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Backlash Blues

A reflection on democracy in the streets of Sacramento

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

On the evening of Sunday, March 18 Stephon Clark was shot to death by officers of the Sacramento Police Department responding to a report that a young black man had been seen vandalizing cars in the area.

Clark was a 22-year old black man who was in the area because he lived in the area. Indeed, he was apparently standing in the back yard of his grandmother’s house, where he lived, when the police approached him; these police apparently believed he was the suspected vandal and that he had a gun, and they immediately commenced shooting. They fired twenty shots, and Clark was hit eight times, apparently mostly in the back. Clark was indeed unarmed, and when police finally approached his bullet-ridden body, they found only an iPhone. He died within minutes of being shot.

The city of Sacramento has been beset by protests ever since. While the protesters are angry and loudly demand justice, the protests have been largely peaceful. They have involved efforts to disrupt traffic and to block entry into the Sacramento Kings basketball stadium. As Nation sports columnist Dave Zirin reported in his piece, “Black Lives Matter and the NBA Collide in Sacramento”:

[P]rotesters made the decision to surround the Sacramento Kings’ publicly funded basketball arena, the Golden 1 Center, preventing fans from attending the game. As police closed in, the team locked the doors, keeping all the fans out, with the exception of a smattering of people who arrived early or entered through a VIP entrance. The game was subsequently played in front of empty seats, the silence of the arena standing in for the silencing of Stephon Clark’s voice. On Sunday, before the Kings tipped off against the Boston Celtics, players on both teams wore T-shirts during warm-ups with Clark’s name on the back and the phrase, “Accountability. We Are One” across the front. They kept the shirts on during the playing of the national anthem. Then, on the Jumbotron, the Kings and Celtics players played a public-service announcement calling for police accountability. In the video Celtic all-star Al Horford said, “We will not shut up and dribble.” Word also got out that former Sacramento Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Matt Barnes even offered to pay for Stephon Clark’s funeral.

Yet, as Zirin observed: “all of this athlete activism only happened because Black Lives Matter activists in Sacramento dared to act.” The Kings have subsequently done more, announcing a partnership with Sacramento Black Lives Matter and Sacramento Build Black to promote investments in educational opportunities and workforce training for young Black men.

Meanwhile, Sacramento’s Democratic Mayor, Darrell Steinberg, has announced that the city will undertake a full investigation of the shooting, under the independent oversight of California’s Democratic Attorney General, Xavier Beccera. While he has not prejudged the results of the investigation, he has acknowledged that “regardless of the conclusions there, the outcome was just plain wrong. A 22-year-old man should not have died that way.” He has also acknowledged that the shooting is a symptom of a deeper and more systematic problem: “I don’t believe our cops are racist. But that’s a different question from whether [implicit] racism pervades every aspect of community life, especially in law enforcement and communities of color.”

The situation remains tense. A few days ago protestors disrupted a City Council meeting. Tempers were raw. Clark’s younger brother, Stevante, jumped on the Council dais, denouncing city leaders and demanding justice. And yet city officials are attempting to be responsive. “There is deep pain and anguish,” Steinberg told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “It’s our job to bear some of that pain, and to help translate the anguish and grieving and the historic pain [of black communities] into tangible and real change.” And Daniel Hahn, the city’s first African-American police chief, is working hard to build community trust, to increase transparency, and to press for a just resolution of the Clark case. “Our city is in crisis right now,” he recently noted. “I’m going to assume we all know our relationship with the community isn’t where it could and should be. … If they truly trusted the police department and truly trusted we were going to get the facts … they wouldn’t do all this.”

