Monday, June 01, 2015

North Charleston's communities of resistance


I wonder whether Kerry Taylor is going to catch flack for this one. He is writing about progressive movement dynamics that seldom are subjected to friendly light. Taylor teaches history at The Citadel and is a progressive Southern activist. In an interesting article in Facing South, he aims to disentangle why, comparatively speaking, a particular South Carolina community has managed to win some movement toward justice after Officer Michael Slager shot unarmed and unthreatening Walter Scott -- on video. Slager was fired and charged, an almost unheard of outcome. So far this year, only 3 of 385 police shootings have led to charges against officers.

Obviously the video was critical here. If it hadn't existed, Slager and the cops might have been able to get away with a phony story. But beyond that, Taylor outlines the depth of pre-existing organization in the Black and progressive communities in the area that has facilitated effectual action for justice. At moments of community crisis, if everyone affected can engage respectfully with each other forces, chances of a better outcome increase. This is not easy; ideological, political, cultural, stylistic and interest divisions among people are normal and usually heightened by trauma. When these are overcome, even for short periods, movements get something done. Otherwise, frustration sets in.

Taylor enumerates some forces North Charleston progressives had going for them besides the video:
  • heightened mainstream awareness of police killings of black men after Michael Brown's and Eric Garner's deaths;
  • longstanding NAACP branches in North Charleston and Charleston;
  • support including meeting space provided by the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 where Walter Scott's brother was a member;
  • the Charleston chapter of the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE), a labor support organization;
  • the unhappy experience of responding to the 2014 police killing of 19-year-old African American Denzell "Jaba" Curnell without achieving any charges;
  • young African American leaders of Charleston Raise Up which campaigns for a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers;
  • a Black Lives Matter Charleston group formed in December 2014 to demand police accountability.
The community movement then picked up momentum.
  • "Green Party supporters, South Carolina Progressive Network members, longshoremen, and peace and labor activists joined Black Lives Matter in its early days."
  • ... "highly committed students from the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, Trident Tech, and the Charleston School of Law were spurred to action ... participation of high school students from Academic Magnet and the Charleston County School for the Arts was also notable. ... Black Lives Matter developed around a base of African Americans from a wide range of backgrounds."
Taylor credits Black Lives Matter Charleston with advancing a leader of unusual capacities.

Black Lives Matter Charleston's leadership has been decentralized, but Muhiyidin d'Baha, a musician with graduate training in the social sciences, quickly emerged as the face of the movement. As a public speaker, d'Baha has charisma. He conveys the fear and the fury of those who have been victimized by police harassment and violence. ... [Along with his mentor Charles Payne, d'Baha] distinguishes organizing from the act of "mobilizing" for large-scale, short-term spectacles that are often centered around a single charismatic personality. The organizing tradition is a democratic alternative to the hierarchical and authoritarian strains that run deep in many aspects of American culture, including the black church.

When protest actions started in the wake of the Scott killing, the communities were somewhat ready to speak out -- and potential fractures in their unity were easy to imagine. Some of the old line groups didn't appreciate some of the militance of the newly recruited forces. But according to Taylor, so far all parties can at least imagine a division of labor.

Black Lives Matter has embraced the idea that a diversity of tactics can be a  movement strength. The struggle will continue on many fronts, requiring multiple lines of attack from organizations with varied structures and strategies.

While Black Lives Matter is the most inclusive and democratic of the local police protest groups, its lack of structure may hinder it from moving from the politics of moral suasion to the politics of reform. In this regard, leaders of the NAACP, National Action Network, and the Coalition may be better positioned to negotiate with the city of North Charleston, though their bargaining strength will be weak unless they harness the threat of further disruptions instigated by Black Lives Matter and its associates.

Recognizing that their differences can be confusing and discouraging to supporters, Charleston activists have recently attempted to improve their level of coordination and to sharpen their efforts around a concrete program of reform. Even with perfect cooperation, it will be an uphill battle. [Mayor Keith] Summey is up for reelection in the fall but faces weak and divided opposition. ...

The need for unity within community movements that fight entrenched power may seem obvious, but reaching it and keeping it is hard work. Different adherents to movements will play different roles; an insistence that everyone adopt the same tactics all the time is a recipe for internal explosions. Yet, in moments of crisis, everyone has to be moving in pretty much the same direction to make the maximum gains. Taylor is hopeful about North Charleston. Let's hope he's right and learn from the dynamics he outlines.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

I read this carefully. I had started to think that activism was not working,but recent developments here have changed my mind. Later on this week I'll write about this.

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