Martin Luther King’s daughter believes the challenges of the past 15 months have strengthened her father’s legacy, not diminished it
Step out of the comfort zone in “A Conversation With White People on Race,” streaming now on Salon Premium
In honor of the National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women, Girls and Femmes, lawyer, researcher and activist Andrea J. Ritchie presents some policy ideas to eliminate police sexual violence, gendered racial profiling and other ways officers target Black girls, women and gender nonconforming people.
Groups sponsoring the National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women, Girls and Femmes include BYP100, Black Lives Matter Network, Project South and Ferguson Action.
Along with the collective call to #SayHerName, we also need policies that prevent and remedy the specific forms of police violence, racial profiling and criminalization that impact Black girls and women—cis and trans—and gender nonconforming people. In other words, we need to answer the call of Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who last month told the Congressional Black Caucus on Women and Girls:
I don’t come to sit and be a part of a caucus where we talk and do nothing. …Movements move. Activists activate. We have got to stop talking and move. …[I]t is time to wake up, get up, step up or shut up.
I have been studying how we can answer the call for an action agenda around Black women and policing over the past two years, as a Soros Justice Fellow. What follows is a list of seven starting points based on what I’ve found in a range of sources including my survey of 35 police departments, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, reports like “A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living With HIV,” and The New York Young Women’s Initiative‘s criminal justice recommendations released this week. I’ve also drawn from changes police departments have made due to public pressure and litigation.
This list is by no means definitive. Rather, it’s a starting point for an agenda that focuses on the particular ways that Black girls, women and gender-nonconforming people experience police violence. Each point represents an area where legislators and policymakers should take action, and where advocates can put pressure on them to act.
1. Problem #1: Black girls, women and gender nonconforming people experience gendered racial profiling.
Racial profiling takes on gender-specific forms including the policing of prostitution, pregnancy and motherhood. Officers particularly profile Black women as being engaged in prostitution based on the age-old jezebel stereotype. They perceive them as bad mothers based on stereotypes similarly rooted in slavery and the more recent “welfare queen” trope.
Statues such as “loitering for purposes of prostitution” also aid gender-based racial profiling. In many cases, police cite condoms they’ve found in women’s purses or pockets as evidence of prostitution. The combination of vague laws, dangerous police policies and entrenched stereotypes can make Black women who are simply walking down the street late at night carrying condoms grounds for arrest. These patterns of policing demand gender-specific and -inclusive responses.
New York City has led the way in adopting broad protections against multiple forms of racial profiling. Its End Discriminatory Profiling Act of 2013 is the most comprehensive, enforceable ban in the United States. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the NAACP recommend similar measures for departments nationwide.
- State and local lawmakers should adopt and enforce policies as comprehensive as New York City’s. On the federal level, Congress should pass the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which would prohibit profiling based on gender, gender identity and sexual orientation alongside race, religion and ethnicity.
- State lawmakers should repeal of vague “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” laws, and ban the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. Local police departments should independently prohibit their officers from criminalizing condoms as well.
Problem #2: Police are doing strip- and body cavity-searches of Black women in public.
In August 2015 at a Harris County, Texas, gas station, one male and two female police deputies overpowered and held down Charnesia Corley, a Black 21-year-old they suspected of marijuana possession. One female deputy pulled down her pants. Another sat on her back and cavity-searched her in full view of passersby. The horrific treatment of a Black woman is not unique. Public strip- and body-cavity searchers are experienced as sexual assaults, and should be addressed as such.
- Shortly after Corley was strip- and cavity-searched, Texas legislators passed a law specifically banning body cavity searches during traffic stops unless the officer obtains a warrant. All of the other states should follow suit to bring search practices in compliance with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution.
Problem #3: Police sexual violence goes unreported, ignored and unpunished.
Although there is currently no official data collection on the issue, study after study by law enforcement leaders, former police officials, academics and community groups demonstrate that police sexual misconduct is a systemic problem. In 2010, the Cato Institute found that sexual violence was the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct, after excessive force. Other research shows that officers disproportionately target women who are young, of color, trans and gender-nonconforming. Police also single out women who are criminalized through the war on drugs and prostitution enforcement. In surveys of 35 police departments across the country, I found that 52 percent don’t have any policy that specifically addresses police sexual violence against the public.** An investigation by Al-Jazeera America found similar results.
