshold that people have to get over in order to see our humanity?

AD: I don’t know what it’s going to take. Nothing that we can do as people of color, or progressive people or allies, can be in that context or should be—in my view, which is different from King’s view, even, or some of that tactics that are in this film, which are kind of “show and tell.” That generation was very much about dressing in a certain way, presenting in a certain way, for a certain end—to tell the story that we are human. “I will dress this way, I will have this car, I will have this house, I will have this job, I will present myself as just as good as you so that you will see that I’m just as good as you.” The question is—and it’s an ongoing kind of cyclical question, one day I’d feel one way about it one day I’d feel another, [but] it is a question I ask myself and I try to resolve—does any of that matter? That presentation, does that matter? Does it change the needle? I don’t know.

You have these cops today, who asked protesters to not protest, to respect the slain officers—officers that were slain for no reason except one guy wanted to kill them—it has nothing to do with the protest, it has nothing to do with people raising their voices. And yet protesters and people who are challenging police aggression were asked to stand down, [but] at the funeral of the officer, [the police] protested by turning their backs on their mayor. There’s no outward presentation, there’s no answering any call for respectability, that we’re asked to do [that] really makes a difference in the end. So the question is [whether to] be yourself, follow your own mind, build as you will, as opposed to trying to fit into some of the respectability politics. It’s a question that we’ve all as conscious people had to ask ourselves, but it’s something to think about. But I think, what do we have to do to [get others to] see our humanity is not a question I ask myself at any point. I don’t need to prove that to anybody. That becomes a question in the filmmaking, that becomes a question in the writing, in the storytelling that we’re all doing. The narrative that we’re all weaving is, “Am I here to be myself or am I here to prove I am myself?” That’s a question for each person to answer.

MDS: It’s at this point Kiese Laymon [Vassar College professor and author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America] would say, “Fuck it, just make some shit for us.” So I’m glad you made some shit for us.

AD: [Laughs] That’s a good brother.

Selma opens in theaters nationwide today, January 9, 2015.

Read Next: Lessons from Selma

The Deaths of Two NYPD Officers Is Tragic, but Not an Indictment of the Anti-Brutality Movement

Police brutality protest

Protesters at a rally against police brutality in 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

No one should have to bury a loved one because of violence.

That goes for the families of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Islan Nettles, Eric Garner, and Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the two NYPD officers killed on Saturday in Brooklyn. Ismaaiyl Abdulah Brinsley, the man who shot Liu and Ramos, traveled up to New York City from Baltimore, where earlier that day he shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, in her home (Thompson is expected to survive). After shooting Liu and Ramos, Brinsley went to a nearby subway station and killed himself.

The entire chain of events is tragic. Brinsley’s heinous actions have been condemned from all corners. But that hasn’t stopped some people from placing the blame for Liu and Ramos’s death on the current nationwide anti-police brutality movement, flying under the banner “Black Lives Matter.”

“There is blood on many hands,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, “from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day.” Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, in an appearance on Fox News, said, “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police. The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

The organizers responsible for the anti-brutality protests—which began in the wake of the August 9 killing of Michael Brown by (now former) Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Missouri, grew after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, and grew larger still when a grand jury in New York voted not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the July 17 killing of Eric Garner—reject these connections. In a statement, a group of organizers known as Ferguson Action said:

We are shocked and saddened by the news of two NYPD officers killed today in Brooklyn. We mourned with the families of Eric Garner and Mike Brown who experienced unspeakable loss, and similarly our hearts go out to the families of these officers who are now experiencing that same grief. They deserve all of our prayers.

Unfortunately, there have been attempts to draw misleading connections between this movement and today’s tragic events. Millions have stood together in acts of non-violent civil disobedience, one of the cornerstones of our democracy. It is irresponsible to draw connections between this movement and the actions of a troubled man who took the lives of these officers and attempted to take the life of his ex-partner, before ultimately taking his own. Today’s events are a tragedy in their own right. To conflate them with the brave activism of millions of people across the country is nothing short of cheap political punditry.

