Is Black Lives Matter destined to go the way of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Million Man March movements – a footnote in history? A recent poll showed voters are skeptical of Black Lives Matter and its policies. Many have questioned the lack of leadership. Could it be we were looking for leadership in the wrong place? There is a balm in Gilead and it is Minneapolis under the leadership of NAACP President, law professor, and attorney – Nekima Levy Pounds. Minneapolis has become a modern day Selma, proving ground for the viability of the movement by marching and challenging policies that contribute to the inequities experienced by blacks in education, housing, and the criminal justice system.
The revolution has been televised. On a regular basis, we hear and see another black woman, man, and teenager detained, injured, or killed by police. Jamar Clark is the latest fatality. The Spring Valley High School teenager and Olympian James Blake are added to the list of victims of police brutality. Covert racism via blackface has students at Mizzou and Yale protesting.
Police brutality is nothing new. In the 70s and 80s, it was well-known that the Chicago Police Department engaged in torture tactics. Under Police Commander Jon Burge, over 100 black men were tortured into confessing to crimes they never committed under the guise of a traffic-violation pullover. Even today, Chicago police use Homan Square as a “black site.” Men have been held there for weeks and months with no access to an attorney. Officially, the Homan Square site does not exist.
Unfortunately, this has been a reality most African-Americans experience, a realization of Aesop’s warning that “no plea will protect the innocent from the unjust judge.” The lynch mobs of the South were replaced by a law enforcement system that targeted and profiled black people for no reason or minor infractions (jay walking, failure to signal while turning) that resulted in their injury, incarceration, or death. Hurricane Carter, the Central Park Five, and Rolando Cruz are examples of not only horrible policing, but dishonest prosecutors withholding information to get convictions and bolster their careers. Modern technology via the camera phone now allows citizens to capture incidents of police behaving badly – like Chicago cop Anthony Abbate. Therefore, it is really no surprise when protests erupted after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.
Although #BlackLivesMatter was used to bring attention to the Trayvon Martin case, after Michael Brown it became the clarion call for a movement. From the beginning, the Black Lives Matter movement has been bombarded with the omnipresent questions of, “What’s the plan and where is the leadership?” Will Black Lives Matter lead to a change in policing that punishes impunity of law enforcement? More importantly, who are the leaders of the movement? I reached out to BlackLivesMatter.com and Campaign Zero’s planning. I have not received a response. Commentator Ed Gordon said it best regarding the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March,
“I need it to be more than just another rally…Not enough has changed…No national plan or movement formed… No large coalition of men moving masses of males to live better lives…No real plan developed to improve the space that African-American men take up in our community…Twenty years in and a pledge to get brothers ‘straightened’ never came to fruition…Too many things have remained the same and in some cases worsen…I hope those who are spearheading the Black Lives Matter movement are listening. Let the history of this still significant day be a lesson on why a movement is only as good as its plan. Leadership never built on that momentum and little came of it nationally. With historical perspective, the expectations of what was to come were never met. We know how to gather and march and protest…But what will be different this time?”
Like many who want to help and be part of change, we are simply clueless as to the who, what, and where of the Black Lives Matter leadership. While researching Black Lives Matter, I came across Barbara Reynolds’ article. After reading the title and tagline I thought that I would concur with her. However, after delving into her article, I quickly begin to shake my head in dissent. Ms. Reynolds basically chides Black Lives Matter on three points: (1) sagging pants, lack of decorum, and profane rap music making it hard to differentiate “legitimate activists from mob actors;” (2) a perceived lack of respect for elders and not ceding the movement to elders, preferably Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson; and (3) a lack of spirituality and religious leadership that was present in the Civil Rights Movement. On the first point, every movement must deal with mob actors or others trying to hi-jack the movement. Occupy Wall Street had the same problem. That some of the young people listen to rap and wear sagging pants has nothing to do with the issues. It sounds like the argument police used to stop and frisk black men for wearing hoodies. It is reminiscent of the defense Zimmerman used for thinking Trayvon Martin was threatening and dangerous. Wearing a suit did not prevent Civil Rights protesters from getting water hosed and chased by police dogs.
