Justice or…Stay Tuned?
As I walked from the Federal Center metro station towards the Capitol Mall there was a peculiar quiet and deserted feel to the area. A few Black folks and Muslims were scattered on either side of the street — some walking towards the Mall, some away from it. One might not suspect that an event was taking place at all.
Then I reached the intersection at Third Street and suddenly found myself in the midst of a sea of black bodies. Bustling droves departed buses wearing matching T-shirts with the Justice or Else! logo printed on them. Street merchants on sidewalks peddled buttons, magnets, t-shirts, incense, and kufis. Brothers in bow ties were posted on every corner with the Final Call newspaper. Itinerant street preachers floated among the crowd holding signs calling for unity and love.
I made my way through the crowd to the entrance into the Mall and stood in line at the security checkpoint. A huge white sign was posted between each metal detector with a list of prohibited items such as the obvious — guns, knives, and explosives — as well as more mundane items like selfie sticks. It was here that I met 19-year-old Rayvon Staden from Bowie State University. He traveled to D.C. with a group of other young black men, all part of an organization called Black Male Agenda. I asked why he had come and he responded as though he had rehearsed.
“We support the mission of Louis Farrakhan and anyone who fights for the liberation of any oppressed people.”
His father, though not present, had attended the Million Man March in 1995. When I asked what he hoped to take away from the event he only had three words to say: a unified goal. I expected this to be a theme among people that I’d talk to. However, some, like 25-year-old Black D.C. native Sir Derrick Francelot, was there for less tangible reasons.
“I’m here for a better perspective. Spirit.”
This was his first time attending what he called a “Black National event,” and said that he was there because the issues being raised affected his people.
Then there was 66-year-old historian Albert Feldstein from Cumberland, Maryland. I found him zigzagging across the grass taking pictures and buying posters and protest literature from people standing on the lawn. I stopped him to find out his story.
“Since the 1960s I have been a collector of protest items — Vietnam, Civil Rights, guns, women — both sides of the issue, for and against. For example, I’ve gone to a Klan March to do this same type of thing.”
I asked him how his friends, family, or colleagues felt about him coming. He lifted his head back and smiled.
“My wife was nervous. When I went to the Klan meeting she was scared, she didn’t go. She didn’t come with me here either.”
I wanted to know what he hoped to take away from participating in the event other than just artifacts.
“Truth. Justice. Sincerity. I read the stuff about Louis Farrakhan, I’m Jewish, I don’t agree with things he has said about the Jewish faith. But I think people need to be empowered economically.”
Before the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan gave his keynote address there were a whole line up of performances and speakers. Mayor Muriel Bowser called for D.C. Statehood. Pastor Jeremiah Wright spoke about the connection between #BlackLivesMatter and the Palestinian struggle. There were other speakers too, such as Chief Ernie Longwalker of the Red Wind Nation, Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and a member of Justice League NYC, Michael Brown’s father, and Trayvon Martin’s mother — to name a few.
After about three hours of speeches, gospel music, and video shorts highlighting gender, race, and class inequities Minister Farrakhan took to the podium. He spoke about a litany of issues ranging from male and female relationships, the assassination of Malcolm X, to the economic buying power of Black America. With about twenty-five minutes left in his message he announced that it was “instruction time.”
“America is under divine judgment as we speak. Elijah Muhammad taught us fifty, sixty years ago of what we were going to face. He said there would be four great judgments: Unusual rain. Unusual snow. Earthquakes. Hail. And that he would use the forces of nature against America…when I leave you today the calamities are going to get stronger because God wants America to let us go. Not integrate us.”
His speech concluded with less a call to action and more of a call for deferred action. He requested “engineers of every kind, navigators, pilots, farmers, [and] college presidents” to attend a strategy meeting the following day to figure out the next steps. Finally, he asked everyone in the audience to hug the person next to them and say, “I love you.”
The person next to me was 31-year-old Nicole Peterson. After embracing I asked her where she was from and who she came with. Nicole was born and raised in North Dakota but had lived in New York for the last ten years — eight of which she had been involved in activist work. She had come to D.C. with an organization called the Justice League NYC founded by Carmen Perez, one of the speakers. I asked her how her family and friends felt about her coming.
“It was 50/50. I’m actually bi-racial. I’m half white and half black. The black side of my family didn’t question it…some of my white friends and family unfollowed me on social media.”
When I asked Nicole what she expected from the event her answer was similarly open ended like others I had spoken to.
