Racial Progress Does Not Just Happen, it is the Product of Struggle
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
The weekend of March 7 and 8 marked the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., the day that a planned march of 600 people from Selma to Montgomery was met with a wave of police violence—including the billy club beating of future Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
The day shocked the nation and prompted the introduction and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the first comprehensive effort in almost a century to enforce the voting rights of blacks (as well as other minorities) originally guaranteed by the 15th Amendment in 1870. About 100 Congress members were in attendance, including 23 Republicans, none of whom had signed on to co-sponsor Lewis’ Voting Rights Amendment Act, designed to repair much of the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013.
A few days earlier, on March 4, the U.S. Department of Justice released its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, which found a revenue-driven pattern and practice of racist policing, including systemic violations of the First and Fourth amendments. Although Ferguson’s mayor, James Knowles III, initially disputed the report, saying “[t]here is probably another side to all of these stories,” a wave of resignations soon followed, including Ferguson’s city manager, John Shaw, Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer.
In combination, the two events starkly illustrated America’s intractable inability and unwillingness to live up to its ideals of liberty and justice for all, particularly where African-Americans are concerned. While great strides have been taken in brief bursts from time to time, not only are the ideals still out of reach, but our progress toward them remains uncertain at best. It is commonly reversed in daily practice in the absence of sustained organizing and constant vigilance.
“We’re a country that lurches back and forth. We’re lurching backwards now,” said Bob Moses, a legendary voter registration leader in 1960s Mississippi.
While many were eager to commemorate Bloody Sunday’s 50th Anniversary, few were willing to celebrate it, and the Justice Department’s Ferguson report vividly illustrated why.
“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report stated. “This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing.”
The report followed the filing of a class action lawsuit in February, charging that Ferguson and nearby Jennings both ran debtors prisons, which have been illegal in America for almost two centuries. Lawyers filing the suits charged that “[p]eople are held in jail as a means of coercion to get them to pay fines, with police and jail officials arbitrarily changing the amount of fines to coerce family members or friends to bring enough cash to satisfy the amount owed.”
Moreover, although it’s extreme, Ferguson is hardly unique, as dozens of other municipalities in St. Louis County engage in similar practices. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch cited the example of Erwin Rush, 50, of St. Louis, who “has been trying to climb out of traffic court debt for 20 years,” and currently owes more than $4,500 to six municipalities.
“The city budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved,” the DOJ report states in a summary section titled “Focus on Generating Revenue.”
It added that “City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement.” For example, “[I]n March 2013, the finance director wrote to the city manager: ‘Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5 percent. I did ask the chief if he thought the PD could deliver a 10 percent increase. He indicated they could try.’”
Unsurprisingly, the report adds, “Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from city leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception.”
Turning the police department into a de facto extortion ring is bad enough, but of course, it has terrible spillover effects as well, and it’s spelled out in the next section, “Police Practices:”
This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence… The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
With this kind of everyday institutional baseline, Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown might almost seem inevitable—given long enough, these sorts of attitudes were bound to have such an effect. But the pervasiveness of such arrogant, paranoid and illegal attitudes and behavior arguably only makes it more difficult to assign individual responsibility to Wilson, which is part of the reason he was not charged with a federal crime.
Still, the lack of provable, specific, racist intent on Wilson’s part does nothing to alter the cultural and historical significance of killing an unarmed black youth, which remains rooted in the logic of total white institutional control of black bodies, for which slavery remains the prototype. We can see this logic played out in another example cited in the report.
The report notes that “[E]ven relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated,” as it introduces the ordeal of a 32-year-old African-American man whose “crime” was simply sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a public park. An officer demanded his Social Security number and identification, accused him of being a pedophile (there were children in the park!), ordered him out of his car for a pat-down, and asked to search his car—all without any reason at all. When the man objected, citing his constitutional rights, he was arrested at gunpoint and charged with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code, including a charge of “making a false declaration” for giving the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), a charge for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was parked, and other equally ludicrous charges. As a result “he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.”
Echoes of History
The role of police in controlling, regulating, and extracting wealth from African-Americans has changed form over time, starting with the earliest slave patrols, the origins of Southern law enforcement institutions, but some features recur in different forms generations and even centuries apart.
On MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, highlighted one such parallel—the ongoing game of keep-away between different government bodies to protect who would get to keep the black wealth they had plundered.
“This is the efficiency at its best,” Muhammad said of Ferguson’s system. “They said, ‘We’re charging people with as many citations as possible, and we’re going to make sure that it’s municipal violations, because we don’t want to send these people into the state system, because we will lose revenue.’”
This practice, one way or another, dates back as far as the end of slavery, he noted.
