Take a Page from Gay Rights Activists
By Lauren Victoria Burke
When it comes to the issue of gay rights in America, sometimes you can see the tide of a movement change in front of you. There was a time not so long ago when gay advocates were laughed out of the room. Their agenda was stalled during the presidency of George W. Bush and legal and legislative victories were nonexistent the decade before. Now the Supreme Court is five months away from deciding whether state laws against gay marriage are illegal.
Many of the victories for gay advocates were won in the courts. But several, such as the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and President Obama’s executive order on ENDA, were won legislatively. Victory was realized with the persistent belief by gay activists that they could win. That basic perseverance and lack of apology for what they were fighting for could serve as a model for African American activists.
“I believe we will win,” Phil Agnew, executive Director of the Dream Defenders, often says. That is no small self-affirmation. Over the past few years, the gay lobby “believed they could win” and they did. Contrast that with the 2-year long discussion at the start of the Obama presidency by several Black leaders on whether there even should be a Black agenda. That’s an unthinkable discussion for other advocates in the political arena.
As it is the case with so many other winning political activists and advocates, gay advocates rarely marched. They rarely held panel discussions on their issues. They almost never had summits re-repeating their policy concerns. What they did do is target a few issues at a time that they cared about and proceeded to raise money and vote accordingly.
Now think of this: 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus traveled to Ferguson, Mo. on January 17 and 18, and what was the main goal? To encourage the citizens in Ferguson to register and vote. One would think they wouldn’t have to make a trip with that theme.
Because in 2014, no one should have to encourage voter registration. Though voting isn’t the end all and be all, it’s the first of all. When details of the voter registration numbers in Ferguson hit the press, it was embarrassing. How could a town that’s 67 percent African American have a White mayor and only one Black member of a 6-person city council? Producing systemic change isn’t easy. But it is easy to register and vote.
Only four months after a Ferguson police officer, who would be photographed hours after the incident without a mark on his face, shot at an unarmed teenager 12 or 13 times — hitting him eight times and killing him — getting people to register shouldn’t be a problem. At some point, the activism has to convert into a detailed strategy focused on removing the current “leadership” in Ferguson from power.
St. Louis County non-prosecutor of police Bob McCulloch, the poster boy of mechanical bias, is a Democrat. And he ran unopposed. That’s in a county with a significant Black population. There is something wrong with that.
What did Brown family attorney Ben Crump say after McCulloch did exactly what everyone in the world knew he would in failing to indict Darren Wilson? In the understatement of the decade, Crump said, “We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be the direct reflection of the presentation of the evidence of the prosecutor’s office.”
In a city like Ferguson, no one should be waiting for someone to return down the mountain with tablets. Ferguson has a City Council race in early April. If that isn’t the next focus of protest activism what is? In Ferguson last Sunday at Wellspring United Methodist Church, Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, one of the youngest members of the Congressional Black Caucus, said: “Where do I start? How about undefinable frustration? It seems we can’t even catch breath from our first tragedy before being hit by another gut-punch from a second, third, and fourth. The names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice.”
At the same service, Rep. Lacy Clay, who represents Ferguson, said, “We should be upset and angry. We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allows young, unarmed Black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences. Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country. That shouldn’t happen in America.
“These tragedies have illuminated, with the harsh light of truth, the deep divisions and very real disparities that we have yet to overcome as a nation, and in this community as well. Not the least of which is the complete failure of local authorities here in St. Louis County to honestly pursue justice for Mike Brown’s family.”
Let’s see what happens in April.
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.