What It Looks like When Union Members Stand with Black Lives Matter

Chauncey K. Robinson October 24, 2017

Black Lives Matter activists and AFL-CIO delegates join together outside of America's Center in St. Louis on Oct. 21. (Chauncey K. Robinson / People's World)

This arti­cle first appeared on Peo­ple’s World.

ST. LOUIS — In an act of pow­er­ful sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, del­e­gates attend­ing the AFL-CIO’s 2017 nation­al con­ven­tion walked out of the America’s Cen­ter Sat­ur­day to join local Black Lives Mat­ter activists protest­ing out­side after con­ven­tion cen­ter man­age­ment refused them entry. They had been invit­ed to take part in the AFL-CIO’s Diver­si­ty and Inclu­sion Pre-Con­fer­ence. The protest put the issues of racism and police bru­tal­i­ty cen­ter-stage on the eve of the con­ven­tion of the largest fed­er­a­tion of unions in the Unit­ed States.

The con­tro­ver­sy began just as the sec­ond half of the pre-con­fer­ence — enti­tled All of Us or None of Us: Join, Fight, and Win Togeth­er—was set to start. A pan­el on the top­ic of build­ing inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal pow­er was sched­uled to include Mis­souri State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive and Black Lives Mat­ter activist Bruce Franks of Dis­trict 78. But Franks was nowhere to be seen on stage.

Even­tu­al­ly, for­mer AFL-CIO Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent Arlene Holt Bak­er announced to the wait­ing audi­ence that Franks, along with his fel­low Black Lives Mat­ter activists, were locked out of the con­ven­tion cen­ter. Every door fac­ing onto Wash­ing­ton Avenue, the main thor­ough­fare out­side the cen­ter, was chained shut on the orders of con­ven­tion cen­ter management.

Bak­er was told by the America’s Cen­ter that there was a fear of dam­age to prop­er­ty” if the activists were allowed into the build­ing. Bak­er then announced that since Franks and the oth­er activists weren’t being allowed entry to the con­fer­ence, the del­e­gates would take the con­fer­ence out­side to them.

What fol­lowed was hun­dreds of trade union­ists ris­ing to their feet and march­ing out towards the chained doors of the con­ven­tion cen­ter, demand­ing to be let out in order to join the Black Lives Mat­ter activists and Franks who were protest­ing outside.

Once they reached the protest out­side, chants of sol­i­dar­i­ty rang out as del­e­gates demand­ed that the activists be allowed into the build­ing. Speak­ing to the crowd, Bak­er pro­claimed, On behalf of the AFL-CIO All of Us or None of Us’ con­fer­ence, we have come out here to say that we stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with you because we all stand for jus­tice. We have invit­ed State Rep. Bruce Franks to speak. We now invite all of you to come into our con­fer­ence. I want you to all do what I know you all know how to do — go in united.”

After sev­er­al min­utes, con­ven­tion cen­ter man­age­ment was even­tu­al­ly forced to relent. The chains and locks came off, and the doors swung open. AFL-CIO del­e­gates, Franks and Black Lives Mat­ter activists marched into the build­ing togeth­er and back into the con­fer­ence hall. Seat­ed at the head table direct­ly in front of the stage, the same pro­test­ers who were shut out only a few min­utes before were now hon­ored guests.

Final­ly tak­ing the stage, Franks expressed thanks to the del­e­gates who walked out in protest, empha­siz­ing the need for unions to stand up — beyond just words — for Black Lives Mat­ter and against racism and discrimination.

Con­nect­ing the issue to the big polit­i­cal pic­ture, Franks said, The unions have the pow­er. Your endorse­ment is let­ting peo­ple know that you stand with a can­di­date. If that can­di­date does bad, then that is a reflec­tion on you… We have to do things dif­fer­ent. We need you all to stand up, like you did today. Where are the union lead­ers in the streets? Don’t be with us some­times. Be with us all the time.”

While mea­sures like civil­ian police over­sight boards, fur­ther train­ing and inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions of police vio­lence are nec­es­sary, Franks argued that it wasn’t enough. All the pro­vi­sions and poli­cies won’t stop a cop from killing some­one that looks like me in the streets because of the racism he’s been taught about me since childhood.”

Refer­ring to his red St. Louis Car­di­nals jer­sey and back­wards cap, he con­tin­ued, And all the pro­vi­sions won’t stop them from stop­ping me from walk­ing into a con­ven­tion I’ve been invit­ed to speak at, because I don’t fit the way a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive is sup­posed’ to look like.”

Franks and oth­er Black Lives Mat­ter activists in St. Louis have been in the midst of an intense bat­tle for jus­tice after the acquit­tal of ex-cop Jason Stock­ley, who was charged with first-degree mur­der and armed crim­i­nal action in the 2011 killing of 24-year-old African-Amer­i­can Antho­ny Lamar Smith. Since Stock­ley was found not guilty in Sep­tem­ber, a wave of protests has rocked St. Louis.

Rasheen Aldridge, 5th Ward Com­mit­tee­man, was on the scene to sup­port Franks and spoke to People’s World about how the lock­out of Black Lives Mat­ter activists was con­nect­ed to the larg­er fight against dis­crim­i­na­tion — and the role the unions need to play. Bruce Franks let it be known that the only way he was going to go in is if his peo­ple were allowed to go in,” he said.

Empha­siz­ing the over­lap­ping roles that he and many activists play, Aldridge said, We let them know that we are the peo­ple. I stand with unions. I’m with the Fight for $15. I’m with Black Lives Matter.”

The show of sol­i­dar­i­ty by con­ven­tion del­e­gates is an exam­ple of what needs to hap­pen more often, he argued. It was so pow­er­ful to see all the union peo­ple join­ing with us. It push­es the nar­ra­tive to talk about issues that are impor­tant to us all.”

Chauncey K. Robin­son believes that writ­ing and media, in any capac­i­ty, should help to reflect the world around us, and be tools to help bring about pro­gres­sive change. Born and raised in Newark, New Jer­sey, she has a strong belief in peo­ple pow­er and strength. She is the Social Media Edi­tor for Peo­ple’s World, along with being a jour­nal­ist for the award win­ning pub­li­ca­tion. She’s a self pro­fessed geek and lover of pop cul­ture. Chauncey seeks to make sure top­ics that affect work­ing class peo­ple, peo­ples of col­or, and women are con­stant­ly in the spot­light and part of the discussion.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH