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Every year, I try to give a sermon during the summer services at my church in Medford MA. This year was no different. Since this year’s sermon was inspired by one of my broadcasts (5/4/15), I have posted the sermon here on the show blog. Comments and discussion are always welcome. Hope to see some of you at the next sermon.
BECAUSE BLACK LIVES MATTER, FIGHT FOR 15
On May Day of 2015, people around the country and the world marched to recognize the struggle for worker’s rights, to remember those killed and martyred in the Haymarket affair of 1886 (which is what prompted the creation of May Day), and to continue to fight for fair and equitable rights for unions. However on this year’s May Day, a special gift was given to the American public. In the middle of the riots in Baltimore, MD, the State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged six police officers with manslaughter among other charges in the death of Freddie Gray—a young black Baltimore resident whose death while in police custody was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner and sparked week-long riots. It was a huge sigh among those ensconced in the middle of Baltimore and those trying to teach our government—federal and municipal—that Black lives matter. To my mind, this was an especially profound gift presented to those involved in both the modern civil rights struggle and the ongoing worker’s struggle. So how is it a gift to both? That is what I want to discuss today.
Now anyone who knows me knows that the answer to this is either a five minute conversation or a two hour argument. To try and fit this into the time of a 15 (or so) minute sermon/homily is difficult, but I managed to get it into the time allotted without completely watering down the argument. So the good news is that it’s not going to be two hours; the bad news is this isn’t going to be five minutes.
First we need to look at nature and the origins of the modern law enforcement itself. Their mantra “to protect and serve” is a worthy goal and value to uphold; until you look at whom the police serve. Now while other ancient civilizations and countries had similar roles as the police, the modern era of policing is what we’re talking about and that started to take form around the early 1800s; and according to writer David Whitehouse of the Socialist Worker, this modern era of the police was first organized in the United Kingdom. The purpose for the police was not for solving crimes, but for crowd control. Prior to this, crowds and mass domestic revolts were still handled by the military acting in the capacity of a militia. However with the waning of mercantilism and the rumblings of the industrial revolution, the lower classes were growing and squeezed into larger towns; and the resulting organizing protests grew too problematic to be handled by the military. For example, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 happened when the British cavalry charged a crowd of 80,000 people that were protesting for parliamentary representation reform; at least 11 were killed and close to 700 people injured. While it led to the government to crack down on radicals, it also led them to organize smaller non-military patrols to keep crowds and protests to manageable levels or stamp them out before getting out of control; of course it did not lead to parliamentary reform directly. So the modern police force emerged out of the principles of monitoring and stamping out dissent, especially from the lower and working classes.
Here in the United States—from colonial times through the pre-Civil War period—the police force came from a different perspective. Individual states started to model a police force based on the UK model, but since colonial times, we already had our own form that influenced the creation of our police: the slave patrols. Originally formed in 1704 in South Carolina and spread throughout the colonies, these were roaming bands of white, male, armed volunteers patrolling the surrounding areas to monitor and discipline slaves especially those trying to escape. Much like the UK police, one of the original intents was to break up large slave gatherings before they got to large or—as many slave owners feared—rose up in rebellion. As such they were granted powers to arrest and/or punish any slave found off their property without proper verification before returning them to their owners; unlike the UK, this included beating and whipping slaves found off plantations. However since slaves were valuable, killing one had some consequences for patrolmen, though it wasn’t considered a crime by matter of law. As this was the precursor to our own police force, we can see the roots of racism permeated the police department from their creation and how the policing of black communities differ from white communities.
What they have in common though is just what is being protected and served and from whom. In both the US and UK, the police were created to protect the interests of ruling classes and the wealthy from those that are considered a threat to them. Those considered a threat are those lower classes who would protest for equal treatment under the law; in each case, the threat (perceived or real) are in fact created by the upper ruling classes because of the way the rules had been lopsided to maintain a status quo whereby the upper classes sustain their wealth and power. By maintaining this power dynamic, both workers and lower classes of all colors, and black people in particular, are those who are kept in their places in society—by force if necessary. If more people knew that “to protect and serve” meant to protect and serve those who already have an abundance of means and power, there might be a wider call to reform policing in society.
