OAKLAND, Calif. – It was a celebration of children, looking forward to the future. It was a celebration of women, mothers, workers, and of theater, music and art and what they mean in people’s lives. And it was a sober look at today’s powerful nationwide Black Lives Matter movement to end racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system and throughout society.
“We Stand on Their Shoulders” was the theme as young and old packed the house Feb. 28 to hear poems, dramatizations and accounts from history, and to enjoy the work of some of the area’s finest musical and artistic talents.
San Francisco State University graduate theater student Dee Ati Muhale demolished a common myth from World War II days as she brought forward the many African American “Rosie the Riveters” whose work in war plants was instrumental in securing the Allied victory.
In her introduction, fellow theater student Chauncey Robinson pointed out that the iconic Rosie the Riveter picture is incomplete, because it leaves out the many black women who came to manufacturing centers from southern cotton-growing states, hoping to put the rigid Jim Crow segregation of the South behind them.
Among many who received awards of appreciation for their contributions to the community was Wanda Ravernell, whose presentation Awon Ohun Omnira (Voices of Freedom) honored the African melodies that were transformed into freedom songs of the 1960s and beyond.
The many meanings of “mother” ran like a thread through the program, among them tributes to event organizer Cassandra Lopez, also known in the community as Mama Cassie. One moving presentation was by band leader Torey Teasley, who honored his own mother, and his “five, six, nine spiritual mothers.” Teasley’s jazz quartet, the Teasers, later held the audience spellbound.
The children and young people who performed a series of songs and poems, and the youth groups who were recognized with awards, held a very special place in the program.
Along with all the celebrations, a very serious note was struck by main speaker Mark Esters, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
Esters set the events in Ferguson leading to the police killing of Michael Brown last August in the context of profound racial disparities stemming from “white flight” from the city of St. Louis to over 100 newly created suburbs.
“When I was growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s, Ferguson was 90 percent white; now it’s 90 percent black,” he said. “But the municipalities and the court system didn’t change with the demographics.”
The end result was police profiling and brutality, and a chaotic network of court systems, he said, with municipalities generating funds from traffic tickets, warrants and other income from the justice system. As a result, African Americans and other minorities “couldn’t move about freely without encountering these kinds of police departments” and police personnel. And police who don’t live in the community, or work only from their squad cars, don’t get to know the people they are policing.
“If you get a traffic ticket, and you are poor or unemployed,” Esters said, “you tend to miss those court dates. If you miss your court dates in the state of Missouri, your driver’s license is automatically suspended. If your license is suspended and you are pulled over by the police department, you’re subject to arrest with a warrant. That means you have to pay bail to get out, and that will be twice what the ticket is.”
The broad coalition of over 50 peace and justice organizations that responded to Brown’s killing is now taking a proactive stance toward electing public officials, he said. “We are looking at how we elect people to office now – not just people who say, I want to serve and I’m a Democrat, but people you can hold accountable once you elect them to office.”
CBTU is now pressing other labor organizations to become more engaged in the social justice movement. Esters said AFL-CIO leaders including President Richard Trumka came to St. Louis for a “community conversation” on the issues and how to deal with them, and the labor federation has commissioned a study of issues affecting black communities across the country, and ways organized labor can address underlying issues such as high rates of joblessness and inadequate educational opportunities.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel | PW