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Newsletter – Afromation Is A Response To Black Deaths

Above photo: By Larry Cohen

Last week we wrote that racially-biased policing in the US is killing all of us. The nation, especially black communities, is suffering from racially-based trauma. Many people in the United States try to turn away from the police violence, deny it is racially-biased, despite videos showing the reality.

IMG_2075-300x200We do not condone violence, but it is easy to understand why Micah Johnson, a young black man who was indoctrinated with military mentality and may have experienced trauma from police either directly or indirectly, would respond violently. It was an act of the racial trauma many live with, as one father describes: “The first rule we teach our children as a matter of survival is, ‘Be polite and respectful when stopped by the police.’ We know that it may not save them any more than it saved Philando Castile, but we teach them anyway.” It is amazing that harassment, arrests, beatings and murder predominantly of people of color and the racially-biased policies that oppress black communities have not resulted in more violence.

This week the New York Times inaccurately reported that racial bias was not shown in police shootings against blacks. They were telling white America what it wanted to hear. The article was repeated in the conservative media and gave excuse to those who claimed there really is not a problem of police shootings against blacks. The problem was, it was false, inaccurate and exaggerated. Samuel Sinyangwe wrote in Medium that the NY Times report ignored an “entire research body of evidence pointing to the existence of racial bias in police shootings (See: this studythis study, and this study) was overshadowed by a single study (that wasn’t even peer reviewed).”

Sinyangwe pointed out that the study involved only one police department, Houston, where the conclusion is questionable since in 2013, “57% of people killed by Houston police were black despite black people comprising only 25% of Houston’s population.” The study reached its questionable conclusion by controlling for how officers reacted to black and white subjects in “similar situations”  based on police descriptions of the situations, which we have seen during these series of killings are often in accurate, even intentionally dishonest. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 2.03.53 PMThe media denying an obvious reality, particularly obvious to blacks who deal with police on a regular basis, adds to the racial trauma and increases the likelihood of retaliation. It is the country closing its eyes to a major problem, despite mass protests trying to expose and confront the issue. This increases frustration. How can we be heard?

Micah Johnson shot at white police officers at the end of a peaceful protest in Dallas, TX killing five. In that situation police and protesters worked together to bring people to safety and to identify who was wounded. Despite that, the commercial media immediately turned on the Black Lives Matter movement saying that it would have to take responsibility for the shooting. Nicole Colson wrote about the irony of this, “Of course, neither the Times nor anyone else in a position of power makes the same call for law enforcement to accept collective responsibility for the police murders that take place several times a day across the country. In those cases, we’re told, it’s just ‘one bad apple.'” 

Although most of the protests against police brutality have been peaceful, the police have sometimes responded to them with more brutality. This happened recently in Baton Rouge, LA during a demonstration over the killing of Alton Sterling. The ACLU described the police’s actions as a “military-grade assault on protester’s bodies and rights” and they are calling for a restraining order on the police. We experienced another assault on protesters’ and bystanders’ rights yesterday in Baltimore.

Afromation Protest in Baltimore

1freddieBaltimore, where we live, is a deeply segregated city with a stark wealth divide. For decades, police have routinely patrolled black neighborhoods where they harass and arrest people of color without probable cause. This practice escalated when Martin O’Malley was the mayor and was running for governor. In order to beef up his record of addressing crime, police under his command arrested tens of thousands of young blacks and held them overnight in jail for no reason, then released them without any charges. It has created generations of black Baltimoreans who are traumatized by police and have lost opportunities to advance in their lives as a consequence. It has also created a police culture that continues to abuse communities of color. Remember, Freddie Gray was chased by police without any cause and it resulted in his death.

In response to this environment, black youth in Baltimore organized an action called ‘Afromation’ to raise awareness and to celebrate Assata Shakur’s birthday. The protest was organized by Bmore Bloc, City Bloc and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). Popular Resistance and others joined the action to provide support. What is ‘Afromation’?  It is an “affirmation of black lives in the face of so much black death.”  In their statement describing the protest, they wrote:

“‎#Afromation‬ is an affirmation of black life. It is a gathering of persons dedicated to reversing the cycle of brutalization, desensitization, and surveillance. It is black lives affirming the significance of their existence in retaliation to the systems that have continuously sought to deny this affirmation.  It is only through a formation of undying will – in the form of resilient love and support – dedicated to affirming the existence of blackness, that we will break the chains that bind us. It is only through constant reclaiming of our lives, against a world that continues to take our lives, that we will win our freedom: freedom from endless cycles of violence, death, struggle and policing. #Afromation is our fight for freedom, and it is our duty to win.”

