I have been reminded repeatedly over the last several months in watching the tragic events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and all across this country—laws without justice are meaningless. Throughout our history, we have experienced the debilitating effects of laws being written to lock us out of access to opportunity; the ability to be paid for our labor; and to criminalize our blackness.
Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
We are tired of our black boys and men, and even our women and girls, being slain at the hands of police officers, security guards, or vigilantes, with little accountability to boot. This sense of fatigue and exasperation with the status quo is reminiscent of the seeds that sparked the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and after much marching, protesting, and bloodshed, prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s prophetic letter was written in response to 8 white clergymen who implored the protesters to stop demonstrating and disrupting “business as usual.” King responded by saying, we cannot and we will not wait for justice and freedom and rights we are entitled to under the Constitution.
We are Not Satisified with the Status Quo
That same spirit of discontent with the status quo and the unequal treatment of African- Americans under the law is what has birthed the national movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. This movement resulted from young people of color deciding that they could no longer tolerate the gross injustices within our systems and the high tolerance for police abuse and misconduct happening throughout the country. Much like protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, participants of #BlackLivesMatter, have stood on the front lines braving arrests, police violence, surveillance, chemical weapons, and hostility from those who are comfortable with the status quo. Yet, even in the face of such adversity, the young people have demonstrated remarkable courage to continue standing, marching, and fighting for our freedom. They are standing on the right side of history.
Here in Minnesota, young people came together under the banner of #BlackLivesMpls and began organizing events in solidarity with protesters around the country. In spite of Minnesota’s reputation as being “liberal and progressive,” our state has some of the worst racial disparities in the country across health, wealth, education, employment, infant mortality rates, home ownership, and criminal justice. And we are not immune from problems between police and communities of color, with some of our most racially diverse areas experiencing high rates of racial profiling, unjust arrests, and excessive force, with little political will to address these issues. It is a national embarrassment. Yet, rather than act with fierce urgency to reverse course; we remain in a state of “donothingness” as things grow worse for our most vulnerable populations.
Photo of Taye taken at Mall of America Demonstration
In light of these concerns, #BlackLivesMpls organized a nonviolent, peaceful demonstration at the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, one of the most visible locations in the country. On December 20, 2014, 3,000 people from all walks of life descended upon MOA to sing, chant, and to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Rather than welcome the demonstrators into MOA, we were met by police in riot gear. In spite of the demonstration being peaceful, roughly two dozen people were arrested, stores were shut down by mall security and police, and exits were sealed. What started as a demonstration of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” became a reminder of what Dr. King warned could destroy our nation: The triple giants of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. All three of those giants were present that day at MOA and they set out to crush the spirits of “the little guy.”
Political Prosecutions as Retaliation
In the aftermath of the demonstration, the Bloomington City Attorney, Sandra Johnson, spoke to the media about wanting to “make an example” out of the protest organizers, and that she would not only bring criminal charges, but would seek “reparations” for the cost of overtime police and security. To the average person, Sandra Johnson’s misuse of prosecutorial discretion to “punish” protest organizers is disturbing, to say the least. Two days ago, she decided to charge ten “leaders” of the demonstration with misdemeanor counts ranging from disorderly conduct, to trespass, to public nuisance, and she is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in “reparations.” Much to my surprise, I was one of the ten people who were charged. Not only was I charged, despite being a civil rights lawyer, I was one of two people with the most charges, eight misdemeanor counts in fact. I can’t help but think that my outspokenness on issues such as police accountability and calls for reform played a role in Ms. Johnson’s decision to bring charges against me in an attempt to publicly humiliate me, to silence my voice, and to curb my advocacy for justice. Even my home address was included in the complaint, with no regard for the safety of my children and family in making such a public disclosure. This amounts to political persecution and is a gross misuse of prosecutorial discretion and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Thankfully, these intimidation tactics will not be effective in shutting down our movement. Our voices will only grow stronger in the process.
