When the indictments for former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and a group of his officials and advisers were announced in January over their roles in overseeing the deadly Flint water crisis, Nayyirah Shariff, the Director of Flint Rising, a progressive coalition that grew in size and influence alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, didn’t celebrate.
Snyder, after all, was only charged with two misdemeanors. And that came after making decisions that led directly to a city being poisoned, lives being irreversibly damaged and at least 12 deaths. As Shariff says, “it’s abysmal.”
But Shariff also stresses that these small steps toward holding Flint’s tormentors accountable are “most definitely” thanks to “feverish organizing” by the city’s people.
Shariff is not alone. As it continues to fight local battles, the racial justice movement is also using the power it has built to demand change on a national scale. Movement organizers say they plan to intensify their advocacy — through street protests and other forms of direct pressure on lawmakers — to make sure their demands for transformative change are met under the Biden administration.
Nikita Mitchell, National Coordinator of The Rising Majority — an organization that works with a coalition of progressive groups to build “a powerful, anti-racist Left for radical democracy” — points to “mobilizing in the streets,” “doing electoral work,” and “running campaigns on the state and local level” as strategies for making change in the Biden era.
It’s precisely because the political terrain in 2021 is slightly more favorable for progressives, after years of tireless organizing, that organizers are positioned to mount a fierce offense on issues such as climate, criminal justice, healthcare and immigration. Phillip Agnew, organizer and co-founder of Black Men Build, an organization dedicated to advancing Black freedom, tells In These Times that, “In the last few years, we’ve seen greater coming together of social movements.”
But racial justice organizers don’t simply hope to return to some semblance of pre-Trump “normalcy.” Conditions were “already horrible for Black people, for Latino people, for immigrants, for women in this country before Donald Trump took office,” says Agnew, as he looks toward the new administration’s agenda.
To start with the good, Agnew gives credit where it’s due. He calls Biden’s stronger than anticipated climate plan, for example, “a cause for optimism that, at a very low bar, the United States at least wants to slow down the end of the world.” As environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben writes at the New Yorker, Biden’s ambitious goals, including eliminating all CO2 from the U.S. economy by 2050, “may well mark the official beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.”
Ultimately, though, Biden has to go even further to make the world inhospitable to fossil fuel and natural gas companies that are seeking to extract every drop and every penny. The fight to tackle climate change is also a fight against racism. Big polluters locate wherever they can operate most cheaply and without scrutiny. And because the United States is still deeply segregated along racial lines, private industry knows that if you want to release toxic pollutants into the air with impunity, there’s no better place than in communities of color. According to the Clean Air Task Force, Black Americans are exposed to air that is 38 percent more polluted than white Americans, and “are 75 percent more likely to live” near toxic facilities. And as Black Lives Matter organizers Patrisse Cullors and Nyeusi Nguvu explain, “those most affected — and killed — by climate change are Black and poor people.”
There’s little evidence that Biden’s embrace of bolder climate action would have occurred without significant pressure from progressive groups and organizers. Under the Obama-Biden administration, as former President Obama bragged in 2018, the United States became “the biggest oil producer” in the world. “That was me people,” he told an audience at a gala for Rice University’s Baker Institute.
Thankfully for the rest of us, climate activism has exploded in recent years. And Biden “is listening…to movement folks,” Agnew says, including members of the Sunrise Movement and the multiracial organizers behind the THRIVE Agenda—a plan for economic and racial justice—who have called for aggressive steps to address the devastating toll climate change takes on communities of color.
Colette Pichon Battle, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, is one of the authors of the Gulf South for a Green New Deal, a platform backed by dozens of organizations that advocates for such issues as farmworker rights and sustainable fisheries. She says that her coalition’s priority is to make sure that Biden and Congress are “including the voices and the unique reality of the South.”
While acknowledging the verging success of pressure from climate groups, Agnew is skeptical that Biden will willingly take the lead on policies that popular movements are advocating. “We opened the doors and created” the conditions so that Biden can be a consequential president “if he chooses to be,” Agnew says. “I don’t think he’s gonna choose to be…We’re gonna have to continue to apply pressure.”
Flint Rising’s demands, for instance, look the same as they did in the most uncertain days of the water crisis: passing Medicare for All, tightening up the EPA’s loose application of health-based standards, and making “sure that water is affordable for all and regulated like the utilities,” Shariff says. The group also highlights the importance of implementing a Green New Deal with a just transition for workers that rejects market-based solutions to planetary catastrophe. Shariff adds that this plan also needs to be “just and equitable,” unlike the “old New Deal where Black people were shut out” because its passage depended on the support of racist senators who went on to administer the programs in predictably racist ways.
While Biden has put forward some ambitious climate policies, details and questions around equity remain up in the air. And despite an ongoing pandemic and healthcare crisis that is disproportionately destroying Black and Brown lives, Biden has repeatedly voiced opposition to Medicare for all, even saying he would veto the bill if it came to his desk.
Then there’s the issue of criminal justice reform. Designed by the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, the BREATHE Act calls for sweeping changes, from abolishing mandatory minimums, ending life sentences and repealing the 1994 crime bill to “decriminalizing and retroactively expunging drug offenses,” and rerouting large chunks of the country’s massive criminal justice and defense budgets towards addressing the preventable misery that drives so many to desperate acts in the first place. While the bill was introduced last year by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Biden’s team has so far declined to say whether the administration backs such dramatic reforms.
“He has already started to show us that it is going to take immense amounts of pressure to advance the things that we want to advance,” Karissa Lewis, National Field Director with the Movement for Black Lives, tells In These Times.
