Here we are again. That familiar yet uncomfortable place between paradox and irony. Ongoing acts of unbridled state-sanctioned murder of Black people have stirred a storm of Black rage and protest. In a society where too many Black folk became a little too comfortable and bourgeois, we activists and organizers welcome the recent flood of Black rage and protest around the murder of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and others….right?
Well that’s where things get tricky. As righteous indignation and irreconcilable discontent give way to bitterness and rage, little things like wisdom, long-range thinking and responsible leadership get kicked to the curb. This is an unfortunate development – one that partly compromised the Black Power Movement of the late 60s and 70s, and one that threatens to self-sabotage our present-day movements for freedom, justice and safety. With this in mind, we must pause to address some disturbing developments taking place around the issue of our protest against racist police brutality.
1. When news of Michael Brown’s murder hit, activists from around the country mobilized and descended upon Ferguson, Missouri to join local protest activities. This of course, was inspiring and helped to make the protest movement there sustained and intense. However, some of those outside activists took the position that if one didn’t go to Ferguson, one was somehow disconnected from the “real” struggle. By privileging this struggle over others around the country, and by “guilting” activists who were unable to travel to Ferguson, or who were engaged in important local activities, such people made a critical mistake. In truth, “the enemy and the struggle is everywhere.” At any given time, we face a multitude of issues that require our energy and organizing. Activists cannot allow ourselves to create false divisions, become ambulance chasers, or demoralize other activists dealing with equally important issues like education, imperialism, or mass incarceration for example. It is true that some issues take higher priority than others. But it’s also true that there are more than enough of us around the country to address multiple issues simultaneously. Also, if activists are politically educating our people, and teaching them to challenge their oppression, we should support them, not criticize them for not being a part of one particular issue in the way we define it. This is an arrogant and logistically poor position to take.
2. I’m hearing seasoned and traditional activists critique neophyte activists for participating in non-traditional forms of activism (i.e. using social media, blogging, online petitions, etc. Again, this is an arrogant and inflexible position. As I recently posted on Facebook:
Shout out to all of you doing something to challenge police violence against our people. Please do not allow anyone to impose their standard or definition of activism on you, or make you feel that your way of organizing doesn’t count. It’s almost 2015. The one Black spokesman, three national organizations model was problematic (patriarchal, top-down, inflexible, bureaucratic ) and is no longer viable. There are SEVERAL ways to protest, educate and organize today, and there are SEVERAL genuine people doing the best they can to play a part in the process. Remember the often misunderstood quote of brother Malcolm: By ANY means necessary. Our enemies use every means imaginable to subjugate us. Why are we still using only 1 or two forms of protest to liberate ourselves? I may not find certain forms of protest effective, but I support them. Get in where you fit in!
3. Some people who are more militant in their approach, seem to think it’s appropriate to praise the random murder of two NYPD officers on December 20, 2015. One can be outraged by racist police brutality AND have compassion for humanity and decency. I believe in our right to defend ourselves from attack by anyone, and I stand on that belief. However, I respect and value life and think it irresponsible for anyone to publicly praise or condone the murder of the two cops (one Latino and one Chinese, by the way) who themselves are innocent (have no demonstrated record of police brutality, nor of encouraging or allowing it). The struggle as I understand it, is against police that use excessive force, and prey on people of color. Our struggle is also against the police department as an institution functioning as an occupying army in our neighborhoods. We must be careful not to allow our rage to push us to impulsive or inhumane positions/actions, even as we confront the ills of our often wicked society. Borrowing from classic Black literature, we cannot hide underground and isolates ourselves like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, nor can we become cold, heartless Tin Men like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas.
4. At the same time, I am deeply disappointed and disgusted with those among us who are civilians or on the police force, who write strong posts empathizing with those slain officers and their families, but had NOTHING TO SAY when OUR innocent people were killed by police with impunity. Unlike those officers, these young men and women have no powerful union providing them benefits, no media personalities describing them as “brave heroes” who were “assassinated” or “executed by madmen,” flags flying at half-mast, or a national period of mourning. These young Black victims committed no crime, their killers have gone free (in at least one case with known false testimony). Furthermore, in every case from Trayvon to Mike Brown, the mainstream corporate media criminalized our slain brethren (robbed a store, flashed gang signs, illegally sold cigarettes) as if to subtly imply that these individuals deserved to be killed! This begs the question: Is our rallying cry, “Black lives matter,” or is it “Black lives matter less (than whites or police officers?)
We should not tolerate the devaluation of our lives. We will not sit quiet and allow others to mistreat us. If you are upset about police brutality, and want to get involved, you can do so without physically attacking anyone or travelling to a distant city. Join the #WEFIGHT2BREATHE campaign and voice your outrage through peaceful protest right in your own city on MLK Day (January 19, 2015.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.