By Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
Monday, January 21, 2019
When will the new street signs go up honoring one of Chicago’s most historic and significant citizens, Ida B. Wells? Although I would have preferred that the city council select a much longer street to bear Wells’ iconic name, perhaps it is fitting that the name of this great woman is on a street entering into downtown from the Westside of the city where Black neighborhoods have been so disgracefully disinvested in, underserved, maligned, and, even removed. The signs should go up right away to inspire the next person who leads this city by reminding her or him that Ida B. Wells spent her entire adult life working tirelessly and courageously on behalf of the disempowered and unprotected, and that Black Chicago deserves much better than it is getting.
The genius of Ida B. Wells is that, through her relentless inquiry, intrepid investigative reporting, and the trenchant analysis of her findings, she discovered lynchings were really acts of terror being committed for the purpose of intimidation and control; and that “leading citizens” in different towns were involved in these atrocities that were meant to “keep the nigger down.” Her friend, Thomas Moss, had been a prime example, for he had been an American success story. He was the first Black federal employee in Memphis, and had worked hard to save his money and become one of the owners of the People’s Grocery before he and his business partners were lynched. He had done nothing wrong; his “crime” was that he was a Black man who had been on the rise economically. Wells also discovered that, although it had been believed that lynchings were a response to the rape of White women, in most cases rape was not even alleged, and, where it was, most often the relationships between the Black men and White women involved were consensual—in many cases initiated by the White woman. Finally, Wells found that Black women and children were being lynched, too.
Not only do we need a street named for this “crusader for justice”* (as well as a prominently displayed downtown statue), we need a mayor who can lead this city equitably with the same intellect, energy, innovative thought, and seriousness of purpose that were hallmarks of Ida B. Wells’ extraordinary life. A brilliant theoretician, activist, and journalist, Wells never ran away from a tough fight, and she was unfazed by the struggle inherent in standing up against a rigid power structure.
All Wells ever demanded was fairness and equality in all systems, and that is what Black people in this city should be demanding today.** At the beginning of her journalism career, while she was still a very young educator, Wells had written an expose about the poor conditions of the schools that Black students attended. Predictably, as a result of those articles, her teaching contract was not renewed. Undaunted, and for the rest of her life, Wells was uncompromising in her pursuit of justice and did not hesitate to challenge anyone, Black or White, about societal ills she observed, solutions she found insufficient, or tactics she found languid or lacking.
Wells’ body of work included protesting the planned exclusion of African Americans at the 1893 Columbian Exposition*** here in Chicago (alongside such luminaries as Fannie Barrier Williams, another leading educator, activist, and writer who would become the first woman and African American on the Chicago Library Board, and the eminent statesman Frederick Douglass.) Wells was a founding member of the NAACP, she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black women’s suffrage group in Illinois, and, at one time, she served as a probation officer—wrestling with the criminal justice system in Chicago.
Ida B. Wells was a problem-solver who sought intelligent, effective responses when she perceived a need. In 1910, as more and more Black migrants arrived in Chicago, fleeing Southern racism, she organized the Negro Fellowship League which operated a settlement home where lodging and recreational facilities were provided, as well as leads on jobs. Also in Chicago, she helped found the first kindergarten for Black children and the first Black orchestra; and nationwide she helped to organize the Black Women’s Club Movement which was designed to uplift Black people through education and community development activities. To make sure Black history was preserved…well, Ms. Wells started a history club—along with retired Russian diplomat, Richard T. Greener, who had been, in 1870, the first Black graduate from Harvard.
As Chicago looks to determine who will be the next leader of this world-class city, here are some questions we need to ask: Who will be the courageous Ida B. Wells of our time and stop the physical, psychological, social, and economic lynching of Black Chicago today? Who will move to make this city fair for all of its citizens; and, again, where are those signs?****
"While my neck was spared of the lynch rope and my body was never riddled by bullets or dragged by an auto, I felt that I was lynched many times in mind and spirit. I grew up in a world of White power used most cruelly and cunningly to suppress poor helpless back people." Rosa Parks
*Crusade for Justice is the name of Ida B. Wells' posthumously published autobiography.
**"Power conceded nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will." Frederick Douglass
***Also, called the "World's Fair."
****Chicago, of course, was founded by a Black man, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable (du Sable).
Note: The gruesome lynchings Ida B. Wells reported on and wrote about were often said to be "at the hands of persons unknown" in the contemporary local newspapers. The truth is that practically everyone knew who was involved in these lurid, obscene murders, including members of law enforcement personnel--who were sometimes involved themselves.
