Black Lives Matter in Somerville, NJ

I am so appreciative that my local Black Lives Matter group (Ville NJ BLM) asked me to speak at their two most recent protests. I’m sharing my comments here. While the media has chosen to stop covering the protests, they continue!

June 28, 2020

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here. I am very grateful for the opportunity. As a Somerville resident, I have been so proud of the residents of this town and nearby towns for organizing Black Lives Matter protests week after week. Thank you to all of the organizers and all of the people who have been coming out to say Black Lives Matter!

I would like to speak about 3 things in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement: white people, NJ, and defunding the police.

As a white person, I would like to say a few things to my fellow white people. I am glad you are here. Protest is important, but don’t stop here. We need to stay in this work until white supremacy is eradicated. We cannot move onto another issue next month. This is the issue that demands our attention until Black lives matter in every school, every workplace, every family, every town, every state.

I know that white people can get frustrated, offended, confused, and angry about these protests. That’s no surprise considering that most white people did not learn about race and racism in their formal education, unless they sought it out. I teach a class on race at RVCC (Raritan Valley Community College) and when we discuss basic concepts of race and racism and fundamental aspects of this history, many of my students ask why didn’t I learn this before? I have been teaching this class for more than 10 years, and every year, they ask the same question. Why didn’t I learn this before? We live in a society where education purposefully does not teach about race and racism. That makes it easier for myths to take hold, myths of anti-Blackness, myths about white and Black people being biologically different from each other, myths about white people being good and innocent and Black people being criminal, and so much more. We need to demand more of our education. We need to demand an education that supports Black liberation. It is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.

Fellow white people, we need to get educated about what we were purposefully not taught. Read Toni Morrison. Read James Baldwin. Read Angela Davis. Read Angie Thomas. Read Ibram Kendi. Read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Read Nikole Hannah-Jones. Learn the painful truth about our country’s history. Continuing to deny our history or whitewash it will only perpetuate white supremacy. We must demand the truth if we want change.

And that truth starts here in NJ.

As a white person who grew up in nearby Hillsborough here in Somerset County in the 1970s and 1980s, I never learned that there was slavery in the North. I never learned that there was slavery in NJ. I never learned that NJ had slavery longer than any other state in the North. I never learned that slavery existed right here in Somerset County. Instead, I was taught to direct blame for racism elsewhere – to the South, to somebody’s racist uncle, to the KKK, to those few bad apple police officers. But racism is not just someplace far away or in a few individuals. Racism is in me, too. As a white person living in the US, I cannot help but breathe in the air of white supremacy – every day. And so every day, I must fight it – I must create and strengthen my antiracist mindset so that I see the racism in the air we breathe, so I can see the racism perpetuated by laws, policies, actions, behaviors, comments, culture, and more. And so I can take action to stop the perpetuation of systemic racism.

In NJ, white people pat ourselves on the back for living in a diverse state, but that diversity is segregated, making NJ one of the most racially segregated states in the US with one of the most racially segregated school systems in the entire country. NJ also has one of the biggest racial wealth gaps in the entire country. White NJ residents rarely acknowledge the systemic racism that exists right here.

Follow the work of the NJ Institute for Social Justice to understand this, raise awareness, and take action in their campaigns. Here is a statement from their website: “New Jersey has the worst Black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in the nation, with a Black child 21 times more likely to be locked up than a white child—even though Black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates. And this racialized system is also expensive: New Jersey spends $300,000 to incarcerate each child in a state youth prison each year. Urge your local legislators to introduce legislation to close youth prisons. The New Jersey Legislature has introduced the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act, which would close New Jersey’s youth prisons and invest funds into community-based youth programming and services.” Again, those are the words of the NJ Institute for Social Justice, so please check them out for more information.

Finally, I’d like to turn to the movement to defund the police. Just a month ago, many people had not even heard of this idea, even though Black feminist scholars and activists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been leading this work for over 20 years. With so many people engaging in this movement now, we may have reached a tipping point. Do not let that slip by. I’ve seen how people, especially white people, get caught up in thinking about their family member who is a police officer, their friend who is a “good cop.” We need to stop focusing on individual officers and shift to looking at the larger system. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, talks about how when we look at the history of policing, we see a system designed for what she calls “social control” and “racial control.” As a country we spend more than $100 billion dollars a year on this system of “social control” and “racial control.” Is that really what we want? Does that really support the public good? Shouldn’t our town and city budgets reflect values of the public good? Of the collective good? “Social control” and “racial control” are not values that uplift the public good – social control and racial control do just the opposite – they oppress.

