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      A Young Generation With Cameras Makes Everything Possible

      BALTIMORE. May 3. As thousands marched through downtown streets here, officials retreated from their nighttime curfew and National Guard occupation. The only question now are where and when another surge of angry protestors will respond to another death at the hands of police, and who will lead us toward a better vision for our cities.

      There are some things old and some things new about this amazing "black lives matter" movement. 

      In 1960 in Mississippi, I was introduced directly to the wanton shooting of black residents who then presumed to register and vote. Julian Bond, who was the communications director of SNCC[1], intentionally encouraged me to visit Black Belt Mississippi because black lives didn't matter, but he believed that if I was even touched by vigilantes that might make the evening news.

      I was, and it did. Along with the late Paul Potter, I was snatched from a rental car while observing a high school march in McComb. I was stomped on the street by a white mob while a white newspaper photographer snapped away. He then slipped his role of pictures into a his socks while the mob grabbed and smashed his camera.

      The next day I was telling the story to Deputy Attorney General Burke Marshall in Bobby Kennedy's office. The photo of me, dressed in suit and tie, being beaten on the street was circling the country and world.

      Years later, Andy Young, Dr. King's lieutenant and later Congress member and Atlanta mayor, told me that seeing that picture was a factor in his decision to move from Boston to Atlanta with his wife Jean.

      Charles McDew, SNCC chairman in those days, later joked that he didn't want me to be killed, just "whupped" because that would be enough for the media attention. I was glad to have been of service. 

      What does this have to do with Baltimore and the wake of killings since the death of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012? 

      First, the mind-opening, crisis-provoking photos are of black bodies taken by black people with their own iPhone cameras all over the country. The independent media, followed by the mainstream media, has circulated those photos to black people everywhere, in real time, and into the homes of all Americans on television.

      This crisis, which probably cannot be stopped until the killings are sharply reduced, has important consequences for American foreign policy. In the Fifties and early Sixties, it was the scenes of segregated schools and bus boycotts on American television that upset officials in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations because they were extremely damaging in our Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. The photographs of unarmed black youth being killed by police are similarly devastating to the American brand of "democracy" and "human rights" being promoted today in Latin America, our competition with China and Russia, and in the Islamic world. As McDew said back in the day, we had to make democracy safe for the world before we could even think of exporting it. 

      The old media monopoly over what is allowed to be seen is broken by the new technology in the hands of a new generation of social-media activists. The "threat" is so fierce that street photographers are arrested or threatened with arrest, and police departments are beginning to equip their officers with cameras of their own. It's global too; the snapshots taken by a guard and smuggled out revealed the torture at Abu Ghraib. What has grown since the 1992 Rodney King beating, a camera-bearing army of democracy, cannot be suppressed.

      In 1967, with a notebook but no camera, I trudged the streets of Newark, where 26 had been killed in the previous five days, to interview the victims' families. Along with CORE leader Bob Curvin, I was invited one night to travel under armed guard to meet with New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes, who had deployed out-of-town, out-of-control state troopers and National Guard. We argued until 4 a.m. that he should immediately withdraw the troops, starting from the South Ward where we both lived and worked. We knew something the remote military commanders and the worried politicians simply couldn't understand, or risk understanding, that the rebellion had run its course, that the ghetto statement had been made, that the residents wanted to pull their lives together out of the ruins, and that the military occupation itself was provoking disorder. The governor thanked us and withdrew the troops.

      A similar pattern just occurred in Baltimore.

      But will the aftermath be any different this time? As a society, we are more deeply divided about race and policing than I would have predicted in 1967. Robin Kelley has brilliantly noted in the Los Angeles Times that last week's spate of Baltimore street violence was a crucial cause encouraging the state's attorney there to expedite her investigation and bring serious charges against six officers, including one for having a "depraved heart."

      The mainstream media suddenly filled with chatter about the state's attorney having acted too swiftly and prematurely, noting that it will be most unlikely that a jury will convict. That was the old mentality are work, however. What was new was that the prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, was carrying the fight for fairness and justice into the courts on behalf of the young people in the streets. She owed her election to the black community and white liberals of Baltimore, and she wanted to be a prosecutor for justice. She said, remarkably:

      "To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for 'no justice, no peace. '…To the youth of the city, I will seek justice on your behalf. This is your moment. Let's ensure we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You're at the forefront of this cause, and as young people, our time is now."

