Reforming police, 1969

In July, 1969, Jules Siegel interviewed several Black Panthers for an article he was writing. The Panthers he spoke to talked quite a bit about a topic that has been very much in the news over the past year — reforming the police. Field Marshal “D.C.” [Donald Cox] of the Black Panthers laid out the fundamental problem:

“It has been called police brutality. It’s a matter of educating people to the fact that yes, it’s brutal, but the term for it is fascism. Black people already know, because they’ve lived under fascist terror ever since we’ve been in this country. Fascism is the police running amok in the black community.”

“Poison,” a field lieutenant from the Chicago Black Panthers, outlined the Panthers’ solution — community control of police:

“Lots of people don’t understand what community control means. It means giving the people a voice. Right now they have no voice because it is a centralist form of government. Community control of the police doesn’t mean that the community would take over the present pig [i.e., police] department. It means that people will have people from within that community policing that community. If one of these police would commit a crime against the people, he [sic] would have to come home at night. It’s a hard thing to go home if you’ve committed a crime against your own people. Before you commit that crime, you begin to think.”

It’s also important to note that Field Marshal D.C. asserted that the fascism of the police was not rooted in race and racism per se:

“It’s in the interest of the power structure to propagate the idea that it’s a race struggle rather than a class struggle. As long as they can keep people divided into ethnic groups, the masses are not going to join together to form a united front against the exploiter who is oppressing everyone.”

In short, the Panthers saw that the real problem was not the police, but the power structure that the police represented.

The Black Panthers had many problems, including rampant sexism. But I still find much of their vision for society compelling. They saw that U.S. capitalism was upheld by a form of fascism, and that police brutality was one manifestation of that fascism. They wanted to wrest social control away from “the oppressor,” and put that control back in the hands of the people. And they combined grand theory with practical action: by July, 1969, the Panthers’ “Breakfast for Children” program was feeding 50,000 children a week across the U.S. In spite of their flaws, theirs was a grand vision for a more just and egalitarian society. This vision provides a necessary context for their proposals for police reform.

A screen grab from a National Archives video of the Black Panthers, c. 1966-1969, showing Party leader Kathleen Cleaver (?) speaking at Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland.

Notes: Interview excerpts from “The Black Panthers” by Jules Siegel, from his book Record (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books/Rolling Stone, 1972). More about the Black Panther Party at the National Archives, including vintage video footage, and brief biographies of prominent women Panthers.

Black Wall Streets

The centennial of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street,” has got me thinking about other Black Wall Streets that once existed in the U.S. — places where black entrepreneurs could find success more easily, places where African Americans could accumulate wealth. What happened to them?

Richmond, Virginia, had Jackson Ward, another Black Wall Street, a locus for black-owned businesses. In the 1950s, urban renewal — a turnpike cut through the middle of the neighborhood — was a major factor in destroying Jackson Ward as an economic center.

The Hayti neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, is considered a Black Wall Street. Although much of the financial growth was driven by a couple of large black-owned businesses, the neighborhood launched a significant number of African Americans into the middle class. In the 1960s, it was destroyed by an urban renewal scheme.

The Fifteenth Ward of Syracuse, N.Y., was a Black Wall Street. Guess what killed off the Fifteenth Ward? If you guessed “urban renewal,” you guessed correctly.

What killed these Black Wall Streets? White mob violence (with the connivance of local government and even the National Guard) in Tulsa — government-decreed urban renewal in Richmond and Durham. The methods might have changed, but the outcome was the same, thus demonstrating yet again that capitalism in the U.S. gives preference to certain classes of people, while blocking others from achieving wealth through entrepreneurship.

In a number of places, local groups are starting their own initiatives to promote black entrepreneurship. I did quick Web search and turned up Black Wall Street organizations in St. Louis, Mo., Asheville, N.C., and Kalamazoo, Mich. There are other organizations that don’t use the “Black Wall Street” name, but promote a similar ethic, such as Black-Owned Brooklyn.

Many of us are skeptical of capitalism these days; there’s a growing suspicion that systemic racism may actually be a core part of capitalism’s feature set. Nevertheless, capitalism and entrepreneurship are just about the only way to get into the middle class these days. That being the case, maybe the best way to memorialize the demise of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is to do business with local black-owned businesses.

Except that Amazon has eviscerated local retail business, Big Tech is degrading local businesses into the gig economy, banking and insurance and manufacturing are dominated by huge multinational white-owned companies which have destroyed local businesses…the methods keep changing, but somehow many African Americans still find themselves shut out of the middle class. As Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie puts it in her poem “Global Warming Blues”:

seem like for Big Men’s living
little folks has got to die.

