Why we are building for Washington

In an article written for the Journal News newspaper, Marc Pessin explains how activists in the Hudson Valley have been building for the March on Washington.

ON AUGUST 24, Rocklanders will be traveling by buses from New York to Washington, D.C., to join tens of thousands of Americans in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Many feel that a great deal of progress has been made in the area of race in America. They cite the first African American president and the successes of people like Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. Some even argue that America is a post-racial society and that Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled.

I would argue that for millions of people of color the last 50 years has been and continues to be a nightmare rather than a dream come true. Racism is alive and well and has mutated into new forms which Michelle Alexander characterized in her enlightening best-seller as The New Jim Crow.

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I would also argue that millions of white Americans have seen their lives deteriorate in the last 50 years. When the working class is divided by racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia, this opens the way for the reducing of salaries, health benefits, pensions and working conditions for all workers. The destruction of private-sector unions, which now comprise only 8 percent of private sector workers and the attack on public sector unions as evidenced in Wisconsin and Michigan are examples of the attack on working class institutions.

The first March on Washington was concerned not just with racial integration and voter rights, but as civil rights activist and labor leader A. Philip Randolph emphasized, it was also about economic justice. The signs in the crowd called for "Jobs for All."

Today, 50 years later, conditions are worse, especially for people of color. While the unemployment rate for all workers is 7.4 percent, it is double that for people of color, especially the youth.

One result of systematic racism is the prison-industrial complex, also known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Today, 25 percent of the world's prisoners are in American prisons, and while more crime is committed by white people, the jails are disproportionately filled with people of color, who, when released cannot vote, serve on a jury, get federal aid to go to school, or live in public housing. In short, they remain an underclass of people doomed to recidivism.

Another symptom of racism is the stop-and-frisk policies as administered in New York City. Almost 90 percent of people stopped are people of color, most of whom are innocent of any wrongdoing. It is humiliating and intimidating, especially to young people who get the message from this type of racial profiling that their lives are not valuable.

Fortunately, as a result of demonstrations and resistance, a victory was won when a New York City judge ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional. This is just a beginning. We must demand that the Supreme Court overturn McClesky vs. Kemp, which supports the legality of racial profiling in much the same way that the legal decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson (which legalized Jim Crow) was overturned by the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision.

Still another symptom of racism is the murder of Black males, especially by the police. During the period of lynching in America, a person of color was lynched every 55 hours, but in 2013 a person of color is killed by security forces every 28 hours. We grieve with the parents of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teen killed by stand your ground enthusiast George Zimmerman. Over 400 people from all walks of life attended demonstrations in Spring Valley and Nyack earlier this month to protest the Zimmerman verdict.

We also grieve for local parents and relatives of Emil Mann, Kenneth Chamberlain, Herve Gilles, Danroy Henry, and Ramarley Graham, all unnecessarily killed by police.

So we are going to Washington, not to be nostalgic about the civil rights movement of the past, but to initiate a new movement for justice and an end to covert and overt institutional racism. We are going to demand an end to racial profiling and to expose the genocide of people of color by the prison industrial complex, poverty and other forms of institutional racism.

I am hopeful that this editorial will encourage many more people from the Hudson Valley to join groups like the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow as we take on these issues right here and now.
Marc Pessin, Rockland, N.Y.