We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. — Mississippi civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hammer
In the 1960s, black people demanded to be treated like human beings with all the rights of citizens. They did this by engaging in non-violent social disruption. It was a somewhat passive-aggressive way of challenging America to live up to its democratic ideals. They knew that whites would violently retaliate and they had to endure that. In particular, white law enforcement officers would frequently beat the shit out of them.
In another country, such barbarity would be met with violent insurrection. Since blacks are a minority in this country, such an understandable reaction would be self-defeating. The civil rights movement was trying to appeal to the consciences of their fellow Americans who were in the white majority. But it is difficult to remain non-violent in the face of wrenching oppression.
There were victories and defeats and things got messy. Riots broke out in response to police violence. Someone dragged out an old poem by Langston Hughes that said:
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind
Beware the day
They change their mind.
Columnist Shaun King notes that, “Being black in America, from 1619 until today, has always required a painful level of pretending for the sake of survival.”
In the late 1960s, the media talked about “black rage.” There was Malcolm X, the black power movement and the Black Panthers. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there were riots everywhere. It is quite certain that those riots helped make Richard Nixon president with his “law and order” message.
But things would calm down. Over the years, an increasing number of blacks were elected to office around the country. The Democratic Party became more multicultural and multiracial. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was quite successful as a presidential candidate in the 1984 and 1988 primaries advocating for not only racial justice but a full array of progressive reforms similar to Bernie Sanders (who supported him). The GOP was becoming increasingly white and Southern. Republicans stoked white racial resentment but with a coded, dog-whistle bigotry.
Then “No Drama Obama” showed up. Barack Obama was cool, calm and eloquent. His message of hope was popular. Some said this was the birth of a “post-racial” America. Obama knew better. But after his election, he was determined to be the president of all Americans, not just blacks. Still, he was frequently reminded of his ethnicity in a negative way. The signs at the Tea Party rallies featured grotesquely racist caricatures of him. The birthers, led by Donald Trump, kept asking for his birth certificate.
Obama pushed criminal justice reform in his second term. Since the Republicans blocked him in Congress, he used his Department of Justice (DOJ) and issued many executive orders on prisons, sentencing and policing. He made it illegal for most federal agencies to ask job applicants if they had been convicted of a crime. He ended the practice of placing federal juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement. He began phasing out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. He launched several initiatives promoting community policing and alternatives to incarceration. He commuted the sentences of a record number of federal prisoners. He issued clemency to nearly 1,000 inmates during his time in office, more than his last three predecessors combined.
The president commissioned the 21st Century Task Force on Policing after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and hosted roundtables where criminal justice activists and law enforcement officials discussed issues.
New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait notes:
“The last few years of the Obama administration were one of the most productive periods of criminal justice reform in American history. The Obama administration changed sentencing guidelines to reduce the disparity in the treatment of drug crimes that had disproportionately harmed black defendants. As part of an effort to inculcate a ‘guardian, not a warrior’ mindset, it restricted the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments. Most importantly, it formed consent decrees with more than a dozen police departments to force them to change their practices.”
Under Obama, the DOJ vigorously pursued “patterns and practices” interventions into civil rights violations of police departments. These probes increased more than 50% over the Clinton and Bush years. His administration used these investigations to impose federal oversight on eight big city police departments over its two terms. In their 16 years combined, Clinton and Bush oversaw only six.
Philip Atiba Goff, president and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, said, “There was a moribund civil rights division (of the DOJ) that was rejuvenated like Lazarus when Obama took office in 2009.”
When Trump became president, all of this was swiftly reversed by his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. His second attorney general, William Barr, didn’t have any Obama reforms to destroy.
But Barr has made it clear that he hates criminal justice reform. He denounced the election of “district attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”
In another speech, Barr said, “If communities don’t give [police] that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
In 2017, Trump addressed a police gathering in New York state and joked about police brutality toward people being taken into custody. The local police department felt compelled to issue a statement saying they didn’t support “roughing up” prisoners.
Now Trump tweets about deploying “the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons.” The overwhelming majority of protesters are peaceful while a small minority are engaged in idiotic vandalism. Sound and fury signifying rage, despair, hopelessness.
I am worried that the vandals may help reelect Trump.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.