Additionally, the investigation and prosecution of police sexual misconduct is largely left to the police themselves, along with local prosecutors. Survivors are already reluctant to report sexual assault to authorities, but they are particularly hesitant to tell the police departments that employ their assailants. This is especially true for women who are—or are profiled as—involved with drugs or prostitution. Daniel Holtzclaw’s serial rape and sexual assault of scores of Black women made this plain.
- The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) should collect national data about police sexual violence against civilians through the Police-Public Contact Survey and other national surveys.
- The DOJ should develop and disseminate a model policy as recommended by the President’s Task Force and deny federal funding to police departments that refuse to ban all forms of police sexual misconduct, create prevention strategies and ensure accountability for officers who sexually abuse civilians.
- The DOJ should mandate, expand and audit police departments’ compliance with the 2003 Prison Elimination Act. This legislation and accompanying regulations set standards for the prevention and detection of sexual misconduct in all places of detention, including holding cells.
- Civilian oversight bodies and special prosecutors appointed to address police misconduct should be equipped and required to receive complaints of sexual violence. They should be able to support survivors, investigate police, and impose discipline up to and including firing guilty officers.
Problem #4: Police officers conduct illegal “gender searches” on trans people of color.
Transgender and gender nonconforming people are all too often subject to officers searching their bodies because they are curious, want to assign them a gender based on anatomy, or degrade them. These searches plainly run afoul of the Constitution. With the passage of HB2 in North Carolina, police could very well begin conducting such searches outside public bathrooms. Because they come into frequent contact with police due to racial profiling and discriminatory enforcement, gender searches disproportionately impact trans and gender nonconforming people of color.
- The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing unequivocally calls for explicit bans on gender searches.
- In partnership with advocacy organizations, the DOJ should develop, disseminate and monitor how model policies are implemented to ensure that authorities respect the rights and dignity of LGBTQ people
5. Police are beating and using TASERS on pregnant Black people.
While the idea of a police officer punching a pregnant woman or shocking her with 50,000 volts of electricity is shocking but not uncommon. The cases of Raven Dozier, Nicola Robinson, Tiffany Rent, Lucinda White, Malaika Brooks illustrate the need for clear and strong policies banning the use of TASERS, chokeholds, pepper spray, forcible takedowns and other forms of excessive force against pregnant people. Yet, fewer than half of the 35 police departments I surveyed around the country over the past year had a policy limiting this kind of force.
- Police departments should impose and enforce strict bans on use of force against pregnant people.
Problem #6: Black women are dying in police custody due to neglect, refusal of medical care and use of force.
All too often, Black women and women of color are perceived as deceptive, undeserving of medical care and incapable of feeling pain or illness. In July 2015, at least five Black women—Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones and Raynette Turner—died in police custody. This January, 16 year-old Gynnya McMillen died in an Elizabethtown, Kentucky, juvenile facility after staffers took her down using a so-called aikido restraint. Staff members failed to check on McMillen overnight, a policy violation. When they found her unresponsive in her cell the next morning, they waited for more than 10 minutes to act.
- Keep girls and women out of police custody by minimizing enforcement and detention for traffic and low-level offenses.
- Use independent monitoring to ensure that staff are following detention policies.
- Demand accountability from law enforcement personnel who fail to provide medical treatment to individuals in police custody.
Problem #7: Police are searching people without identifying themselves or the reason for the encounter.
Regulation of consent searches is particularly important to Black women because they are so often sites of sexual harassment, abuse, unlawful gender searches and drug patdowns. It is hard enough to hold an officer accountable for profiling and violence. It’s even harder when you don’t know the officer’s name and you aren’t empowered to exercise your rights during an encounter.
- Police departments should adopt the President’s Task Force recommendation that officers be required to identify themselves and explain why they’ve stopped, detained and arrested a civilian.
- Officers should be required to advise people of their right to refuse a search without legal basis. They should also be required to show proof of voluntary, informed consent to searches. These common-sense policies that are already in place in cities, from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Denver.