      The police officers, of course, will have their day in court, and perhaps win acquittals or take plea deals. What has changed with Mosby's decision is historic, however. Suddenly the gap was closed between those who felt themselves powerless in the streets and a prosecutor - a prosecutor! - who was calling for "systemic change for generations to come" and gambling that this was her generation's "moment." Instead of blaming "thugs" for causing the crisis, she was willing to step up and carve a channel forward from despair. 

      Police reform is being revisited as we enter this new generation's "moment". But reform cannot repeat the adjustments that typically follow spasms of violence. After Newark and a hundred other cities burned, we had a generation of black mayors everywhere because white political dominance of American cities had become untenable. In many cases, police departments added black and Latino officers. Commissions were created to define new regulations governing the use of lethal force. "Less-lethal" weapons were issued. Now it is the cameras.

      The first lesson of this new crisis is that very large numbers of police cannot be reformed or retrained, but must be given their pensions and retired. Their unions are beyond reform (that's why we see separate black and Latino police associations). If it is constitutionally possible, police unions should be banned from making endorsements and campaign contributions to candidates beholden to them. We don't allow the armed forces to endorse candidates, nor should it be allowed by those charged with carrying out the law impartially.

      Only the attrition of more police from the ranks will allow new law enforcement strategies to materialize, including an equitable increase of women in the ranks. Pinning cameras on officers still driven by conscious and unconscious bias will not work. The structural interdependence and conflicts of interest between prosecutors and police must end too. It is not enough to hope that progressives will vote a few prosecutors like Mosby into office, leaving wide areas of the country open to unchecked rough justice.

      Once they begin, wars are hellish and complicated to end. That's given. Statesmanship and conflict resolution skills are called for instead of pandering. 

      The heavy-handed, informant-laden Drug War will have to be phased out, starting with marijuana, with all the tax revenues channeled back into rehabilitation and legal ways to earn an income. Mayor Kurt Schmoke was right years ago, and what he began must be carried forward. 

      The vast and expensive apparatus spawned by "stop and frisk" and "zero-tolerance" policies will have to be dismantled, as Mayor De Blasio has begun to do in New York City. Serious proposals for an alternative policy should be championed before the president's new Task Force on 21st Century Policy, to make visible better alternatives to the warmed-over think tank proposals that are sure to be made there. (For an excellent list of reality suggestions, see Cathy Lisa Schneider's article, "Five Myths about Riots", in the Washington Post, May 1st)

      Every city should undertake what is known as a gang peace process, as initiated by gang members and ex-gang members in Los Angeles decades ago. As in Baltimore and elsewhere, the appearance of Crips and Bloods seeking to quell the street violence and withdraw the troops of should surprise no one. (See my book Street Wars, or the writings of Luis Rodriguez, the work of Homies Unidos, and the model created by Fr. Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, for the promises and pitfalls in undertaking these rehabilitation efforts, which have been endorsed by the LAPD)

      We should applaud the fact that Hillary Clinton is criticizing "the era of mass incarceration" after all these years. Too many in the media, Republican and even movement circles are chiding her for being a flip-flop since President Clinton presided over the mass targeting of inner city youth for political reasons long ago. What do people prefer, that Hillary hold to an earlier opportunistic position instead of "flopping" to a better one? Can't more people understand that she may well have learned something over the years, partly because of brave, insistent and creative street protests since George Zimmerman got away with the murder of Trayvon Martin? Even many Republicans and Christian conservatives want to terminate mass incarceration, for their own reasons ranging from mercy to its fiscal waste. We should not righteously reject latecomers who join our cause, especially when they bring vast resources to the table.  

      A promise from Hillary or even a president doesn't mean that mass incarceration will end any time soon, but it means that young people and progressives will have a vital role in the debates leading to the 2016 presidential election. A mandate to end mass incarceration can only be beneficial to bringing about its gradual demise.