In a separate statement, #BlackLivesMatter echoed those sentiments and added:

At the heart of our movement work is a deep and profound love for our people, and we are rooted in the belief that Black people in the U.S. must reassert our right to live be well in a country where our lives have been deemed valueless. Together, we champion a complete transformation of the ways we see and relate to one another.

Now is our moment to advance a dramatic overhaul of policing practices. Now is the time to direct more resources into community mental health services and practices. Now is a moment for empathy and deep listening. Now is the time to end violence against women and trans people. Now is our moment to come together to end state violence.

Our movement, grown from the love for our people and for all people, will continue to advance our vision of justice for all of us. Let’s hold each other close as we work together to end violence in our communities—once and for all.

The rhetoric Lynch, Giuliani and others employ only reinforces the message protesters have been trying to get across. Lynch and Giuliani can see the tragedy of Liu and Ramos’s deaths, but do not extend that same sympathy to the families of those killed by police officers. The lives of officers Liu and Ramos are held up as more valuable than the lives of Garner, Brown and so on. That’s the reason the protests must continue, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for them to be suspended.

But also, you’d have a hard time convincing me that the reason Lynch and Giuliani mourn Liu and Ramos is because of their humanity. By all accounts, Liu and Ramos were well-liked members of their community, but that’s not what has inspired Lynch to attribute the violence that killed them to nonviolent protesters. Liu and Ramos were police officers. Their jobs represent institutional power. The protests are a challenge/threat to that power.

The protests are not meant to be a challenge/threat to the lives of police officers, which is why it is disingenuous to link the actions of Brinsley to the movement. Activists, organizers, protesters involved in this fight for justice are not looking for more blood in the streets. They are seeking an upheaval of the American system of racism.

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And yes, that directly implicates the police. The police are a violent and racist arm of oppression. That’s not because every person hired to be a police officer is a violent racist. It’s simply the job they’ve been given by the American people.

The rejoinder to that assertion is typically some form of “not all police are bad/there are good cops.” There are certainly good people who are police officers. But good people sign up to do terrible jobs every day. They don’t, however, deserve to be killed for doing so.

As such, we all should mourn the deaths of Liu and Ramos, as well as send supportive energy to a recovering Shaneka Thompson, whose shooting has been lost in all of this. But that mourning doesn’t mean we become less critical of the police as a violent and racist tool of oppression.

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on youth leadership in the struggle against police violence

In the Struggle Against Police Violence, the Youth Shall Lead

Black Lives Matter march

Demonstrators march in New York on December 13 during the Justice for All rally and march. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

More than 50,000 people marched on the streets of New York City this past Saturday, December 13, to protest the two recent grand jury decisions—in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City—not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of 18-year-old Michael Brown and 43-year-old Eric Garner, both unarmed black men. The New York march was conceived and organized by Synead Nichols and Umaara Iynaas Elliott, two young performers, with support later coming from Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and Justice League NYC. Similar demonstrations took place in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities across the country. Among the signs and chants that decorated the day, the words “Black Lives Matter” were perhaps the most popular. The simple but powerful slogan was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, and has moved from a Twitter hashtag to “movement project,” to borrow Garza’s phrase, that has “connected people across the country working to end the various forms of injustice impacting our people” and “created space for the celebration and humanization of Black lives.”

All that is a bit different from what unfolded in the nation’s capital that same day.

Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN) called for a national march on Washington. They drew a crowd of about 10,000, but among those were some young people expressing anger toward Sharpton and his organization, suggesting that the event was co-opting their struggle for Sharpton’s own aggrandizement, diluting their message and drowning out the voices of the people who have faced down tanks, tear gas and rubber bullets in their efforts to get justice. The tension reached a tipping point when a group of activists, some who had been on the ground in Ferguson from the day Michael Brown was killed, took to the stage and demanded the microphone. Johnetta Elzie, one half of the duo responsible for the Ferguson e-mail newsletter that has kept its subscribers apprised of the latest in movement news, used the moment before the microphone was cut off to say: “This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.” Sharpton told The Root there were young people invited to speak.