Of course, changing police policies is not a panacea to police violence against Black girls, women and gender nonconforming people. In order to to strike at the root of the issue, we need to transform our responses to poverty, violence and mental health crises in ways that center the safety and humanity of Black women and our communities. Still, taking action in these seven areas would go a long way to reducing harm while we work toward deeper systemic change.
Andrea J. Ritchie is a Black lesbian police misconduct attorney, organizer and co-author of “SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” She was a 2014 Soros Justice Fellow, a member of INCITE! and co-author of “Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.” She has been organizing, advocating, litigating, writing and agitating about police violence against women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. Ritchie is currently at work on“Invisible No More: Racial Profiling and Police Brutality Against Women of Color,” and is a contributor to “Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect?, books coming out in 2017.
**Post has been updated since publication for precision. Fifty two percent of police departments surveyed didn’t have any policy that specifically addresses police sexual violence against the public, not just women.
We have known for years that the war on drugs is a war on Black people, their families and their communities. Books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness have made a compelling case that through the machinations of the criminal justice system, a new caste system has been created in the U.S., and African-Americans have become the raw materials for mass incarceration. Now, there is evidence that going after Black people was all by design, that this is how the Nixon administration had intended it in the first place.
In “Legalize It All,” the April cover story of Harper’s magazine, journalist Dan Baum — author of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure discusses his 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, was Nixon’s chief domestic adviser who had spent 18 months behind bars for conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury as a result of the Watergate cover-up.
In the 1994 interview, Ehrlichman shared with Baum the impetus behind Nixon’s drug war:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
On June 17, 1971, Nixon announced to Congress his war on drugs, citing the rise in narcotics deaths in New York and other cities across the nation, and the effects of drugs on society as grounds for a greater federal role in drug control.
“Narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime. The cost of supplying a narcotic habit can run from $30 a day to $100 a day. This is $210 to $700 a week, or $10,000 a year to over $36,000 a year,” Nixon said, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Untreated narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people — young people — on drugs,” he added.
“We must now candidly recognize that the deliberate procedures embodied in present efforts to control drug abuse are not sufficient in themselves. The problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency. I intend to take every step necessary to deal with this emergency,” Nixon declared. “The magnitude of the problem, the national and international implications of the problem, and the limited capacities of States and cities to deal with the problem all reinforce the conclusion that coordination of this effort must take place at the highest levels of the Federal Government.”
As Baum noted in Harper’s, while Nixon manufactured the war on drugs as a cynical political tool, every administration since that time has exploited it for its own purposes. For example, while Nancy Reagan told kids to “Just Say No” to drugs, Ronald Reagan ushered in the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, which led to zero-tolerance policies and police in the schools, and the arrest of children of color. And Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill into law, which allowed for the expansion of the incarceration state. This, as billions of dollars have gone down the drain, countless lives have been lost to drug-related killings in Latin America, including 100,000 in Mexico alone. And the U.S. has emerged as the world’s largest prison population, with 5 percent of the people in the world but one quarter of the prisoners.
Meanwhile, communities of color have been destroyed and criminalized by design. One in three Black males and one in six Latino males can expect to go to prison in their lifetime — and we know this was no accident, and not by happenstance or the result of immoral people making bad choices in their personal life. Rather, the war on drugs was about devious people in high places choosing to wage a multi-generational assault on Black America. And we are reminded of the quote from mobster Giuseppe Zaluchi in The Godfather, who said of the drug trade, “In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” Although that was the work of fiction, we know that real-life gangsters operating in government plotted in eerily similar ways.
“The war on drugs has always been more about war than about drugs,” Baum told Atlanta Blackstar. When asked about the origins of the war on drugs, and his insights into the consequences of such policies on people of color, the author offered that such measures were in play even long before Nixon.
“Going back to the early 20th century, when state legislators would thunder about Mexican ‘beet peons’ smoking marijuana, Chinese ‘opium-stupefied drones,’ and ‘cocainized negroes’ threatening white womanhood, criminalizing and vilifying ethnic groups by associating them with drugs has been a shameful American tradition that hasn’t entirely gone away,” Baum said.
