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Op-Ed: Black Lives Won't Matter If You Don't Vote

President Donald Trump held a re-election rally in Colorado Springs.
President Donald Trump held a re-election rally in Colorado Springs.
Evan Semón

Many of the social and political gains made in the 1960s by the Civil Rights Movement and other social and environmental justice movements, although limited, were important. They have been set back by the politics of the succeeding years. However, the resurgence of social activism in the last several months, launched by the brutal murders of Black men and women at the hands of vigilantes and police is reason to at least be cautiously hopeful.

Today’s social activism is broader and deeper than it was in the Civil Rights Movement era. Today’s protesters are of all ages, sexual identities and races, and come from hundreds of cities and towns across the country. Social media allows people to repeatedly watch the all-too-frequent police violence. Massive unemployment as well as teleworking, wrought by COVID-19, gives people time to demonstrate against it.

My involvement in the Civil Rights Movement began in 1962, when I participated in a Civil Rights Leadership Training Institute in Houston. By 1965 and into the 1970s, I was a professional community organizer and researcher in national African-American-led organizations. Then I led a Colorado-based organization that focused on Communities of Color, organized labor, the environment and energy policy. After that, I was a professor who taught leaders and senior managers of non-profit organizations how to achieve their organizations’ objectives.

Today’s activism, especially the Black Lives Matter movement, makes me think about some of the mistakes we made in the ’60s and early ’70s that led to major setbacks in the succeeding eras. Three lessons stand out.
First, some people became frustrated at the slow pace of progress and turned from non-violent tactics to violence. Second, some let the ideal become the enemy of the best possible. Third, people failed to vote.
Black lives won’t matter if you don’t vote.

In the 1960s, some civil rights groups began focusing on the issue of police abuse. Police brutality became a growing civil rights issue, and in the summer of 1964, police abuse in New York City became the catalyst for hundreds of urban uprisings in African-American communities that lasted through the summer of 1967. (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, New York, Rochester serve as examples.) During those years, the Civil Rights Movement was morphing into the Black Power Movement.

That reflected increasing frustration in the Movement that social change was not happening fast enough; the thought that non-violent tactics were ineffective and violent ones were better; and a growing sense of Black Nationalism. In SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), for example, in 1966 the organization’s chairmanship passed from John Lewis, the non-violent, integrationist advocate of participatory democracy, to Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term “Black Power” and urged Black people to use “any means necessary” to attain justice, including taking up arms. He also thought White activists should be limited to supporting roles. By 1967, H. Rap Brown became chairman and publicly called for violent tactics; he expelled White activists from the organization. The same things happened in CORE chapters across the country: The tactic of non-violence was increasingly questioned, White people became less prominent, and Black leadership was stressed.

In SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a White youth organization, activists were abandoning their foundational principals, including the belief in non-violence, and organizing White working-class people in their local communities. The organization’s original slogan, “Let the People Decide,” became obsolete. SDS morphed into the Weathermen and the Weather Underground. Members began forming cells of militant cadres that thought using para-military means to “lead the revolution” was more relevant, and that “the masses would rise up.”

Despite voter registration efforts in the South, and the formation of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, there were few attempts to translate the protests into politics, especially in the North. Activists did not want to get involved in political processes. They were moving toward greater militancy, and the concept of political engagement fell mostly on deaf ears.

Today, with the 2020 elections, voting must be seen as an important form of protest. We all must vote, and vote early.

One of America’s impotent responses to the multi-year wave of urban uprisings was the establishment in 1967 of what became known as the Kerner Commission. Overseen by a distinguished eleven-member group of commissioners, a study was started “to investigate the causes of a recent outbreak of race riots, with a particular focus on the 1967 Detroit riots.” The report concluded that the causes were “a lack of economic opportunity...failed housing, education, and social service policies.” Although the report’s recommendations suggested that cities "hire more diverse and sensitive police forces,” police disrespect and brutality were not considered a major cause of the uprisings.

The response with the longest-lasting impact was the 1968 election of President Richard Nixon. He ran on a states' rights platform, opposed the protests and demonstrators, and supported the nation’s police. He ran as a “law and order” candidate, and got 60 percent of the popular vote. Nixon mobilized the “Silent Majority,” especially suburbanites and white Southerners who were increasingly threatened by the societal disruptions and yearned for the good old days, “the American way of life.”