The Memphis Appeal Avalanche, a local newspaper, described the Thomas Moss lynchings as a "skillful execution."
By Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
Monday, November 12,2018
The keynote speaker was unknown to me. I had never heard of her. I was just attending what I thought would be a wonderfully pleasant summer women’s luncheon curtesy of the Rainbow Push Coalition here in Chicago. A good friend had an extra ticket, and I was onboard. There were many good speakers and my table mates were cool. Then, the showstopper appeared.
She had the ability to convey brilliance and sophistication wrapped in kindness, compassion, and humor. She introduced herself, through personal anecdotes about triumph and struggle involving her parents and siblings, while interspersing deeply held philosophical and policy beliefs. Stacey Abrams was captivating.
It turned out that the charming lady seated on my right was the timeless beauty (and widow of heroic baseball player, Curt Flood), Judy Pace, now in her 70s, still svelte and young-looking. She and I kept smiling and making approving comments about Stacey to each other. By the time Stacy concluded her remarks, she had clearly won over all the people in the huge ornate ballroom. Ms. Pace turned to me and enthused, “I feel about [Stacey] like I felt the first time I heard Obama speak. She’s really special.”
Yes, Stacey Abrams is really special. She was all public servant and absolutely no guile. She presented felicitous responses to complex problems, while making it clear that she is a woman of the people. The lawyer in her shone through as she clearly demonstrated sound logic and excellent critical thinking skills. The humanism she displayed—as she spoke of a mental health crisis involving her super smart brother, and a criminal justice problem (again, involving her brother)—held the promise that she will work seriously to reform both of those deeply flawed and inequitable systems that have savaged far too many Black families.
So, please, Georgia, count all the votes, because we need the kind of creative, intelligent, and moral leadership—that is both innovative and sensitive to the needs of the people—that Stacey Abrams can deliver. And after the last few years..., well..., that need is quite critical.
(Pictured below, (l-r), actress Judy Pace and Stacey Abrams, candidate for governor of the state of Georgia)
We need to change the laws as they relate to policing. If juries insist on exonerating police officers who extinquish other human beings' lives because a cop, in any given situation, says, "I feared for my life," then a jury should be compelled, through precise jury instructions, to examine whether this so-called "fear" was "reasonable" based on intelligent professional and community standards. Imagine if a motorist killed a cop and simply said, "I feared for my life?" But couldn't that very well be true and reasonable given the climate that cops have fostered as it relates to Black motorists? Of course it could. MANY Black people fear dying during a "routine" traffic stop over something trivial and inconsequential (like a busted tail light) because some aggressive cop, operating with stupid stereotypes of Black people swirling around in his head, freaks out. Considering the awesome power the state confers on so-called law enforcement personnel, every Black person knows that if matters turn deadly in an innocent instant, the cop is likely to walk away without accountability, responsibility, or punishment.
If you look closely at the videotape that was released four days after the trial concerning the Philando Castille tragedy, you will see that as soon as Castille announces that he has a firearm in the car, the man in the uniform immediately puts his right hand on his firearm. (He does not deserve to be called a police officer because that implies some degree of intelligent judgment.) At that point, Castille had every right to fear for his life. We all know what happened next. In the span of mere seconds, the man in the uniform mortally wounded Castille--who was in compliance with the uniformed man's directive.
It should not be left to an officer, subjectively and mendaciously, to say the magic words that he "feared for his life," when there is clearly no threat that a reasonable, rational person with good judgement could have perceived. These videotaped police shootings, that people with a conscience have been traumatized by, suggest that better screening concerning the mental stability of police candidates needs to take place.
Also, when police departments fail to conduct investigations into police complaints (or when the inquiries are perfunctory) that is, quite simply, a prescription for disaster. Further, when a cop has complaint after complaint after complaint filed against him by citizens, and no one bothers to address that officer's behavior, that is clearly another invitation for trouble. When police officers shoot citizens, or suspects, who have already been subdued, that suggests obvious recklessness, or that the cop was unable to control his own behavior to the extreme detriment of a citizen. Out of control officers threaten and potentially endanger the citizenry as a whole everyday.
