Me and Jesse Williams: The Organizer, The Celebrity, and You

Thanks Jesse Williams. It took a lot of bravery for you to get up at the BET Awards Ceremony and give a speech filled with anger and rage at the system— and the way that the killings of Black people are being televised as if each event were a public lynching. But in my opinion you didn’t go far enough. I begin with the Comment I put onto Facebook the day after your remarks: “I’m not so sure about the speech Jesse Williams gave the other night... It’s full of exciting rhetoric and a good analysis of the system... But there was no call to action. You could have told the audience… “Let’s call on President Obama to end the Federal 1033 Program that gives military weapons to local police forces—like in Ferguson—to kill our people. Let’s demand Jobs or Income Now for our people and not be afraid of public welfare programs that we have earned. Let’s cut police spending in every city by 50 percent now! And let’s cut U.S. emission of greenhouse gases by 50% now as well.” A good organizer doesn’t simply get people riled up— You always need a call to action and very specific demands.”

While I think Jesse’s remarks are a great beginning, as an organizer trying to make specific demands on the system in the hopes of liberating all Black people, it is sad to see entertainers getting more support for general statements while movements such as ours are being suppressed by the L.A. Times and even Democracy Now for the real work that we’re putting in.

The problem, however, isn’t simply Jesse Williams; the problem is mainly us, and our tendency as a generation to get our priorities mixed up. We’re living in a moment where with social media, if we wanted to, we can literally talk over broadcast media. So why, with all of that power, are we using it to simply have entertainers go viral. And just to be clear, NO, Social Media will not lead the revolution against the U.S. Imperialist State, and for the little bit of the time we do go viral, it doesn’t mean that the revolution is beginning, but using the media power of social media is a great beginning for all of us.

Paul Potter, then the president of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1965, said in his speech at the March on Washington to End the war in Vietnam:

“We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over—all the time.”

I love this quote for its revolutionary vision, strategy, and militancy, and for its timelessness. Yes he’s speaking about the Vietnam War, and comparing what the U.S. was doing at the time oversees and to what’s going on at home. He named the system and told you that the systems strategy is to gain power over the entire world, unless if we stop it. Not much has changed, we’re still living in a time when the system maintains the power it has always had. We must name the system; that is U.S. Imperialism, and we must name some of the Democrats holding the role as guardians of the system; that is President Barack Obama among others. We must put specific demands on the system tied to real organizers and real organizations on the ground. Only then can we free the 1 million Black people from the Prison Industrial Complex. It is only when we use this strategy can we stop the U.S. Genocidal Climate Crimes (as Eric Mann phrases it in Katrina’s Legacy Volume 2) against our siblings in the global south.

In the Labor Community Strategy Center, we study Black Revolutionary Thought and History. We learned about how Dick Gregory, Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte joined the Black Liberation Movement. They worked with the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. They followed the tradition of W.E.B DuBois and Paul Robeson, who joined the Communist Party and had their passports taken away while communists went to jail for calling for Black liberation, Socialism, and Revolution.

Nina Simone put her whole career at risk when she made “Mississippi Goddam”. James Baldwin brought civil rights leaders into the white house to give then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy a view of the people involved in the civil rights movement. Dick Gregory participated in the Open City Drive in Atlanta Georgia to “Make Atlanta an open city” by integrating its Dobbs and Toddle House restaurants. Muhammad Ali risked going prison for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, and Loraine Hansbury used their celebrity to publicize the work of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others by name.

Did you know that for the last 18 months The Strategy Center and our Fight for the Soul of the Cities has been fighting the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) demanding that they cut all ties with the Department of Defense including getting out of the 1033 program that gives military grade weapons to municipal Police Departments. LAUSD had a MRAP vehicle (a Tank), three Grenade Launchers, and 61 Assault Riffles. Do you know any of the celebrities who supported that work with all of their access to media and a national platform? Let me answer that: none. We won that fight on our own without them. And even after a major victory for the movement Celebrities did not use their clout to publicize a victory that the system wants to cover up.

Do you know that we are the Organizers in LA that just got the Los Angeles Unified School District to return its military grade weapons that the district intended to use on it’s students and community members (Please see the article: “The Strategy Center—Finally—Gets the Tanks and M-16s Out of the LA School System”)

 Several months ago we reached out to Jesse Williams to support our work and so far, he has never responded. If you have an inside line to Jesse Williams tell him we still need his help and would love to hear from him. His great sense of oratory and his access to high visibility platforms could be of such help to us—and many other civil rights, Black, Latino, anti-war, and climate justice groups in the U.S. and internationally.

We need your help for our next fight. MTA is about to put a FOREVER tax initiative on the ballot so that they can build trains to gentrify, and re-gentrify Black and Latino neighborhoods over and over forever until it stops making them money. Their new Measure R2 (my nickname: Regressive Racists United) is their new way of snatching power from areas where the government fails to regulate. On the Metro system, they have their own rules and regulations, where simply putting your feet up on a chair can land you a ticket and a criminal record, where Police officers ask for proof that you paid your $1.50 transit fare with a gun and an attack dog. In the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles, there is no such municipal code that says that “Fare Evasion” is a crime. MTA is a public agency that gets enough money from your taxes in one year to give everyone in LA free fares for the next decade. Why is it that of all the tickets given for “Fare Evasion” in one year, more than 50% are given to Black People even though we are only 20% of the ridership?

What are you willing to put in to win this fight?

In the coming months at The Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities we’ll be continuing our campaign for No Cars in L.A. and the U.S. No Tanks in LA and the U.S. We’ll be calling on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) to End MTA Genocide against the Black Nation.

  • Stop the Attacks on Black Riders — No Stop and Frisk
No Arrests and tickets for “fare evasion”
No L.A. Sheriffs and MTA Police on MTA Buses and Trains

  • Restore 1 million hours of bus service
stolen from the Bus Riders Union by the MTA

  • Vote No on Measure R2 and Repeal Measure R

  • No Fare — Free Public Transit

  • Expand the bus fleet to 5,000 zero-emissions buses
w/ 24/7 Free bus service
1000 buses now

  • Moratorium on all Rail and Highway projects

  • No Cars in L.A. — Bus-only lanes Auto-free zones, days, and rush hours, Freeway bus service, expanded bike and pedestrian infrastructure

  • Support the Crenshaw Subway Coalitions’ demand to Build the Park Mesa Heights Tunnel The Crenshaw Light Rail line should be underground for 11 blocks; from 48th St. to 59th St

We need your support physically to come out in the streets to organize with us, and we need your financial support to make sure we win this fight. Why don’t you begin by sending me your thoughts on this article. For folks in Los Angeles in particular, come by our office to join our campaign. Whether you are a garment worker, security guard, have no job at all, or are an actor of little or great fame—we need your help.

Channing Martinez is a Black-Garifuna Queer Organizer with the the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. He is also the producer of Voices from the Frontlines, on KPFK/Pacifica Radio. He can be reached at channing@thestrategycenter.org

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