We are in a Metaphorical Jail
Although neither of the ten of us were charged physically went to jail for our alleged “crimes”, in many ways, it feels as though we are locked in a metaphorical jail for our willingness to stand up for justice and equality. I posit, the metaphorical ‘Bloomington Jail’ to which we have been sentenced is a microcosm of the condition of confinement in which African Americans are subjected to in the state of Minnesota and in many places around the country due to barriers at the intersections of race, criminal justice, and socio-economic status. We can’t breathe because of the persistence of racial inequality and oppression. We can’t breathe because of the constant denial of our basic human rights and human dignity. We can’t breathe when we are being told to just sit back and tolerate these deplorable conditions. We must decide that it is time to break free from our metaphorical Bloomington jail cells and demand equal justice and equal treatment under the law, just as Dr. King and others did during the Civil Rights Movement.
I applaud the young people across the country and in Minnesota who remain steadfast in declaring that #BlackLivesMatter and who refuse to give up. I urge them to continue the fight until our change comes. And the rest of us must join them. That’s what Dr. King would have wanted and that’s how we can really honor his legacy. All else is but a shallow, anemic celebration of his life.
Here we go again
It feels like déjà vu. Just last week we learned that Darren Wilson, the cop who killed Mike Brown, would not be indicted by a grand jury for causing the death of the unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. The decision by the grand jury to not indict in that matter spurred uprisings and protests in Ferguson and across the nation. Not only did protesters take to the streets, but they took to the malls and social media to declare a nationwide #boycottblackfriday movement, also called #handsupdontshop.
Photo Credit: Kafahni Nkrumah, Protests in Ferguson, Missouri
Even video evidence is not enough
Many across the nation were still mourning the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, when suddenly the news hit yesterday that the officer responsible for the death of another unarmed black man in New York, Eric Garner, would also fail to be indicted by a grand jury. This decision sparked massive protests in New York. What was particularly shocking about the grand jury's decision to not indict the officer, who literally choked Eric Garner to death, was the fact that the entire episode was caught on video by a passerby. In the video, one can watch Eric Garner being accosted by multiple police officers for apparently selling cigarettes without a license, and ultimately placed in a chokehold and brought to the ground. In the scene, Garner repeatedly tells the officers that he cannot breathe. Rather than release him and administer CPR, Mr. Garner, a husband and father of six, is literally choked to death. It is beyond disturbing to witness this type of violence inflicted upon an unarmed man in broad daylight by police.
Is the state sanctioning the deaths of black men and boys?
Garner's death occurred in a rapid succession of multiple deaths of unarmed African American men and boys throughout the United States who died at the hands of law enforcement. In every instance to date, we have yet to see officers being held accountable for the deaths of these men and boys. Somehow, officers who kill unarmed men are able to escape prosecution and accountability for their actions. The message is literally being sent that the state will sanction the killing of these boys and men, without any serious repercussions, to boot. The families and communities that these men and boys leave behind are left to grieve and mourn and to wonder how a system that claims to be effective at rendering justice could miss the mark so obviously in the cases of the boys and men in question.
Danger of annihilation
As a black mother, civil rights attorney, and woman of faith, it literally feels as though black men are in danger of annihilation in American society and that laws are being misapplied in ways that cause a perversion of justice, rather than true justice. Something is terribly wrong in a society that can sit back and witness a death before our eyes on video and social media and then be told that the actions of the officer in question were justified under the law. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal."
Laws can be used to oppress
In the midst of the gross miscarriages of justice that are taking place across this country, there remains a nation that continues to be divided along racial and socio-economic lines. The laws and policies that have been established were grounded in a system of white supremacy. Yes, white supremacy. It is something that we do not like to talk about and yet it permeates nearly every aspect of society's major institutions, including the systems of justice, education, economics, and politics, to name a few. Since we have generally been taught revisionists' history in this country, we are often not aware of (or choose to forget) the ways in which our laws were used to oppress, denigrate, disenfranchise, punish, and execute those who represented marginalized racial and ethnic groups, along with poor whites; and to keep those groups on the bottom rungs of society's ladder.