Why some white people need to worry about U.S. policing

I recently finished reading Howard Zinn’s memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. In the chapter “Growing Up Class Conscious,” Zinn talks about going to his first political demonstration in Times Square, New York City, when he was in his late teens:

“In the midst of the crowd, banners were unfurled, and people, perhaps a thousand or more, formed into lines carrying banners and signs and chanting slogans about peace and justice and a dozen other causes of the day. I was exciting. And non-threatening….”

Except that expressing such political ideas was not exactly non-threatening to the powers-that-be:

“We heard the sound of sirens and I thought there must be a fire somewhere, and accident of some kind. But then I heard screams and saw hundreds of policemen, mounted on horses and on foot, charging into the lines of marchers, smashing people with their clubs. I was astonished, bewildered. This was America, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear.”

Zinn quickly learned that the freedom to assemble and demonstrate without fear is not actually a right for working class whites:

“As I absorbed all this, as my thoughts raced, all in a few seconds, I was spun around by a very large man, who seized my shoulder and hit me very hard. I only saw him as a blur. I didn’t know if it was a club or a fist or a blackjack, but I was knocked unconscious.”

This was a key moment in Zinn’s political awakening:

“Those young Communist on the block [where Zinn lived] were right! The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful.”

U.S. Communists were wrong about a number of things, including the Soviet Union, but they were absolutely right about the police and the state. No wonder Communism was made functionally illegal in the U.S. during the 1950s, just a few years after Zinn’s political awakening.

We’re seeing this play out in Congress right now. The people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 did so at the behest of the rich and powerful. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed a bipartisan inquiry into the storming of the Capitol, but the majority of Republicans in the House voted against it. (Not that I trust the Democrats to institute an objective inquiry — they too are the rich and powerful, and their goal is mostly to score political points off their equally rich and powerful rivals.) My liberal and progressive friends like to say: if the people who stormed the Capitol had been black, they would have been stopped pretty quickly. But it’s equally true that if the people who stormed the Capitol had been working class whites, or homeless people, or Communists, they would have been stopped just as quickly.

If you’re an upper middle class white person — these days, that means a white person with a college degree — you probably don’t have worry about police. But three quarters of white people in the U.S. are not upper middle class. True, they don’t have to worry about policing in the same way as non-white people — but as Howard Zinn discovered in the late 1940s, the police are most definitely not on their side.

One final, obvious, point: the problem does not lie with individual police officers. The police officers I’ve know, and know, are courageous, kind, and dedicated public servants. The rich and powerful would love for us to believe that the problem can be solved by disciplining individual police officers. But the problem can only be solved when the state no longer protects the rich and powerful at the expense of non-white and working class people.

A divided nation

The United States is divided so badly that it’s hard to believe. My liberal and progressive friends blame it all on the Republicans. Not surprisingly, the conservatives blame it all on the liberals. No one seems to listen to anyone but the people they agree with any more.

I’ve been blaming this unhealthy division on social media. But in his new book How Rights Went Wrong, Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia Law School, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court, and lower courts, are also to blame:

“…The job of the courts in a pluralistic democracy isn’t to please their base. It’s to work to resolve conflicts, to ratchet them down rather than up. Courts should be reminding us of what we have in common. They should be granting just enough constitutional leverage on each side that we have no choice but to sit down across from each other at the table, to look each other in the eye, and to speak to each other….” How Rights Went Wrong: : Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), p. 163

Instead, Supreme Court decisions have become a zero-sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. Rather than trying to work people we disagree with, to find some common ground, we just want to eliminate them. As a result, progressives now hope that some of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court will die so Joe Biden can appoint some more progressive justices. Conversely, conservatives hope that the conservative justices can live another four years.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are supposed to support the democratic process in our congregations, and in society at large. But these days, most Unitarian Universalists have unthinkingly bought into the anti-democratic notion that Supreme Court decisions are a zero-sum game. Maybe it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to reflect seriously on Jamal Greene’s thoughts — maybe we need to stop hoping that conservative Supreme Court justices will die, and start thinking about how to strengthen democracy.

Anti-racism failure in a liberal college

My Philadelphia cousin sent me a link to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer he thought I might find interesting: “Haverford College students launched a strike last fall after a racial reckoning. The impact still lingers”:

“In 1972 … [Haverford’s] Black Student League announced a boycott of campus activities over institutional racism. … Fast forward nearly 50 years: A 2018-19 campus report found that Black and Latino students at Haverford were less likely to feel they had meaningful social interactions on campus and that their academics were well-supported.”

That’s the college where I took my undergraduate degree in 1983. Reading this article makes it look like one thing hasn’t changed since 1983: the student body is still overwhelmingly white. Another hasn’t changed: in spite of its woke rhetoric, Haverford College still hasn’t confronted the systemic racism that was painfully obvious decades ago ago when I was a student.

