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Why We All Can't Just Get Along
by Marc Loveless, Chicago Green Party
Recently, I pulled out of a local coalition organized as a response to the post 9/11 anti-Arabic, anti-Muslim sentiments in the Chicago area. With my walking out, a coalition that was designed to organize against racism now has no Black people as active members.
I had joined this coalition on 9/12 when the area peace organizations got together and held a brief meeting and press conference in solidarity with local victims of racist acts that had taken place less than 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks. At that meeting were other Black and Arabic people who also spoke at the press conference. Since then, the original group has divided as all leftist groups do and there are now at least two city-wide coalitions for peace and anti-militarism.
The specific reason that caused me to pull out of the coalition speaks less about either group than about the nature of most integrated grassroots efforts. All my life, I’ve had to struggle with questions from well-meaning liberal and progressive activists as to why “there aren’t more Black people involved.” To me these questions come much as updated versions of Rodney King during the L.A. disturbances: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Such questions would arise whether it was a political group, a gay group, or even a religious group. I don’t know, maybe it’s now being over 40, but this year I believe I’ve come to a clearer understanding of this question.
Some time ago, when I was on the Detroit Archdiocese Office of Black Catholics Advisory Council, we were asked by the Ministry to the Bereaved why more Black people didn’t respond to the support groups and programs. As a body, we thought about this and responded that as Black people we don’t necessarily have the luxury to grieve by an elaborate process. The challenge of living and sustaining a way of life becomes primary beyond any personal devastation. Here lies the practical relevance of my new clearer understanding.
…well-meaning white people say we are just out here poking “the man” in the eye and really won’t change things, and then wonder why Black folks won’t support them…
The point is not that such personal loss does not matter to Blacks; on the contrary, it is that the core of motivation among Blacks and whites is so different. For example, I recall a conversation I had with a leading member of the Green Party at which she stated her belief that even if we were to get Greens elected, we would not change the system or have any real impact on public policy. My response was explosive. I participated in a meeting of one of the peace groups in Chicago and heard someone actually say that what we are doing is good enough, like a finger in the eye of “the man,” but we really aren’t going to change things because we are not going to topple capitalism in our lifetime. This sort of thinking presents thorny issues for the Black community.
This issue cuts across class and other divisions amongst this race of people. Further, I must say my conclusions are shaped by my experiences as a Black activist, an openly gay male; and a person of faith. The importance of faith-based leadership in the Black community has often been documented and substantiated. This is not to say that our only form of leadership is faith-based, but to acknowledge that in many cases the voices of hope and statements of clear, defining purpose throughout history in the Black community have come from or been influenced by a foundation of faith-based philosophy and idealism. In understanding this, you have to understand that whether the faith is Christian, Jewish or Islamic, and in most other faith communities, there are writings that speak to the responsibility of leadership, warning that anyone in leadership who purposefully misleads the people faces a great debt of accountability. In other words, if you mislead people there is a special place in hell for you.
Even if you do not accept the concept of heaven and hell, know that there is a difficult struggle and reckoning awaiting those who mislead. So, when well-meaning white people say we are just out here poking “the man” in the eye and really won’t change things, and then wonder why Black folks won’t support them, it is first because you are going against a foundation factor of activism in our community. In fact, the theory of Condaleezza Rice when she said that what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did was really unnecessary because the South was going to change anyway, due to economic pressures, makes essentially the same argument. Ms. Rice is as wrong as those activists who believe that change is so far away that work on immediate issues is not important. This is simply not the experience of the Black community.
The risks of taking public action are very real in the Black community.
In fact, this sort of thinking denies both the urgency of and the potential for making real public policy change, and in effect the experiences and accomplishments of the Black community as a whole, from Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth in the past to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and Angela Davis today. Operating from this belief that the significance of what we actually do is unimportant is the same as to deny that A. Philip Randolph ever lived. It is to say that Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker were just having a good time. For us, these people are not just names in some historical documents; there are people walking around today who personally knew Medgar Evers.
The risks of taking public action are very real in the Black community. I recall that when I gave a weekly commentary on public policy and social issues on a Black radio show when I was a teenager in Detroit, my grandmother would be so worried that something would happen to me that I had to start using an air name. My grandmother was not a simple woman. She was educated, she worked most of her life, and retired as house manager of a facility for troubled teenage girls; but she was from the South, outside of Atlanta, and she as countless others in the Black community who supported the efforts for civil rights and social justice always bore in her mind the fact that effecting change comes at a risk.
I beg to say that there is an order of cause and effect that is lost to the white vanguard activists. Not only is there an understanding of history and accomplishment that is lacking but an understanding that we thank our superior being for waking us each day to take our day in the current revolution. So, to doubt the effectiveness of impacting public policy or our ability to call corporate interests to task is to second-guess the Black community and its historical accomplishments. Even more, it tells me that your level of sincerity is different from mine, and that you will not take care of the safety of my family, my community, or me.
