Published by St. Louis American – September 26, 2016
The demand for police body cams is growing as urban communities experience more blatant forms of police terrorism. The demands are coming from a place of utter frustration and grief. And while I understand the desperate need for anything that can aid citizens in holding officers accountable along with the departments that often cover for them, I suggest we slow down and look both at what we know and what we don’t know.
The first such video that was widely publicized was that of the beat-down of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Tased, stomped unmercifully and hit numerous times with police batons, King suffered nine skull fractures, a broken leg, a concussion, injuries to both knees, a shattered eye socket and cheekbone, and a paralyzed face. He would never be the same, mentally or physically, dying at the premature age of 47. Read more
Published on BlackCommentator.com, September 29, 2016
When the Ferguson Uprising was unfolding, just about two years ago, I sent out a plea through social media and allies for people across the country NOT to come to town. This was done for a host of reasons from trying to give our community space to heal from a traumatic murder to the need to build infrastructure to sustain the righteous protests and to work on strategy. I urged people to stay home and build organization in their respective communities because a similar incident of police violence was coming to a neighborhood near them, to start the necessary preparations.
Now, every time a black body is mowed down by a police, and an ensuing groundswell of protest happens, someone reminds me of my words. There’s an unfortunate tendency that has developed where we spent a lot of time and resources running from city to city. Protests have become the strategy and not a tactic; they have become the destination and not the vehicle to the destination. I think this is a dangerous precedent for the movement to protect and respect Black lives.
The New York Times recently published an article on responses to the latest police shootings with a headline of “At Least 88 Cities Have Had Protests in the Past 13 Days Over Killings of Blacks.” The article goes on to say that there have been about 112 reported protests since July 5. Tens of thousands of people have been in the streets—to what end?
We’re also hearing rumblings about power struggles on the ground over media attention and money. People are parachuting into these cities and becoming media spokespersons instead of deferring to the folks who live in the community or whose was doing the work on the ground before the cameras rolled in. There’s still resentment in Ferguson/St. Louis about opportunists who dropped in, bringing little to the table but who took away a whole lot (for themselves).
What are we doing with the widespread outrage to the assault on black bodies? How can we turn the energy from protests into organizing potential that brings some real relief to our people and transformational change to our communities?
In 1857, Frederick Douglass attempted to give some sound advice to Black people during the Abolitionist Movement. We all probably know the one famous sentence “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
During that famous speech in Canandaiqua, New York, covered a number of contradictions in the movement at that time. There are some nuggets of wisdom that our contemporary movement can learn from.
Douglass talked about the struggle being “exciting, agitating, all-absorbing” but warned that we had to take that struggle further. He said that we “want crops without plowing up the ground.” Fast forward—we want protests without organizing to actualize our demands.
In Missouri at the Moral Monday action in the State Capitol, one of the speakers put forward a challenge: No more vigils without action. I agree. Holding “exciting, agitating, all-absorbing” protests without moving people to build power and develop leaders will undermine our movement over time. People with busy lives aren’t going to keep responding to protest without seeing how those actions will ultimately lead to changing their material conditions.
The masses of our people are hurting, they’re suffering but they’re ready to fight back. They are looking for guidance and direction from seasoned organizers in this period full of organizing opportunities. It’s time for our movement to step up with a heap more of sophistication based upon organizing lesson learned from the past.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. And a demand is lifeless without an organizing strategy to bring it alive.
When young protestors started chanting a quote by Assata Shakur during the Ferguson Uprising, several veteran activists from around the country reached out to me. They wondered – sometimes in a critical tone – if the young people even knew who Assata was.
I thought some might know about the freedom fighter who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 and successful sought political asylum in Cuba. But I felt, even if they didn’t know Assata’s story, hopefully the chant could be a natural introduction to learning about her as well as other political prisoners who have been held in U.S. cages for decades.
It’s not just a new generation that needs schooling on political prisoners. The larger social justice movement also needs to be reminded of those whose political views and activities captured the attention of the FBI and who were caught in its net of deception and lawlessness. Groups like the Jericho Movement help us to keep them in our consciousness.
The plight of two such black men have recently come into the spotlight. Before I focus on their stories, a brief primer on U.S. political prisoners.
The criminalization of resistance is not new; it has a long and ugly history. I’ll only go back as far as my lived experiences, and that’s to the 1960s, when black, Latino, Native Americas and white activists fighting for liberation, peace and the preservation of the planet ended up on the same FBI list.
COINTELPRO understood the power and influence of groups like the Black Panther Party, and black radicals were especially targeted and eliminated in one way or another – murdered like Fred Hampton, exiled like Assata Shakur, or sentenced for lifetimes on trumped-up charges like David Rice (aka Mondo we Langa), who died earlier this year in a Nebraska prison, maintaining his innocence until the end.
You probably never heard of Romaine Fitzgerald. He holds the distinction of being the longest-held Black Panther Party member. Fitzgerald, who has been caged for nearly 47 years, has come up for parole 17 times and been denied each time.
What about Rev. Joy Powell? For crusading against police corruption, Powell was set up and falsely convicted of 1st Degree Burglary and Assault.
And Marie Mason? Thanks to the Patriot Act, she is now serving the longest sentence of any environmental activist.
Now to the current situations of two black men who do have some notoriety and share similar fates because of their commitment to a more just and less racist world.
Mumia Abu Jamal is an international political prisoner. The former Black Panther and member of MOVE has projected his case for decades through his powerful voice, both in print and video. Mumia was a prolific writer and radio journalist before he was wrongfully convicted of killing a Philly cop. Despite being in solitary confinement most of his 30 years, Mumia valiantly fought for his life before a national campaign forced the courts to take him off Death Row in 2011 and give him life without the possibility of parole.
Mumia is now fighting for his life – literally. Last year, photos of a frail Mumia were released to the public with a plea to force the Pennsylvania prison authorities to get him proper medical treatment. We now know that Mumia has Hepatitis C and diabetes. About 6,000 of the state’s 36,500 prisoners are infected with Hep C. A judge recently denied Mumia’s motion to receive the expensive anti-viral, which has about a 95 percent cure rate. This a troubling case where two racist and inhumane systems – the prison and the medical industrial complexes – collide.
The name Imam Jamil Al-Amin is probably meaningless to most readers. But not his previous name of H. Rap Brown. Brown holds a
special place in the Black Power Movement as the fiery chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He later became a Muslim and changed his name.
September 16 is a National Day of Action to bring attention to Al-Amin’s legal and medical issues. He was harassed and hounded for years before Georgia authorities could find a case that stuck. In 2000, Al-Amin was snatched up and convicted of murdering two sheriff deputies. He has been fighting for his freedom ever since.
Al-Amin’s supporters have accused the Georgia prison authorities of “execution by neglect.” The iman has been diagnosed with cancer of the plasma cells; he also suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome.
Like Mumia, Al-Amin has been caught in the middle of two catastrophic systems. Their unique stories as political prisoners are part of the unwritten collective tragedy of nearly two million people languishing in U.S. jails and courts.