The wealthy landholding class that had the power to create laws and shape policies for their own benefit is not unlike those who hold much of the power in today's society. In exchange for a few crumbs from their table, many of us have been enticed to remain silent in the face of oppression and at least semi-comfortable with the status quo. Our silence has been bought and paid for at a high price: Namely, the sacrifice of the lives of black men and boys, whose value we have been taught to diminish through constant brainwashing that says these men are criminals, less intelligent, and less than human.
A new system of slavery is born
The ongoing conditioning we are subjected to allows us to see their pain and suffering and to look the other way. This conditioning is similar to the ways in which the master class viewed those they enslaved, and even rationalized that they were less than human, or 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution. It is the same type of conditioning that caused the powers that be to enact the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that included language that purportedly abolished slavery, and yet kept the door open for enslavement through the criminal justice system. Indeed, the criminal laws were changed in most southern states following the end of chattel slavery in 1865 to make standard behavior by black men a crime. Since black men could no longer be legally sold as property, a new system built on the criminalization and racial stereotyping of these men was born. Thus, black men who were doing routine things like standing on the sidewalk, or were unemployed, or talking too loud, or spitting on the sidewalk, or hanging out at night, were subjected to criminal punishment, and in many cases breathed their last breath in the criminal justice system, due to the inhumane and unsanitary conditions they experienced.
In today's society, we are again witnessing the diabolical ways in which the criminal justice system is being used to enslave black men and boys through dehumanizing contacts with law enforcement, over-policing in poor communities of color, and the uneven application of laws in cases involving black men, such as low level drug arrests, vagrancy, loitering, spitting on sidewalks, or in Eric Garner's case, selling cigarettes without a license. Whether we are in the place to acknowledge it or not, history is repeating itself, and black men and boys once again face dehumanizing, abusive treatment, at the hands of some law enforcement officers, with very little hope of obtaining justice from those who oppress and abuse them.
Law without justice is meaningless
As someone who has studied the law and loves the law, I am cognizant of the fact that the law can be used to propagate good or evil. Further, I recognize that as important as law is to our society, without justice, it is meaningless.
"They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace." -Jeremiah 6:14 (NIV)
After learning that the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed teen Mike Brown, I felt like running in the streets and screaming at the top of my lungs. I was not surprised by the decision, and yet I longed for an outlet to demonstrate the rage that I felt in that moment, knowing that no black mother's son is safe from a similar fate in America. The problem is deep and it is systemic.
Irrational fear of black men
Our sons are perpetually typecast into a role that they unwittingly inherited as being evil, scary, large, dangerous, menacing, and "up to no good." This narrative has been used for centuries to justify slavery, untold violence, brutality, castrations, lynchings, beatings, and even death at the hands of those who exercise authority over the lives and livelihoods of African American men. The stereotyping and racial profiling that undergird this diabolical narrative are also used to justify the disproportionate rate of police contacts and incarceration that African American men experience. Indeed, statistics show that upwards of 40 percent of the more than 2.3 million people who are incarcerated are African American men, the majority of whom are poor.
Mass incarceration as a bi-product of injustice
Many of these men are incarcerated for lengthy periods of time for nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the War on Drugs that began in the mid-1980s. The War on Drugs was the precursor to the militarization of our police forces (as we have seen in Ferguson), increased spending on the criminal justice system, and an over-representation of law enforcement in our poorest communities across the country. It has also led to a ballooning of our criminal justice system, with an unprecedented number of men, women, and children experiencing incarceration. Sadly, the damage does not end there, as according to the Children's Defense Fund, an estimated 1 in 3 black boys born in 2001 are at risk of spending some portion of their lives behind bars.