Let’s use our radical imaginations to envision a different way. Let’s use our radical imaginations to build a system that provides affordable and safe housing, food, education, healthcare, job training, youth programs, and more, for everyone. Look at your town’s budget. Does it reflect your values? If not, then take action. Go to your town or city’s council meeting and speak up, even if it’s in a virtual setting right now.

If the motto of the police is “protect and serve,” who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost? As a white person, I was taught that if I needed help, I could call the police. I learned that if the police pulled me over, I might get a ticket, but my life would not be in danger. I want to defund a system that was intended to protect white people like me at the expense of Black people and other people of color.

Furthermore, Black transgender people experience police violence at disproportionate rates, making it clear that the police are targeting them. Again, this system of social control and racial control is unacceptable and must be stopped.

If people find “defund the police” to be extreme then when they hear the word “abolition” they likely think that’s even more extreme. But let’s consider what would actually be abolished. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.”

If you want to learn more, follow the work of 8 to abolition.

Let us imagine another way, a way that does not perpetuate harm, trauma, and violence. If we don’t imagine another way, another world, then we can’t create one, so let’s get started.

Let’s follow and support and donate to Black-led organizations like Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, Color of Change, NJ Institute for Social Justice, All of Us or None of Northern NJ, and more.

Next weekend is the 4th of July, and it’s an opportunity to rethink our relationship with this country. We are taught that this country was founded on the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence almost 244 years ago. But this country was built on stolen land, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the kidnapping and enslaving of Africans. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness were not intended to be for everyone.

With this in mind, I’ll conclude with the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine feature article, “What Is Owed.” Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and creator of the 1619 Project.

She writes, “If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. If we are indeed serious about creating a more just society, we must go much further than that. We must get to the root of it. . . . It took Congress just a matter of weeks to pass a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill to help families and businesses struggling from the Covid-19 shutdowns. When, then, will this nation pass a stimulus package to finally respond to the singularity of black suffering? . . . If Black lives are to truly matter in America, this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism. Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just. It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.”

July 12, 2020

Thank you so much for inviting me back to speak here again. I am very grateful for the opportunity. As a Somerville resident, I am so proud that the Somerville Black Lives Matter group continues to protest. Follow them in social media at Ville NJ BLM.

We are here to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tiffany Mofield, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, Michelle Cusseaux, Sandra Bland, and so many more.

Justice does not just happen on its own – it happens only when we fight for it.

I want to say to white people in particular, now that there is momentum in learning about the history of racism in the US, in protesting, in demanding change, we cannot stop. White people have a responsibility to disrupt and dismantle the system of white supremacy that we benefit from, even if we didn’t personally create it. We inherited it, and no matter where we live in the US, no matter whether our family goes back many generations or we arrived here recently, white people, rich and poor, benefit from the unearned advantages of white privilege, even if we’re not aware of it. We have a responsibility to resist this inheritance of white supremacy. This resistance means always learning and always working for justice – we will never know enough or be woke enough to say we’re done.

I would like to speak today about 3 things in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement: the 4th of July, the “New Jim Crow,” and the role of divide and conquer.

Since our last protest here, the 4th of July occurred. When we learn about the American colonists rebelling against an oppressive England, we tend to avoid the oppression that the American colonists were carrying out themselves. American history school textbooks celebrate these colonists as heroes and tend to avoid how this country was built on stolen land, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the kidnapping and enslaving of Africans. School textbooks avoid the fact that the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness were never intended to be for everyone. The rebelling colonists only intended these ideals to be for the people they saw as fully human. They refused to see Black people and indigenous people as fully human because such a recognition would mean that they were enslaving their fellow human beings and stealing land from their fellow human beings, a direct contradiction to the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

So rather than create a nation that actually lived up to its ideals, they made the choice to create a nation where the first citizenship law said that only white people could be citizens, where enslaved Black people were property with no rights, where indigenous people were forcibly removed from their land. Two hundred and forty four years later, after the writing of the Declaration of Independence, we still live with the choice the founders made – they chose to create an ideal that only white people would have access to. But we can make a different choice today.

On July 3, a little over 2 weeks ago, President Trump chose to hold a rally at Mt. Rushmore. While many Americans think of Mt. Rushmore as an innocent tourist attraction, this symbol is far from innocent. The land is sacred to indigenous peoples, and in the 1800s, the US government promised that land indefinitely to the Sioux peoples. The US government then broke that treaty as soon as that land was considered desirable because of gold. Later, a mountain on this sacred land was desecrated in order to carve the faces of four US presidents, four presidents who all upheld white supremacy.