Nevertheless, the question that remains is, given all we know about the damage of the drug war — the lost lives and livelihoods, the shattered dreams and broken families, and those who have profited from Black pain and suffering — how do we go about repairing the damage that was created by this deliberate campaign? How does a government begin to make amends for going to war against a segment of its population, and how does society make them whole?
BlackCommentator.com Executive Editor, David A. Love, JD, is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.
“I don’t come here playing games with you all,” said Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas jail cell last summer. “I don’t come to sit and be a part of a caucus where we talk and do nothing,” she continued.
Reed-Veal was speaking at the Library of Congress, part of the first symposium of the newly formed Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. “Am I angry? Absolutely,” said the mother, who said she does not believe her daughter committed suicide. Her testimony instigated tears and loud sighs in an audience filled with black women. The officer who arrested Bland, Brian Encinia, was fired.
Below is the full transcript of Veal’s short but emotionally powerful speech.
I want to say to all of you who sit here today, thank you. Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to be here today. Sometimes it’s rough. I don’t have a big long statement to read. What I’m going to say to you is that I’m here representing the mothers who are not heard, I am here representing the mothers who have lost children as we go on about our daily lives. When the cameras and lights are gone, our babies are dead. So I’m going to ask you here today to wake up. Wake up. By a show of hands, can any of you tell me the other six women who died in jail in July 2015 along with Sandra Bland? That is a problem. You all are among the walking dead, and I am so glad that I have come out from among you. I heard about Trayvon, I heard about all the shootings, and it did not bother me until it hit my daughter. I was walking dead just like you until Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas.
Let’s get something straight. I as a mother do not believe she committed suicide. I will say that until it’s proven. But if you want me to believe that my daughter—that I sent down there sitting up, driving her own vehicle—would be sent home in a capsule in the bottom of a plane with luggage on top of her, that I’m going to shut up? I will not. I will not. I will continue to speak for every mother paralyzed because of the loss of their child. Six, and Google them. I’m looking at your phones. Take two minutes and Google the other six that died in jail. We’re not talking about that year, we’re talking about the month of July. 18-50 [years old]. Kindra Chapman allegedly stole a cell phone; 20 hours later she hung herself. Alexis McGovern downstairs in the infirmary dead, her family upstairs paying the bond. Nobody has spoken these names. And as I go around the country speaking, the fact that no pen is raised in a room, where six other women, aside from my daughter, have died. And nobody knows their names. That’s a problem.
The tears are real, the pain is real, the problem is real. So, I don’t come here playing games with you all. I don’t come to sit and be a part of a caucus where we talk and do nothing. You, you, you, you don’t know my pain. God forbid you go up to another grieving mother and say you know how she feels, that is a lie. Unless you have lost a child. Am I angry? Absolutely. I’m not angry enough to create a riot where I burn things down, but I will create a riot, I will set off so that people will understand that this is real. Movements move. Activists activate. We have got to stop talking and move. So I leave you with this: it is time to wake up, get up, step up, or shut up.
Watch the speech below:
Are your children being taught about Oregon Racial Laws in School? If not, demand that they be taught the bad with the good about Oregon History! If the school won’t teach Oregon racial history than it is your responsibility to teach your kids. “Sugar Coating” history does far more harm than good.
1844 Slavery is declared illegal in the Oregon Country. The infamous “Lash Law,” requiring that blacks in Oregon – be they free or slave – be whipped twice a year “until he or she shall quit the territory,” is passed in June. It is soon deemed too harsh and its provisions for punishment are reduced to forced labor in December 1844.
1848 Oregon’s Provisional Government passes the first Exclusion Law in the Oregon Country. It is unlawful for any Negro or Mulatto (of mixed ethnic heritage) to reside in Oregon Territory.
1850 The Oregon Donation Land Act becomes law, granting free land to “whites and half-breed Indians” in the Oregon Territory. Blacks, however, are prevented from claiming land in Oregon.
1854 Oregon’s Exclusion Law is repealed. 1855 Law is passed preventing mixed-race males from becoming citizens.
1857 Although slavery is illegal in the Territory, a bill to protect slave property in Oregon is proposed in the Territorial Legislature. It is voted down on the grounds that it would grant special rights to slave owners. Meanwhile, a new exclusion law is added by popular vote to Oregon Bill of Rights
1859 On February 14, 1859, Oregon becomes the first state admitted to the Union with an exclusion law written into the state constitution.