There are so many systemic problems with departments like the Chicago Police that they make it: 1) difficult for officers with good intentions for joining the force to do their jobs with competence and integrity; and 2) impossible for many citizens in marginalized communities to receive protection. Many people are rightfully afraid to call the police in times of crisis for fear that the officer will cause something to go horribly and irretrievably wrong. So, what we have is an ineffective system--a tangled mess and complete disorder. Citizens who need service or protection are afraid to call for it, and officers who are sincere and capable of exercising good judgment and human decency are unfairly maligned. The police, protected by an extremist and fanatical union, refuse to entertain constructive criticism as they unrealistically pretend that bad cops do not exist, while they obfuscate devastating problems with Pavlovian responses. At the top of the list is the automatic response about how difficult and dangerous it is to be a cop. Obviously, this is a bad situation all the way around.
The way things stand now, a "law enforcement" officer can kill at will. This is an atrocity that has to be addressed by legislators. We must demand that law makers write tighter, more precise laws that will not allow a "law enforcement" officer to kill Black people for no rational and defensible reason. If a police officer "fears for his life" or gets nervous, rattled, and cowardly everytime he encounters a person with Black skin, then he needs to seek other employment. Human life is much too important to be snuffed out by a cop who is frightened to the point of not being able to police intelligently and humanely. Why should Black people die because a cop, White or Black, who harbors ridiculous beliefs about Black people, born out of White supremacist thought, wildly over reacts? I have listened to officers try to justify cop killings by describing a "good shoot," and the things I have heard are absurd, offensive, and frightening. Basically, any shoot can be described as a "good shoot," if the cop says the magic words: "I feared for my life."
As activists continue to insist that this problem be properly addressed, one remedial suggestion is that police officers should not be allowed to stop people for minor, "ticky-tacky" offenses, including busted tail lights. The officer should simply take the license plate number down and the owner should receive a notice in the mail to repair the light (or whatever needs fixing) and bring proof of the correction to court on an appointed date. Police officers ought to be relieved of the right to write tickets for small matters. They can stop a motorist and neither party should ever exit his or her vehicle. The officer can simply copy the license plate or take a picture of it, and allow the driver to leave. Again, the officer should never exit his vehicle during such a stop; all he would have to do is submit some paper work so the driver can be notified of the problem in writing. Some type of signal can be devised to alert the driver to the fact that he has been pulled over for a minor violation and must stay in his car.
We have to arrive at solutions that will enable Black citizens to live without fear of the people whose salaries they pay. Black people do not have equal protection under the law; they are being killed for no reason. This is true even as we know that there are White people who curse, berate, spit on, lung at, swing on, and point guns at cops, and yet live to tell about it. (On can simply perform a Google search and pull up videotape documenting these facts.)
Also, there are some armed and extremely dangerous White people out there who are routinely gingerly apprehended by police officers. Therefore, we know that many, if not most, cops know how to perform their jobs without the need for deadly force. Remember, Dylan Roof, the terrorist who slaughtered nine innocent, unsuspecting, and welcoming Christian people in a church after sitting in on their Bible study? He commited an unspeakable crime, yet police officers outfitted him with a bullet proof vest to protect him, and escorted him to Burger King, because, presumably, one gets hungry after a day's work of massacring nine beautiful, trusting Black people.
And what about James Holmes, who shot up a theatre, killing twelve people and wounding 70 others? He was taken in without incident after an evening of killing unsuspecting people trying to enjoy an evening out. So, how is it that cops can claim they were so afraid of someone, like LaQuan McDonald, for example, who was walking away from the police? None of this killing of Black people, who don't deserve to die, at the hands of the police would be tolerated if it were White people being executed for no reason.
This society cannot consider itself "civilized" if it insists that using the state apparatus to kill Black citizens is okay. Fair-minded people simply have to educate themselves so they can see this issue for what it is, and stand for the truth while they stand against injustice. We all have to collectively say, "No more." There is a problem with our police culture and no amount of useless, superfluous rhetoric about the difficulties of policing is going to change that. The overwhelming majority of police officers go home after every shift having worked a mundane day; and there are people in the culture who perform jobs that are harder than policing, but they don't get to savagely kill people in unprovoked interactions and walk away with no consequences.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about needing leaders who are "in love with justice." We need law enforcement officers who are in love with justice. If a prospective officer is entering the profession for any other reason, police academies should be more vigilant about dismissing that person, and courts should be more empowered to severely discipline unjust people who sneak through. We, the people, must demand just that.
Surviving, Healing, and Evolving:
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Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
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