The Poet Langston Hughes once posted:
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
That was the prevailing question for America in 1951. What followed were two decades of activism, pain, struggle and strife that we call the civil rights movement. Born out of the death of the Harlem renaissance and ashes of the promised equality after the Great Wars, Black Americans dreamed of freedom, self-determination, and opportunity. Instead, they got Jim Crow. The dreams of a generation were deferred to a later date and it took a generation of activism and legislation to simply come within ear-shot of these dreams. The will of the masses exploded in Selma and Montgomery, exploded in Albany and Haynes Pond, exploded in the halls of Congress when a southern racist like Lyndon Baynes Johnson said “We Shall Overcome.” Yes, when a dream is deferred it explodes and changes all of space and time around it. What is left is a super-nova of opportunity bore from the destruction of all that came before. The deferment of their dream led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs. The Board of Education and the suite of Civil Rights Legislation that we remember the era for.
What happens to a dream destroyed? Does it dissolve into the ether of time? Or continue forever like the scheme of a rhyme? Does it fall to the ground like bitter defeat? Or stand in defiance upon two feet? Maybe it just holds us all back? Or maybe it inspires attack?
The dream of black America has been destroyed. This dream of a post-racial society spawned in 2008 by the election of President Barack Obama led many to believe that they would soon live in an America where they were not judged by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character. Black Americans dreamed that no longer would they face unemployment at double the rate of the rest of the country, substandard schools and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And most of all, black Americans dreamed that they would no longer experience the pain of state-sanctioned lynching at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve our communities. No more Rodney King, no more Amadou Diallo, no more Sean Bell. Blacks dreamed that they were finally equal. But that dream has been destroyed.
If a dream deferred was enough to create the conditions for the Civil Rights movement then what will a dream destroyed do? Baltimore, Ferguson, and Dallas give us a clue. Because when a group feels that they have no ability to legitimately create change darker elements take hold. The Black Lives Matter Movement traces its genesis to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2011 and the subsequent failure of law enforcement to even charge George Zimmerman. Young people around the country came together and began to peacefully rally, march and protest to let the powers that be know that their lives mattered too and that indeed black lives do matter. As a result of this activism Georgia Zimmerman was eventually charged, tried and ultimately acquitted. But the movement had flexed its muscles.
In the wake of this activism, black voter turnout in 2012 was the highest of all time. In fact, President Obama won reelection based almost solely upon the black voter turnout as estimates state that if black turnout was the same as it was in 2008 President Obama would have lost to Romney. Young black folks had shown their power electorally and propped up the Democratic party writ large as they lost working class white votes in droves and union support dried up. In sum, black voters became the backbone of the Democratic party. Thus when the cry for action on police brutality was sounded and the plight black men shot dead by police bullets voiced, the black voters who were the lifeblood of the Democratic party wanted action, but instead got silence. There was no legislation after the marches, rallies and prayer vigils following the death of Trayvon Martin. There were no congressional hearings after Eric Garner was choked to death for all the world to see and Walter Scott was shot in the back like a common dog. There was no Executive Order or Federal Directives from the Department of Justice after Mike Brown was executed and Freddie Gray’s spine was snapped in the back of a police van. Thus, for the approximately 15,434,395.55 Black people that voted for President Obama in 2012, the return for their support was a Presidential commission to “study” black folks getting shot and a couple speeches. The dream has been destroyed.
So as black voters watched legislation, federal directives and executive actions move through on gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, equal pay for women, the DREAM act for Latinos, Employee Free Trade Act for Unions and a litany of other action for other left-leaning constituencies. Black folks who prop up the party were told time and time again to “wait your turn” and “in due time.” Meanwhile, our brothers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins and the like were being hunted down in a genocide reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. What did America think was going to happen? Dallas was predictable. Dallas was expected. Dallas was inevitable.
John Adams and Alexis De Tocqueville advanced the concept of the “Tyranny of the Majority.” Within this rubric, where a minority group is denied basic human rights within a democracy by the majority group they experience tyranny similar to and equal to that was a dictator, despot or tyrant. In sum, where there is no respect for the machination of a minority group, the majority becomes now better than any autocratic regime which we seek to overthrow overseas. This is the condition of black America today. Black America feels that it is under the oppression of a tyrannical majority that deprives it of basic human rights. And when a group sees no hope, when they see no way of effecting change, or when it has no options that group turns to violence. That is why the prayer vigils that we saw after the death of Trayvon turned into the sniper attacks that we saw after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
So where do we go from here? Do we descend into gorilla warfare where no Police officer is safe and the black community feels under siege within its own country or do we do something? The current legislation that the Congressional Black Caucus is pushing, the so-called “Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act of 2015” will do nothing. The President’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing” will do nothing. We have to move to effective legislative solutions that will end the menace of police brutality once and for all.
This is my solution:
- Law Enforcement Modernization act:
- Federally mandates all law enforcement personnel wear tamper proof cameras that record wirelessly to cloud-based servers.
- Institutes national wide “Smart Gun” technology so that only the officer who is issued a firearm will be able to fire that gun.
- Create national standards and regulations for officer training and de-escalation.
- Don’t Shoot act
- Creates Federal Penalty for any officer that “shoots first” in a police encounter.
- Burdens officer with proving that he was in “imminent danger of death of serious bodily injury or acting in the defense of another who was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury” in order unholster his weapon.
- Suspects Bill of Rights
- Enumerates all rights which a suspect has when confronted by law enforcement
- Outlines penalties for officers and agencies if individual rights are violated
- Directs the Department of Justice to take over all investigations where excessive force or violations of a suspect’s rights are involved.
These are just suggestions, but they are a start. Where do we get the money from? Just order a few fewer F-35 fighters and we will have plenty. How do you overcome the NRA and Police Unions? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But first, we have to pressure Congressional Democrats and the President to make this a priority. As long as they sleep confident in the fact that no matter what they will get 90% of the black vote they have no reason to take any meaningful steps at all.
Thus, what it may take to inspire action are radical and revolutionary steps. The black community may have to not vote Democrat for an election. We can vote Green Party or Libertarian or Republican or just write our own names. But until some action is taken we cannot reward the Democratic party with 15 million votes. We are better than that. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are just the latest tragedies and the massacre of 11 innocent police officers in Dallas a product thereof. But the true American disgrace is a President, Congress and political system that sees black people as nothing more than a commodity or political chumps to be played, used and discarded. This is the Rubicon, this is our moment, this is our time. Will the rubble of our destroyed dream be rebuilt into a temple of justice to last unto posterity? Or will this be just the latest repetition of our descent into chaos? We decide. Because in the words of Ted Kennedy “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Attorney Robert Patillo, host of People, Passion and Politics.