(Tribune News Service) — When President-elect Joe Biden addressed supporters last week to accept the highest office in the land, he took a moment to thank one specific group of Americans.
“When this campaign was at its lowest, the African American community stood up again for me,” Biden said. “They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Leading Black Lives Matter activists plan to hold him and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to that I.O.U. with a vengeance.
In a tumultuous election year, one that both gave rise to a new civil rights movement in response to the death of George Floyd and saw Black Americans suffer disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic and staggeringly high unemployment, Black Lives Matter activists are asking the new administration to make Black matters paramount.
“For decades, Black people have shown up time and time again for a country that consistently tells us that our lives don’t matter,” said Mary Hooks, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Atlanta and co-director of Southerners on New Ground, a social justice advocacy organization. “Beyond a cheap thank you, we need this administration to be bold and unapologetic about paying that debt through enacting policy changes.”
After Biden accepted the presidency, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors wrote an open letter to Biden and Harris saying “we want something for our vote” and asked for an immediate meeting.
To date, no meeting has been set, which is concerning, said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and co-director of Black Lives Matter Grassroots, a national organizing arm of the organization.
“Hopefully this is just a delay,” said Abdullah, who also is a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “We need to be sure this administration realizes that Black people voted out Donald Trump. Because of us, we saw a massive turnout and a rejection of blatant racism.”
The degree to which the incoming administration works with groups such as Black Lives Matter will help answer a larger unresolved question: how much influence will the progressive arm of the Democratic party have over a career centrist such as Biden and Harris, a former California attorney general, during the biggest reckoning on civil rights and racism since the 1960s?
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a milestone achievement anchored by Martin Luther King, Jr., that landmark legislation far from erased the hurdles facing Black Americans, whose educational and economic opportunities continue to be stymied by legacies of slavery and systemic racism that surfaced in the form of redlining, redistricting and other restrictive measures.
Biden has promised to assemble a cabinet that includes voices from across the Democratic spectrum. Despite charges by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that Biden and Harris will “defund, dismantle, and dissolve police departments,” the Democratic leaders do not support defunding the police. It remains to be seen how Biden and his team will handle other demands from Black leaders.
Biden should ‘acknowledge’ BLM
Biden’s acceptance speech nod to Black voters and his choice of vice presidents — Harris being the first woman and first Black and South Asian American in the position — suggest the incoming president is aware he has debts to pay, says Todd Boyd, the Katherine and Frank Price endowed chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“There seems to be a consciousness on Biden’s part that African Americans had a lot to do with him being victorious,” said Boyd. “As to whether Black Lives Matter in particular has leverage, well, they’re not a huge lobbying group like the National Rifle Association. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get acknowledged.”
It is not an overstatement to say that Biden’s campaign was brought back from the dead by a March primary victory in South Carolina fueled by the work of South Carolina Congressman and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who is Black and was an organizer during the 1960s civil rights movement. That endorsement soon had a snowball effect.
Although Trump gained some ground with Black male voters this election, African Americans in crucial swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and recount-poised Georgia were instrumental in delivering the White House to Democrats.
In return, Black activists say, the winning ticket must take immediate action on matters such as health care, housing, education and, perhaps most paramount, police reform.
A Biden administration could provide a swift change in how law enforcement tactics are discussed across the nation.Trump has repeatedly voiced support for officers while calling those protesting for change “left-wing mobs,” a stark contrast to the previous Obama administration where Biden served as vice president.
After the officer-involved deaths in 2014 of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, President Barack Obama established the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which pushed for such killings to be investigated by independent prosecutors.
Since Obama left office, Black Lives Matter, which was founded in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, has become a leading voice on civil rights issues. The loosely organized movement gathered renewed momentum following the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Despite social distancing mandates spurred by COVID-19, protests attended by diverse groups of Americans spread across the nation. The movement soon began calling for an outright defunding of police departments. Although some Democrats bristle at the slogan — including Clyburn, who recently warned that the defund battle cry “is killing our party” — activists are resolute.
