The massive demonstrations by immigrants and their supporters have been magnificent to behold – many hundreds of thousands in cities across the country, with total participation well over a million. Most progressives are ecstatic, believing that a new era of activism has begun. But, as a Black man, I’m feeling twinges of a different emotion: shame.
I have long held that one reason for the generally poor protest record of African Americans, locally and nationally, over the last few decades is due to the mass incarceration of Black youth. Movements are youth-driven. Historically, and everywhere, young people are the energy of mass protest. When a critical mass of Black youth are locked up or under some version of criminal justice system control – such as parole and probation – it is understandable that they will not be anxious to confront state power.
I still believe this is a factor – but then we witnessed the glorious turnout among immigrants, a high proportion of whom were liable for deportation should they fall into police hands during a confrontation. Yet they still marched, and chanted, and nobody covered their faces. It has been suggested that the demonstrations were so large and enthusiastic because the immigrant community is desperate, wracked with fear of the Republican’s draconian immigration bill. But that doesn’t explain it. Fear paralyzes, or causes the person to flee, to hide. There has been no evidence of paralysis among the immigrants. There they were, moving steadily forward, hundreds of thousands in plain sight.
The immigrants put Black America to shame, with their high levels of organization and effectiveness, their fantastic morale and strong sense of solidarity. It is true that African Americans staged the Million Man and Millions More rallies – ten years apart. One was a mass spiritual gathering, the other more like a huge picnic. The first, in 1995, produced no demands. The second, in 2005, produced so many demands that there might as well have been, none. And that, I believe, gets to the root of the problem, the cause of the collective apathy and quietude in Black America. We have been unable to mobilize around a few paramount demands.
This is a problem of leadership – and I don’t mean individual leaders, but the class of people who assume leadership in Black cities across the nation. Black folks need and want a living wage. Black youth are treated like beasts by the criminal justice system. But the leadership class in Black America cares more about Black business contracts than a living wage, and doesn’t want to even talk about mass incarceration. In fact, most of these so-called leaders don’t want mass mobilization – they would rather act as power brokers, deal cutters. They discourage us from making demands for the masses.
And so, the immigrants, with their unity around a shared demand, have shamed us. One can only hope that they have shamed us into action, and that we learn from their example.
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