By Kevin Gosztola
Dec 2, 2014 – President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder met with seven black and Latino organizers yesterday to discuss police violence in not just Ferguson, Missouri, but throughout the country. Following the meeting, Obama announced some steps his administration would be taking to address some of the issues raised. Organizers who participated in the meeting responded to the announced steps.
Obama announced there would be a task force that will “reach out and listen to law enforcement and community activists and other stakeholders.” After 90 days, a report with “concrete recommendations, including best practices for communities where law enforcement and neighborhoods are working well together” will be provided to Obama.
An executive order regulating the 1033 program, the federal program where military equipment is provided to police departments, will be issued. Obama will also be proposing “new community policing initiatives,” particularly providing “up to 50,000 additional body-worn cameras for law enforcement.”
Ashley Yates of Millennial Activists United (MAU), who met with Obama, addressed the proposed measures on a press conference call. The body cams, she noted, would not necessarily save black lives from police brutality or from being denied justice. In the case of the young black man, John Crawford, there was surveillance video of a cop gunning him down as he held an unloaded air rifle in the middle of a Walmart. Authorities still refused to indict the officer. It is possible this happens again in the cases of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, whose deaths at the hands of police were also captured on video.
The movement, according to Yates, is for the abolition of the 1033 program. “It is a form of psychological torture to walk down your street and see Humvees posted on the corner. I do not see a need for those in our city,” she stated. She could not believe that these “checks and balances” on the 1033 program had not been issued yet.
Yates also said that there must be youth voices and black people who are activists in the room when the task force meets with individuals to develop their report. “You have to allow space for the people who are affected by the militarization, by police brutality, to define their oppression so we can actually frame the problem correctly.”
T-Dubb-O, a St. Louis hip-hop artist who was part of the group that met with the president, suggested, “He’s the first African-American president of the United States.” Obama should make this “his own issue and have a speech about it. Come out and open his mouth and use the power and influence that he has in that seat. Tell the rest of America that there is an issue. He’s experienced the same issue that we’re facing today. There is an issue.”
Overall, organizers saw the meeting with the president as a cumulation of work that has been done over the past 116 days since Michael Brown was gunned down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. It was evidence that the movement that ignited in Ferguson and has spread throughout the United States and the world is no longer to be ignored.
Phillip Agnew of Dream Defenders, who was part of the meeting with the president, explained, “There are people around the country that are waking up and acting on their own and that’s a hallmark of this moment.”
“It is decentralized and folks are taking up the charge. Whether it be ‘Black Lives Matter,’ whether it be ‘All Lives Matter,’ whether it be ‘Black and Brown Unity,’ whether it be ‘Stop the Oppression of Our Community, End the Occupation,’ whether it be ‘Shut It Down.’ People are taking up this banner in a way that we have not seen in some time, which is a hallmark of our generation. This is crowd sourced,” Agnew declared.
As Yates put it, the meeting was an “affirmation that this movement is working. Within four months, within 115 days of active resistance for black liberation, of shouting that black lives matter, they finally began to hear us and we were in the Oval Office. That is monumental, and I can look at that as nothing more than an affirmation that we are moving in a very positive direction as far as forcing change within this community.”
Personally, Yates added, the conversation was “uplifting in the sense that he told us he was proud of us. He spoke to us from a very real place as a former community organizer. He told us that he understands how hard the work is and that some of these steps may seem small to us, which they do, but, you know, to look at them as steps.”
Multiple organizers expressed frustration that President Obama and other federal government officials could be “diplomatic” and hold a meeting with them in the White House yet officials in their local community in St. Louis and Missouri still refuse to meet with organizers.
“We have yet to have a meeting and speak with our local officials because they’re refusing to be diplomatic, to admit/acknowledge that there is an issue and they need to speak to the community,” T-Dubb-O said.
According to Tef Poe, St. Louis area rap artist and co-founder of Hands Up United, the community cannot “move forward” until people like St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Police Department Chief Jon Belmar and Chief Thomas Jackson and other officials can look us “dead in the eye and acknowledge that racial profiling and police brutality are real issues in our community. They have yet to truly acknowledge that these things truly exist.”
Yates spoke eloquently about what she would like the movement to accomplish.
“I want to be able to see that I can refresh my browser 28 hours later and not see another headline that a black unarmed citizen is gunned down at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve us,” Yates stated. “I want to make it so that mothers don’t have to have that conversation with their children anymore about wearing a hoodie and where you can and can’t go at night and this is a supposedly free country. That would be something that needs to come out of this meeting.”
She continued, “I also want to make it so that when I walk down my street I don’t see Humvees. I don’t see a police car on every corner. I’m not harassed constantly. I’m not pulled over in a brand new car my dad bought me because they don’t believe it can be mine. Those are real-life tangible quality of life things that the police affect on a daily basis particularly in St. Louis but all around the nation in black communities that the president can have a real effect simply by opening his mouth firstly and then secondly by backing it up with some policies.”
Finally, for the reporters, pundits and citizens who ask what these people are ever going to achieve (as if they have not achieved anything at all yet), Poe had this pointed statement.
“We’ve only been at it 116 days. Black people have been oppressed in this country for 400 years. We can’t fix 400 years of oppression in 116 days. If you’re looking for a 90-day answer to a 400-year problem, I don’t have anything for you.”
Poe continued, “All we can do is continue to work and push the ball as far as we can. We’re regular citizens that took on this cause ourselves. We’re not college professors. We don’t have doctorates or degrees in racial harmony. We’re just people that saw a dead body in the middle of the street and said, you know what, maybe that’s not right. Maybe I should do something about that. ”
But the movement does have very real demands and Obama heard them yesterday. They demand that the federal government use its power to prosecute police officers who kill or abuse people. They demand local district attorneys be removed from the job of holding police accountable and independent prosecutors be appointed at the local level to prosecute officers. They demand community review boards be established to make recommendations for addressing police misconduct instead of “allowing police departments to police themselves.”
Additionally, the movement demands that local police departments, which use “excessive force or racially profile,” be defunded. Local police departments should be demilitarized. There should be investments in programs that offer “alternatives to incarceration, such as community-led restorative justice programs and community groups that educate people about their rights” as well.