The day after all of these marches took place, reclusive soul singer D’Angelo released the long-awaited third album, Black Messiah. It’s quite a hefty title, particularly for a project fifteen years in the making. In explaining why he chose this title for this new album, D’Angelo wrote: “For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah….bIt’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them….’ Black Messiah’ is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

In order for us all to be leaders, though, we also need to know what role we play in the movement. I think this is what some of our elders are struggling with most.

Sharpton has been a constant presence in the streets and in the media for nearly thirty years now. There’s no denying that his work, however polarizing he or his persona have been, has kept the victims of police violence in our national consciousness when others would have turned away. But now, at 60 years old with a nationally syndicated radio show, an MSNBC primetime television program and a seat in President Obama’s unofficial cabinet, Sharpton’s days as an outside agitator are over. He is firmly part of the establishment. And being part of the establishment (and wanting to maintain that position) necessitates that you not advance an agenda aimed at radical change, lest you compromise your own privileges. Sharpton has become a leading voice or respectability politics, consistently admonishing black youth for their choices in music and clothing. And his position on police brutality is that the problem is a few bad apples, rather tha the racist and unjust nature of policing in the United States. If all we are left with is Sharpton to lead a grassroots movement from an establishment position, we march toward justice would move along at a pace that Toni Morrison’s “slow walk of trees” would find too stagnant.

But it isn’t all bad. We could use more insiders that understand and/or are sympathetic to the voices of outsiders. From his new position, Sharpton could be amplifying the voices of those young people fighting every day in this new movement, providing them a platform to be heard. The media attention that he once had to fight for he can now hand over to a new generation with relative ease. But he has to understand that he no longer defines the movement.

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In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that Sharpton, or any other leaders/activists/organizers of his generation, should have no say in the movement’s direction. Healthy dialogue, debate and critique from all sides are vital to any movement. But when you’re sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and not using your resources toward the most effective means, you have to ask yourself if you’re being more of a hindrance to progress.

This new movement is being led by mostly young black women who won’t allow us to forget that black women’s lives matter, too (Columbia University Law professor Kimberle Crenshaw was present with a large banner that featured the pictues and names of black women and girls also killed by police). It is drawing in diverse crowds, including white allies who are not calling for gradual change, but a total end to white supremacy. The people in the street have neck tattoos, are dressed in sagging skinny jeans, and curse loudly (among the more popular chants: “BACK UP, BACK UP, WE WANT FREEDOM, FREEDOM, ALL THESE RACIST ASS COPS, WE DON’T NEED ‘EM, NEED ‘EM!” and “WHO SHUT SHIT DOWN? WE SHUT SHIT DOWN!”). The movement doesn’t look or sound like anything our elders remember (or were taught) about the civil rights era. And that’s OK. We have a new fight. We have to create a new model of resistance.

Everyone has a role to play, and in order for a movement to be successful, everyone (young and old) must understand what that role is and not be afraid to shift into a new one when the time for that comes.

Read Next: “It’s 1963 All Over Again,” writes Dani McClain.

The System That Failed Eric Garner and Michael Brown Cannot Be Reformed

Eric Garner

Protesters rallied against police violence in New York on November 24, 2014. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

That a grand jury decided not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing 43-year-old Eric Garner the same week that President Obama proposed spending $75 million in federal money to outfit 50,000 police officers across the country with body cameras would seem to be hack Hollywood writing with neatly applied plot points. Garner’s death was caught on video—video that the police were aware was being taken—and it still was not enough to indict anyone, least of all the man responsible for choking Garner to death, for any type of wrongdoing. It’s as if this decision was handed to us at this time in order to get us to say, “Now what?”