On her second point of ceding leadership, I dissent wholeheartedly. I am a proud Chicagoan, born and raised. My city has an infamous history of political corruption. I believe mentorship of sage elders is always a good thing. However, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are not the likes of Julian Bond, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, Louis Stokes or Eugene Pincham. The latter mentored and trained young people. I trust that if Jesse is involved that it will translate into financial gain for his progeny, but not our community at large. Remember when his representation of black beer distributors resulted in his sons getting a distributorship from Anheuser Busch? If it were up to Jesse and the old Chicago political machine , Barack Obama would not be POTUS. Recall Jesse’s infamous outburst on a conservative news outlet? I am new to NYC so I cannot speak to Al Sharpton, except I trust him as much as Jesse. Instead of elders being a Gandalf to the young people via mentorship and each one teach one, they were like Denethor, the steward of Gondor who used the position for his family’s ascension. Barbara Cole, a 77-year-old St. Louis native, told Vice magazine that she felt “a sense of culpability as she prepares to pass the torch on to a generation struggling with the same racial tension that’s been simmering in the US since she was born. ‘In my generation we should have corrected this and we didn’t, so I’m kind of on a guilt trip.’” If the only elders that can provide leadership to the Black Lives Matter movement are Al and Jesse, respectfully decline.
Regarding her third point of spirituality, the South Carolina shooting at Ebenezer is different. The bad actor was a citizen, not a police officer. Forgiving an individual is different from an entire system that profits from over policing in our community. The church leadership Ms. Reynolds mentions from the 1950s is no longer present. There are churches on every corner, but that has not changed anything. If churches are fulfilling the mission of tending to the widowed, fatherless, and unfortunate in their communities, then surely there would be measurable change. “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you? I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” This is the cry of black youth to churches. The future of the black church and churches in general is at a crossroads. Regardless of whether or not a church supports Black Lives Matter, human lives are at stake (citizens and officers). Even Occupy Wall Street had church support. Could not a prayer vigil by religious leaders praying for mildness to govern turn the tide of protests that led to injury? But as the prophet said, “I looked for someone among them to stand in the gap on behalf of the land and there was no one.”
The lawyer in me knows that our criminal justice system is flawed. It is punitive and cares little about rehabilitation. If you are innocent and trapped in the long arms of an unjust cop or prosecutor, get a good lawyer because innocent until proven guilty is a myth. Prisons are big business in the United States and people business is good! Mandatory minimums and longer sentences makes for huge profits. Have we forgotten about the judge that took money from private prisons to send juveniles away? As stated in Fanshen, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unbridled police actions breeds impunity. Brutality protected by police code of silence culture spawns public mistrust of those that are supposed to serve and protect. Officer Friendly has been replaced by “officer slam.”
In order for Black Lives Matter to have longevity and succeed where other movements failed, they need a threefold cord that is not easily broken consisting of: academia, experienced organizations (civic and religious), conjoined with the strength of their youth and grasp of the power of social media. The problem is that academia and old guard organizations like the NAACP have failed to connect with the youth. Academia and the old guard need to understand their role as support, encourager, and facilitator because the reality is that the young people are on the front line getting pepper sprayed and arrested. Black Lives Matter chapters need the same number of protesters to be at the voting booth in order for politicians to make their agenda a priority. Unfortunately, in Ferguson, after all of the protesting, voter turnout was disappointing.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope for leadership that could be replicated for continued momentum and measurable success. Enter attorney, law professor, and Minneapolis NAACP president, Nekima Levy Pounds. Attorney Levy Pounds is also the founder and director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic at University of St. Thomas Law School. Would Minneapolis be like Dr. King’s Selma – proving ground of a movement’s longevity and impact on a nation? While much attention has been focused on major cities, Attorney Levy Pounds has been addressing issues, proposing solutions, and on the frontline to rectify inequity within the criminal justice system, education, housing, and policy. From standing her ground against Oath Keepers in Ferguson while a legal observer, to justice for Marcus Abrams, the Mall of America protests, to Jamar Clark, Nekima has been on the front lines risking her life and fighting to protect the civil rights of protesters. As NAACP president, she challenged the Minneapolis School District’s contract with Reading Horizons who supplied racist text books to Minneapolis public schools. She was recently arrested while marching on I-94 protesting the lack of information from law enforcement and the city regarding the details of Jamar Clark’s death.