Sadly, this is probably true of many of the so-called elite liberal arts colleges. As Haverford student Rasaaq Shittu put it in an op-ed piece published in The Inquirer back in July: “Primarily white, outwardly liberal institutions like Haverford have such a long history of talking the talk without living up to it.” Which is another thing that hasn’t changed since my day. No wonder non-white students called for a two-week student strike last fall to protest the systemic racism at Haverford.

However, one thing that has changed since my day is the cost of an education at one of these elite liberal arts colleges. Today’s students at Haverford pay an astonishing $75,000 per year for tuition, room, and board. When I was there, the inflation-adjusted cost was about $17,000 per year, so the inflation-adjusted cost has quadrupled. Thus while I completely agree with the goals of the student strike, I did not agree with one of the strike strategies. The strike organizers asked students to miss two weeks of class, and also to stop eating at the dining center for two weeks, and also to stop working at their campus jobs. If that strike had happened in my day, I wonder if I could have afforded to participate.

And maybe this reveals that another thing has not changed since my time as a student in an elite liberal arts college: as elite institutions, these colleges are pervaded with both racism and classism. Compare the Haverford strike with the Black Panthers, who provided both food and shelter for people in their organization. Or compare the Haverford strike with unions which build up a strike fund so they can give financial assistance to striking workers. This lack of awareness on the part of strike organizers about the financial realities of less affluent students demonstrates the enduring classism of elite liberal arts colleges like Haverford College. Since all oppressions are linked (as we used to say back in my radical days), we should not be surprised that an institution pervaded by unacknowledged racism is also pervaded by unacknowledged classism.

One conclusion: For those of you looking for a college to attend, be wary of elite liberal arts colleges. Very wary. Instead, try looking at community colleges and state university systems, where you can often get excellent teaching (from professors with degrees from excellent graduate schools), in company with a far more diverse student body (from whom you will learn more than from a heterogenous student body), for a hell of a lot less money.

And I will freely admit my bias: My older sister, who is an excellent teacher (I’ve observed her in the classroom and her pedagogical skills are superior to any of my Haverford professors), teaches in a branch campus of Indiana University. Well, maybe that’s not bias, maybe that’s just first-hand information.

Verdict

I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved that the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial took less than a day to reach a verdict of guilty on all counts. This was such a clearcut case of murder.

But you know Chauvain will appeal the verdict. And there are three more people facing charges in George Floyd’s murder. And there are so many more cases like this out there. This verdict is not the end of the story.

A history of UU clergy sexual misconduct

Loré Stevens won the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society’s History Research Prize for Future Leaders this year. The title of her paper was “‘Strong at the Broken Places’: A History of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, 1992-2019.” Some of my readers will remember that during the time from 1992 to 2019, instances of clergy misconduct were uncovered at the Nashville UU congregation.

Now Deborah Pope-Lance has gotten permission to host this paper on her Web site, here — you’ll have to scroll down past some other papers and essays on clergy sexual misconduct to find the link.

Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about the history of U.S. Unitarian Universalism in the past 25 years, or for anyone interested in the recent history of feminism in religion. If you think Unitarian Universalism has made lots of progress in becoming a feminist movement, you’ll be depressed by this paper. On the other hand, if you’re one of those who (like me) has been incredibly frustrated at how little attention has been paid to the intertwined issues of sexism, patriarchy, and clergy misconduct with Unitarian Universalism, you’ll be relieved to read this exposé of the abuse of power by male clergy and how influential and powerful people within Unitarian Universalism have covered it up.

I’d even say I was delighted to read this paper, not because I’m delighted by clergy misconduct, but because I’m delighted that this subject is finally getting the attention it deserves from historians and others. Thank you, Loré Stevens. Thank you, UUHHS. Thank you, Deborah Pope-Lance for hosting this paper online.

Scholar strike for racial injustice

A bunch of U.S. professors and scholars will stop teaching and attending to routine meetings today and tomorrow, in order to have a sort of “teach-in” about racial injustice in America. On the blog of Academe magazine, Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon write:

“Scholar Strike is both an action, and a teach-in. Some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America. In the tradition of the teach-ins of the 1960s, we are going to spend September 8–9 doing YouTube ten-minute teach-ins, accessible to everyone, and a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share information about racism, policing, mass incarceration, and other issues of racial injustice in America.” Link to full blog post.

It was Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at UPenn, who started the whole thing with a tweet towards the end of August. I’ve been interested in her work for a while now: she keeps getting quoted in news stories I read, and she’s got a book coming out in the spring, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, that I’m looking forward to reading.