So… now what? We can move forward with this notion that police officers wearing body cameras will make them more judicious in their use of force, but it seems pretty clear that they just don’t give a fuck, and the court system is content to allow them to keep on not giving a fuck. And we’ll be right back here when they don’t indict the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

So… now what? Not much, so long as the reverence paid to police officers lends itself to deference. They are not regarded as citizens also beholden to the law. They are an armed force charged with maintenance of a status quo steeped in white supremacy and anti-blackness. Key to the reign is the suspension of a belief in the rule of law. Whatever tools they require for to carry out their actual purpose, the public and the courts are eagerly ready to provide.

So… now what? Body cameras seem like a good idea when we think the issue is there isn’t enough evidence with which to hold police accountable. They’re a good idea if we think the issue is accountability. Other things get tossed around, like diversifying police forces (the NYPD is among the most diverse in the country). That sounds like a good idea if we think the problem is sensitivity or cultural miscommunication. We are thinking wrong.

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We keep applying the language and framework of accountability, diversity and sensitivity to an issue of oppression. We are attempting to fly an airplane with the keys to a motorcycle. Our tools are woefully inadequate, and until we are ready to admit to ourselves that the police are an inherently oppressive force, and then use the language of anti-oppression and anti-racism in our analysis and solutions, it will not end today, as Eric Garner had hoped. The dead bodies of black folks will continue to line our streets and sidewalks, and they will be treated no better than the roadkill with whom they occupy those spaces.

Last night, at an event addressing racial profiling on the campus of Vassar College, a student told their administration that putting body cameras on security guards was like “Band-Aids to a bullet hole.” I was in attendance and was struck by just how literal that phrasing was. We are being choked and shot with impunity, and yet all that is being offered to us in response is a means to relive the experience over and over again. But we already do.


Read Next: No indictment for Darren Wilson, no justice for black lives

No Indictment for Darren Wilson, No Justice for Black Lives

Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014 (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

It has now been announced that Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted on criminal charges for the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But the writing has been on the wall as well, and on the bodies of protesters who have demanded justice. No one I talked to while in Ferguson believed there would be an indictment. No one I spoke to could bring themselves to trust that the system that killed Michael Brown would care about his life now. All that I spoke to were prepared to continue this fight.

Because even if Wilson had been indicted, true justice would not have come to Ferguson, St. Louis, Missouri or America. It would have meant one cop being tried for the death of one black boy in one town. Wilson’s indictment would not have prevented the deaths of Kajeime Powell, Vonderrit Myers, Tanesha Anderson, Tamir Rice or Akai Gurley. Only a lasting justice that values black life is capable of that.

But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies? That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.

There is fear in that word, “unrest.” It’s become synonymous with violence. But it is unrest that put Michael Brown’s name into our consciousness, and it is unrest that his kept his memory alive. Unrest is the key to justice.

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Protesters in Ferguson should not be calm, as they have been admonished by everyone from the president on down. Michael Brown doesn’t need calm. Black boys and girls who grow up in America need their lives to be respected. They need justice.


Read Next: Chase Madar on “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop.”

In Ferguson, a Militarized Police Force Isn’t Necessary for Suppression

Ferguson police

Protesters gather outside of the Ferguson police department, November 2014. (All photos by the author)

Nearly every night in Ferguson, a group of protesters gathers in front of the police department demanding justice for Michael Brown. The size of the demonstration has varied, depending on people’s availability and on the weather conditions, but the dedication to protesting has remained consistent since Brown’s death.

In these days leading up to the announcement of whether a grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson for killing Brown, everyone is on edge. The uncertainty of when the decision will be released to the public, coupled with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency, has left plans for action up in the air and the quest for justice without answers. But the people still show up to police department.