I attended law school with Nekima. Recently, we connected via social media and when I followed her I thought, “She has a plan!” I reached out to Nekima for an interview. She became involved with Black Lives Matter after seeing what was happening in Ferguson. Nekima stated that she was, “Compelled to see for myself and worried about the people because the powers that be made the decision to announce late at night by design.” She contacted the National Lawyers Guild and became a Legal Observer. She went with other legal observers to Ferguson shortly before Thanksgiving. On her first night in Ferguson, she was tear gassed. Nekima said, “Police came and sprayed everyone nearby like roaches. Although I wore a paint gas mask, for over 15 minutes I couldn’t breathe or see. This opened my eyes to the reality of the militarization of law enforcement.” Upon her arrival in Ferguson, a group of black teenagers warned not to walk towards downtown where protests centered near the police and fire stations because there were guys on rooftops with rifles threatening to shoot. Nekima noted that “if these [Oath Keepers] were black men, no way Ferguson would allow.” Nekima confronted one Oath Keeper sniper saying, “This is not dope protecting businesses that don’t belong to you, putting property over people.” She was inspired and impressed that there were so many young people willing to make the sacrifice night after night during Thanksgiving with the possibility of arrest. She noted that cops would run into crowds of protesters, grab a person, and arrest them. There were some elders, but the majority of protesters were mainly young people.
After returning from Ferguson, a group of young people in Minneapolis reached out to her asking for help to start a Minneapolis Black Lives Matter chapter. They organized and held the first march to shut down the I-35 Freeway. Nekima said, “Before Ferguson, I would have said maybe no. After Ferguson, okay.” The young people had everything figured out and she was a participant. The plan was to march the freeway to city hall where there was a discussion on equity cuts to city programs. Minneapolis was selected as the 3rd worst place for blacks to live. After the march, city council put most of the money back in the budget.
The young people planned a Mall of America demonstration the Saturday before Christmas. Nekima restated, “Again before Ferguson, I would have said maybe not. After Ferguson, okay. When media requests came, the young people asked me to handle media requests and serve as a spokesperson on their behalf. It was at that time that I came to the attention of prosecutors.” Over three thousand people attended the demonstration, about 70% white. Around 25 people were arrested at the Mall that day by police in riot gear. Nekima said, “Originally 3-4 young organizers of color were targeted by prosecutors. When we said it was discrimination to single out 3-4, more people were added – whites and myself. I was charged with 8 misdemeanors. It was then that I decided that if they were going to charge me as an organizer, then I will become one.” As of November 10th, a judge dismissed all charges against Nekima and the other protesters that were arrested.
Why has Nekima been able to effectuate policy changes where other chapters have not? Nekima uses the law clinic, Community Justice Project, as a touch point and framework to address laws, policies, and practices that produce inequality. This is why she is a model for others to follow. She has successfully integrated academia, traditional civil rights organizations, and youth organizers to effectuate change or as she says, “be an agitator for justice.” Nekima’s scholarly work has been dedicated to these issues, specifically “over policing in communities of color due to the lack of input and power over what our economic structure looks like and the impacts of the war on drugs and mass incarceration on communities of color.” During the 90s “war on drugs” involving crack and cocaine, many blacks were incarcerated with long mandatory minimum sentences. A good percentage were addicts carrying small amounts. Rehab was not an option. However, with a rise in heroin cases among suburban middle class whites, there is a call for a gentler sentencing structure favoring rehab over incarceration. Guess what? Rehab it is. Talk about disparate treatment!