“Doing this kind of work — you can lose hope. I heard a great speech by Louis Farrakhan. When he said, ‘have no fear,’ I wrote that down. I needed to hear that.”
Lorenza Figura, a 22-year-old Latina from Modesto, California also felt that she received what she came for.
“For a while I was questioning why I was doing this work. I was thinking to myself man is it worth it? But being here around like minded people and hearing Minister Louis Farrakhan — he really motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Boots off the ground
After I left the Capitol Mall I met up with Camden, a childhood friend, for dinner on U Street. He had driven up from Charlotte, North Carolina with a group of his friends that same day. While at the dinner table Camden and I debriefed the experience. Unlike others I had talked to, he had more mixed feelings after it was over.
“I hear what Farrakhan is saying and everything — and I agree. But I can’t be waiting for no flood. What can we do now?”
I, too, felt this way. I agree — have always agreed — with Minister Farrakhan’s analysis of the causes and effects of Black oppression. However, I hadn’t come just for analysis. I had come like a solider answering the call of his commanding officer — seeking to hear “marching orders” as Dr. Jamal Bryant put it in his speech. Instead what I was told at the end was to subscribe to updates via text.
“He had us all here man! He could have told us to do anything — anything! And we would have did it,” Camden said shaking his head.
This conversation made me reflect on my experiences as an organizer over the next couple of days. One important lesson I learned then was that strategic action has three prerequisites:
- Specific, concrete asks.
- Targets to hold accountable.
- Strategy and tactics.
Calls for “Justice for Women” or “Justice for the Poor” are too broad and vague to take collective action on. Part of the reason why we haven’t gotten some of the things we want as a community is because we haven’t made the right asks. The only two concrete demands that I heard Minister Farrakhan make was for 1) the declassification of all FBI files regarding Malcolm X’s assassination and 2) the transfer of 100 million acres of land. Surely these two concessions do not satisfy our demands for justice. So what are our other demands? What is our collective strategy and tactics to achieve these and other wins? Who specifically do we hold accountable i.e. who are our targets?
Part of Minister Farrakhan’s Vision for the Justice or Else! movement is reparations for seven specific target communities:
- Black people
- Native Americans
- Mexicans and Latinos
- The Poor
- The incarcerated
Here’s a thought: What if within the Justice or Else! local organizing committees communities were asked to define a vision of what justice looks like for them? With that as a starting point we could then craft tangible demands for specific decision makers at the local level. It’s important to note that the above-identified communities are not completely discrete and neither are the issues that affect them. Therefore, organizing efforts must be fluid and reflect local demographics. I believe a flexible structure would allow space for local issue campaigns to grow organically throughout the country. To bring our impact to scale though, there must be coordinated statewide and national campaigns that involve civic engagement. A good model of this is the PICO National Network.
We also need to bear in mind that, though some issues that we care about are similar, they often affect groups differently based on their group situatedness. For instance, a program to address the problem of unemployment has to take into account the additional barriers for some compared to others due to factors such as institutional racism. This is why the conventional political wisdom that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is not sound. Some people’s boats have holes in them and some don’t even have boats.
As we interface with decision makers about issues that face multiple communities we must push for targeted universal policy changes. As john a. powell, Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley School of Law, says “Targeting within universalism means identifying a problem, particularly one suffered by marginalized people, proposing a solution, and then broadening its scope to cover as many people as possible.”
Justice or Else! ignited the fire of resistance in many and stoked the fire for others. Its success was due to the vision of Minister Farrakhan. He pulled together a young, diverse group of activists to lead and to be the face of this movement. His call for justice was a universal and inclusive one. These two factors are what made this experience so powerful for me.
We have a window of political opportunity that won’t remain open for long. The rallying cry was made to seize upon this opportunity. The people rallied. Now what’s next Minister Farrakhan? Where do we go from here?
Those of us who were looking for a more clear and immediate call to action here are four that I would have liked to hear at the march:
- Close your bank accounts with “the big four.” If you’re a non-profit, divest from these financial institutions. Open up accounts with community banks or credit unions. If your community doesn’t have one — here is a start on how to establish one.
- During this holiday season, boycott specific business and corporations that have a track record of discriminating against, exploiting, and refusing to invest in our communities such as Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Look for a directory of Black/POC owned businesses in your area.
- Register and vote in the next election for local ballot measures on minimum wage increases, housing bonds, policing reform, criminal justice reform etc. Research to see what will be on ballot in your area.
- Join and donate to your local nonprofit, civic, or political organization whose mission is racial and economic justice. Research a list of national organizations with local chapters and other local organizations.