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Politics and Protest, Revisited

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People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

I was pretty annoyed at how badly many comments misread my post from last week on the relationship between voting and protest. Just because one doesn’t think these protests should be turned toward support of the Democratic Party doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t vote. It just means that there’s a place for voting and a place for protest and a lot of people are only going to do one or the other and that’s OK, if not idea. Hopefully, people do both.

But I think there’s a real lack of understanding around here about just how limited the history of politics are for fighting our structural inequalities, especially policing, a situation which has only become far worse since Black people could start electing politicians to state and national office. The always necessary Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor had a piece on this back on June 13 and it needs to be read here.

Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd. We are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.

The Congressional Black Caucus offered a familiar list of the kind of police reforms that have failed for decades to end police violence. After protesters vandalized CNN’s headquarters and set a police car on fire in Atlanta, the mayor, Keisha Bottoms, told them to “go home” because registering to vote “is the change we need.” President Barack Obama also argued in an essay that “real change” comes from both protest and voting.

Instead, organizers on the ground have provided leadership. Women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis have been at the center of articulating new demands for redistributing resources away from policing, prisons and billionaires, and back into public programs. We can also find this leadership among the ranks of black low-wage “essential workers” who have challenged Amazon and other big corporations since the beginning of the pandemic. These organizers and workers are channeling the confrontational black politics of a previous period.

Because of them, we are at the end of one era of black politics and the start of a new one.

The revolt in American cities, amid a deadly pandemic that is disproportionately killing African-Americans, suggests that people feel the political system cannot solve their problems. Many have been looking back at the urban uprisings of the 1960s to make sense of our situation. Those protests exposed a shocking degree of racism in the supposedly liberal North. A main demand from protesters then was more black political control of cities.

The Congressional Black Caucus was formed in that era. Its members called themselves the “conscience of the Congress” and saw themselves as representing the political interests of all of black America. They were “unbought and unbossed” as a founding member, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, said.

This independence led to confrontations, not only with Republicans, but also within the Democratic Party. In the summer of 1972, just weeks before Democrats would formally nominate Senator George McGovern for president, the caucus wrote a “Black Declaration of Independence” and “Black Bill of Rights.” These were inspired by a more militant document called “A National Black Agenda” that had emerged from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., where thousands of African-Americans had convened earlier that year.

The caucus linked the struggles of African-Americans to the broader hardships experienced by poor Americans of all races. The Black Bill of Rights made dozens of “nonnegotiable demands,” including “free medical care for all the poor and near poor,” a guaranteed income for the unemployed, the appointment of black judges and an immediate end to the Vietnam War. The statement declared, “The torch has passed to a new generation of blacks who no longer accommodate but confront; who no longer plead but demand; who no longer submit but fight.”

To be fair, no elected official is ever wholly “unbought” or “unbossed.” It is the nature of politics to negotiate and compromise. Many black politicians represented urban areas, and governing became harder as whites and their tax dollars fled to the suburbs. The 1970s also saw the end of the postwar economic boom and the acceleration of deindustrialization. The changing economic fortunes of cities, which had been the engine of the American economy, made it harder for the ascendant black political class to carry out reforms.

Increasingly, black elected officials were seen as managing the crises in black working class communities, instead of leading efforts to root them out.

Yes, electoral politics is part of how change works. But it’s also proven wildly insufficient for many sectors of American life and on many issues. Sometimes, protest isn’t only necessary, it is more necessary than voting. We are in one of those times. I hope most of the activists on the streets vote, but when old man Biden is at the top of the ticket with his less than stellar record on this issue, you have to understand the skepticism.

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