Nekima also focuses on education because the school to prison pipeline is a reality. She notes, “There is a correlation between literacy and incarceration. The assumption is that by 3rd grade a child is a fluid reader. If not, it is difficult from then on. The child falls behinds and drops out which opens the door to adult involvement in criminal justice. Not to mention that 50% of those incarcerated have some mental health or cognitive issues. Prison is the de facto place for people with mental health issues.” After doing some researched, I found that kids as young as 6 are being arrested for tantrums – most have special needs or disabilities. Children and teens are arrested for not having hall passes, throwing a snowball, joking, farting, passing love notes, and violation of uniform code by not wearing a belt.
Zero tolerance policies were introduced by former President George H.W. Bush for the war on drugs and adopted by schools. Nekima noted that “schools have become a microcosm of mass incarceration” with cops in school as disciplinarians instead of educators. In addition to suspension, 5th graders can be arrested and charged with assault and battery for a school fight. This goes on the child’s permanent record. Something as simple as throwing a spit ball can result in a disorderly conduct charge. “All of this leads to a deeper divide in the type of education received and provided to school in our communities and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.” A recent study showed that this disparately impacts black girls who are punished greater than boys, black or white.
Nekima is not solely focused on police officers. “Prosecutors play a huge role in how the system works for good or evil because the prosecutor has discretion on whether to bring charges.” For example, one young person arrested for allegedly organizing the Mall of America demonstration had her housing apartment application rejected due to the charges on her record. She explained that she was charged for engaging in civil disobedience and had not been convicted, charges were recently dismissed. Unfortunately, the landlord had a “no tolerance policy” and would not accept her housing application. She had no previous record and could not get housing. Nekima states, “Many folks were shocked to see how collateral consequences impact even those with minor criminal charges, and not just those who are convicted of crimes.”
Nekima commented that prosecutors rely on grand juries as a tactic because grand juries are not required to indict police officers in brutality cases in many jurisdictions. “It is a tactic used by prosecutors to insulate them from directly making a decision. ‘A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor tell them.’ It is easy to get an indictment or no indictment based on the prosecutor’s prerogative. Prosecutors use the grand jury as a “bait and switch” to avoid prosecuting law enforcement.” Federal cases require a grand jury for certain felony charges. However, most states do not have a grand jury mandate. Prosecutors use the grand jury and only seek indictments on 1st degree murder, charges hard to stick, when they could easily get an indictment on lesser charges of manslaughter (voluntary or involuntary).
I asked Nekima to address people who counter the Black Lives Matter movement with the black on black crime argument. She responded:
For people that respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with black on black crime, that is a separate and distinct issue. BLM is about states holding law enforcement accountable for misuse of powers and authority. When it comes to police brutality and violence by police, it is highly unlikely they will be held accountable. That is the hypocrisy of how the law functions and operates. The high rates of homicide in poor black communities is a by-product of inequality, lack of opportunity, suicide, genocide and lack of economic justice. If a black person commits homicide against another black person, he will be held accountable under the law and have a trial. Even the “black on black crime” argument as a counter to BLM is flawed. 80% of white people killed are by other white people, but it’s never brought up or made like there is a special “pathology” within the white community like they do for black people. Whites killing whites is an indictment against the individual not the community at large. That is not true for blacks. If a black person commits a crime, then there must be a certain pathology within the black community.
When I asked her to address All Lives Matters, she simply stated, “We are not denying every life matters. In theory, but reality, history, and laws show us otherwise. Black lives do not matter the same.”
Black Lives Matter needs a clear organizational structure so that average citizens know how they can become involved if they want to donate resources, be that food for protestors or professional services. However, the old guards of traditional civil rights organizations must be willing to partner with Black Lives Matter chapters. Academia via its social justice programs and legal clinics need to follow the example of Professor Levy Pounds and the University of St. Thomas to be a touchpoint and resource, especially in light of Mizzou and Yale. Professor Levy Pounds’ work with the law school’s civil rights clinic and the local NAACP is exactly the type of support that infuses Black Lives Matter organizers with resources and the benefit of seasoned elders to open doors at political tables that are otherwise closed. Likewise, chapters need to make sure members and protesters are registered voters that show up in equal numbers at the voting booth, such that politicians cannot simply ignore them as another movement that will fade into the dust. Minneapolis is this generation’s Selma. Let’s see if others are watching and taking note.
Photo Credit: Chris Juhn Photography