1862 Oregon adopts a law requiring all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians, and Mulattos residing in Oregon to pay an annual tax of $5. If they could not pay this tax, the law empowered the state to press them into service maintaining state roads for 50 cents a day. Interracial marriages between blacks and whites are banned in Oregon; it is against the law for whites to marry anyone ¼ or more black.
1866 Oregon citizens do not pass the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to blacks. The state’s ban on interracial marriages is extended to prevent whites from marrying anyone who is ¼ or more Chinese or Hawaiian, and ½ or more Native American.
1868 14th Amendment passes in Oregon.
1870 The 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote, is added to the U.S. Constitution despite failing to pass in both Oregon and California. The federal law supersedes a clause in the Oregon State Constitution banning black suffrage.
1883 An attempt is made to amend the Oregon Constitution to remove its ban on black suffrage. The effort fails despite the fact that the clause in question was rendered moot following the passage of the 15th Amendment. Further attempts to remove the language prohibiting blacks from voting were made in 1895, 1916, and 1927.
1914 The Portland chapter of the NAACP, the oldest continually chartered chapter west of the Mississippi River, is founded. 1926 Oregon repeals its exclusion law, amending the state constitution to remove it from the Bill of Rights.
1927 Oregon State Constitution is finally amended to remove a clause denying blacks the right to vote.
1951 Oregon repeals its law prohibiting interracial marriages.
1951 Insurance surcharges for non-white drivers are removed.
1959 Oregon voters finally ratify the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Courtesy of the Teaching Research and the Oregon Quality Assurance in Teaching grant (OQAT).
By Kat Endgame, PQ Monthly
On the morning of December 10, I sat down with renowned community activist Kathleen Saadat to discuss the recent protests in Portland and nationwide over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, as well as the growing list of unarmed African-Americans killed by white police officers. Born in St. Louis, Saadat moved to Portland in 1970 to attend Reed College. Since then Saadat has worked with numerous organizations, touched all levels of government, worked to organize the first gay rights march in Oregon in 1976 and served as Diversity Director for Cascade AIDS Project. You can read a full profile on Saadat online at PQ’s Queer Heroes NW page.
PQ Monthly: How do you see and experience race and sexuality intersecting in the issue of police brutality?
Kathleen Saadat: I am black and lesbian and if the police are abusing me, they’re not just abusing the black part of me. I am indivisible. We are indivisible, as human beings. We have our characteristics and our traits, and anywhere you go, you bring them with you. When people ask me what comes first, I say, “You can’t divide me that way.” The names that we have assigned the various parts of ourselves are social constructs; we accept them as real whether they are or not. Race, for instance, is a social construct based on myth. Gender? Well, that’s becoming more flexible, isn’t it? I think we need to have another language for talking about ourselves. We need to think about our language for talking about ourselves as human beings. I want to be a part of that big global “we.”
PQ: I feel like there’s tension between the desire to achieve a global sense of “we” without losing the specificity of our oppression.
KS: Oh, I agree. That’s one of the consequences of oppression. Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the concentration camps in WWII and talked about Jews who picked up pieces of Nazi uniforms and put them on themselves. The oppressed begin to identify with the oppressor or with the oppression. If I have been assigned a role in society, how do I get out of it and who am I going to be when I get out of that role? Some find this frightening to think about.
PQ: What do you think the next step is for activists attempting to hold police accountable in Portland and beyond? Who should lead that work, and how can the rest of us support them?
KS: There is no one next step, there are several. The people who should lead those next steps are the people who know about what needs to happen. Established organizations need to play a role in policy change. Certainly in Portland, the Albina Ministerial Alliance should be part of working with police and to restructure the [criminal justice] system. People who have been victimized by the system have voices; those must be heard.
