† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
On Birmingham, #Ferguson and the Meaning of Movement
by nancy a heitzeg
From the earliest days of unrest after the murder of Mike Brown, comparisons have been made to the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly Mike Brown himself evoked thoughts again of Emmett Till, as for 4 and one half hours, the whole watched as his body lay in the street. We saw what they had done to Leslie McSpadden’s boy. Then came the Ferguson Police Department with the dogs, reminiscent of Birmingham, the Bloody Sunday-like excesses of official response to non-violent protesters. And, in the 68 days since Mike Brown’s death from August 9th through #FergusonOctober, there have been unrelenting marches, protests, sit-ins, shut-downs, flash mobs, and more.
The comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s have been furthered by both activists and media. 1964 = 2014. Ferguson = Birmingham. But does it ?
Although there are many points of comparison there are questions too. What has changed? What does that mean for movement vision and tactics today? There are many questions to consider– no concrete answers to had. Movements of course are organic – by their very nature , they evolve to address the issues of the time, and past movements are never a perfect template for present or future. Movements emerge and take on a life of their own that no amount of planning or calculated questions can ever fully account for. But ask we must. And since History is a Weapon, Eyes on the Prize can serve as one of our guides.*
What is the difference between challenging laws that openly mandated racial segregation and resisting de facto systemic racial violence that is now largely hidden? How can that be clearly revealed? How do we confront and dismantle the criminalizing narratives that muddy the waters in the cases of murder by cop? What does the Ferguson Movement mean on a national scale? Is it enough to critique police brutality? to demand arrests and punishment? to “reform” the system” What do we want? What do we need in order to ensure that a central component of justice is dismantling structural racism and other structural violence? What is our vision of a truly just and caring society?
How has the multiplication and fragmentation of media outlets since 1964 create new movement opportunities and dilemmas? How does social media both amplify and distract? What are the most effective uses? How do we translate on-line activism into action on the street and sustained, grassroots community organizing for structural change? How do we define, disseminate and sustain a unifying narrative without getting trapped into the too-narrow confines of “single issue” formulations? How does that unifying narrative help forge strong relationships across movements and constituencies? How can various audiences be reached, be persuaded to empathize and act?
How do successful tactics of the past translate in the 21st Century? How will the movement manage divisions and distractions — rein in conflicts over leadership style, work with coalitions, and competing organizational agendas/fundraising? How does a boycott work in the global capitalist economy of 2014? What is the target and the economic impact? Does a jail-in make sense in the era of mass incarceration? If yes, who is going and can they afford to ? Where are we sitting in and why? Will civil disobedience have a direct action focus — what will be the leverage point?
The Long Haul
* Eyes on the Prize is an American television series and 14-hour documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The documentary originally aired on the PBS network and also aired in the United Kingdom on BBC2. Created and executive-produced by Henry Hampton at Blackside, Inc., the series uses archival footage and interviews of participants and opponents of the movement. The series has been hailed as more than just a historical document. Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor and editor of the published papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “it is the principal film account of the most important American social justice movement of the 20th century”. Because of its extensive use of primary sources and in-depth coverage of the material, it has been adopted as a key reference and record of the civil rights movement. If you haven’t — watch them all.
History is a Weapon — so use it.