The fierce urgency of now
The determined message of Martin Luther King's famous speech will be as important as ever as people from across the country travel to Washington to protest racism.
FOUR-AND-a-half years ago, an enormous crowd packed into the Capitol mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. The first African American president took the oath of office in front of a Capitol building built by slaves.
Among the crowd on that January day, there was a sense of bearing witness to progress--not only because of the historical significance of the first Black president in a country founded on slavery, but also the seeming sea change in contemporary politics after eight long years of George W. Bush and the Republicans in power.
This weekend, another crowd--smaller, but likewise dominated by African Americans--will gather on another part of the mall. They will be commemorating a different historical moment: the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
But they will also be protesting--expressing their anger at the continuing grip of racism in so many forms, even as an African American sits in the Oval Office.
By virtually every measure, the conditions and quality of life for the majority of African Americas have declined during the Obama years. More than other parts of the population, Black America has borne the brunt of the economic and social crisis of the Great Recession years. The March on Washington is an opportunity to focus a spotlight on this reality, while the cameras of the media are rolling--and on the need to do something about it with, as King said 50 years ago, "the fierce urgency of now."
Not only is racism still with us--despite the claims that we are, since Obama's election, living in a "post-racial society"--but the first African American president has done nothing about the crisis of Black America. On the contrary, for the last five years, Obama and his administration have explicitly avoided being identified with "racial issues."
This posture changed somewhat over the summer. Last month, Obama made one of the only public statements of his presidency about racial profiling and racism in the U.S. justice system--but only because of the wave of outrage after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin. Likewise, Attorney General Eric Holder promised changes in the Justice Department's policies on drug prosecutions and mandatory minimum sentencing--after years of upholding the federal injustice system.
Obama and his administration will get credit they don't deserve for these statements and promises--among liberal leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations and unions who will speak at the March, and also among the crowd in general. Those committed to building the antiracist struggle should take the opportunity this weekend to talk about the real record--and about why liberal leaders who apologize for that record, rather than challenge it, are making the situation worse.
Still, even if Obama and Holder are taken completely at their word, it won't be news to anyone at the March that much, much more needs to be done--and that the initiative for doing it is going to have to come from outside the Washington political system, as it did after the Zimmerman verdict.
That's a sentiment to build on--with the aim of using this national mobilization against racism to advance local struggles around a wide range of questions that marchers will return to on August 25.
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THE AUGUST 24 demonstration would have been an important historical commemoration no matter what, but it took on a new dynamic after the Zimmerman verdict.
The acquittal of a self-declared neighborhood watch captain who stalked and killed an unarmed Black teenager dramatized how much the issues of 50 years ago are with us today. A young Black man walking after dark where someone decided he shouldn't be, his murderer declared not guilty by a jury without a single African American--all that would be very familiar to the marchers of 1963.
The issues of racial profiling and vigilante justice, carried out by killers in uniform and out, naturally became one important hub for the mobilization to Washington.
In New York City, participants in the struggle to win justice for the victims of police murder like Ramarley Graham and Shantel Davis filled up one bus by themselves and are looking for any way to get more people to D.C. Among the thousands of others from New York will be those who marched down Fifth Avenue last year in a silent protest against "stop-and-frisk," the NYPD policy that a federal judge this month found had violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown New Yorkers.
There are other issues driving the turnout--as numerous as the many faces of racism in U.S. society. In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union is among the organizations behind the Chicago Labor Freedom Riders caravan to D.C. Its participants want to emphasize how the assault against public education and public-sector workers is bound together with the attack on Black America.
So whether they've been to Washington protests before or are attending their first national demonstration, many of those at the March will be no strangers to struggle. For them, the bus rides to and from D.C. and the rally and march itself will be a chance to build up networks of solidarity--to make connections to people involved in the same struggles in other cities, or their neighbors organizing around different issues in their own hometown.
Thus, Joseph "Jazz" Hayden of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow in New York City is hoping the March on Washington will help activists sink deeper grassroots far beyond the capital. As he told SocialistWorker.org:
We saw the grassroots response to the Trayvon Martin decision, which led to demonstrations in over 100 cities across the country. Imagine if we were organized in 100 cities across the country. Anytime we decided we wanted to put something on the national agenda, we could put it out there instantly.