The anxiety has only been exacerbated the last few nights in Ferguson, as those protests have been met by a show of force on the part of the Ferguson police department. The night I was there—Wednesday, November 19—there were no more than about forty protesters at any given moment, met with police presence of equal or greater number. Of course, the major difference was that the police stood armed, in riot gear, and the protesters had only their bullhorns, chants and emotion.

It remained relatively calm for a time. The police, lined up as if to block the passageway to the department doors, already unavailable to anyone because of the metal barricade, played a game of cat and mouse, advancing a few feet and backing protesters up, before retreating themselves. Things escalated when during one of their advances they arrested a young man who had shown up to livestream the event.

The police advanced further as the protesters took to the streets, directing traffic away from their action. Protestors ran to what they thought would be a safe space across the street, but a few weren’t lucky enough to make it. At least five people were arrested that night, mostly for unlawful assembly as well as resisting arrest.

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Aside from the chanting, there was no provocation of the police on the part of the protesters. There was one instance of an object a being thrown, a water bottle, but other protesters quickly handled it: the person responsible, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, including a black mask that obscured their face, was run off of the protest site and heckled as an agitator who was putting the lives of the protesters at risk.

“If the media wasn’t out here, they’d have arrested us all,” one protester remarked.

A similar scene played out on Thursday evening, with the lesson here being that a militarized police force isn’t necessary to inflict terror. The police have proved themselves violent even without the use of tanks and tear gas. The people’s right to assemble peacefully won’t be protected. The Ferguson police department hasn’t taken any of the national or international criticism they have received to heart. And as the announcement of the decision on whether to indict Wilson dangles in some unknown future, the anxiety builds and takes an unknowable psychic toll on the most dedicated protesters.

But their resolve to see this through is strong.

Read Next: Can Ferguson’s protests build a nationwide movement against police violence?

Failing to Indict Darren Wilson Won’t End the Movement Against Police Violence

Protest in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

Not for a second have I believed that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. Not in the moments after hearing about the shooting, not during the four hours Brown’s body lay in the streets, not when the police attacked protesters in the first few weeks of demonstration, and not during the subsequent three months of organizing and rebellion. And with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s recent declaration of a state of emergency ahead of the imminent grand jury decision, I have even less reason to believe charges will be brought against Wilson, as the local governments and police forces appear to readying themselves for a strong reaction from activists. But I have every reason to believe this movement will not die.

People are scared. Residents of Ferguson are boarding up their businesses and stockpiling weapons, under the assumption that a non-indictment will lead to rioting and property destruction, on a level that surpasses the initial reaction to Brown’s killing back in August. The tension is thick enough to choke on, but it still pales in comparison to the looming threat of police violence faced by black people everyday across this country. This is why the protesters, activists and organizers who have emerged from this moment will not go away. They know they are disrupting the lives of citizens who never gave thought to the institutionalized violence young black people navigate, but that’s the point. And it will remain the point until something is done.

Indicting Darren Wilson is a start, but it is not the movement. There is the possibility that some who have been involved in these protests would move on in the (unlikely) event of an indictment, seeing that as the ultimate victory. Chicago-based prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba warns against this in a piece for In These Times:

To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades.

It’s certainly something these young people have come to understand, and they have used their newfound platforms to speak not just about the killing of Michael Brown but the daily atrocities of police harassment, sexual assault/rape, economic violence and political disenfranchisement.

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That’s what Governor Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (who is calling for 400 National Guard troops to be posted throughout St. Louis), Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, the Ku Klux Klan and so many others don’t understand. You can potentially squash an uprising in this moment, through intimidation and bloodshed. But the resolve of the people has held steady for three months, and these young people are becoming more aware of their history, just how long these battles must be fought, and are willing to risk their lives for their liberation.