Biden became one of the lead architects of mass incarceration when he helped write the 1994 crime bill (which he now calls a “mistake”). In his first days as president, Biden ordered the Justice Department to end contracts with private prisons, returning to an Obama-era policy advocated by racial justice organizers. But this change, Agnew says, only came after “the largest social movement in the history of the United States” spent months protesting both police violence and a thousand other forms of petty harassment that characterize the profession. And even on the issue of banning private prisons, Biden made an exception for the private immigration detention centers, which hold the large majority of migrant detainees.
Mitchell says that Biden remains dedicated to the “myth of good policing,” which will hamper his attempts to tackle “systemic racism,” which the president has identified as a priority. As writer Alex S. Vitale explains in his book The End of Policing, in the United States, police fail abysmally at answering the problems we’re told they exist to solve. But fundamentally, an institution that developed through slave patrols and violently crushing working-class uprisings against miserable conditions will take more aggressive action to rein in.
As policy solutions, Mitchell cites the Working Families Party’s People’s Charter, which demands that governments — both national and local — “shift resources away from policing” and “into schools, housing, healthcare and jobs.” She also points to the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act, which calls for policies that encourage local jurisdictions to “decarcerate their jails and/or defund their police forces,” along with reparations for those targeted by “the War on Drugs, the criminalization of prostitution and police violence.”
Biden’s plans are far more modest. The president campaigned on taking steps to expand “funding for mental health and substance use disorder services,” invest in public defenders’ offices, and eliminate mandatory minimums and the death penalty. Some of these reforms will depend on Senate Democrats abolishing the filibuster, an anti-democratic tool Republicans would use to block such legislation. But for other changes, like eliminating mandatory minimums and the death penalty in federal cases, Biden can simply use his executive authority.
On March 3, the U.S. House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which, according to the AP, would “ban chokeholds and ‘qualified immunity’ for law enforcement and create national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability.” Biden has voiced support for the bill, but has also called for “reinvigorating community-oriented policing” by investing $300 million in the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office to help departments get resources. As Vitale explains, such an approach allows officers to define who counts as the “community,” by “systematically excluding voices critical of law enforcement.”
Mitchell says that only “a strong social movement for the masses” can bring about bolder changes like the People’s Charter or the BREATHE Act to become priorities for the new president.
On the issue of immigration, Lewis points out that, despite Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, the administration has let ICE toss Haitian migrants out of the country on public health grounds. Meanwhile, Biden’s Justice Department is sticking its neck out to defend Trump orders that helped cause family separations. “The proof is in the policy,” Lewis adds, “and the Movement for Black Lives has clear demands.” Section 1 of the BREATHE Act, for instance, calls for “a time-bound plan to close all federal prisons and immigration detention centers” and an end to state and local police cooperation with ICE. What’s been called “the boldest immigration agenda any administration has put forward in generations” by Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, doesn’t include such measures, which means, according to Lewis, that organizers are “gonna have to continue to put pressure on him.”
The fight ahead
“Grassroots social movements have created the conditions” for Biden to “be a president of note, if he chooses to be,” says Agnew.
It’s important to be “clear about what [our people] deserve and what this administration will and will not be giving them,” Mitchell says. “And how building people power is the only way to get what we deserve long term.”
That requires stepping outside of the highly constrained limits of mainstream debate, and illustrating a clear and compelling vision of a better world — something racial justice organizers have been plotting in the early days of the Biden administration.
The real question, Mitchell says, is “how do we transform and get closer to a democratic society” where everyone can genuinely participate in the decisions that shape their lives?
The Movement for Black Lives has a number of tactics planned, Lewis says, included engaging in “electoral justice, [grassroots] organizing and policy work” at all levels.
Lewis shares her excitement for the upcoming launch of the “Red, Black and Green New Deal, which is a response to climate from a Black perspective.” She also points to the ambitious Black Power Rising project, a five-year vision with five interlocking pillars: building mass political engagement among 10% of the country’s Black population, establishing “self-determined Black communities” in 5-10 localities, building a long-term multiracial strategy for transformative change, supporting leadership development throughout its local partners, and winning “clear electoral victories with an eye toward preventing the rise of white-nationalist and authoritarian rule.” Lewis highlights the sustained organizing that led Illinois to pass the Pretrial Fairness Act earlier this year, which eliminates cash bail and provides a blueprint for how local organizers can chip away at mass incarceration at the state level.
Ultimately, Agnew says, building a vibrant democracy that people can actually participate in will require “ending capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and the destruction of this empire, honestly.” These are long term goals, however, which places popular movements in a familiar position: winning whatever progress is graspable now while insisting that justice requires more fundamental change. Black Men Build, Agnew says, is laying the basis for “an organization that people see as theirs” and “not something that came from somewhere else and crash landed there.” Still in its infancy, the organization plans to establish a presence in nine cities by the end of 2021. The larger challenge, according to Agnew, is to win over the vast numbers of Black men “who are not engaged with the movement” and who “have not experienced a mass left organization that is of importance and relevance to their life.”
These are formidable odds. But “this is still a very exciting time,” Lewis says. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused “folks to question systems, and not just the role of players in the system.” And after a summer of record-breaking protest, instead of standalone demands to “hold this police officer accountable,” massive amounts of people began “really questioning the role of policing in our communities,” according to Lewis. Organizers hope to seize this opening to enact more meaningful policy solutions under a new Democratic president and Congress.
Still, Agnew says, “all of my excitement comes from what we’re doing in the streets, none of it comes from D.C.”
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In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.