Updated: Jul 22, 2020
THE multiple days of national and international public outcry over the murder of George Floyd allegedly by four Minneapolis police officers, particularly Derek Chauvin, have been emotional and impressive. On Saturday June 6, more than 10,000 people gathered in Washington, DC, alone, for a series of rallies and protests, several of which began in the heart of the city before participants marched through downtown, stopping at the White House or the U.S. Capitol—all structural symbols of the United States government built decades ago, in part, by black laborers.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, engaged in a territorial battle with President Donald J Trump, over the use of federal police on District streets, kicked off Saturday’s demonstrations with her own. The day before, she had muralists paint in bright yellow the words “Black Lives Matter” on the portion of 16th Street NW that leads into Lafayette Square and the White House. That action won her much praise and attention. However, it was mostly a publicity stunt, or as one leader of Black Lives Matter called it “performative and a distraction.”
Not to be out done, BLM perpetrated in its own performative distraction. Some of its members and supporters painted “Defund the Police” on the same street a few blocks away.
Defund the Police has become a rallying cry for many. Is it realistic, however, given the many urban centers overwhelmed by violence—not just that of police against its African American residents?
Despite the celebration of a multi-generational, multi-racial and multi-ethic demonstration of outrage, there is no question that the painted signs will fade. People will return to their homes, their anger somewhat satiated. The media ultimately will turn their attention to a new and shiny ball, as they did after the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner, whose ‘I can’t breathe comments were repeated by Floyd as Chauvin’s knee was dug into his neck for 8 minutes and 46 second. American institutional racism likely will go underground for a few years, but with the right conditions will come roaring back as it has under the Trump presidency.
Some of us believe this the right moment for the creation of a Peace and Reconciliation Commission. Such a system could permit people to fully air their police-related, racism instigated grievances while recommending thoughtful policy changes.
Truth be told, racism is a learned phenomenon. We know no one is born hating people who don’t look like them.
The other day, I watched a young black girl, who could not have been more than five- or six-years-old, marching in a protest and angrily asserting “No Justice, No Peace!” Her entire body, heart and soul were invested. I worried, however, about whether seeds were being planted in that moment that wouldn’t just make her wary of the police but of all white people--all people who didn’t wear her color.
Writing recently in USA Today, Larry Schooler, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called for the creation of a Reconciliation Commission. Of course, we remember The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by former South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela. But Schooler noted that other countries and states, including Greensboro, North Carolina also have established such bodies. “Each of these empowered laypeople to solicit testimony on issues ranging from apartheid to the mistreatment of Native Americans and indigenous Canadians, from autocracy to alleged police misconduct. Race pervaded much of the work done by these commissions, as did law enforcement,” wrote Schooler.
Each year, Australia has a presented Reconciliation Week program. It “promotes and facilitates respect, trust and positive relationship between the wider Australian community and Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
I have spent the last 20 years of my life working with a nonprofit organization focused, in part, on reconciling families, especially estranged daughters and fathers. I know the power of having the opportunity to confess wrongs and ask forgiveness. I know that people can restart, permanently changing their behaviors for their personal benefit and that of those in their families and communities.
A Reconciliation Commission is much broader certainly. Still, properly established and advanced, it has the power to heal and permanently reshape American society.
Folks who have been around for a few decades and have participated in rallies, demonstrations and civil disobedience know that in America protests often are temporary expressions of dissatisfaction that yield few permanent changes. Sure, there are some results of which people can be proud: After the Women’s March of 2017 in which more than 4 million people participated nationwide—some wearing those cute pink cat hats—an unprecedented number of women were elected to political offices in states legislatures and in the national government.
But what happened after the Million Man March? What happened after the Occupy Wall Street Movement? Truth be told, the Women’s March appears to be struggling to sustain momentum.
As a former professional community organizer, I know protests aren’t designed to be lasting. They are galvanizing tools, meant to bring attention to an issue. Behind the scene others are supposed to be developing a platform that can implemented and sustained.
