In Defense of Black Lives | THE POLITICUS

In Defense of Black Lives


“My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.


Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.”

 President Lyndon Baines Johnson

April 14, 1964

On April 14th 2014 we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights act, on that date Michael Brown Jr. Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Von Derritt Myers Jr., Freddie Gray Jr. and Kajieme Powell were still alive.  On April 14th 2015 they were all dead.

The shooting of Michael Brown Jr. on August 9th, 2014 will go down as either a landmark moment in this country’s history, or a moment of high emotion, followed by communal lethargy. Because of the persistence and exponential growth of the protest movement, and the real time presence of social media, I am betting on the former. That said, wasn’t the signing of the Civil Rights bill in 1964 supposed to be a similar moment in time?  In the same year that President Johnson signed the civil rights bill, he declared a “war” on poverty, and in doing so, unleashed a barrage of programs which had a net effect of reducing poverty for million of Americans.

In the seventies ironically under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford the Earned Income Tax Credit a massive anti poverty program was introduced and signed, a program that cost American taxpayers upwards of 31 billion dollars annually. Ironically in the early years of the administration of the first African American President, the words poverty and poor were relegated to persona non grata status in official Washington, as policy makers focused on America’s debt riddled Middle Class. Yet in that same time period, what we now call the pipeline to prison has ensnared millions of black males continued unabated. On top of that, thousands more black men have either been crippled or killed by black on black fratricide all which conspired to create a untenable scenario that forced the black women to compensate for missing men by being both mothers and fathers.

On April 7, 2001, Michael Brown Jr. was five years old when Timothy Thomas was shot dead by a Cincinnati police officer. The resulting outrage was loud and vociferous. So much so that in 2004, the NBC Program Dateline produced a chilling episode called Pattern of Suspicion, which tracked racial profiling and connected it to not just Timothy Thomas’ death, but served as an awakening to the ugly and insidious side of policing and profiling.  I showed that video in a community forum on racial profiling in 2009. Unfortunately, as loud as the outrage was, it failed to stop the carnage – carnage that reached a boiling point with the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson Missouri August 9th, 2014.

As a filmmaker and blogger I have been chronicling the Ferguson movement almost since the beginning. Since the beginning, two protest chants have stuck in my mind, the now iconic “Black Lives Matter” and the other “the whole damn system is guilty as hell!” Beneath the chants lay communal scar tissue and festering wounds that come from what many see as a 500-year war on black males. In addition, racist whites repulsed by the protest movement, have thrown black on black homicides in the collective faces of the protest movement ostensibly saying if “Black Lives Matter” why aren’t you protesting about the deaths that don’t come from law enforcement? Ranting’s of racists notwithstanding, black lives do matter, but the reality of poverty, and the unfettered systemic racism in the criminal justice system reflects a reality that suggest otherwise.

All which beg the question what is the state of Black America 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights bill? On one hand one can look no further than the Oval Office to see evidence of change. I am reminded of the 1984 Speech by the late Governor Mario Cuomo, when he countered President Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” image by saying “there is another city” one where “there are more poor than ever”.  The Canfield Green section of Ferguson, or the Sandtown-Winchester where Freddie Gray lived, offer lives that run counter to narrative of African American progress.  Communities that once thrived have become depressed, war zones, a sad collection of broken houses and broken dreams. The tragic reality is that for every Barack Obama, there are thousands of Michael Brown’s or Freddy Gray. This is the state of Black America.

President Obama spoke in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, of a need for all hands on deck approach. I suggest we need something more something like more clarity, and more honesty. Michael Brown’s body laying in repose for over four hours in the hot August sun was clear, the video images of Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were equally as clear. But in the fog of urban war that is claiming black men the clarity on the root causes, and the honesty about those causes is missing. While dismissing the myopic vision of white American that can’t see the forest through it’s white privileged trees, we can not ignore the reality that whether a black man is killed by law enforcement or at the hands of another black man, they are both fruits from the same poisonous tree of injustice, poverty, dis-empowerment, and failed policies. The protestors are in the streets, not simply because they are sick and tired of being sick and tired, they are forced to take the streets because African American leadership has failed them.

Filmmaker Spike Lee is producing a movie called Chiraq a name that combines the name of Chicago with Iraq; the message of the film is that black deaths in Chicago mimic the deaths of American soldiers who perished in Iraq. At the root of all these deaths, whether at the hands of police, or other black men, is poverty. We can be clear about the deaths, but we also have to be honest about the causes. Communities that are impoverished, also lack power, communities that lack power are often reactive not proactive.  We have ignored poverty for years, and we have ignored our communal lack of power for years and the net effect is Michael Brown Jr. I support the protestors who have put their lives, their freedom on the line, yet in order to make the indictment of “the whole damn system is guilty as hell” stick, we must see the systemic causes of poverty, the failed poverty initiatives, the black on black crime, the failure of the African American leadership class to inoculate and protect our young, as one and the same. With the Black Lives Matter movement as a backdrop the race for the White House is unfolding, as a community, we can ill afford to allow the next President to move the clock back, as President Obama has said often elections have consequences. But not just national elections, in 2012 Anthony Anderson a 46 year old black man died in the hands of Baltimore police, a year later, Gregg Bernstein at the time the Baltimore State Attorney chose not to charge the police. In 2014 he lost his seat to Marilyn Mosby, who made the call to charge all six of the Baltimore Police in the death of Freddie Gray.

This is a call for empowerment. Empowered communities are proactive, empowerment matters, as a community, we can no longer sleep on the issues that are destroying our community, and we can no longer fail to hold our leadership accountable. Black Lives Matter has to be more than a protest chant or a social media hashtag, it must be a rallying cry for action – not just in the streets, but in the courts, in the ballot box, in the board rooms, and in our hearts. If we fail to do so, every five-year-old black child is at risk, if not today, in ten years. We owe it to our future to take action today. We must not fail.