Poor African Americans suffer daily indignities
The only way in which we can reasonably tolerate such injustices is because we have been conditioned to see black men as less than human, just as society did during the cruelness of slavery and the Jim Crow era, and to look the other way in the face of their suffering and oppression. The daily indignities experienced by black men, women, and children are made manifest in areas such as a lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment rates, inadequate access to education, criminalization of black children in the public school system, marginalization of poor blacks into ghettos, disparate health impacts, discrimination through financial systems and lending practices which help to maintain racial segregation, high incarceration rates, and negative media representations of African Americans.
The suffering that ensues from the denial of our basic human rights occurs under the noses of the average American citizen on a regular basis, and yet those concerns are not brought to the surface until a major incident happens, like the one in Ferguson, which exposes America's racial fault lines. These racial fault lines are like ghosts from the past; always present, always haunting, always reminding us that they exist to wreak havoc on the progress we think we are making. As is our custom, we have learned to bury these racial fault lines as soon as they surface, in the hopes that if we ignore them long enough, they will go away so that we may get back to 'business as usual.' This is folly. Where matters of justice are concerned, there is no place for 'business as usual.'
We're told 'peace', when there is no peace
In the midst of the daily harms and degradations African Americans face, we are told to remain peaceful and tolerant. This is a false sense of peace, used to comfort those who are comfortable. However, we face the fear that at any moment our children could be treated in a manner similar to Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Vonderrit Myers, Eric Garner, (the list goes on and on) and we know that the law may not protect them or hold their killers accountable. It is in this realization that many have taken to the streets in Ferguson to peacefully protest unjust laws and policies, while some have resorted to rioting (arguably exacerbated by the prosecutor's choice to announce the grand jury's decision late at night). As Dr. King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
We must root out racism
There is no escaping the fact that the majority of our systems and institutions throughout this country, including many of our churches, are built on a foundation of racial inequality and white superiority. Although we were not responsible for creating these systems, we do bear the responsibility for rooting out the racism that is embedded within them, and reconciling ourselves to the truth. Until we are able to engage deeply, painfully, and honestly about the roots of evil and hatred that permeate our institutions, systems, and in many cases our hearts, things will not change; they will only grow worse. Too many of us remain silent because we benefit from the way that things are structured, even though the foundation is like sinking sand.
This begs the question: How many more innocent lives must be sacrificed before we are willing to open our eyes to the truth and make the necessary changes? #blacklivesmatter
I wish I could say this headline is a joke, but sadly in the wake of an appalling news story by KSTP 5 last night, it is anything but funny. The news segment, entitled, “Minneapolis Mayor Flashes Gang Sign,” showed a photo of Mayor Hodges and a young black man supposedly throwing up a gang sign. In actuality, she and the young man were just pointing at each other. My eyes could not believe what I was seeing, but not for the reasons one may think. I could not believe that any credible news station in the Twin Cities would produce a segment like the one in question and attempt to pass it off as legitimate news. After the story aired, many in our community took to social media, with the hashtag #pointergate to express their outrage.
Don’t believe the hype
After processing the contents of the story, I thought about the tens of thousands of white Minnesotans who tuned into the news and were served a steady diet of racial stereotypes, innuendoes, and a false narrative about the Mayor and the young African American man standing beside her in the photo. For white Minnesotans who do not personally know any young African American men, it is all too easy to take the media’s word as absolute truth and embrace the negative racial stereotypes that are being perpetuated about the young man in the photo.
I had the privilege of meeting the young man in the photo several months ago at a community meeting. I learned that he has worked hard to reintegrate back into the community by being employed as a canvasser at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) for the past two years. This young man personally knocked on thousands of doors during the election season to help get out the vote and educate community residents about the impacts of felon disenfranchisement in Minnesota.
As a young black man with a criminal history, he has experienced numerous challenges in attempting to successfully reintegrate back into society. Many of those challenges have occurred in his interactions with law enforcement in Minneapolis. He has been handcuffed and detained for things like spitting on the sidewalk and even arrested at a Cub Foods store on the Northside for registering people to vote. Last weekend, this same young man was part of a larger effort to engage in door knocking with members of NOC, the Mayor, and Chief Harteau. The photo in question was taken briefly during that effort.