The classic and iconic example or template for people-driven change has to be the Southern Civil Rights Movement. It was launched in Montgomery, Alabama as a bus boycott, instigated by the calculated refusal of Rosa Parks to relinquish her seat for a white rider. That was in 1955.
It took those folks nine hard and dangerous years-- battling vicious dogs, fire hoses blasting, full-force on children and adults, illegal arrests and jailing, Klu Klux Klan murders and other forms of unfettered racism—to win passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The next year the Voting Rights Act also was passed by Congress.
Many people lack appreciation for the discipline of those early civil rights leaders. Observers don’t appreciate the strategic nature of that movement or the patience needed to advance the agenda in the face of overwhelming fatigue, the loss of life and temporary defeat. The leaders and their supporters never lost sight of their goals and ensured that others didn’t either.
Part of their success came from actually changing perspectives and hearts of people who initially had turned a blind eye to the pernicious effect of Jim Crow laws. Frequently, demonstrations included associated teach-ins, deliberate efforts to help people practice nonviolence, nonviolent demonstrations but also to gain a greater understanding of the commonality of their humanity without regard for color or class.
As civil rights advocates got deeper into their fight, however, they came to appreciate the insidious and expansive reach of racism. They pivoted. Then, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
That fight against wholesale racism continues. It awaits a national leader to bring it into sharper focus. Floyd’s death could be the vehicle to take people there. Unfortunately, many seem focused solely on the police.
BLM has advanced “Defund the Police” as its key platform. What if a few million dollars are cut from multibillion-dollar budgets? Is money really the problem?
Consider these facts: In 2019, Washington, DC spent $1.67 billion for public safety out of a $13 billion budget. In 2018, it spent $1.62 billion, according to an independent audit report presented by the DC office of the Inspector General and the DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
In 2016, spending on public safety and justice was $1.79 billion. That dropped the following year, 2017, to $1.59 billion. What real differences were made by the reduction of funds that addressed the concerns raised in police strategy or its handling of arrests? Does less money guarantee reduce police brutality like what millions of people saw in the execution-style murder of George Floyd?
Equally important, American racism is not exclusive to local or national police forces. The focus on “defunding” police departments may result in the redirection of a few million dollars here or there. It will not attack the fundamental problem of institutional racism and its first cousin classism, however.
We see the indisputable impact of institutional racism and classism in public-school systems—K-12. Each year, young black, low-income children receive substandard education even when those systems are operated by people who look like them. We see it in housing policies that keep poor and working-class families locked in neighborhoods devoid of opportunities and resources critical to their success in the larger society. We see it in the design of employment training programs whose options are limited to industries that are not growing or positions in developing industries that do not expose African Americans or people of color to upper-level management careers.
We see racism’s impact in healthcare insurance practices that too often deny low-income families and people of color services that would prevent them from being victims of a disease like COVID-19. And we see it in the government’s inability to address the devastating consequences of trauma being experienced by young children of color each day, much of it caused by poverty and income inequality.
Defunding the police will not resolve any of those issues. Attacking institutional racism will.
A Reconciliation Commission can systemically begin to address the legacy of that racism. It can open the door to collective healing for both perpetrator and victim. It can set the course for eroding or completely eliminating policies that perpetrate race and class discrimination.
Rather than matching each other with painted street signs whose life-span is predictably short, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and the leaders of the DC Chapter of Black Lives Matter along with other organizations that have been dedicated to peace and creating common ground can pledge to move beyond the temporary. They can join forces, establishing a DC Peace and Reconciliation Commission to begin the hard work of transforming not just local government policies but also the hearts and minds of local residents.
It may take years to produce tangible, measurable results, as we saw with the Southern Civil Rights Movement. But there is no time like the present to start.
So, get to work.
Photo: DC.Mayor Muriel Bowser with U.S. Rep. John Lewis on Black Lives Matter Plaza, courtesy DC Mayor. Photo: San Francisco's Women's March 2017 (c)City and County of San Francisco, CA. Photo:signing of legislation(c)civilrightsteaching.org