      It is true that cops have a miserable job trying to contain a crisis of massive unemployment and income equality not of their own doing. Police reform is impossible without deep economic reform, which starts with public rejection of the bipartisan free-market fundamentalism, which has emptied our cities of the manufacturing jobs, which once gave opportunity for training, jobs and living wages to the working poor. We cannot call for "jobs" when even the Republicans are emphasizing those jobs will come from their market-driven faith. 

      The greatest sign of hope in recent years, alongside the "black lives matter" movement, is the campaign for a living wage (or at least as Nixon recommended, a guaranteed annual income), which is proving politically viable in many cities and states - and even, on a token level, by Walmart and large corporations. The movement answers and begins to eradicate the conservative attack on government as a bogeyman that should stand aside from the workings of their "free market." So important is the living wage to the young people in our cities, and those in the anti-sweatshop and labor movements, that it should be proposed as a basic plank of US foreign economic policy. The pledge of an enforceable and global living wage should be the progressive alternative to the "race to the bottom" caused by NAFTA, CAFTA and neoliberal fundamentalism. The time has come. 

      These steps may seem implausible, and will be painfully difficult to achieve. But our country is changing. Those young men who were labeled twenty years ago as incorrigible "super-predators" by the neo-conservatives, the centrist Democrats and the academic propagandists ago, are today are properly understood and cared for as martyrs by a whole new generation of black, brown and white marchers with fists in one hand and cameras in the other.  That can change everything.

      [1] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

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      Reader Comments (3)

      Wow. You have stated so succinctly and eloquently what I have been feeling for several years. As an educator, I would only add that if we truly want to address academic achievement the way to go is the same as dealing with communities in crisis - admit to and contront an economic situation (and, I would argue, a cultural gestalt of blaming the victim - "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is, in my opinion, has become a phrase of blame) that is firmly rigged against a vast number of people.

      The only question I have (I do not know - while an American, I have lived outside of the US for over ten years) is about the definition of "new regulations governing the use of lethal force. "Less-lethal" weapons were issued". I was under the impression that due to phasing out of military weapons, more lethal weapons were coming into the hands of police departments as the military "donates" its old equipment to them. Can you please explain this issue to me?

      Thank you for this article - a powerful accomplishment in so few words.

      May 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKitty

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for this article. Two comments: (1) Since Baltimore, the grassroots organizers I am working with at two West Harlem projects (yes, I am going to call them projects), have been contacted by city agencies to learn about the anti-violence programs they've developed. (One's daughter was lost to the violence between warring crews of kids at these projects, where 103 kids were arrested last summer, and the other one's brother was killed years earlier). The change since Baltimore has been striking--the more so since the NYC DA's office is becoming a major ally in many of our efforts. Of course, they do not want to see the city burn, especially West Harlem, which is now almost totally owned by Columbia University. Nevertheless, some of their interest seems based on their understanding that the kids here got nothing and no hope. You could knock me over with a feather to find myself involved in this alliance. (2) I have been struck by the change in talk on TV. I have never, since the '60s and not even then, seen such a developing focus and discussion of economics and workplace issues, not just police violence. It seems to take a "riot" (the language of the unheard, as King said) to bring that about, in addition to what the "black lives matter" movement has accomplished. As I said, though, I do not recall hearing the same kind of talk in the '60s, when multiple cities went up in flames, so I am trying to take a bit of heart--though not naively--that we will, at least locally, be able to make some difference. And am so impressed by the work of this new generation.

      May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCorinna Fales

      "Those young men who were labeled twenty years ago as incorrigible "super-predators" by the neo-conservatives, the centrist Democrats and the academic propagandists ago,

      are today are properly understood and cared for as martyrs

      by a whole new generation of black, brown and white marchers with fists in one hand and cameras in the other. That can change everything"

      incorrigible predators are now martyrs.
      Wouldn't it be more accurate to say, that smartphone cameras in the hands of gang members will simply cause police to use cameras too, and while all the professional people move out of town and take the economy with them, the gang members at issue, will have more video, less policing, and a more tolerant environment for their shenanigans? Is that progress ?

      May 14, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlooneytunes
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