Commentary Race

The Quality of Black Lives Matters Too

Regina Mahone

#BlackSpring is here: the uprisings happening in cities nationwide as part of a collective fight for racial justice in all areas of Black lives.

#BlackSpring is here: the uprisings happening in cities nationwide as part of a collective fight for racial justice in all areas of Black lives. As Alicia Garza, special projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, explained to NewsOne, “There is a Black Spring that is emerging where communities that have been under the boot of police terrorism, communities that have been attacked by poverty and unemployment are rising up, coming together and advancing new solutions and new visions and new demands to create a new world where Black peoples’ lives matter.”

As a Black woman who was raised by a single mother, I understand how racial justice is connected to the labor movement—along with other movements, such as reproductive justice, that fall under the human rights “umbrella.” But for some people, mostly conservatives, the multiplicity of efforts becomes a bridge too far. (Remember the criticism advocates in Ferguson received from Republican leaders for setting up voter registration tables near Michael Brown’s memorial?) Part of the reason for this pushback is because critics don’t see people of color, Black women in particular, as whole persons. They still see us as props whose lives and stories are not acknowledged at best, and exploited at worst. We’ve watched this happen not only in the mainstream labor movements, but also in conversations around the uprisings, as if it weren’t our DNA staining the concrete in our communities.

And such public criticism can, in turn, foster doubt among leaders unfamiliar with this tactic. This was apparent at a recent Black workers’ event in New York City, where a labor union advocate asked: Are we changing the subject too quickly when we try to engage folks on economic concerns without first tackling police brutality and racial profiling?

The panelists at the event, which was organized to celebrate the launch of a new report on Black labor, were quick to explain the historical and political contexts in which these movements live, and how activists do more harm than good by “pitting our crumbs against others’ crumbs,” as Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), put it.

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Rather than the movements acting in opposition, Black leaders—particularly Black women—have been at the forefront of both for decades. That’s one of the reasons why the report in question, And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise, by Kimberly Freeman Brown, is so powerful: It’s the first of its kind to document Black women labor leaders’ experiences. It’s awe-inspiring to see women who look like me and to read their stories about their labor, which crosses many fronts, on the printed pages of the report.

In an Rewire interview with both Brown and the director of the project, Marc Bayard, Brown noted that it’s no accident “that you have women who are connected to the labor movement” like Garza, who appears in And Still I Rise, “playing such important, critical roles in the emerging, new civil rights movement.”

“Their experience is as Black women who … sit at the nexus of all these different levels of injustice that gave rise to these movements,” said Brown.

“One of the things we talked about throughout the project is the fact that Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, are both union members. So there’s always been in our consciousness this recognition that Black working moms contend with realities that we’re all bearing witness to,” Brown added.

History also shows us how intricately woven these two movements are, specifically the history of policing in this country. As Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now noted at the Black workers’ event, the police state is inextricably tied to institutionalized economic injustice and the continued marginalization of racially segregated communities.

Slave patrols were put in place in the 18th and 19th centuries, which, as Eastern Kentucky University’s Victor E. Kappeler, PhD, has noted, “helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.” Those “patrollers” would chastise slaves but not face any punishment by courts at the time for killing a slave, though historians have noted that slave owners would sometimes retaliate against a patroller if the officer harmed their slave to the point where she couldn’t work. After all, slavery was a billion-dollar industry in this country. In a recent talk at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates explained:

In 1860, at the time of Civil War, the enslaved black population in this country—one-third of which constituted the amount of people living in the South—was worth something on the order of $3 billion, more than all the combined capacity of the nation. All the assets, all the banks, all the railroads, all the nascent factories and businesses in this country put together, were worth less than enslaved black people in this country.

Today, Black bodies are valuable to the police state via the prison-industrial complex—and these modern day “slave patrols” are still killing us without facing penalty. The fact that police are part of the labor movement only adds to the economic injustice furthered by racialized police abuse. As Flint Taylor wrote for In These Times:

Whether unions which represent police officers, correctional guards and other law enforcement officers are the same kind of workers’ organizations as other unions, which can potentially be used to further the interests of the working class as a whole, has been vigorously contested by many progressives and leftists over the years. But the disturbing history of these powerful organizations makes it very clear that they mirror and reinforce the most racist, brutal and reactionary elements within the departments they claim to represent and actively encourage the code of silence within those departments. They are far from democratic, with officers of color and women having little or no influence.

At the Black workers’ event, Lola Smallwood Cuevas of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center suggested participants close our eyes and picture victims of police violence—such as Chicago’s Rekia Boyd, Cleveland’s Tanisha Anderson, Ferguson’s Michael Brown, or Madison’s Tony Robinson—wearing construction hard hats. She invited us to imagine if Black people were seen by officers in this light, the way that their people see them: as allies and friends.

One could also look at the history of the civil rights movement in this country, specifically the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to see how the labor and racial justice movements are connected. “The civil rights movement was every part an education justice movement, every part an economic justice movement, and every part a women’s rights movement as it was about the civil rights of Black folks,” Epps-Addison told Rewire in a phone interview. “They were talking about all of these things, and people forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing with striking sanitation workers.” It may not always be easy to talk simultaneously about both the struggles of labor and the fight for racial justice with our communities today, but history shows us Black communities have connected them all along.

“Asserting that Black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters,” explained #BlackWorkersMatter, a report from the Discount Foundation on the state of Black labor. “Economic opportunity is inextricably linked to the quality of the lives lived by blacks in America.”

More Black working people than whites are unemployed in the United States. Cuevas, in a piece for the Huffington Post, wrote that the crisis is more than just the economy: “It’s the lack of power. No matter how ‘strong’ the economy, we are disproportionately unemployed and in low-wage jobs.”

And Still I Rise called it a “leadership opportunity problem,” in which too few Black women, who are often heads of households, are put into leadership positions in unions. “Because of their unique position at the nexus of a number of progressive movements, Black labor women have the potential to play an even broader role in uniting the labor, civil rights and women’s movements,” the report read. Its author also suggests creating a leadership pipeline to prepare Black women for key staff positions and boards of directors of progressive organizations, which could effectively change the tide from the top to the bottom. We saw that happen in Baltimore when the city’s prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, a Black woman, brought charges against six officers who were involved with the deadly arrest of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

In the meantime, Black leaders of the labor movement have been organizing in their communities to fight police violence while demanding economic justice, which they view as integral to disrupting the systemic abuses of power and privilege in our society. Marc Bayard told Rewire that “the connection is very clear amongst the activists, and they don’t see the separation of the movements.” And yet, as Melissa Harris-Perry reminded us at the event, even this work is still only part of the full picture, which also includes reproductive justice, voting rights, gun control, education, health care, LGBTQ rights, and so on. The youth-led actions taking place in cities nationwide are taking such an approach—but we are all accountable.

“If Black lives matter then Black wages have to matter, then reproductive justice for Black women has to matter, then all Black lives have to matter, not just some Black lives,” said Epps-Addison.

No matter how we engage people on these issues, #BlackSpring is here. And as Dr. King said in his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point …. We’ve got to see it through.”

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