Action Alert:

#BlackLivesMatter and the Third Reconstruction

The Inter-Generational Pursuit of Democracy and Human Rights in the United States

Will Trade Racists for Refugees

Presentation by Ty dePass at a webinar “Authoritarianism and Democracy“, June 29, 2020.  Watch video of the presentation and discussion

On an early morning in July 1980, 14-year-old Levi Hart was shot and killed by Boston police officer Richard Borque, Jr., following a police chase of a stolen car. Two other black youth were arrested at the scene. BPD officials claimed Hart attempted to grab Bourque’s gun and was killed when the gun accidentally discharged during the scuffle. However, in addition to the gunshot wound to his head, Hart’s autopsy disclosed another injury, “a skull fracture from a blunt object.”

At the July 28th inquest, Judge Richard L. Banks found that Hart’s death was the result of an unlawful act,” sending the case to the Suffolk County grand jury, which then declined to indict Borque on any charges. Likewise, a federal grand jury convened by the US Justice Department could find “no probable cause” to indict Borque, now charged with violating Hart’s civil rights.

On the day of Hart’s inquest I was among a few hundred Roxbury residents gathered outside the District Court in Dudley Square. At one point, I was hovering at the edge of the crowd, surveying the scene. Less than 10 feet away, I overheard two cops commenting on the gathering. “You have to understand that these people all live in a garbage can,” the older cop said sourly. “And our job is sitting on the lid.”

What was most alarming in this wasn’t the revelation itself or the casual air of disdain, but that the cops didn’t care that I’d overheard it.

Belying the outcome absolving him of any culpability, Borque was not only unrepentant, but feeling aggrieved: “Cops have no civil rights,” Bourque complained bitterly in an interview with the Boston Globe following his acquittals. “People care more if someone like this kid gets killed. They’ve immortalized him. The kid is a hero to some people. It doesn’t matter that he was a punk.”

“Of the nine police shootings of unarmed teenagers in Boston’s past, one resulted in prison time,” wrote Globe contributor, Eric Levenson in 2015. “Of the nine teenagers shot in these accounts, three were white, one was Hispanic, and five were black. Eight of these shootings were fatal, and three led to criminal charges against an officer. Just one case resulted in a prison sentence,” he continued.

In a spate of similar incidents since Levi Hart’s murder, unarmed black men, women and children have been gunned down, tasered, choked out or brutally manhandled in parks, parking lots, on the street, and in their backyards or bedrooms. In most instances, officers involved either evaded prosecution, or were granted acquittals, or in rare instances, received shamefully minimal sentences. And contrary to police testimony, the victims were unarmed and posed no clear or immediate danger to the police or bystanders.

So, what is a reasonable person to make of a legal system that seems incapable of dispensing justice for black people, and other people of color?

Perhaps these tragedies aren’t a “glitch,” the regrettable excesses of “rogue cops” or “bad apples,” but represent a essential feature baked into our criminal (in)justice system from its very beginning in the colonial period. Indeed, given a sober examination of US history, that reasonable person might conclude that the police and courts are less invested in protecting human life and serving communities, than preserving longstanding, disparate arrangements of wealth, social status and political power; arrangements that have conspicuously benefitted the nation’s white, capitalist elite, at the expense of other classes and social groups.

A deeper dive into the history of the US nation-building project reveals that Racism and Global Capitalism emerged as conjoined twins in early 16th century, as evidenced in the infamous “Triangular Trade” in sugar, manufactured goods and enslaved Africans; its serial wars of conquest, displacement and cultural erasure in the name of “Manifest Destiny”; the legal and extra-legal enforcement of the color line through fugitive slave laws, black codes and Jim Crow segregation; and in its enthusiastic embrace of the “white man’s burden” in pursuit of global empire. The late Cedric Robinson’s term, “racial capitalism”[1] captures this intersection of a racialized social hierarchy with a particular form of systematic economic exploitation.[2]

At each step along the path to global domination, the US military and local police forces have defended the racist and oppressive status quo “from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And thanks to the military equipment funneled to local PDs through federal 1033 Program, and a cultivated warrior-mentality, it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell the forces apart because even the US Department of Education has its own heavily-armed SWAT Team; if you’re currently in default on your student loan, be afraid, be very afraid.As a black man active in peace and justice movements since the social ferment of the 1960s, I’ve come to view the history of racial justice as a perverse dance: one-step forward, two-steps back – Emancipation, Black Codes and Jim Crow; civil rights laws, “law-and-order” and white backlash; a black man in the White House, the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Each hard-won concession was followed by a violent pushback, often aided and abetted by police forces and the courts.

In the post-civil rights era, White America’s position on racial matters has largely reflected a “new consensus,” described by political scientist Michael Dawson as a liberal-conservative accord reached during the Clinton-GHW Bush presidential contest of 1992. [3] At the time, both political parties were seeking support from the emerging white, suburban middleclass majority – some of whom were the blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” interviewed by Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg. For these respondents, middleclass identity depended on the ability to avoid living near, socializing with or working beside black people.

This “new consensus” became the “official” bipartisan narrative of the post-civil rights era, actively and aggressively building on positions promoted by the Nixon, Reagan-Bush and Clinton administrations. Indeed, even a casual observer will note that Bill Clinton did more to dismantle the tenuous social contract of the New Deal and Great Society in six years than Reagan-Bush had accomplished in twelve.