There is no one step because even as you take that first step toward police accountability, you will introduce other issues. You’re going to introduce, well, what about these gay people that keep getting beat up by the police? What about this woman who was raped by somebody who had a key to her jail cell? Our work has to be multi-issue. If we want change the institutions, we have to learn to recognize that it’s not just about yelling at the system. There has to be a continuum from me, the person who’s yelling, all the way to the person who is changing the policy, or institutional structures. Otherwise, you’re just shouting in the wind.
There is no institution in our country that is not biased. This is collective, big picture stuff—not individual. What about the whole group of people who are denied a decent education? Or denied good health care so they can participate in the education that they need? What about all these issues? We have to look at them together as an entire interactive system. We can’t just say we’re going to pick on this institution and not that one—they work together.
PQ: I think many of us come to the conclusion that the revolution must be intersectional, that it must be on all fronts, for all people.
KS: Yes, and that’s not new. Sojourner Truth said, “Do not give black men the vote without giving black women the vote, because then you leave his boot on my neck.” This issue of intersectionality has always been there. We know that the systems are skilled at exploiting the fears that set us against one another. What do we do to keep working together?
PQ: What would you say to those in PQ Monthly’s audience who feel tremendously outraged but don’t have any idea where to put that outrage?
KS: If you really want to, you can find a place. You can go to organizations, you can go to a march, you can introduce yourself to people. Yes, it’s scary, it’s all scary. I mean, it’s scary to stand in a group of 2,000 people and know that at any moment the police may come and spray you with something that may alter your life. I’ve gotten older and I can’t stand as long and being cold just makes me grumpy. But I’m looking at the young people who are doing all kinds of things all across this country and there’s no reason that you can’t find a way to hook into that. It just requires a decision to do it. Go to your church, to your social group, to your social media and ask! “Where do I l find a way to get involved here in Bloomingdale, Illinois?”
“I don’t know what to do” is in the way of so much. Well, we don’t know what to do a lot of the time either! We just know to make some noise. We don’t know which noise to make, or which direction to take it until we get together and start having a discussion about whether our noisemaking has done what we want it to do. That’s where I think the older generation comes in handy—you have to exploit those brains that have done this before. Ask us what we think. You don’t have to do what we say! Just ask… ‘cause we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, just get a better sound system, that’ll improve your rally. Or don’t have the rally on a Tuesday afternoon. Your best time is Friday, rush hour, people going home.” You know these things from your own experience that you can hand to somebody else. What I want is to give younger people the benefit of my experience.
PQ: Do you like Octavia Butler?
KS: I love Octavia Butler.
PQ: Do you ever feel like we’re living in the prologue to Parable of the Sower?
KS: I would have to go back and read it again to answer that question. What I feel like we are living in is a global upheaval. Now, you can say in China it’s about this, or in Mexico it’s about that, but the common refrain is people saying, “This is enough.” We’ve got American Indians saying, “No pipelines across our land!” And we’ve got black people saying, “None of this!”
PQ: Where do you feel white allies fit into the struggle for racial justice and police accountability?
KS: Our allies have to figure that out, and if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me. Now, if you know that what endangers me ultimately endangers you, there’s the answer to your question.
I think the people who are asking where do the white allies fit are frightened. They want to know where they can go so it’ll be easy and they won’t have to learn anything new. Well, there isn’t anywhere like that. There were white allies in the ’60s. We’ve been doing this together all along. White allies need to get over the hump of fear; it can still be there, but you can decide that it’s not an impediment to your action.
PQ: Right, get past the white guilt.
KS: White guilt is totally useless. It serves no one. Not even the white people who feel it.
PQ: I’ve been present for the Ferguson protests in Portland, and for probably the first time I can remember, I’ve had the experience of watching the nightly news report and feeling that reporters weren’t completely dismissing the protestors as lunatics or potential terrorists. The tone felt a lot more sympathetic. Do you feel like the media’s tone has shifted in any meaningful way?
KS: I think it’s shifted a little, but I don’t know how meaningful it is. We have to remember that the media is in the business of selling controversy. We can like or dislike the story; we just have to remember what they’re selling is controversy. We have to tell our own stories, which is a good thing about social media; we share our own stories, we post our own pictures. I think, for America in general, witnessing the murder of Eric Garner in such graphic detail has made people pay attention. It means reporters have to pay attention. People see how it doesn’t work for us and ultimately how it can be that it won’t work for them.
