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Police Killings And A New Civil Rights Movement


The riot that took place in Baltimore a few nights ago, April 27, was of course a response to yet another of the hundreds of police killings.  But it was also, like most riots, set off by an immediate provocation.  Apparently an internet message announced a “purge,” associated with the popular horror film The Purge, meaning an attack.  Riots like this are not rare in US history, and they have frequently been detonated by false rumors.

Whether there was such an announcement, and if so, who sent it, we cannot know.  We do know that the police responded to this rumor with military force.

They lined up near Frederick Douglass High School—named, of course, for the leading African American civil rights leader of the 1800s—at the end of the school day in full riot gear, shut down the local subway station, stopped buses and forced many students on their way home to get off.  Unable to leave the area, teenage boys began to throw bottles and bricks and injured several police officers. That evoked more aggressive behavior from the police and …. a riot.

A small number of young men could not or would not control their anger.  They smashed store windows, looted, set fires, overturned police cars, and did so primarily in their own, poor, predominantly African American neighborhoods.  I condemn the riot and disapprove of what the rioters did.  The greatest harm they did was to besmirch the up-to-now near perfect record of nonviolence in the countrywide protests against police killings.  They make it possible for talking heads, politicians, and police to argue that there is blame on both sides, to equate both sides.  The Baltimore rioters damaged the city’s economy, yes.  But city after city, including Baltimore, has paid out millions of dollars to settle suits against the police for injuries and killings of unarmed men and women—these have done far more to damage city economies.

And what of the human cost?  For my last piece for Telesur I tried to document the number of killings of unarmed civilians by police, and found that many police departments avoid making these statistics public.  But I now know that in 2014 alone police killed at least 1,029 men and women—yes women too; check out http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/13/black-womens-lives-matter-police-shootings_n_6644276.html for profiles of some of the women killed. Compare those thousand-plus lives to the injuries to Baltimore police, and what do you get?  The answer is, there is no equivalence.

To repeat, I am not justifying the rioters.  My point is that the only solution to this mayhem has to be creating accountability among police.  And this will mean, as I argued in my last Telesur piece, standing up to police “unions” which are not labor unions but more like criminal syndicates that put the impunity of their members above the law.

The rioters did, however, create another sort of damage.  They make very young men appear to be the face of the protests.  This has never been the case in civil rights protests and it is even less true today.  We need to look more carefully at the well organized, peaceful protests and not be mislead by the unrepresentative violent outbursts.

In fact, the anger about police killings seems to be birthing a new civil rights movement, and one not at all dominated by individual charismatic men.  In Ferguson, Baltimore, Los Angeles, young women of color have emerged as leaders and strategists.  They offer a new kind of civil rights politics—one that incorporates feminism, gay and transgender rights, and an emphasis on building grassroots leadership.  Three black women, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, created the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, now adopted across the country.   African American ballet dancers Umaara Elliott and Synead Nichols, just 19 and 23 years old, led in organizing the NYC 50,000-person “Black Lives Matter” demonstration in December 2014. Ferguson leaders Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell captured media attention when they married each other; their wedding pictures are adorable …

… but don’t underestimate them: they dropped out of school to devote themselves full time to building the movement.  A new national organization, Millennial Activists United, stands for sustainability, women’s and LGBTQ rights, even disabled rights.  Black Youth 100 creates training programs in nonviolent leadership.  United We Dream, a largely Latino/a group focused on justice for undocumented immigrants, considers itself part of the informal network of those protesting police brutality.  All these and many other groups of young people feature women as leaders and dedicate themselves to nonviolence and democratic leadership, a leadership style that prioritizes participation, hard work—and less ego in the room.

As political theorists Danielle Allen and Cathy Cohen recently wrote, some people are asking “Will these events lead to a new civil rights moment? If so, where is the next Martin Luther King Jr.?  Both of these questions mistake the present moment and reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the 1960s. There is a new movement afoot, but it doesn’t need an MLK.”

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