IMG_20160716_175454‘Afromation’ began with a march through the streets and then through a large annual arts festival called Artscape. Although Baltimore is a majority-black city with a thriving black artistic community, the festival is organized by an almost all white steering committee. Many black youths already felt distanced from the event. As Afromation marched through the festival, the march grew to hundreds of people. Demonstrators chanted, among others, a chant based on Assata Shakur’s statement: “It is our duty to fight for out freedom. It is our duty to win. We must respect and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

As the march approached Baltimore’s Penn Station another group of protesters went onto a highway that cuts through Baltimore, I-83, to block business as usual in order to tell the city and the nation — we must face up to police killings of African Americans and stop it. Traffic was stopped without any serious risk to anyone. The Artscape crowd grew, looking over the highway banisters to watch the protest. Some people came down the entrance to I-83 from Penn Station which had been closed for Artscape. Hundreds watched while about two dozen blocked the highway. When the police arrived and ordered people off the road, they responded by moving to the shoulder and began to leave the highway.

Afromation protest 7-16-16 by Larry CohenThe police then made a tactical decision to ensnare and arrest everyone — which turned out to be mostly people watching the protest. They blocked off those who were on the entrance to the freeway which had been closed to traffic. The people were mainly onlookers who were taking pictures and videos on their phones and sharing them on social media, but the first to be arrested were the legal observers and organizers. Protesters blamed Lt. Thompson of the Baltimore police, who has been a thorn in the side of the freedom to protest in Baltimore, for the unnecessary mass arrests. In the end, 65 people were arrested included ten youth. They were taken to the Northern District and Central booking. Some were held inside police vans for 5 or 6 hours, others complained about bruises on their wrists from being in tight handcuffs for too long. All were held overnight and finally released.

Afromation had two reasonable demands:

-Create a civilian review board for police investigations, ensuring that the citizens on the review board are elected through a clear, transparent and fair process that will allow ordinary persons in and from the communities in question to serve on the board. The community has a right to self-determination and a right to have an impact in the process of bringing a sense of justice and safety back into their own community.

-Reallocate 10% of the Policing budget away from militarization of local police forces and mechanisms of community control and surveillance, and towards community programming.

So far, the city has shown tone deafness to these reforms. The police budget is the largest in the city while schools, recreation programs, health care and other essentials are underfunded. The police have cost the city millions of dollars in settlements of lawsuits against them. The police continue to militarize rather than de-militarize. The only candidate to accept these demands was Joshua Harris of the Green Party, while the Democrats, who have controlled Baltimore for three generations, remain silent to their demands. The government should not be surprised when protests escalate. What other choice do people have? They want their city to represent them, but the city seems deaf to their important concerns.

One county is taking racism seriously. The board of Fairfax County, VA voted to consider racial and social equity in its decisions going forward. Joshua Harris, mayoral candidate of Baltimore, also promotes using a racial equity lens in his platform.

Attacks on Black Lives Matter Movement

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

It is no secret outside the US that we are a country rife with police brutality. The United Nations Human Rights Council calls it an “epidemic of police violence, discrimination, needless killings and general neglect.”

Police in the US know this is true as well. One officer audio-taped a performance review in which he was chastised for not racially profiling. He has now joined other New York officers in a lawsuit over racial quotas. Kazu Haga explains that the system is not working for police either. They are human beings who are also traumatized by their experiences. The police officer who shot Philando Castile was clearly panicked.

It is this broken system that the BLM movement, through persistent and creative actions, is working to highlight and to change. In a rational world, these efforts would be welcomed and respected, but in the US, both the media and the security state are working to oppress them. A college professor explains how the media blinds so many people to racism in the US: “ It is because we are inundated with little seeds that many of us do not see. I see these seeds because they nearly killed me throughout my life, so I trained myself to see them, as a survival tactic. Many of us never notice them at all.”

1brThe Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has been using Freedom of Information Act requests to discover that the FBI, Homeland Security and other security agencies treat peaceful protests as violent threats. The same tactics that have been used against past peaceful movements are now being used against the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the face of media and security state attacks, we must be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and work to expel the myths that we live in a post-racial society. William C. Anderson writes about some of the steps that need to be taken. One step is to build bridges with other oppressed peoples around the world and grow a movement against imperialism. Another is to recognize that activists will be surveilled, targeted and punished, so we must do what we can to protect each other.

All of this takes organization. As marchers stated recently in Boston: This wasn’t a march; we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people taking the streets, this was an organizing meeting. The real work starts now.”



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