Meanwhile the President of the United States, who has time to watch TV, phone Roseanne Barr, denounce Jeff Bezos, deliver numerous addresses, and golf, has said nothing (just like he did after the student-led March for Our Lives). And the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has said only slightly more, declaring that events in Sacramento are a local matter, that the White House of course cares about everybody, and that this is why Trump wants to create jobs, etc. In other words, nothing. (When asked about recent attention to the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, she also said “I’m not aware of any specific action [by the President]. Once again, it is a local matter”). Meanwhile, in the background, Trump’s erstwhile compatriot in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, remains hard at work to undo any progress that had been made on criminal justice reform under Obama, and to promote a harsh “law and order” agenda that empowers police officers and ICE agents to act with minimal concern for civil liberties or human rights.

This is not pluralist democracy in action. It is persistent racism and inequality, rhetorically encouraged and politically reinforced by an authoritarian Presidential administration. And, as even Sacramento Mayor Steinberg and Police Chief Hahn acknowledge, the situation necessarily breeds mistrust, and outrage; for it is simply wrong for an unarmed young man to be killed, by agents of the state, in this manner.

As a number of pieces published by Public Seminar make clear, this is precisely why #BlackLivesMatter is such an important social movement. As Deva Woodly explained in her January 2016 Public Seminar essay, “Black Lives Matter: The Politics of Race and Movement in the 21st Century”:

Where should we begin in accounting for the rise of the movement for black lives? The tragedy of 21stcentury America is that there are innumerable places one could begin. The grievances that have sparked the cry, “Black Lives Matter,” might be rooted in the killing of black bodies at the hands of police, or the exploitation of black citizens in the extortion schemes of local governments that seek to keep their taxes low amidst the hegemony of austerity politics. Or, it might be rooted in the lack of safety that black people feel in a polity that still regards them, as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out over one hundred years ago, as “a problem.” In this way, the new century is not much different from those previous — the state sanctioned and, often, state-implemented exploitation of black and brown bodies is, wretchedly, as American as apple pie.

As current events in Sacramento make clear, this is all very messy, uncomfortable, and contentious.

Here is Stevante Clark disrupting the City Council meeting:

Clark is surely no model of deliberative democracy or civil discourse. At the same time, it is obviously absurd to imagine that he — a young man dealing with shock and grief and an overwhelming media hungry for news — should be such a model.

Indeed, the entire situation exposes the limits of deliberation and civility. Critics of BLM like Mark Lilla are wrong to denounce this kind of politics, with all of its anger and acting out, for undermining democratic civility. Here is Lilla in his The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics: “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity [because] the movement’s decision to use this [police] mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society, and its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence … played into the hands of the Republican right.” BLM is of course not above criticism. But Lilla’s overblown and indeed frightening rhetoric (“Mau Mau tactics”) completely misses the mark. Writers such as Lilla and Thomas Edsall are very sensitive to the ways that BLM-type radicalism can disturb the sensitivities important to white middle and working class constituencies. Edsall, in his 1992 classic Chain Reaction, went so far as to describe white “backlash” as an almost natural process that predictably weakens liberalism.

But this critique seems to regard the status quo ante as somehow stable or perhaps even more desirable, and fails to take seriously the fact that the status quo has come to be intolerable for increasing numbers of Black people and especially Black youth.

There is nothing surprising here. It was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his classic defense of non-violent resistance, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — written 55 years ago — who noted that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Here is King:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue …

[But] We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

True, protests like the one at the Sacramento City Hall lack the decorum — and the Church-based ethical preparation — envisioned by King. But the situation today is rather different, in many ways, than the situation in 1963, in terms of culture, technology, the importance of the Black church, and the legitimate expectations of young people who have grown up in a country that pays lip service to King’s message. At the same time, invocation of “Mau Mau tactics” completely misrepresents the democratic contention that is going on. A police killing of an unarmed Black man takes place. Black citizens protest, along with many others. The victim’s brother angrily disrupts a Council meeting. The Mayor declares that such disruptions are intolerable. But instead of calling for mass arrests, he simply ends the meeting early, and declares his commitment, as a public official, to effect a public reconciliation. The disruptive brother then apologizes for the manner of his disruption, though not for the disruption itself (“What I want to do, first off, is apologize to the mayor,” said Clark. “I couldn’t imagine someone disrespecting me like that in front of my family. He’s a grown man. He deserves respect. I want to apologize sincerely to him, you know. I embarrassed myself in front of my mother.”) Demonstrations persist, as does an official investigation, and efforts of city officials, local elites, civic groups, BLM leaders, and ordinary citizens to address the killing in a legal but also a political sense. Nothing is (yet?) resolved. Nerves are still raw. At the same time, a kind of democratic process — imperfect, and plagued with injustice and misunderstanding to be sure — continues.

