Black Lives Matter ... Too Much for Polite Town Hall Meetings

SOCIAL JUSTICE MATTERS-The scene in the pulpit at Holman Methodist Church was likely very distressing to Rev. Kelvin Sauls. 

The sanctuary, site of countless staid services where he personally spoke to the church faithful every Sunday at 8 and 11 a.m., had been, in his view, disgraced by the incivility of 'Black Lives Matter' protestors. 

Efforts to establish order after a group of at least 50 protestors repeatedly stood and turned their backs when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke from the pulpit had been an utter failure. 

Nevertheless, Rev. Sauls forced a photogenic smile as he faced the stern-faced young activists with their raised voices and fists in the air. 

As Rev. Sauls announced to the audience that the town hall would conclude prematurely, the Mayor's sharp-faced assistants looked worried. Undoubtedly they had endorsed the beautiful “church of the bells” as the last place where strident and angry protests would take place. They had probably advised Mayor Garcetti that African American pastors command great respect and authority in the Black community and would have the effect of tempering any discord. 

Having spent 25 years researching African American communities, I would have generally agreed with this perspective. We were all wrong. Increasingly, ministers and other traditional Black community leaders who accrue influence based upon their presumed ability to deliver Black community acquiescence, are finding themselves less capable of delivering. In this case, it appears that the manipulative decision to hold this town hall in the sanctuary backfired. 

At the October 19 town hall, protestors demonstrated their contempt for the Mayor, his representatives, and everyone else who treated the deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of the LAPD as an "agenda item" squeezed between discussions of the Metro line and the 2025 Summer Olympics bid. 

'Black Lives Matter' has quickly become much more than a slogan. The burgeoning grassroots movement has rapidly reclaimed ideological territory lost in the wilderness of “respectability politics” and color-blind rhetoric. The movement proclaims the humanity of Black people without apology or exception. Pairing a proclamation of inherent humanity with demands for responsive community policing has proved a galvanizing combination. 

This movement has shown that it will not be easy for the Mayor, police chief, or any of their paid staff representatives to contain. The usual tactics of ordering reports, delaying pronouncements, and manipulating media attention have not met with success with these atypical activists of 'Black Lives Matter'. The “official processes” have resulted in a lack of police accountability and are intolerable to the new generation. 

In fact, even the response of “community leaders” who endorse following an official protocol script in the hope of obtaining concessions, seems laughable, not laudable to this group. The apparent support that traditional leaders give to the illusion of progress, as opposed to its substance, seems to deny the inherent dignity of Black lives. 

In many ways, Ezell Ford's death on the streets of Los Angeles, coming two days after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, is emblematic of key conflicts between police and community everywhere. It also seems representative of the chasm between the approaches used by traditional community “leaders” in Los Angeles and the less hierarchical, less male-dominant 'Black Lives Matter' activists. 

Interrupted while walking in his neighborhood, Ezell Ford was shot and killed by police. Why? Lots of reasons were given, such as, “he moved his hands as though he may have drugs” – but no drugs were found on his body or in the area. Another explanation was that it was a "gang area" and the police "believed he might have been armed.” This particular justification should give all those who dream of a just society serious pause. 

Protestors at the October 19 town hall meeting in Los Angeles wanted a forthright appraisal regarding our communities being labeled as "gang areas," giving all those who live within it only limited rights as citizens. Black Lives Matter activists in Los Angeles and around the country have drawn attention to the inherent injustice of policing practices and official justifications of police shootings with seemingly no accountability to the public. 

Using tactics criticized by government officials, political elites and the media, Black Lives Matter has snatched away the façade of colorblindness, laying bare for the world to see that our central institutions operate as if those Black lives don’t matter. Martin Luther King Jr. promoted the understanding that "none of us are free until all of us are free" and Black Lives Matter now carries that mantle. 

If, in fact, living in a neighborhood labeled as "having a gang presence" is all it takes to justify the suspension of Ezell Ford's civil liberties and his death, then no Black person in Los Angeles is free. If some Los Angeles African American leaders are willing to exalt and share the pulpit with those that enact processes and proffer rationalizations justifying Ezell Ford's death (and the death of many other unarmed men and women before and after him,) then those “leaders” do not speak for our freedom. 

The litany of names of unarmed African American men and women killed on the streets of Los Angeles under the color of law has simply become too much for polite town hall meetings, even if they are held in a church. The reasons given to justify the deaths of unarmed citizens have begun to sound like a fairly open declaration that our communities are under siege and that militarized police departments across the country have all but declared African Americans non-citizens. In fact, at times it seems they view these communities as enemy combatants. 

Black Lives Matter activists demand an end to over-policing and under-accountability. Authorizing the continuation of police intervention into civilian lives based on their “suspicion” of wrongdoing does not keep us safe. And if we do not demand that officers establish, at a bare minimum, an objective justification for any police stop, we are all fundamentally at risk of being denied the inherent rights of liberty to which we are entitled. 

The demands of 'Black Lives Matter' are concrete, important, and non-negotiable. The stakes are simply too high for it to be otherwise and activists are making sure that the Mayor of Los Angeles will be held accountable for his inaction in this regard. Unapologetically

It’s regrettable that Reverend Sauls felt disrespected, and that some of those in attendance were upset at the unseemly behavior in the sanctuary, but like President Obama, I argue there is a "problem happening in African American communities that needs to be addressed.” 

It is far more regrettable to me that controlling the microphone and acting civil toward public servants who have done our community grave disservice, is so grievous to “our” leaders that they call press conferences and post on Facebook to denounce it. They should be ashamed. Their servile behavior toward Mayor Eric Garcetti, coupled with their attempt to push and grab the microphone from Black Lives Matter women activists, was disgraceful. 

If this is the best that they have to offer, then the traditional Black leadership in Los Angeles has failed us. The observations of Malcolm X in 1963 remain true. Young people are increasingly dissatisfied with those posing as leaders and spokesmen who are "actually making the problem worse, instead of making the problem better." 

My message to Los Angeles clergy and other “leaders” who condemn 'Black Lives Matter' is that they are on the wrong side of history and are virtually proclaiming their own irrelevance to the cause of social justice. 

It’s the duty of all of us to struggle for righteousness and against injustice.


(Angela James, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, is a sociologist who has devoted her academic life to understanding racial inequality, and her personal life to eradicating it. This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.






Vol 13 Issue 89

Pub: Nov 03, 2015