We’re the surface at this point, but they’re not just doing it to black people.
PQ: Right, the police are unaccountable everywhere.
KS: A lot of ink has been spilt lionizing or denigrating those who’ve engaged in property destruction in Ferguson and beyond. Do you think that property destruction can exist inside of the framework of an overall nonviolent protest movement? Does its presence distract from or add to the gravity of that movement?
I understand frustration. Back in the ’60s, I understood for the first time in my life the inclination to throw a brick through a window. The window didn’t have a name and it didn’t have a color; it would be the sound of the glass breaking that was going to give me some relief from the tension and the rage that I felt. I didn’t do it. I probably still wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think it helps much, except as a release of personal rage. When you’re talking about advancing a movement for peace, or a peaceful movement, you automatically exclude those things that are seen as violent, and property destruction, in this country, is seen as violent.
You are looking at broken hearts. You are looking at people grieving, and they have no other way to grieve. It is our body lying in the street. It’s our body, and it’s “Somebody killed us again.” You’re looking at hurt and disappointment, which does not lend itself to a rational approach to politics. You’re looking at anger. You’re looking at years and years and years of grief.
We need a place for public grieving about this. I’ve been talking to people about this and I see tears pop up in their eyes. Where do we grieve over this and what does our grief bring us?
PQ: It either breaks you or it transforms you, right?
PQ: So, how can we offer up the space and energy to allow it to transform us, instead of break us?
KS: Precisely, and what does it mean in the larger context? If I went downtown today, went and took a chair and said, “I am grieving a loss of confidence in my government, I am grieving the loss of lives across our country.” What if I just sat there and cried? What kind of response would I get? I wonder if other people would sit and cry with me.
We’ve lost something. People have lost hope.
PQ: You’ve been doing this a long time. You’ve been involved in radical work, organizing in nonprofit management, and all kinds of struggle for social justice. What sustains you in that struggle, and how do you avoid burnout and hopelessness? What’s your secret?
KS: It’s not a secret. I believe in what I’m doing. I totally believe in the possibility of human beings working together to make things better for all of us, and better doesn’t mean having more money. I believe I’m valuable and the people around me are valuable. I believe in redemption. I believe in reconciliation, in forgiveness, and I believe I don’t know every goddamn thing. It took me a long time to get there.
I know that if I become a cynic, they’ve won. I know I am blessed in every sense of that word, and my obligation is to take the skills that I have and to use them to make things better. I live a really comfortable life. I sleep in a warm, dry bed every night. I’m blessed. That means I have an obligation. So that keeps me going. Other things that sustain me are my computer games, movies, arguments with friends and allowing myself to feel sad—allowing myself to feel sad because it is sad that we even have to have this kind of a conversation.
My friends are critical. Friends saw me through the stint I did on the steering committee against Ballot Measure 9 [in the 1990’s]. If I hadn’t had people holding me up, I would never have made it. Support from people like Jack Danger made the difference. She helped me think, and she gave me so much support that I didn’t even know was there until afterwards. That was a terrible, terrible time. I was fighting outside and fighting inside. Racism is a part of the gay and lesbian community, just like sexism is a part of every community.
PQ: We are indivisible.
KS: We are indivisible.
PQ: One last question. In your best estimation, how do we win? How will we know when we have won?
KS: The answer to how we win may be situational, but there are some basic tools that we need; without them we will not win. Coalition is one. Assumption of good will, until proven otherwise, is another. You cannot do this work if you keep flashing your ego. Compassion, empathy, a willingness to work with people, a willingness to understand, a willingness to forgive. You cannot have a movement if you don’t have forgiveness. You cannot have a marriage, a partnership, anything that lasts beyond the first fight, if you do not have forgiveness. So part of what we have to do if we are to win is forgive each other for the present and the past. Let’s start here.
In terms of knowing when we’ve won, it’s when we feel good about the world we’re living in. It doesn’t mean the world will be perfect, but it does mean that that old man down in Florida’s not going to get arrested for feeding hungry people.
It does mean that when somebody hears somebody say, “I can’t breathe,” they stop. They stop, and they say, “Let me help you breathe.”