Echoing positions previously championed by neoconservative intellectuals and successive Republican and Democratic administrations, adherents to this understanding assert:

(1) that liberal social initiatives of the ‘60s were not only ineffective, but destructive of the black community and, worse still, unfair to “innocent” whites;

(2) that black urban unrest and the rising incidence of drug use and street crime justified strong measures to restore “law-and-order,” measures resulting in the blanket criminalization of the African American community (i.e., in any random police encounter, black people were to be Presumed Guilty);

(3) that the black community was actually “two-nations,” separate-and-unequal, which pitted the “deserving” black middle class against their pathological cousins (a.k.a., the predatory and pathological “underclass”); and

(4) that redeeming this deviant black underclass would involve “changing their values, turning to the black bourgeoisie for solutions, and applying hard-nosed policing and punishment.”

Some historians refer to the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s as a “2nd Reconstruction,”[4] building on the long-ignored guarantees of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, demanding that the nation finally live up to the “Four Freedoms” posed by FDR in his 1941 SOTU address: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. In 1963, King alluded to these qualities as part of a bounced promissory note; and by 1967, King insisted that we should remain “dissatisfied” until those promises were redeemed.

Posing the inevitable question, “What Is To Be Done?” raises a host of other, even more fundamental questions about the nature of democracy, society and the state. We live in a society where our understanding of law and justice is shaped by the 3-Rs: Revenge, Retaliation and Retribution – driven by the need to pursue solutions preserving Power-over, rather than Power-with. A widespread culture of fear, stoked by cynical partisan motivations and junk food journalism, contribute to the weaponization of 911 and the frequent instances of casually violent and abusive police behavior for often trivial offenses (I.e., “broken windows”)[5].

The growing calls to “Defund-the-Police” recognizes the sad fact that most of the reform measures proposed by the political establishment – from body-cams to use-of-force guidelines to civilian review boards – have been tried before, and ultimately circumvented or diluted to the point of uselessness. Meaningful change will bubble up from the streets, rather than trickling down from the political establishment and will require a sober and thorough reexamination of the mission, tactics and composition of law enforcement. And judging by the findings of numerous of recent studies of police forces in major cities, the time and effort normally devoted to suppression of violent crime constitutes an almost negligible portion of most cop’s everyday activities; indeed, given the fact that policing is inherently reactive and rarely involves responding to some violent offender, a strong case can be made for transferring many 911 calls to community-based social service or medical professionals. It certainly strongly suggests that departments can safely demilitarize and redeploy without any appreciable spike in violent crime.[6]

And because policing consumes such a huge portion of most municipal budgets, cost savings can be readily redirected toward services that affirm and build community, rewriting the 3-Rs to read: Respect, Redemption and Reconciliation. Good sense suggests that what’s most needed is greater appreciation for the attributes of Trust and Respect, each of which ideally serve as social lubricants, combined with the values of Mutual Obligation and Accountability, the social glue that holds everything together.

Lastly, one of the most heartening developments in the wake protests over George Floyd’s murder was the outpouring of support from around the world. From Palestine to Puerto Rico, Canada to Cuba, Berlin to Bueno Aires ordinary people marched in solidarity with US anti-racist activists.[7] And in the age of COVID and the burgeoning collapse of old systems of oppression and the rise of new ones, this global consciousness will come to represent a strategic asset for the struggle against white supremacy, and meaningful and lasting change, both here and abroad.

That said, today’s demand-from-the-street calls for a “3rd Reconstruction,” a comprehensive dismantling of all systems of arbitrary social-control, racial oppression and economic exploitation led by a broad, multi-issue, multi-racial, globally-connected united front that makes no apologies and accepts no excuses.

By the way, as we pursue our defunding demand, you should expect we’ll soon be dropping the other shoe: defunding the US military.

New York-born Ty dePass was an anti-racist activist in Boston in the 70s and 80s.  He is now a member of Simple Justice in Columbia, SC, and deejays Latin-Caribbean dance music drawing inspiration from Cuban independence fighter Antonio Maceo.

[1] Kelly, Robin D.G. “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?” Boston Review (Jan. 12, 2017)
http://bostonreview.net/race/robin-d-g-kelley-what-did-cedric-robinson-mean-racial-capitalism

[2] Leong, Nancy (2013). “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review (v. 126, n.8, Jun. 2013:2151).  https://harvardlawreview.org/2013/06/racial-capitalism/

[3] Dawson, Michael C. (1996). “Black Power in 1996 and the Demonization of African Americans,” Political Science & Politics (v.29, n.3, Sep.1996:456-461).

[4] “The Civil Rights Movement and the Second Reconstruction, 1945-1968.” U.S. House of Representatives, History and Art Archives
https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Essays/Keeping-the-Faith/Civil-Rights-Movement/

[5] Kelling, George L. and James Q. Wilson. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” The Atlantic Mo’ly (Mar. 1982).
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465//

[6] Asher, Jeff and Ben Horwitz. “How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?” The New York Times (Jun. 19, 2020).

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html

[7] “Messages of Solidarity for Racial Justice,” Global Ministries (Jun. 4, 2020).
https://www.globalministries.org/messages_of_solidarity_for_racial_justice

Haddad, Mohammad. “Mapping Anti-Racist Solidarity Protests Around the World.” Al Jazeera (Jun. 7, 2020).

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/06/mapping-anti-racism-solidarity-protests-world-200603092149904.html