“Our clarion call was defund the police,” said Abdullah, the Los Angeles organizer. “That might not resonate within the core of the Democratic party, but it resonates with people on the streets.”
In Abdullah’s hometown, voters just approved Measure J, also known as “Reimagine LA County,” which requires that 10% of the city’s unrestricted general funds be invested in social services and alternatives to incarceration.
“That slogan means what it means, we can’t keep investing in a system that harms people of color and expect a different result,” said Angela Waters Austin, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Michigan, based in Lansing, and CEO of the activist non-profit One Love Global.
Like many activists of color, Waters Austin supports the national passage of The Breathe Act, a project of the non-profit Movement for Black Lives that proposes sweeping changes to the way tax dollars are allocated, emphasizing social programs over incarceration and providing grants to promote environmental health and social justice.
Education, housing also pressing for Black activists
Other social issues also need attention, said Marcus McDonald, founder of an independent chapter of Black Lives Matter in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Trump set us back in so many ways, so I’m hoping this new administration will quickly take action on things such as funding public education and embracing the Fair Housing Act,” said McDonald, CEO of Adesso Entertainment. “Biden has a chance to once again make things non-partisan. Affordable health care, wearing a mask, things like that there’s no middle ground on.”
Atlanta activist Hooks does not shy away from a defund the police demand — “It is a lifeline we need to save ourselves and future generations,” she said. But she also is keen to push for a range of other changes from a Biden-Harris presidency.
With COVID-19 disproportionately hospitalizing and killing people of color, Biden “must prioritize a stimulus package that halts evictions,” she said. What’s more, beyond implementing the federal Breathe Act, the new president must expand Medicaid, expand rights for the LGBTQ community, and set a “dignified” federal minimum wage.
“Lastly,” Hooks added, “we need reparations for the descendants of Africans both here and abroad, period.”
In many ways, Black Lives Matter activists pushing a progressive agenda on mainstream politicians is part of a time-honored approach to achieving incremental societal change, said Omar Wasow, assistant professor of political science at Princeton University in New Jersey and an expert on protest movements.
“There’s always been a classic tension between insiders and outsiders, where popular movements are purposefully more extreme in their views than those of officials in power,” said Wasow. “Now we’re starting to see more subtle arguments, such as a rethinking of how much funding goes to armed officers and how much maybe should go to people who help those with mental health issues, many of whom are killed by police officers.”
Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, has been in the streets for years fighting for social justice. The city came to a boil in 2018 after Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, was killed by two police officers who shot him in the back after mistaking his cell phone for a gun.
More recently, flag-waving Trump truck caravans rumbled through the state capital, which made her cast doubts on the possibility of a Democratic win.
Biden and Harris’s victory “was surprising and is positive,” but it is not a cause for unguarded celebration, she said.
She pointed out that for many in the Black community, Biden’s missteps include his 1994 Crime Bill, a “tough on crime” law signed by President Bill Clinton that led to a surge in incarcerations, as well as his defense of Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination hearing when Anita Hill’s charges of sexual assault were questioned.
As for Harris, who served as California’s attorney general and the district attorney of San Francisco, Faison said she has come under fire by activists for a track record that includes refusing to prosecute police officers.
“This election was about getting Trump out, but I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm behind Biden,” she said. “We have to move away from believing police without questioning anything.”
Black Lives Matter Sacramento, like many other Black Lives Matter chapters, did not endorse a candidate during this election. Rather, Faison and other activists simply urged voters to get informed and get to the polls.
“If you know what you’re talking about, it makes it easier to then hold people’s feet to the fire,” she said.
Faison plans to keep doing just that. While she hopes the power of the Black vote brought to bear on Biden’s win makes the Democratic party take the demands of the African American community seriously, she assumes her activist work is far from over.
“Asking for equity is not a radical position,” Faison said. “The fight for Black liberation needs to keep going.”
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