Black youth will be heard

July 23, 2013

Crystal Stella Becerril describes the outpouring of anger among young African Americans after the not-guilty verdict for vigilante George Zimmerman.

WITHIN AN hour of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, dozens of people had made their way to Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago for an emergency protest to demand justice for the slain teen. By 10 p.m., some 40 people had gathered at the corner of Washington and Dearborn to voice their outrage at the injustice that had just been committed.

People spoke out against the murder of hundreds of Black youth at the hands of racists like George Zimmerman and racist cops, and against the school-to-prison pipeline that conveniently funnels those students it deems undesirable into the for-profit prison system--all part of the New Jim Crow that kills, criminalizes and disenfranchises thousands of Black men and women every single year.

After a handful of individuals had spoken, the crowd began to march toward Michigan Avenue, hoping to greet Taste of Chicago patrons as they left the festival. As we made our way up Washington, passersby raised their fists in solidarity, others honked their horns approvingly, and a good number joined the march.

Participants in a Black Youth Project conference join protests in Chicago the night of the Zimmerman verdict
Participants in a Black Youth Project conference join protests in Chicago the night of the Zimmerman verdict (Crystal Stella Becerril)

By the time we made it back to Daley Plaza, the crowd had more than doubled in size and was well over a hundred strong, with more filling the plaza as the night wore on. At this point, a group of Black youth--many from Young Chicago Authors (YCA), who left a Black youth leadership summit early in order to make it down to the protest--took turns at the mic to voice their anguish and horror at the acquittal.

The young activists spoke of the injustice of Zimmerman's acquittal, but said that it came as no surprise, for there is no reason for people of color to trust that the justice system will ever actually deliver justice. Among those speaking was poet and YCA teaching artist Malcolm London, who described the overwhelming anger he felt upon hearing the verdict.

It was here that the tone of the protest shifted from confusion and anguish to righteous anger and resolve--resolve to do whatever is necessary to challenge these injustices:

We're not just going to come out into the streets and chant and sing and love each other...we're going to go home and love each other and struggle and fight this shit. I'm tired of this shit!...I'm fucking angry and I'm tired! We're so desensitized...this empire of capitalism that exploits everybody--we can't continue to stand on our knees and not be free.

DURING THE civil rights and Black Power movements, people like Malcolm X acknowledged the connection between capitalism and racism. As Malcolm X said in 1964, "You can't have capitalism without racism," Malcolm London also understood that we have to fight the system that produces exploitation and oppression if we ever hope to truly be free.

After all, ours is the country that was built on the backs of slaves--a country that murdered millions of Native of Americans in the name of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny. If we view racism in isolation--as existing outside of, or separately from the material conditions of our society--we run the risk of failing to see how a diverse working-class movement has the potential to effectively fight back.

But so much of the legacy of our Black leaders has been sanitized--especially that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who at the end of his life began speaking out against capitalism, war and imperialism.

This is the Dr. King who, horrified by the atrocities being committed in Vietnam, became an outspoken opponent of the criminal war being waged on the Vietnamese. This is the Dr. King who went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers and who was working to organize the Poor People's Campaign, which demanded economic and human rights for poor Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans and whites when he was assassinated in 1968.

It's of critical importance that we understand this deliberate sanitization of our leaders, because by divorcing King's call for nonviolent action to challenge segregation from the harsh criticism of capitalism and the violence it relies on, those in control ensure that we remain blind to the reasons why racism and other forms of oppression exist in the first place.

We've been made to believe that the only way we'll be heard or taken seriously is if we play by their rules--and they use King's appeal for nonviolence against us while they themselves use increasingly excessive force to suppress our movements and keep us subordinated. This is by no means a call for violence from our side; it's simply a reminder that those who came before us recognized the extent to which our government is willing to go to in order to maintain the status quo.

They also recognized that we must broaden the conversation to include issues of economic justice and workers' rights, just as Dr. King did, if we wish to build a movement strong enough to take on the system.

IN THE U.S., the amount of violence that people of color experience on a daily basis reveals a racist reality. Whether it's racists like George Zimmerman or the police, or violence by the state as it closes schools and cuts social services in order to expand the prison industrial complex and engage in endless war, neoliberalism has given rise to the modern system of social control known as New Jim Crow.

This system gets away with letting a racist killer who kills an unarmed teen and claims self-defense go free, but imprisons innocent women like Marissa Alexander who in self-defense against her abusive husband fires warning shots harming no one but is sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder.

There are far too many of these cases to even begin to mention, but these two cases--tried by the same prosecutor--are egregious and blatant examples of the reality faced by people of color. There is still a lot of confusion and anger in the streets of Chicago and beyond (and rightfully so), but now is the time to channel that anger into building a movement that can challenge these injustices and win.

Now is the time to build a movement that makes the connection between capitalism and racism--and why the former necessitates the latter--and challenges racism in whatever way it manifests itself, be it in individual cases like that of Trayvon and Marissa, or at the institutional level against mass school closings and a the erosion of civil rights and living wages.

Now is the time to begin build a movement that can effectively challenge all forms of oppression and exploitation and eventually overthrow the system that produces both. And if the youth leading Saturday night's protest is any indication of what is to come, racists everywhere better beware because we've got nothing to lose but our chains!

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