In the late summer and early fall of 2001 prior to 9/11, the United States government walked out of an international meeting on racism around the world. Prior to that meeting, there was a report issued by the US State Department on the status of racism in America. In it was chronicled every act and reflection of racism in America. In short, the United Nations would be called to answer Malcolm X’s charge of genocide in the affirmative. This report further chronicled every action and public policy change that Black activists in the streets have accomplished. Black people in America are always in the midst of struggle and have always effected change of public policy in the face of corporate and private interests for our own survival. Today the work of the Black community is broad and includes everything from child welfare workers to corporate affirmative action efforts to street demonstrations against police brutality and yes, without a doubt, the peace movement. While there are city-wide peace movements in places like Chicago with no Black people in them, there are still voices of peace in the Black community.
It is like two locomotives speeding side by side; they will not meet because they are on parallel tracks; they are going towards different stations. For while one is working until change comes, the other is working every day to make change happen, and there is a difference.
Black people in America are always in the midst of struggle and have always effected change of public policy in the face of corporate and private interests…
When I left the peace group in Chicago I didn’t think they ever understood why; nor do I think well-meaning liberal/progressive folk understand that for them to have their efforts accepted by the Black community their purpose must be clearly about making change happen here and now, because that is the only way you can respect the people you encounter.
Within the Chicago Green Party, there has been a significant effort by its members to embody this level of sincerity. The primary example is that within the Chicago Green Party they do not rely on members of the Black community to bring in other members of the Black community but instead demand that the organization itself be present, practical, and relevant in its attempts and efforts. Karen Harris is a member of the Chicago Green Party. Karen has taken the Green Party message and infused it into many grassroots vanguard efforts in the Black community.
A quick review of recent activities would include the ratepayers revolt that resulted in the major residential natural gas supplier reconsidering many of its procedures, procedures which had forced many people to choose between paying their mortgages or having heat. Another example is the effort to provide support for detainees held in the county jail not convicted of any crime. Families of such detainees face huge obstacles and often need assistance. The Chicago Green Party has had a presence in demonstrations and other efforts against police brutality. In all these efforts you see two persistent factors: one, that the majority of the people are Black, and the other that the Green Party presence and influence is due in the most part to the work of Karen Harris.
…within the Chicago Green Party they do not rely on members of the Black community to bring in other members of the Black community…
Karen is a retired Chicago public school teacher and a member of the Chicago Greens for more than five years and she is not Black. Yet she calls the organization, not me or any other Black people that are members of the Greens, to be present and relevant to the Black community. Being relevant doesn’t mean you lead. Being relevant means you respect the place you are in and shoulder your portion of the work to be done and, at times, push forward the effort of the cause rather than the cause of your organization. In the Chicago peace group I left, I heard it said that if the Black community came up with something for them to participate in they would support it, and in fact I have heard members of other predominantly white grassroots organizations say similar things. This to me is a huge organizational cop-out. It says when “you people” get your act together and tell us what you want from us we will then consider it; but the revolutionary act of overcoming legislative, cultural, and corporate racism is something the Black community is constantly involved with.
During the 2000 election, I was speaking before a community group about the Green Party. The audience was mostly white; the Blacks in the group were people I knew and I had invited most of them. In one part of my talk, I referred to well known Blacks that are Green Party supporters: Manning Marable, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, and even Dr. Cornel West. At the end of my talk, one older white guy stood up and suggested that he could go to this church in his area whose congregation was predominantly Black and encourage them to vote. His assumption was that they needed only to vote and then the Green Party would get the support it needed. While I greatly appreciated the enthusiasm, it lacked the wisdom of understanding that for those Black people in that church, as in the balance of the Black community, to give their vote to the Green Party (or the corporate parties), it must be relevant beyond feel-good philosophy and reflect practical reality in people’s lives.
If I did not believe that an alternative electoral voice was relevant, practical, and necessary for representative democracy to sustain itself, I would be deficient in my responsibilities as a member of the Black community, as well as less than sincere to my faith. Yes, I certainly believe that if those who profess democracy do not support electoral action, the people that are subject to democracy will lose faith in the system and the chance for reasoned change will be lost; this is the demand of relevance. This being relevant is not an option in the Black community; either there is sincerity of effecting real change in every motion you take or you are playing with people’s lives.
…to give their vote to the Green Party…it must be relevant…
Audre Lorde, a Black Lesbian Feminist writer, once said, “When I dare to be powerful to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid.” Yes, we as Black people speak out at a risk but not out of fear. It is ever urgent that well-meaning white organizations wonder why their ranks are not more integrated than one or two Blacks like myself who are becoming rarer still. These organizations and such progressive efforts are going to have to clarify their vision and consider not how to get people to join them, but what it is about their organizations that are barriers to this purpose. If in that analysis you find your goals are just to stoke the fires of controversy, do not bother people that are trying to save lives and change the world.
Karen Louise Harris, 1941-2002
After a year of battling lung cancer, long time Green Party member Karen Harris passed on Saturday, June 8. She will be greatly missed.
Karen was active on many issues such as public utilities, police brutality, saving Maxwell Street, Clark Oil and ACME Barrel protests and nuclear power opposition. She braved tear gas in Seattle for the World Trade Organization confrontations in 1999. She was greatly concerned about peace between Palestinians and Israelis. She has once toured rainforests in South America and became deeply involved in ecological activism. Her last protests were at the ComEd/Exelon-coopted Earth Day 2001 and for the Campaign for Better Health Care’s Bernadine Amendment.
—Bob Rudner, Friend and Comrade