Upholding white supremacy is a choice – it was a choice when this country’s founders did it, it was a choice when the US government passed law after law and made court decision after court decision protecting the rights of enslavers, it was a choice every time the US government broke a treaty with indigenous peoples, and it is a choice our own president makes every day.

But we can make a different choice today.

Last year, Ava DuVernay shared on Netflix her 4 episode series called When They See Us, about the five Black teenagers wrongfully arrested and wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. It took many painful years for these five men to be exonerated. I remember being in high school when they were arrested, and I also remember not even questioning their guilt. I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the white Central Park jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – like me. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were never seen as good or innocent – they were seen as guilty, as criminal, simply because of their skin color. And this is after the civil rights movement, after racism was supposed to have ended. Yet racism simply took a new form.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that one form that racism took in the 1980s was what she called, in her book of this title, “the new Jim Crow.” In it, she talks about how a War on Drugs was waged even though drug use was not a significant problem. She shows how the War on Drugs targeted Black and brown people even though drug use was consistent across racial groups. This war was not actually about drugs. It was actually about what she calls “racial control.”

She writes, “if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success. In less than two decades, the prison population quadrupled, and large majorities of poor people of color in urban areas throughout the United States were placed under the control of the criminal justice system or saddled with criminal records for life. Almost overnight, huge segments of . . . communities were permanently relegated to a second-class status, disenfranchised, and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies. One could argue this result is a tragic, unforeseeable mistake, and that the goal was always crime control, not the creation of a racial undercaste. But judging by the political rhetoric and the legal rules employed in the War on Drugs, this result is no freak accident” (237-238).

If the civil rights legislation of the 1960s mandated that it was now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, then new ways of maintaining white supremacy had to be developed. Today, when we hear calls to “defund the police,” it goes directly back to these issues. The police and the criminal justice system at large have received increasing funding for decades, to maintain “racial control,” while funding for education, healthcare, youth programs, and social services has all been drastically cut.

But we can make a different choice today.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, interracial coalitions fought for justice. Black people, white people, indigenous people, Latinx people, Asian American people came together in solidarity. And that solidarity was a dangerous threat to the white elite who wanted to maintain the status quo. The US government, especially through the FBI, targeted civil rights leaders to discredit them and tried to drive a wedge between civil rights groups in order to split up their coalitions.

A few years ago the FBI used the term “black identity extremist” in order to discredit Black Lives Matter activists, and even though the FBI stated last year that they are no longer using that designation, the vilification of Black activists in particular, who fight for racial justice, continues.

Earlier this month, President Trump said that painting “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue would be a “symbol of hate.” It is hardly hateful to insist that Black Lives Matter, that Black people are people, that Black people are human beings.

Demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement is a divide and conquer strategy that seeks to undermine the coalitions that have been emerging in the fight for social justice. Derogatory representations of Black Lives Matter work in the same way as derogatory stereotypes of Black people as criminals or as welfare queens. Welfare fraud is not a thing, yet white people in particular were taught that such fraud was a widespread problem, so the power of the stereotype of Black women as welfare queens rationalized massive cuts to social services. Likewise, voter fraud is also not a thing, yet white people in particular are taught that voter fraud is a widespread problem, leading to massive levels of voter suppression. Maintaining the status quo of white supremacy means that those who are deemed as a threat are identified as likely to commit fraud, when there is no evidence to support this, leading directly to cuts to social services and limits to voting rights.

At the same time as Black people have been dehumanized over the past few decades through the stereotypes of welfare queens and criminals, other stereotypes that also serve to divide and conquer have targeted other racial groups. For example, starting in 1966, exactly when the Black Power movement was on the rise the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority” emerged in major national newspapers. This stereotype became very popular, especially with white people, because it told a story they wanted to hear: a story that the American Dream is available to anyone who works hard, that racism is a thing of the past, and that Black and brown people need to stop complaining about civil rights and just work harder to be successful. While the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority” might be seen as a compliment, it is not – it is a dangerous stereotype whose purpose is to divide and conquer and uphold white supremacy.

We have also seen a divide and conquer stereotype of those who identify as Latinx or Hispanic – this stereotype focuses on being “illegal” of not being a “real American,” of not belonging here. Just like the other divide and conquer stereotypes, the purpose of this negative portrayal is to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

It might be easy to get pulled into believing these divide and conquer stereotypes – after all, we hear them echoed in social media, the news media, and the White House.

But we can make a different choice today.

We can refuse to be divided so that we do not become conquered.

I will end with a poem called “A Small Needful Act” by Ross Gay, published in 2015. Before I turn there, I want to again thank the organizers of Ville NJ BLM. I appreciate your time.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer.

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