WASHINGTON — D.C.’s Convention Center was the site for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference where the development of the #BlackLivesMatter movement was given intense attention from many different perspectives. More than 70 education, health, civic engagement and economic empowerment sessions under the theme, “With Liberty and Justice for All?” filled September 16-20 during the day as concerts, receptions and networking gatherings filled the evenings.
Thursday’s first event was the National Town Hall: “Black Lives Matter-Ending Racial Profiling, Police Brutality and Mass Incarceration.” Roland Martin, Managing Editor of TVOne NewsOne Now moderated a panel which included Congressional Representatives Elijah Cummings, Sheila Jackson Lee, Hakeem Jeffries, and G. K. Butterfield. Others on the panel included Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network (#BLM); Alphonso Mayfield, president of the SEIU Florida Public Service Union; and Val Demings, former police chief of Orlando, Fla., the first woman to hold the position.
Roland Martin reminded the audience that while 24 criminal justice reform bills have been passed since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., no action has yet been taken by the prosecutor in Cleveland one year after Tamir Rice was gunned down. Ms. Garza underscored that the criminal justice system as currently instituted “is not broken; it is designed to work just as it does work.” And Rep. Hakeem Jeffries from Brooklyn, N.Y. declared, “Black men are viewed as economic commodities. Democrats and Republicans built a prison industrial complex and then filled it through mass incarceration.”
The People’s World was represented at the conference by participants from DC, Daytona Beach, St. Louis and Baltimore.
We learned that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has met with #BLM about strengthening accountability mechanisms within police departments, but that the DOJ has put on record that their mandates at a local level are “too high.”
As an example of this, despite the April killing of Baltimorean Freddie Gray while in police custody, the DOJ is not able to mandate any police accountability measures in Baltimore, only to suggest them. One redress to this situation, suggested at the Town Hall, is for an awakened community and Chamber of Commerce to involve local police departments in awakening community responsibility in law enforcement. Val Demings, former police chief in Orlando, Florida stated, “The police are as much a part of the community as your neighbors are.”
Elijah Cummings praised Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s elected prosecutor for her bravery in pursuing legal remedies in the Freddie Gray police murder trials. “We want to be sure that the wheels of justice turn and are not stopped,” he said.
Moderator Roland Martin encouraged voting as the answer to racism in the criminal ‘injustice’ system, since so many District Attorneys are elected. “Having a Black DA matters, but that doesn’t happen if Black folks don’t vote.” Martin said that as a result of a new DA in one district, there have been more innocent African Americans freed in one year than in the 20 previous years.
Alicia Garza said that it is a requirement for activists to fight for “the right of Black people to live in our full dignity and our full humanity,” at every level, including in federal, state and local government. In terms of police departments, she said that Black and progressive police are fighting police injustice from within, attempting to change a culture of racism and ‘police loyalty’ and replace it with police integrity.
What was clear from the panel discussion was that the Congressional Black Caucus strongly supports the Black Lives Matter Network in the work it is doing. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee stated, “I’m proud that we the CBC have had the wisdom to follow Black Lives Matter. It engenders a diverse, generational movement. As we do the policy, I believe Black Lives Matter can be the catalyst-like the movement that brought about voting and civil rights legislation in the ’60s.”
During Q & A, the first question to the panel at the Town Hall was that Black on Black violence had not been addressed. Garza’s answer was that people will reach for power, whether it be against their neighbor or against the real forces keeping them down. Other panelists answered that white on white crime is also greater than interracial violent crimes.
Collective bargaining, stated one member of the audience, can act as a bar to getting police accountability. Mayfield of the SEIU offered that contract negotiations are with City governments and thus can be influenced by citizens. He countered other panelists, declaring that police can be suspended without pay for misconduct under some contracts.
Other questions resulted in the panel talking about widening the struggle to include the right to a good education and creating the labor force to fill the 1.4 new technical jobs that will be needed in the next five years.
Congressman Cummings brought applause and laughter from the crowd when he showed us the power of one person. He announced that Representative Darryl Issa (whose conflicts with Cummings are well publicized) has become a co-sponsor to the federal ‘ban the box’ bill which will require federal and federally contracted employers to stop discriminating by labeling felons on applications.