Secondly we have to look at how those in positions of power and law enforcement used their power and influence against both the unions and blacks alike. For this I turn your attention to the Pinkertons. This private detective rose to prominence when agents working under founder Alan Pinkerton foiled an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln on his trip to his inauguration. Lincoln hired agents as his personal security during the Civil War, and Pinkerton himself became the head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service. However the Pinkertons were better known through the 19th and 20th century for their work of union busting. Businesses would hire the Pinkertons to infiltrate unions and sabotage their efforts to organize workers. Some of those spies even made it to leadership positions in the unions. Doing this effectively made organizing workers harder, made existing unions weaker, and handed victories to the Pinkerton’s corporate employers.
Compare the actions of the Pinkertons to the FBI’s counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO which took place (officially) between 1956 through 1971. While COINTELPRO had many victims under its wheels, the program was significant in its work against minority organizing/activists groups, especially the Civil Rights and Black nationalist movements. Using some of the same infiltration and psychological warfare tactics, the government worked to discredit and divide the movements as a whole, going so far as to push the groups towards more violent—and thus arrestable—actions. All this coercion, intimidation and fraud led to tamp down the efforts to lift up whole groups of people that have been held down for hundreds of years.
Again the fear of uprising and revolution would be unfounded if not for the efforts of those with wealth and power to maintain and/or increase their power and wealth at the expense of others. Unfortunately this isn’t at a time of monarchies and Byzantine empires: this history started in the framework of a democracy and continues to this very day. And the victims are both the working and lower classes of all colors and black and brown people of all classes.
As such, this brings me to the third point: the historic gains made when both workers and the black community came together in the struggle. I specifically refer to the Civil Rights Movement and the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander was founded in 1932 in Tennessee as a social justice leadership training school and cultural center, and helped provide training and education for the labor groups in Appalachia and the Southern US. [The modern version of “We Shall Overcome,” which we sung earlier, was adapted by the music director Zilphia Horton, the wife of the Highlander co-founder Myles Horton, after hearing the song sung at a South Carolina strike by tobacco workers. Pete Seeger helped publish the song, the succeeding music director taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the rest is history.] In the mid ’50s, Highlander Center turned its attention to the issues around civil rights and desegregation. They started by teaching literary programs to blacks who were prevented from voting due to literacy requirements. They helped train, among others, Rosa Parks, members of the SNCC, Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark, James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis in nonviolent methods of resistance and protest strategies. There was reprisals for their work with Civil Rights, including being decried as communists and having their charter and their land revoked; but this was worth it to Highlander’s leaders to help in the civil rights struggle. What helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was not only the pressure put on the governments and companies by the black community, but by the broad base support they had behind them from all different communities; and when the black struggle was also recognized as a worker’s struggle, both groups responded in concert forcing change from the opposition.
With that in mind, this is why I say holding six police officers accountable for the death of a black teen in their custody is an important win for both the black community and the working class. Right now in response to very public shootings of black people by police, the phrase Black Lives Mater was turned into hashtag activism and has become a rallying cry for the black community fighting oppression. To highlight the ongoing struggle to raise the minimum wage nationally or locally, the slogan Fight for 15 has gained traction and has won in some quarters. But if you were to draw a Venn diagram representing those in the Black Lives Matter population and those in the Fight For 15 population, the intersecting union representing both communities is pretty large. Martin Luther King Jr. noticed this when he looked back at the civil rights gains and noticed there was no corresponding gain in material conditions of life. This is what spurred him to create the Poor People’s Campaign as a way to alleviate poverty across the board.
The benefits to the black community by raising the minimum wage for all are enormous. While the largest percentage of at or below minimum wage workers are white at 77%, nearly 5% of all African Americans work at or below minimum wage—the highest of any ethnic or racial group. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 (as proposed by President Obama) would raise the income level of families living below the poverty line by 2.8% and reduce the total number of families below the poverty line by 900,000. And as pointed out by writer Madison J. Gray, the benefit to young black teens is that “a higher wage represents a incentive to obtain and retain gainful employment, which leads to more advanced job skills, leading to even higher hourly wages and ultimately a reduction in crime because there are fewer youth out there with idle time.”
But how does raising the minimum wage help alleviate police brutality? The case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore is the perfect scenario to talk about this. We know the particulars: when the 25 year old made eye contact with the police, he ran off and was chased, apprehended, and arrested by the cops. Gray gave up without a struggle and was put in a patrol wagon, during which he was given what is called in Baltimore as a “rough ride.” This mean Gray was put unbuckled in the back of the van and left to bounce around inside as the van as it made its journey around Baltimore. This severed his spinal cord and eventually died from his injuries. One part of the story that was referred to my many but unnoticed later was that Gray was in court a few weeks earlier for a separate case. The false rumor was that he was in court because of a previous back injury or had back surgery, and this was why his spinal cord severed. When that was disproved, people moved on to the next accusation; but if they stopped to look at what the lawsuit was about, they would see one of the root causes of the riots.