As Deva Woodly explains in her recent essay “#BlackLivesMatter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements”:

Social movements are often regarded as potentially hazardous disruptions, uprisings that interfere with the normal mechanisms of politics — insurgencies that must be either repressed or swiftly re-incorporated into the regular legislative process. In 2016, three years after its emergence, President Obama chided the Movement for Black lives by saying that it had been “really effective at bringing attention to problems” but claiming, “once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention [… and] elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.” He went on to say, “the value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, to get you in the room, and then to figure out: how is the problem to be solved.” Obama’s view is a common one, but it is also incorrect. The value of movements is something much more profound. Movements are what keep democracy from falling irrevocably into the pitfalls of bureaucracy and oligarchy described by Max Weber, chiefly: dehumanization, expropriation, and stagnation. This is important because democracy is more than the institutional — largely electoral — framework that is commonly associated with it. In truth, democracy demands a broad political orientation toward participation and citizenship from “the people” who are to govern.

Protest is an essential element of democratic politics. And by channeling alienation, anger, and outrage into collective action and demands for legal and policy changes, Black Lives Matter is a form of democratic empowerment. It is often disruptive and induces discomfort, because life is disruptive and often uncomfortable, especially for those largely young people moved to take to the streets to demand greater dignity.

As jazz critic Nate Chinen noted in the New York Times, this empowerment has been registered by a number of young jazz musicians of color.

Here is Terence Blanchard’s 2015 “Breathless,” a tribute to Eric Garner, choked to death by NYPD officers in 2014:

Here is Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah’s 2015 “Ku Klux Police Department”:

Here Kris Bowers talks about Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and his 2014 tune “The Protester”:

As Public Seminar’s recent symposium on Chris Lebron’s The Making of Black Lives Matters makes clear, the issues at stake are heavily gendered. Along these lines, Princess Nokia, singing “Brown Girl Blues” in 2017, is particularly apt:

These young musicians continue a legacy that goes back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And contemporary critics of BLM protests would do well to listen to Nina Simone, singing “Backlash Blues” back in 1967:

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do think I am
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam

You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that all the colored folks
Are just second class fools
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just what do you think I got to lose
I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
You’re the one will have the blues
Not me, just wait and see

But of course, as painful as it is to observe, many of the critics of civil rights protest did listen to Nina Simone. And, frightened, they crafted a politics of resistance to civil rights centered on mobilizing white working-class resentment: the so-called “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party. This is the truth of Edsall’s 1992 Chain Reaction. Part of the reason we are in the situation we are in today — with persistent racial inequality, and the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the reaction of “Blues Lives Matter,” and the rise of Trumpism — is because this politics of resentment has been so successful, in fracturing the political base of the liberal left and in solidifying the “base” of the Republican right. William E. Connolly’s recent Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism is a brilliant account of this.

Lilla’s denunciations of “identity politics” are both reductive and counterproductive. For they drive wedges where what is needed is the building of new political bridges. How can such bridges be constructed? I doubt that there are any ready blueprints. As I have observed elsewhere, we confront a “complex, fissiparous, and fractious social and economic situation, with a multitude of demands for remedy, recognition, and justice and a multitude of social actors and organizations insistently pressing these demands. It remains to be seen whether liberalism can rise to the challenge.” There are signs of hope, as Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor suggests in her recent Public Seminar piece on coalition-building, “Black Insurgency, Anti-Racism, and the Student Mobilization Against Guns: The similarities and differences of these social movements.” But there are also great obstacles.