A Kafkaesque moment
Rather than celebrating the young man’s involvement in civic engagement, the media decided to replay an age-old narrative of stereotyping a young black man from the inner city and branding him as a gang member. Because of the Mayor’s willingness to reach into the community and build connections, she too, was labeled in a similar manner and accused of having gang affiliations. I posit, another reason the Mayor was targeted in the story is the fact that she has demonstrated courage by speaking publicly about much-needed reforms within the Minneapolis Police Department, including the body-cam pilot project that is being rolled out today. Resistance to change comes in many forms, and sadly this is one of the worst examples of such resistance. The young man in the photo was merely a convenient scapegoat for a larger agenda.
The constant portrayal of young black men as gangsters, thugs, and criminals can be seen nearly every night on the news or in newspapers in Minnesota and around the country. Undoubtedly these negative perceptions contributed to the untimely deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, and countless other victims. The daily replaying of the narrative of blackness as evil, dangerous, and in the case of Mayor Hodges, contagious, has a cumulative effect on the American psyche and permanently warps our perceptions of the “other.” Indeed, nary can many of us walk past a young African American man without a whole host of racial stereotypes, prejudices, and fears coming to the surface.
Negative perceptions of young black men influence laws and policies
One of the problems with negative perceptions of young black men is the fact that such views do not stay contained within individuals, but tend to influence our laws, policies, and our willingness to tolerate police abuse, harassment, and unjust arrests of this segment of the population. In essence, we become desensitized to the dehumanizing treatment of young black men and such treatment becomes par for the course. We forget to see them as real human beings who deserve to be welcomed into the human family and treated with the same level of dignity we have all come to expect. This should be the case even when someone has a criminal history and is looking to reintegrate back into society after paying his or her dues. (After all, 1 in 26 Minnesotans has a criminal history; and studies show that 95% of all prisoners will return home someday.) We cannot perpetually exclude and demonize people who have made their share of mistakes, just as many of us have made our share of mistakes, yet God’s grace has covered us.
We’ve got to fight the powers that be
As people who pride ourselves on being progressive, we must do a better job of building bridges and tearing down racial and socio-economic barriers. We must challenge narratives that constantly portray people of color as being suspicious, engaged in crime, “or up to no good.” We must hold our media outlets accountable for producing stories that are balanced, fair, accurate, and sensible. We must also be willing to use our voices to advocate on behalf of those who are made to feel as though they are outside the human family. Let us not despair. Instead, let us take action to change things for the better.
I know that we don't like to talk about it, but race still matters in Minnesota. Arguably, nowhere is that more evident than in the disparate outcomes between black and white students in Minneapolis Public Schools. When I express concerns about the intolerable racial disparities, typically there are four responses: 1) place blame on black parents and children; 2) express disinterest in the problem or remain silent; 3) defend the system at all costs; or 4) agree that there is in fact a crisis that needs to be urgently addressed. Although most folks that I encounter fall into categories 1, 2, and 3, or some hybrid of the above, I tend to gravitate more towards those who are brave enough to admit that serious problems exist and who are willing to lend their voices and social capital to speak publicly about these issues. Typically, these folks are not employed by the district, are not under contract with the district, and have some level of passion for social justice.
Time to challenge the status quo
Indeed, challenging the status quo is not easy, but it is necessary if we stand any chance of addressing the imbalances within the system and changing things for the better. Last month, numerous African American parents, children, and community members showed up at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters to challenge the District’s inequitable practices as seen on this short video.
When we begin to put our differences aside and critically examine the available data, it becomes apparent that there are structural biases built into the Minneapolis Public School system that tend to reinforce and exacerbate racial disparities. For one, a disproportionate number of Minneapolis Public Schools are racially segregated, with a high concentration of children who receive free and reduced lunch. Within such schools, children are often taught by teachers with less experience and lower levels of educational attainment than their white counterparts at more affluent schools. It is not a stretch to surmise that students in most circumstances benefit from being taught by teachers with more experience and higher credentials. (Recent articles also show that poor students of color are also more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers, further compounding the problems, as shown here and here).