Freddie Gray was not in court for his own lawsuit; he was in court submitting paperwork for the as part of his mother’s lawsuit, which she won. The cause of the lawsuit: she sued the owners of the place she was living in because due to their “negligence,” both her children—Freddie and his twin sister—had suffered damage from prolonged exposure to lead. It has been accepted for years that higher levels of lead in children have notable effects on them in development, including reduced IQ, learning disabilities and behavior dysfunctions. Some researchers have noted specific effects of lead poisoning in children and teens include ADHD, socio-aggressive behaviors, and a reduction of emotional regulation. This already sets up the lead poisoned person as the personality type more closely monitored by the police; adding race to the mix only greatly increases the chances of bad encounters with the police. Freddie Gray already had been arrested 18 times since 2009, was involved in 20 different criminal court cases, and spent two years in jail. Gray himself didn’t have a job; sine the lead poisoning left him and his sister incapable of leading normal lives, he was living off of the money from the settlement (though no one knows how much or how long that would have lasted him).
Now there is no way to say that Gray’s life would have turned out better or worse without the lead exposure. However in 1991, the minimum wage was raised nationally to $3.80/hour (the national standard) up from $3.35/hour, which it had been since 1980. Working 40 hours at that minimum wage level nets you $7,904 a year; while the poverty line for one person in 1991 was $6,620, for a parent with three kids—which Gray’s mother was—was $13,950, about 56% more than she was making. Having a living wage at that point in time (approximately $7.20/hour) would have enabled her to afford better living spaces, and not the lead filled home in the Sandtown section of Baltimore where she lived, to a place where the glare of the police watchdogs are not not as harsh.
Then as now, it is impossible to live anywhere in America on the minimum wage as it is, or even if raised to $10/hour. Simply lifting close to 1 million families out of the poverty level, as stated earlier, has a ripple effect on the economy at large. States and municipalities that have a higher minimum wage tend to have greater economic resilience than those with minimum wages only at the federal level. This leads to more revenue going into state and city coffers, which can be used towards infrastructure work and anti-poverty efforts—if the political will exists. Fighting for a national minimum wage of $15 does not automatically solve the institutionalized racism that is inherent in law enforcement system and culture—we’ve seen that with the horrifying way Susan Bland was arrested days before dying in jail, on her way to start a new job. However it does provide more opportunities for people of color and the working poor to make the necessary steps towards building a better, safer, healthier life. If they are economically trapped in environments that are already overpoliced and environmentally unsafe, the greater the chances of arrest and/or negative interactions with the police. Therefore is behooves us to fight for a living wage that gives these people a fighting chance to get out of these unsafe areas. If the nation is unwilling to find the money to fix infrastructure problems like deleading a house, then at the very least they need to ensure companies pay workers a wage where they have options of escape or even fixing their own community.
As human beings we should be outraged at all of this, but for us Unitarians it should be doubly so. This goes right to the heart of our second principle—I’m skipping the first and going right for number two: that is justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Ours is a covenantal religion, meaning we don’t base our religion on statement of beliefs but of promises we make in how we treat each other. The covenant we say each week is one such statement of how this church treats its visitors, members and the community; the seven principles that help frame our religion are statements on how this spiritual home treats its followers and the outside world. Justice, equity and compassion should be the norm in human relations, but we know and witness it is more often a struggle to reach that bar. Yet to witness this and do nothing about it should be harmful to our selves and our souls. To know the history of racism, discrimination and brutality against people of color in this country and not say Black Lives Matter is wrong. To see the history of oppression of workers rights, the wage slavery allowed and the consistent efforts against helping the working poor and not say Fight For 15 is wrong. To not put our best efforts into correcting the damage done to both communities is wrong and condemnable. Our principles call us to action to change society for the better; they also to call us to listen and aid those who are already thick in the fight. It is important for us to stand with both the black community and the working poor and add our voices so that these messages speak truth to power and change things for the better. We are seeing some signs of accountability in the arrests and investigations of police officers who have killed back people, and in the municipalities that have already voted to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. It is a start but the hard work is far from over. The gift given to us this past May day has to be only the tip of the iceberg, but only if we take heed of its message and speak its truth. We need say and continue to say Black Lives Matter and Fight For 15, not only because it is the right and just thing to do, but also as civil rights activist Ella Baker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”