Bernice Johnson Reagon was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who helped to form the Freedom Singers in 1962 and who served as one of the most important song leaders of a movement suffused by song. In a 1981 talk at the Yosemite Women’s Music Festival, Reagon offered a powerful account of the challenges of coalition politics called “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” In a 1994 essay “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home,” Bonnie Honig expanded on Reagon’s account, emphasizing that feminist politics, and indeed all politics, “is always riven by differences … [and] must be coalitional, not homelike, in structure.” Coalition politics is hard work. It involves difference and disagreement, danger and democratic negotiation. Reagon, of course, acknowledged that such a politics requires many tactics of coalition-building. In this 2013 interview with Bill Moyers, she talks about the power of music:

Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect, so people can walk into you way before they can get close to your body. And certainly the communal singing that people do together is a way of announcing that we’re here, that this is real. And so anybody who comes into that space, as long as you’re singing, they cannot change the air in that space. The song will maintain the air as your territory. And I’ve seen meetings where a sheriff has walked into a mass meeting and established the air because this is a sheriff everybody knows. And they’re taking pictures or taking names and you just know your job is in trouble and blah, blah, blah. The only way people could take the space back was by starting a song. And inevitably, when police would walk into mass meetings, somebody would start a song and then people would, like, join in and, like, as people joined in, the air would change.

On July 29, 2016, the SNCC Legacy Project, an organization led by many former leaders of SNCC, including Courtland Cox, Robert Moses, John Lewis, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, issued a public statement of support for BLM. It is worth quoting in full:

A growing chorus of conservative voices proclaims that the #BlackLivesMatter Movement is a terrorist group. These voices also claim that the very declaration that Black lives matter is racist, because all lives matter. This claim is a deliberate, cynical deception.

Indeed, it is both ignorant and malicious to insist that this generation should not cry out against unjust Black murders unless and until “all” murders have been eliminated. Fortunately, today, as in the past, the protestors who have taken to the streets against police violence will not be intimidated by slander or mischaracterization as “racist” or “terrorist sympathizers” born of the fear, ignorance and malice of their would-be critics. The interracial shoulder-to-shoulder bond of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators belies the hypocrisy of such would-be detractors.

The reason for today’s powerful and persistent insistence that Black lives matter is based on the irrefutable evidence throughout American history that Black lives have never mattered. The Black lives that were enslaved for 250 years never much mattered beyond the kind of economic concern held for livestock. The Black lives that suffered a hundred years of brutal segregation and discrimination following slavery’s abolition never mattered until Black people themselves raised their voices loudly in demand and battered down the walls denying their humanity.

We in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were part of that long struggle in the 1960s. We were met with harassment and resistance that included murder and other forms of violence. The voices of white supremacy insisted that Black lives were not human lives and any claim to human rights was subversive and threatening to the country.

With their protests and demands, the Movement for Black lives is continuing to exercise their rights, guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. We, the still-active radicals who were SNCC, salute today’s Movement for Black lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth for a knowingly forgetful world!

So, as Willie “The Lion” Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith used to say when they yielded the stage to the then-younger Muddy Waters, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and Louie Armstrong, after having played and sung themselves out by one or two o’clock in the morning on Beale Street, Rampart and Basin Streets, we of yesterday’s SNCC say to today’s #BlackLivesMatter, “Y’all take it from here. . .!”

“But, you know all the while, we still be humming with you in the background” … and sometimes while we walk beside you.

The struggle continues …

The statement both symbolizes and explains the living legacies of the civil rights movement and the need to continually revisit, and reinvigorate, this movement, in the name of both racial justice and democratic equality. Whether and how such a reinvigoration can succeed remains uncertain. And so it seems appropriate to conclude with this recording of Bernice Johnson Reagon, and her vocal group Sweet Honey on the Rock, singing “Eyes on the Prize,” the anthem of the civil rights movement that also furnished the title of one of the most important documentaries ever produced on U.S. history:

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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