As in the Arab Spring, young people like the Dream Defenders and Millennial Activists United, protesting police practices in the black community, have created a "free space" in the national political continuum. What will fill that space when the protests inevitably end? In a way, it is the same question faced by the organizers of the student sit-ins for civil rights a half-century ago.
Those young people were persuaded to go "mainstream" -- register people to vote, get black politicians elected, get civil rights laws passed. All well and good, but somehow the broad base of the black population -- those facing the police almost daily in our time -- got left behind.
In all such cases, the danger is that social actors who are better organized than the protesters will move into the vacuum, and the protesters will have no way to hold them accountable. Speaking truth to power can create the space but is not sufficient to fill it.
For example, the established civil rights leadership is planning a "March on Washington" for Dec. 13, in an attempt to get out in front of the protests. Will it be a replay of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March, in which the elite were cordoned off from the masses? Will it be merely another fundraising opportunity?
Even more, are these leaders prepared to deal with the real problem, which is how to deal with the descendants of a huge population brought here as slaves to do manual labor for which there is no longer a need?
Mind you, when there was a need, black labor was extremely valuable. One might say black labor built this country, North and South. That labor remained valuable when slavery ended, so a problem arose: how to milk that labor for as long as possible?
One key element was to keep black people who were no longer plantation-bound under control. During slavery, blacks who were off the planation, even at their master's behest, were subject to the equivalent of "stop and frisk" by slave patrols, arguably the country's first organized police force. The Klan and local law enforcement picked up that responsibility when slavery ended. Since ex-slaves were no longer plantation-bound, they were always under suspicion. Sound familiar?
These practices continue, even though the purpose is no longer to discipline a cheap labor source. Unemployment in the black community, and especially among young black males, is sky-high.
Police practices today not only lead to harassment, injury and death for black citizens, however. Along with prosecutorial discretion and majority-white juries and parole boards, they also lead to the mass incarceration of black people. That huge black prison population does provide a source of cheap labor. It also provides employment for prison guards and support staff, as well as huge profits for a wide range of corporations that supply goods, services, management and physical plant, to round out the "prison-industrial complex."
So black people are understandably wary of the police. Some members of the black middle class believe they are immune. We will leave it to history and current events to determine if their optimism is justified.
But what about the police? Police spokesmen who came to Howard told students that the responsibility of a person stopped by an officer is to make the officer feel safe. That's the same mantra you hear from police spokesmen who have been interviewed by the media. (A former Chicago police officer walked out of a Ray Suarez talk-show panel when the narrative began to stray from that line.) This attitude presents the police as a quasi-military force whose job it is to occupy and dominate the community rather than serve it. Their growing fetish for military hardware simply drives the point home.
Despite their protestations, it seems pretty clear that many police officers fear for their lives when patrolling black neighborhoods and/or confronting black males. Maybe they're thinking about the kind of uproar they could expect in their own neighborhoods if they were forced to live under such conditions.
Be that as it may, it seems that only signals of complete submission will be sufficient to make officers feel safe under present conditions. For historical reasons, reflexive submission to white authority is a particularly bitter pill for black males to swallow, so that's going to be an ongoing problem.
We haven't said anything yet about the increasing incidence of police harassment -- and worse -- directed at black females. One of my students has been doing some extensive research on this problem and coming up with some eyebrow-raising results. Apparently, some police want black women to be submissive as well, but in a gendered fashion that has nothing to do with the officer's safety.
So is the answer that black people, male and female, must act as if they are back on the plantation?
I hope not. Because that's not going to happen.
I don't think legislation, or commissions, or studies are going to fix this. Even resort to the UN Human Rights Commission, though certainly worth a try and especially embarrassing as our government criticizes the human rights records of other nations, remains, like the others, a top-down remedy, unlikely to affect the objective conditions faced by the broad base of the back population.
The national budget and political climate would not support reparations, repatriation to Africa, or the creation of a black 52nd state, all approaches that have been considered in the past and which still retain some adherents.
So I go back to civic infrastructure as a way to fill the "free space" the protests have created.
One approach might be to organize Neighborhood Watch chapters in all black communities and cumulate them into a national alliance. Neighborhood Watch was founded by the police, so there would have to be a formal link with them. Who knows? That might promote some accountability, as the watchers and the police would both be keeping an eye out for criminal behavior, and protocols for Neighborhood Watch require close contact between them.
Clearly the watchers would be not only "taking a bite out of crime" but watching the police (though perhaps not as aggressively as CopWatch). But they could also "watch" to be sure kids got to and from school safely, watch out for job opportunities and shared child care, and complain to the authorities when municipal services fall short.
Perhaps this is the American Spring. Perhaps it is the movement I "dreamed" about last year while reflecting on the March on Washington's 50th anniversary.
I dreamed then of young black people drawing attention not only to police brutality and racial profiling but to mass incarceration and the "school-to-prison pipeline." I had bigger dreams: I saw them turning to gun control, predatory lending, the hate speech of right-wing talk-show hosts, and ALEC. I saw them "watching" businesses that spite their communities and politicians who spend too much time with big donors and not enough with the people who elected them.
But most of all, I saw them joined by youth of all races and class backgrounds, who would then engage their own communities on their own issues. That seems to be what is happening.
It gives us all hope to see young people behaving as if they think America is worth fighting for here at home as well as abroad. My students, of whom I am immensely proud, are among them.
I'm hoping for civic infrastructure in particular, but then again, I'm not driving.