Contrary to popular belief, the Movement for Black Lives is not solely about police brutality. Bigger than body cameras and electoral politics, the Movement is about Black liberation and freedom for all Black people.
Liberation and freedom are unconventional in the sense that the system under which society currently operates makes those two realities impossible. In order to achieve them we need radical transformation, but how do we get there?
Pushing the Boundaries of What We’ve Got
A fire truck rides around town promoting a specific slate of candidates for an upcoming election. A Black student is on the brink of expulsion for being in a group chat about a senior prank that another student carried out. A potential tenant is discriminated against because of their possession of a housing voucher.
These are the kinds of issues Ami Gandhi, Candace Moore, and Jessica Schneider work on with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. Their job–in the interim before we get to revolution–is to uphold and reform the law to ensure a more equitable society.
“My profession […] expresses that I am more of a reformer than a revolutionary,” says Candace Moore, “But I love and respect and feel it is vital to be in relationships with revolutionaries. For me, I try to sit in that tension.” Her office has pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among posters promoting educational equity and one notable sign that reads “How are you building power today?” There are reminders everywhere that the world we are fighting for won’t come easy or right away.
Moore and Schneider are both staff attorneys on the committee’s Educational Equity Project. The project’s purpose is to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and recent wins have included supporting community organizations, students, and families in making SB100 – an Illinois bill passed to address the punitive practice of exclusionary discipline (suspensions and expulsions) in Chicago Public Schools and charter schools, along with making that data on exclusionary discipline publicly available – a reality in 2016.
“One of the things we see all the time [is that] it’s really hard to break people out of the mindset of, ‘you did something wrong you need to be responsible for it,’” said Schneider. Her radical imagining of CPS is less punitive discipline, more trauma informed education and treatment, and a new funding model that ensures quality education for all students.
The point about punitive discipline isn’t only applicable to schools. On a large scale, punitive discipline is about criminal justice too, and in a perfect world a step towards prison abolition. And, how much closer could we move toward a more abolitionist, more radical society if the majority truly had the right and access to vote?
Ami Gandhi is the Director of the Voting Rights and Civic Engagement project for the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee, a project that focuses on dismantling the barriers between the people and the ballot box. By doing this work, Ami and her team create opportunities for more representation and accountability within the scope of elected officials. The hope is more visibility for marginalized communities.
The effectiveness of politics in America depends on visibility and place. Because of how subjective this system is, it has meant that the existence of Black people in America is, and always has been, political. For the Black community, politics is a constant struggle towards equal visibility in policy and quality living regardless of status or geography, but – it is up for debate how that visibility becomes a reality. Our position within this country has meant that any way to get us free or liberated will require the downfall of the system as it currently stands. As urgent as that downfall is needed, the painful reality is that we have to create this change incrementally.
Some recent work involved working with the Cook County Clerk’s office to get voter access to people in Cook County Jail who haven’t been convicted. While they still have the right to vote, in the past the process has been complicated by only having access to mail-in ballots. For April 4th’s municipal elections in the south suburban Cook County, they had access to both mail-in and in-person help with their ballots. Gandhi’s team has also been working with Chicago Votes to eliminate police stations as polling places.
“The law is an imperfect tool, there’s no question about that,” Gandhi said, “The law falls short in providing sufficient protection for our communities, that’s why I value coalition work. If there’s a way that I can strengthen other organizations work… I don’t think that’s optional for us to approach this work from an interdisciplinary way.”
Many of the issues that the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee work on overlap with one another, and because of that the committee prioritizes racial justice within their work. Both Candace Moore and Jessica Schneider see the overlap between fair housing work and education advocacy; Ami Gandhi sees the overlaps between voting rights and criminal justice; all three lawyers expressed in some way or another that the system is complex and it can’t be dismantled or changed from just one angle.
Rebuild From the Ground Up
Young Black people are using media, classrooms, and the streets to openly and loudly critique and call out the unequal conditions we live under, and in a perfect world those critiques would contribute to an anti-racist society. Oppressive ideologies have been backed by policy, but policy cannot be the only focus of our fight for liberation.
“For me racism doesn’t encapsulate the conditions we’re facing,” BYP100 National Director Charlene Carruthers said about her work in our interview. “Racism is perpetuated through systems and beliefs and that’s backed up by policy, and policy is going to be upheld to the extent that the state enforces it, violence or not.”
This opens up the scope in which police brutality is targeted as a main issue in the Movement. It has to be understood that, yes, police brutality disproportionately impacts poor Black people, and that alone is wrong based on principal and morality. But police brutality is also representative of the extent to which the state will go to uphold oppression.
Policies that enforce body cameras and further cultural and community training for officers do nothing more than bury the facts that would indict systems and call for true transformation.The cameras are reflective of the punitive discipline we are trying to move away from; punishing individuals only when catching them in the act of racism will not tear down an entire system of policing that was created to oppress Black people. It’s important that when talking about the Movement for Black Lives and other calls for justice that we firmly state we aren’t just working for policy change, but a paradigm shift well away from anti-Blackness.
Carruthers also pointed out how in moving forward we have to look out for “reformist reforms.” For example, Chicago is working towards implementing an elected school board to the Chicago Public Schools system as opposed to it’s current control under the mayor, but if that school board isn’t community controlled and doesn’t address the explicit needs of students and families, that implementation isn’t an act towards justice or equality.
Another example being Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist. While he was certainly a more progressive alternative to the current president, Democratic Socialism still isn’t the radical anti-capitalism we need to redistribute wealth for large transformation. In a list for the Huffington Post, writer Dan Arel points out five ways where Democratic Socialism and Socialism differ, including that Democratic Socialism wouldn’t bring a redistribution of wealth and it wouldn’t completely replace capitalism. If we want transformation, those alternatives are requirements.
The Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform is an example of radical policies that would make significant moves towards equity, but even the platform states: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”
Community control and accountability have to be a part of our tool box and the politics we push forward. How can we ensure safety without involving state enforcements, both in prevention and after there has been harm or violence? How do we create equitable education and wealth without outside funding and the risk of those institutions being co-opted and altered?
“There’s no other option,” said Carruthers, “If we don’t get this right, if we don’t actually do the stuff we say we want to do and create, our people will continue to suffer and now is the time to do that. We can’t afford to not do it.”
Through Culture Shifts
Recently, at an event for Fossil, the Blackish star Yara Shahidi is quoted as saying, “We may not be changing policy, but we are changing culture,” which in the long run, may actually be the answer to changing policy.
Trends in history show that the acceptance and equality of Black people come in waves, never all at once. First it was to end the expansion of slavery and the institution all together, next it was to outlaw Jim Crow followed by the need to enforce anti-discrimination legislation. Freedom is technically and formally supported by law but the law is never enough to protect for Black folks.
Racism and capitalism sustain each other, and if we are going to push forth anti-racist and anti-oppressive policies, our dominant thinking on race has to shift. This country won’t just change through policy or new systems of accountability within our communities, but these things changing simultaneously will be what moves society as they push on each other.
Since we don’t see many uprisings and disruptions of presidential candidates these days, people have begun to ask: “Whatever Happened to Black Lives Matter?” But the lack of Movement headlines is not just a matter of short attention spans or desensitization to the killings of Black folks; it’s a result of groups organizing to address radical policy changes and give political education to their communities. Those things aren’t as palatable to mainstream media and they don’t provide visuals that will instil fear into the hearts of white folks, but that isn’t a bad thing. The work is absolutely happening, we’ve just broadened our scope.