In addition, every person who brings their experiences to Washington and every struggle represented at the March will add to the ideological alternative to the conventional wisdom that has dominated mainstream U.S. politics--that the problems of the Black community are largely, if not entirely, the fault of the Black community itself.
That scapegoating message has been constant since the end of the civil rights era in the mid-1960s, when openly preaching the inferiority of African Americans fell out of favor in mainstream politics. Instead, racism was repackaged, often through coded appeals for "law and order" and "personal responsibility." Today, the idea that Blacks--and not the system--are to blame for their own oppression is accepted across the political spectrum, including, in varying degrees, by leading figures in the Black community.
But as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote for SocialistWorker.org:
[E]very once in a while, something happens that tears the mask off, revealing the ugly face of U.S. society. The murder of Trayvon Martin and now the acquittal of his murderer confirms again that racism is so tightly packed into the blood and marrow of American democracy that it cannot live without it.
The assembled masses of the marchers in Washington will be definitive evidence, for anyone who cares to listen, of both the depth of the crisis of Black America and the fact that its causes lie in systemic oppression that is woven into the fabric of U.S. society and Washington politics.
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NO OPPONENT of racism doubts that the Republicans and their right-wing base are committed to bigotry and discrimination. They all but say so themselves.
Case in point: The Supreme Court decision in June, by a 5-4 majority along ideological lines, that gutted one of the main accomplishments of the civil rights movement: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Gallingly, the conservative justices claimed that racist obstacles to voting rights were a thing of the past, and therefore the act's major protections could be done away with. That's a blatant lie--six of the nine states that were specially scrutinized under the Voting Rights Act passed new voting restrictions since 2010. All told, 19 states passed more than 24 measures in 2011 and 2012 that make it harder to vote--practically speaking, harder for people of color to vote--and there's worse to come following the Supreme Court ruling.
The ugly logic is clear for Republicans--fewer Black and Brown voters means fewer votes against them. Thus, the call for Congress to update or amend the Voting Rights Act will ring out from the stage at the March on Washington, and rightly so.
But many speakers will be hesitant to talk about issues where the Democrats have a hand in implementing racist laws and policies. Take the issue where Attorney General Holder recently spoke out: the "war on drugs" laws that have been a leading cause of the incarceration boom in the U.S.
Earlier this month, Holder told the American Bar Association that he would urge federal prosecutors to avoid charging defendants in nonviolent drug cases with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences--one of the main contributing factors in the 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since 1980. But there are holes in Holder's announcement--not least that it will be up to prosecutors whether to exercise the discretion Holder is allowing them.
Plus, Holder's new promises come after four-and-a-half years when the administration has enforced some of the most unjust and racist policies of the decades-old drug war.
In June, for example, Holder's Justice Department argued in court for enforcing existing sentences for prisoners under the notorious 100-to-1 rule--a sentencing guideline where mandatory minimums were triggered for possession of a hundredth of the amount of crack cocaine (where users are more likely to be Black) compared to powder cocaine (more likely to be white).
In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which dropped the disparity to 18-to-1--still a half measure that Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance described as a license "to be a little racist."
But when a federal appeals court ruled that the new "fair" sentencing should be applied retroactively for drug possession convictions, Holder's lawyers went to court to oppose the decision--in effect, asking that thousands of people, most of them poor and people of color, remain behind bars under a sentencing guideline the administration itself repudiated.
That Holder this month proposed reforms around mandatory minimums "is a reflection of a change in public opinion and a rising tide of activism among prisoners here in California and their families," Isaac Ontiveros, an organizer with the prison abolition group Critical Resistance, told the Common Dreams website. But the struggle against the New Jim Crow can't end there, any more than civil rights activists of the 1950s and '60s would have been satisfied with their first partial victories against old-style Jim Crow segregation.
This weekend, people will come to Washington, D.C., from across the U.S. to show their opposition to racism and send the message that action is needed. The words of Martin Luther King's famous speech will be as important as ever:
We have...come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism...The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.