“In the state of Alabama in the decades following the Civil War, county regulators, county officials, competed with state officials as to whether black people would be charged to serve on the chain gang, which would serve the needs of the county, versus convicts’ leases which would serve the needs of the state.”
But it didn’t end there.
“They also have perverse incentives in Alabama running right up to the days of the 1960s and Selma, where the sheriffs were incentivized, along with law enforcement and deputies, to be paid based on how much activity they engaged in arresting people,” he noted. “So, the long arm of history is crashed into the present in terms of what’s going on in Ferguson.”
True to form, one response from Missouri lawmakers has been to propose a law that would cap how much money municipalities can get from their courts, redirecting the excess into state coffers.
Voting Rights and Wrongs
Meanwhile, the Selma remembrance itself was profoundly marred by the ongoing undermining of voting rights, facilitated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which Rep. Lewis called “a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” and by the ongoing refusal of congressional Republicans to pass any sort of fix which would hold jurisdictions with a history of violations to stricter scrutiny. This has cleared the way for an unprecedented rise in voter suppression laws, largely justified by the nonexistent problem of voter fraud, which even the Justice Department under George W. Bush could not manage to find more than a handful of prosecutable cases of in eight years of trying.
“From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states (Idaho is the lone exception),” investigative journalist Ari Berman wrote just before the Selma remembrance. “Half the states in the country have adopted measures making it harder to vote.” Berman is the author of the forthcoming book, Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights in America. A 2013 University of Massachusetts study of proposed restrictions from 2006 to 2011 found that “proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments.” There was a “dramatic increase in restrictive legislation that actually passed in 2011,” following widespread GOP gains in controlling legislatures after the 2010 midterms.
Although the Voting Rights Act has enjoyed strong bipartisan support through four reauthorization votes (1970, 1975, 1982, 2006), most recently passing 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House, the GOP has lurched sharply to the right racially since the last reauthorization, particularly after Obama’s election in 2008. As a result, Rep. Lewis’ compromise Voting Rights Act Amendment, which only partially restores Section 4, has only 11 GOP co-sponsors in the House and none in the Senate—in sharp contrast to the unanimous vote for a bill honoring the foot soldiers of the Selma movement. As mentioned above, none of the 23 congressional Republicans who came to Selma had signed on to co-sponsor Lewis’ amendment.
The disconnect between honoring heroes of the past while opposing everything they stood for could not have been more stark.
“I just want some accountability,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said. “I want to know that everyone who showed up here today to have their picture taken on the bridge next to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement is ready to support a new Voting Rights Act. Every one of them.”
Berman, reporting from Selma, held out a glimmer of hope. “A number of Republicans I interviewed expressed a newfound openness on the issue after spending time in Alabama with Lewis,” he wrote in The Nation. But only one of those he cited, Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from upstate New York, explicitly said he would sponsor the Voting Rights Act Amendment when he returned. Others merely expressed a willingness to consider it. Unsurprisingly, some Alabama Republicans remained clearly opposed.
The lack of movement should not be surprising in light of how things work in Ferguson. As long as one group can be cut out of power, they will naturally be cut out of consideration. For decades now, Republicans have depended on keeping some small shred of respectability alive when it comes to race. But after the 2010 midterms, that effort and that era seem gone for good. With gerrymandering to secure safe House districts, low voter turnout in midterms, and sweeping new voter-suppression laws for presidential election years, the GOP looks to be digging in to build yet another incarnation of white America pretending to be all of America.
Historically, the only way to challenge that polished illusion is to break through its superficial display of competence, control and calm. That’s what the Civil Rights Movement did, over and over and over again, including 50 years ago at Selma. It takes a spectacular, shocking event to move the country’s conscience, but such events can be years in the making. Bob Moses explained this on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show:
Basically, there were a few young people who came out of the sit-in movement, who decided they really didn’t want to live in the country unless they could change it. And so it was 24/7, it was not anymore about a career, or even family, it was about doing the work to change the country. But it was work it was done outside of the media. So it was work that laid the groundwork for the big media events.
Diane Nash, another student movement leader of that era, amplified what Moses said:
It is not possible to have a mass demonstration in the movement without that door-to-door organizing, door-to-door—person-to-person education. And that’s what it would take, at this point, really organizing. I see the young people now, a few years ago in the Occupy Movement, and now in the Hands Up Movement, and I say they are on the right track.
We citizens of the country had better not leave what needs to be done up to elected officials, because they will not do it. Citizens need to take the interests of this country into our own hands, learn how to use nonviolence and do it. I like to say, suppose we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters and public accommodations. We would be waiting right now. As citizens, we need to do what needs to be done.