Butler and Gannon also acknowledge that many, perhaps most, scholars working in academia, will not be able to participate in the strike:

“We are also acutely aware of the precarity of most college faculty; many of our colleagues hold positions in which they cannot step away from their duties for a day or two, or are covered under collective bargaining agreements. It might seem odd to think of college faculty as “workers,” but the stereotype of the fat-cat tenured professor is not an accurate one. Indeed, 75 percent of all credit hours in US colleges and universities are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty, who not only lack the protections and benefits of full-time faculty, but are employed on a class-by-class, term-by-term basis. Even those of us in more secure positions still work on campuses where fiscal crises and a pandemic have combined to make everyone’s employment status precarious….”

And of course it’s a challenge to do this kind of teach-in when many students aren’t even on campus due to COVID — and of course, distance learning was already becoming the norm for many colleges and graduates schools, since distance learning is so much less expensive for the administrators to operate. Nor is it a coincidence that distance learning also makes it much harder to fan the flames of discontent among students.

Follow the strike live:
Scholar Strike Web site
Scholar Strike Youtube channel
Scholar Strike Facebook page
Twitter hashtag #ScholarStrike
Canadian Scholar Strike
News stories:
Inside Higher Ed article
Religion News Service article (emphasizes religion and theology scholars)

Click on the logo above to head to the Scholar Strike Web site.

“My religion is humanity…”

Alice Locke Park, pacifist and early feminist, was a member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto from 1907 to 1920. Alice resigned from the church in 1920 in protest of the way some people in the church supported the the First World War; she was probably referring to people like Rev. Bradley Gilman and George Fullerton Evans, both of them saber-rattlers who spouted pro-war “propaganda” (in the words of another pacifist in that congregation). She later joined the Quakers. But she was a Unitarian for 13 years, and some of her writings seem to me to encapsulate a very contemporary Unitarian Universalist worldview—like this statement:

My religion is humanity—humanitarianism—confident that the present time is all that we are sure of, and [that] our duty, our progress and our usefulness are all here and now—If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now—we are at least sure of immediate results. My religion is boundless—Nothing human is alien to me. [quoted in Eunice Eichelberger, “‘Hearts Brimming with Patriotism,’” ed. Robert W. Cherny, California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, Univ. Neb. Press, 2011, pp. 321-332.]

I think this would make a good responsive reading, if you arranged it something like this:

My religion is humanity—humanitarianism—

Confident that the present time is all that we are sure of, and that our duty, our progress, and our usefulness are all here and now—

If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now, we are at least sure of immediate results.

My religion is boundless—Nothing human is alien to me.

Not that this is some final definition of religion, some kind of dogma. By the end of his life, my father had become such a strong environmentalist that he refused to call himself a humanist any more, and I can imagine his criticisms of this reading. Nevertheless, the call to action and the appeal to a wide humanitarianism should be pleasing (if not definitive) to most.

Where the battle will be fought

All praise to the protesters. I didn’t go to any anti-racism protests myself, because I’m in a higher risk group for COVID-19, but the world-wide protests have brought anti-black racism and unjust policing practices to world consciousness.

But now comes the hard part: working at the local level to end unjust policing practices. This is going to be hard because we’re all going to have to dig into the messy details of local politics.

For example:

Last night, I received an emergency email from the San Mateo branch of the NAACP. Someone discocvered an unpleasant surprise in the agenda of today’s meeting of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Rev. Lorrie Owens, president of the San Mateo branch, writes:

“The Board will be voting on a resolution to approve the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget, which includes an item we are vehemently against. Last month, at the 05/05/2020 Board of Supervisors Meeting, the supervisors vote to waive the Request for Proposal process to allow for an expenditure of not to exceed $922,110.83 to purchase 310 new Tasers for Axon Enterprise, Inc.”

In other words, the Board of Supervisors is going to budget nearly a million dollars to buy a weapon that has been used disproportionately on people of color, and is linked to unjust policing practices. And the Board is doing this in the face of an impending budget crisis brought on by the massive economic crisis we’re facing.

Well, I submitted a comment to the Board, although I read the NAACP email too late and missed the deadline for public comments. Yet I’m sure there will be plenty of NAACP members who submitted timely comments, and whowill be able to attend the online meeting, and speak against this unjust and fiscally irresponsible budget item.

But my real point is this: the policies that result in unjust policing are rooted in this kind of obscure local politics. The decisions to militarize the police, to authorize the police to use disproportionate force, don’t get made by police chiefs or police officers. These decisions get made by local officials, often in the form of budget priorities. Most of these local officials mean well, but their actions receive little scrutiny by us voters.

In other words, the responsibility of us voters goes beyond voting once a year in general elections. We also have to watch over local officials throughout the year. And if you don’t have the time or expertise to dig into county budget details (I know I don’t), then you join an organization that you trust to do that digging for you.

If you’re healthy enough to go to protests, by all means go. But anyone who cares about anti-racism and unjust policing also has to commit to being involved in local politics. And, based on my experience, joining your local branch of the NAACP is a good place to start influencing local politics.