Are schools on the Northside being short-changed?
Assuming that premise holds true, if would not be unusual for a school district to want to assign its most experienced and highly credentialed teachers to the schools with the highest need for support in increasing academic proficiency for students. Yet for some reason, in Minneapolis Public Schools, that is not the case. The schools that seem to have the highest percentages of African American students and the lowest rates of proficiency in reading, math, and science, are provided with less experienced teachers on average than their white counterparts. Case in point, I searched MDE's (Minnesota Department of Education) website and took a look at the section called School Report Card. I looked at two schools that had high rates of African American students and high rates of students who receive free and reduced lunch: Namely, Lucy Laney and Bethune. I then compared a few key statistics from those two schools with Lake Harriet and Barton, two schools with higher percentages of white students and significantly fewer students receiving free and reduced lunch.
Here's what I found: Lucy Laney's student population is 88% black with 98% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. In terms of proficiency rates, only 8.7% of students are proficient in Reading, 12.9% are proficient in Math, and 5.7% are proficient in Science. (Yes, you read those statistics correctly). 35% of the teachers have been teaching for less than three years and 33% have a Master's degree.
Similarly, at Bethune, 85.8% of students are black with 100% of the students receiving free and reduced lunch. 10.5% of students are proficient in Reading; while 17% are proficient in Math; and 4.8% are proficient in Science. (And yes, you read those statistics correctly as well). 31% of teachers have been teaching for less than three years, while 47% have a Master's degree.
By comparison, Lake Harriet Lower Elementary School, a crown jewel of MPS, boasts a population that is 88.5% white and 7.7% free and reduced lunch. 72% of students are proficient in Reading and 80.5% are proficient in Math (Oddly enough, no Science proficiency rates were reported). Interestingly, only 4.2% of teachers have taught for fewer than three years, while a whopping 91.5% of teachers have taught for ten years or more.
Similarly, Barton boasts a population that is comprised of 65.5% white students and 29% of students receive free and reduced lunch. 74.3% of students are proficient in Reading, 66.4% are proficient in Math, and 54% are proficient in Science. 79.7% of teachers have a Master's degree, while 83.5% of teachers have been teaching for more than 10 years and only 5.6% of teachers have been teaching for fewer than three years.
The district has some ‘splainin’ to do
The question must be posed as to why schools with higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of students who receive free and reduced lunch, have significantly higher percentages of teachers who have taught for longer than ten years. Such schools are also more likely to be staffed by teachers holding at least a Master's degree. The question must also be asked and answered regarding how and to what degree having less experienced teachers impacts student proficiency levels and outcomes. As a matter of district policy: Who ensures that human capital is deployed equitably throughout the district to protect against schools with the highest needs being given the least amount of resources? On what bases are such decisions made and how is what is in the best interests of children factored into the equation?
The data show that in truth, the district could be doing better by all children it serves. Given the high social costs of obtaining a subpar education, the district should pay particular attention to the quality of academic instruction that children of color from lower-socio economic backgrounds receive. This is a matter of human dignity, equity, and justice and should be treated as such.
We should refuse to accept the notion that simply because a child hails from a low income family or community, they are forever destined to be at the bottom of society's social ladder. If we are serious about closing the opportunity gap that exists, we must begin by challenging our own (sometimes biased) assumptions about poor children's capacity to learn, and begin to critically examine and reassess policy decisions, formulas for resource allocations, teacher assignments, harsh disciplinary practices, uneven referrals to special education, vendor contract awards, and school climate and curriculum.
It’s not about good intentions
Let us remember, that accepting the status quo in our school system has nothing to do with good intentions, and everything to do with the history of race relations in this country and in our state, and the residue that still clouds our perceptions of the "other."