President Obama invited Ferguson’s leaders into the Oval Office on December 1, but could they get an invite to speak on a bandstand on the very issue they pushed into the news around the world? Nah. Speech, press conference, summit, repeat. That’s been the black “leadership” plan over the last six years. Ashley Yates, Johnetta Elzie, and Deray McKesson: Remember those names.
For some odd reason, there was confusion about whether Ferguson activists could speak at the #JusticeForAll march called by Sharpton’s National Action Network on December 13. There should not have been confusion. If history is a guide, it likely had to do with the well known fact that Sharpton is finicky — to put it mildly — about who speaks at events he’s connected with. But when there are few policy wins, who talks gets oversized importance.
In the case of the Ferguson activists who kicked off a round of never before seen global attention on the issue of police brutality, an invite should have been automatic. Why wouldn’t it be? The reason is obvious: Certain leaders will never ever ever ever exit the stage. The idea that the next generation should “wait their turn” is perfectly laughable since everyone knows they will never be granted one.
Young activists did what someone should have done a long time ago: They took the mic away from old leaders and started talking. Seems like I remember a story of Jesse Jackson, Sr. doing the same once. Somewhere I read that John Lewis was told to sit down and shut up 50 years ago. We’ve been watching press conference, march, summit, repeat for years. It’s long past time for something new.
I was there for the moment in 2013 when there was, “no time” for Dream Defenders Executive Director Phil Agnew to speak at the March on Washington 50th anniversary. As Agnew walked to the podium, Sharpton arrived and started speaking. Funny how that happens. Were we really supposed to believe that a ten hour program couldn’t spare Agnew two minutes? At Mike Brown’s funeral, Sharpton ended the speeches with himself. And just think, we’re not talking strategy yet — just speaking. Not only have young leaders been marginalized they have been deliberately blocked by old ones. Next year yet another “leadership summit” is planned by the oldheads. Let’s see the speaking list.
This would all be fine if black leadership was racking up policy wins. But they aren’t.
When it comes to the issue of police brutality, certainly Sharpton is not the real issue or the true problem. He’s also not the solution. Michael Stewart in 1983. Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984. Amadou Diallo in 1999. Patrick Dorismond in 2000. Sean Bell in 2006. Eric Garner in 2014. Sharpton has been around the issue of police misconduct for over three decades. What are his wins? If you’re the White House’s anointed “go to” man on Black issues one would think an occasional victory would be easier to come by.
Johnetta Elzie lives in a town where a cop became a millionaire after killing an unarmed teenager. Then that teen’s body lay in the center of the street from noon until after 4 p.m. What followed was straight out of the American law enforcement tradition: brain dead lack of compassion, deliberate arrogance and purposeful confrontation and lots of tear gas.
In the weeks that followed, cops shoot two other Black males to death under questionable circumstances. One had a butter knife that police claimed he threatened them with in “an overhead grip” style. A tape emerged proving they were liars. Ms. Elzie wouldn’t stay quiet when everyone said shutup and calm down. She didn’t stay quiet on December 13th either.
This isn’t about a microphone. It’s about who decides strategy. It’s about who decides “what’s next.” It’s about power and what will be demanded from whom. Already we see that Ferguson leaders could care less about whether the White House is happy at the expense of focus on issues in the Black community. For four years Sharpton has deliberately avoided challenging the President on any issue. Has that worked? Could Martin Luther King have won policy victories without pressuring Lyndon Johnson? How is it’s possible that Sharpton can walk in and out the door 61 times in six years and have nothing to show for it?
Meanwhile, Hispanic and gay leaders won ENDA and DACA and $1.2 billion in the CRomnibus for immigration relief at the border as Pell Grants and pensions are cut. All to the silence of civil rights leaders.
And what is the current backdrop? The economic situation is worse for African Americans. The unemployment rate being double has been accepted as “how it is.” The wealth gap between black and white is the largest in 25 years as Black “leaders” said nothing as President Obama agreed to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. The percentage of Blacks in poverty is 27% as community block grants were cut to the silence of leadership. When 54 mostly black schools closed in Chicago “black leaders” said nothing. When the Obama Administration cost HBCUs $150 million, and 28,000 students at HBCUs had their education interrupted there was little pushback. What were black leaders pushing for and against? What were they doing as these policies were being decided on?
The activists in Ferguson brought us to this moment on police brutality. Not the leaders we’ve seen standing in the White House driveway over the last six years. For anyone who wants to tell themselves that questioning current leadership strategies is somehow “majoring in minor things” ask yourself: How many more years can the Black community survive without real progress being made on major issues the community must confront?