Just last week, a group of eight young activists from the group We Charge Genocide traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture about police violence in Chicago. During that same time, 37-year-old Tanesha Anderson of Cleveland, Ohio, was slammed to the ground and killed by police officers. As the movement grows, the police continue to provide reasons for why. It was never just about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, Trayvon Martin on George Zimmerman. This has been, and will continue to be, about the protection of black life and the end of the police state. It is about the ability of young black people to move through the world unmolested by a repressive government. It is about bringing to fruition the promise of freedom that our ancestors fought for. It’s about America paying its debts.


Read Next: “Police Are the Problem”

How to Get Millennials to Vote

young voter

Young voter in Florida (J Pat Carter/AP)

Mid-term elections are supposed to be “turn out the vote” elections. Because voter turnout is so much lower than during presidential election years, the aim is not swaying a general mass of undecided voters. Rather, since most of the people who vote in midterms are assumed to be staunch ideologues, whichever side is able to get more of their ideologues to the polls will win. Here, Republicans have the advantage, because their base of ideologues is old white people. There is no history of voter discrimination or suppression among old white people. They are not a group that has systematically denied their rights without redress. They’ve had a pretty good go of it in these United States and find no issue participating in the sacred tradition of voting.

It’s a little different for Democrats. The Democratic Party has a assembled a ragtag coalition of the huddled masses shunned by the GOP. Among that group is young people—called “millennials” this time around—who are supposedly the most apathetic of all voting blocs. Each election cycle, a mix of guilt-tripping, shaming and celebrity-driven get-out-the-vote campaigns attempt to get young people to the polls. And each election cycle someone wonders, “Why don’t young people vote?”

But young people do vote. They vote at about the same rate in most midterm elections, with the 18-to-30-year-old vote making up around 13 percent of the total electorate. But it’s not the 19 percent that Obama brought in during his presidential runs, and therein lies the problem for Democrats. They believed they had an energized new base that they would be able to turn out even in off years, one that would sway elections in the forseeable future. Twenty fourteen was a huge disappointment for them. And now the “Why don’t young people vote?” questions have begun.

If I had the answer for what would have gotten millennials to vote in midterm elections, I wouldn’t be writing for The Nation; instead, I’d be charging exorbitant amounts of money in consulting fees to both major political parties. Besides, what I do have to say is hardly novel. It’s a message Democrats don’t seem to want to hear, but it remains true nonetheless: If you want voters to show up to the polls, you have to give them something to vote for.

Particularly millennials. Democrats have to understand that the coveted millennial vote comes at a greater price than “the other side is horrible.” That’s an old script that works for an old way of seeing the world, where voting is harm reduction at best. millennials want their votes to count. That’s why, in the past few years, you’ve seen people who cast their first ballots for Barack Obama sleep in Zuccotti Park and occupy the Florida state capital. For all the lofty rhetoric about change, the machinations of Washington felt eerily similar after Obama’s election, and local governments no better, even though millennials had been sold on the idea that voting would have this incredible impact. In turn, they’ve found their voice in other forms of participatory democracy.

At the same time, though, things have changed, and this is where it becomes tricky. In their young adult lives, millennials have seen the tide shift on marriage equality, moves toward legalizing marijuana, the largest representation of women in Congress (which has directly impacted the conversation around sexual assault in the military), the election of the first black president, a black nationalist (may he rest in peace) win the mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi and a socialist be elected to city council in Seattle. The understanding of what is possible politically is being stretched and millennials aren’t willing to settle for what is “practical” or “pragmatic.” They’re interested in change happening now.

The issue is, who are they going to vote for?

Progressive policies—that, by the way, enjoy broad millennial support—are winning but progressive candidates aren’t. Why? Because there aren’t any progressive candidates. Democrats are afraid setting out an acutal progressive agenda, for fear of losing the magical center. Maybe that’s a strategy worth adhering to in presidential years, but when the game is “turn out the vote” and you’re not willing to engage the issues that your base wants addressed, of course you’re going to lose.

That’s not entirely fair. They did try. A little. In southern states, campaign literature and radio ads connected Republican-supported policies such as Stand Your Ground to the death of Trayvon Martin. It’s one way of nodding to African-American voters, particularly the young people who have taken Martin’s death and the deaths of other young black people up as their cause. But it’s not then connected to any calls for police reform and decarceration, two looming issues that get to the heart of criminalizing black youth. And it’s a bit hard to swallow this message when a state with a Democratic governor has pointed tanks and thrown tear gas at young black people exercising their right to protest in pursuit of justice for another slain teenager, Michael Brown. Democrats’ lack of self-awareness borders on egregious.

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The Dream Defenders, a youth-based organization formed in the wake of Martin’s killing, also did GOTV work, notable for the provocative nature of the campaign. The “Vest or Vote” billboards and videos, a play on Malcolm X’s “the ballot or the bullet,” were meant to make the same connection as the previously mentioned Democratic efforts, but with the images of otherwise smiling and happy children being made to wear bulletproof vests in order to protect themselves. But Dream Defenders didn’t endorse any specific candidates, and they aren’t a large enough organization as of yet to turn out a substantial number of voters.

Millennials know what the stakes are, but aren’t willing to participate in a system they see as inherently unjust, especially if their issues are consistently ignored. I know I’m probably ruining my potential career as a “millennial political consultant” here, but if anyone wants millennials to show up to the polls, even when Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, they could try running candidates that speak to the issues they’ve taken to the streets to protest.

That’ll be a million dollars, please.


Read Next:“Rock the Vote” redux: campaigns compete for the youth vote in the 2014 midterm elections

Police Are the Problem


Police patrol Brownsville, New York. (Reuters/Eric Thayer) 

Policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.

I make these arguments all the time, but I think it’s necessary to repeat them in clear language because our cultural understanding of police as heroes feeds our political reliance on them as problem solvers. The longer we hold on to these ideals, the longer communities will be terrorized by police.

And lest it be assumed I’m just saying these things because of my own ill-will toward police, we have the numbers to back this up. A new report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that since 1980, arrests for misdemeanors in New York City have increased from 60,000 a year to almost 250,000. Most of these arrests are for “low-level drug enforcement, especially of marijuana, prohibitions against commercial sex work, the many disorderly activities associated with living on the streets, and a variety of minor offenses mostly engaged in by young people such as graffiti and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” writes Alex S. Vitale at Gotham Gazette. In fact, 25 percent of all misdemeanor arrests since 1980 have been for low-level drug violations.

Last year, the arrest rate for black people in New York City was 6.4 percent, down from its high of 7.5 percent in 2010, but almost double that of its low of 3.6 percent in 1990. For Hispanics, the arrest rate was 2.5 percent in 1990 and jumped to 4.7 percent in 2010. White people, of course, have experienced the lowest arrest rate, at 0.7 percent in 1990 and reaching a high of 1.4 percent in 2011.

So, what do these numbers mean?

They mean policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.

So where do we begin to undo all of this?

We first have to be honest that police are not capable of solving all of the “problems” we have made them responsible for solving. We then have to admit that not every “problem” we have defined as such is a problem that needs solving. Not everything needs to be or should be a crime.

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A step in this direction is legislation like Proposition 47 in California. Prop 47 is The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, a voter initiative “that will change sentencing for low-level nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and direct financial savings to K-12 schools, mental health treatment, and victim services,” as explained by the group Artists for 47. It won’t decriminalize drug possession, but it does provide an important stop gap measure, where (mostly young) people will not be saddled with felony charges for low-level drug charges, and the money that is saved from not arresting and prosecuting will be funneled into services that actually go toward building strong, healthy communities.

More importantly, it begins to move us from an over-reliance on police and criminalization as solutions to our societal ills. And hopefully, once we see that the world won’t fall apart if our first response to everything is not “more police,” we’ll be more willing to sit down and talk about how to dismantle the rest of the racist, oppressive police state.


Read Next: Do mental illness, homelessness and substance addiction sound like crimes?

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