Sound familiar?

Other reasons that Nixon won are instructive for us today. Many registered voters had become turned off to electoral politics. They supported more radical means for making change. Other electors thought the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was too moderate. Because he was not up to their ideal, they discounted him completely: On election day, they stayed home. Some who had campaigned passionately in the primaries for the more progressive peace and social justice candidates, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, were angry that Humphrey got the nomination through a brokered national convention. They did cast ballots, but voted for third-party candidates or wrote in the names of people they preferred.

All of those votes, essentially, were votes for Nixon. We must learn from that, and other close presidential races lost because electors did not vote or voted for a third-party candidate (Ralph Nader in 2000, for example, when Gore lost to Bush).

In 2020 we must vote, and vote early, for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. We cannot abstain or waste our ballot by writing in anyone else’s name. Either act would be a vote for Trump, and he cannot get our votes.
This time, we must be sure we don’t make a perfect (non-existent) ideal the enemy of what is a dramatic improvement compared to Trump. Though he is far from perfect, Biden is the one candidate who is now the best and only option available to us. (An avid Bernie Sanders supporter said he will reluctantly “vote blue in spite of who.”) With Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate — who may well become his successor — he has already begun taking more progressive positions than he had at first. Moreover, if we continue to mobilize and demonstrate after he is president, Biden will move further in a positive direction. He is, of course, a political animal.

If we want to make police responsive to communities of color and progress on a host of social, economic, environmental and international issues, Trump must not be re-elected. Even our very survival as a democracy could depend on ousting him.

Black lives won’t matter if you don’t vote.

Law enforcement response to Denver protests this spring.
Law enforcement response to Denver protests this spring.
Evan Semón

Notably, under conservative presidents, right-wing movements and policies flourish. In Nixon’s first term, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was created, and police departments across the country developed war rooms and got military equipment to suppress domestic rebellions. Trump’s practice of not so subtlely supporting racism and the widespread attempts at voter suppression are consequences of a conservative presidency.

During liberal presidencies, by contrast, policies that focus on improving our common good gain momentum and move forward. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” might be modified by adding, “and in the United States, under progressive Presidents.”
Under Franklin Roosevelt, a host of job programs were created and social safety-net programs like Social Security were started. In the 1960s, under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, anti-poverty programs were established, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were enacted, and the beginnings of important environmental protection laws were passed. Under Trump, civil and voting rights are being suppressed, and paramilitary forces are being activated. Environmental laws are being neutered, and Trump is trying to weaken established social safety-net programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. He is even refusing to fund the United States Postal Service; he said he does not want it to be able to handle widespread mail-in voting!

There are major differences between the two candidates on all the important issues, and even though Biden isn’t as perfect as we would like him to be, he must be supported.

Black lives won’t matter if you don’t vote.

While Nixon was bolstering police departments and suppressing demonstrations, prisons became the new sites for uprisings. Notably, people of color comprise the majority of inmates. By 1971, there had been almost a dozen. The Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 in upstate New York, in which thirty inmates and ten prison guards were killed, was the most well-known. Rightfully, these uprisings made corrections officers fearful for their lives.
At that time, I was a project research director at the National Urban League, one of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations. Following Attica, the associate director of the New York City Department of Corrections asked the League to develop an intensive “human relations training program” for a broad cross-section of the department’s 14,000-plus correction officers and administrators. The Urban League agreed, and I became the research director who designed a study to evaluate the multi-year project, and one of the team of thirteen “anti-racism trainers.”

We trained small groups of administrators, long-time corrections officers (“old-heads”), mid-timers and new recruits. Following these sessions, we tested the attitudes of the correction officers with whom we had worked, and compared them to similar groups with whom we had not. Our training showed positive results.

Six months later, we again tested corrections officers' attitudes. We hoped the results would show that our anti-racism initiative permanently changed their attitudes toward inmates. This time, however, there was absolutely no difference between the attitudes of those with whom we'd worked and those with whom we had not. The positive short-term effects were erased completely within six months of on-the-job prison work.

The existing penal institutions' culture determined employees’ attitudes and behaviors, as it does in police departments.

To make long-term structural change throughout the criminal justice system, including in local police departments, new organizational cultures have to be created. To do that, lawmakers have to be elected who will change laws and restructure criminal justice organizations. We have to defeat conservative and even some liberal incumbents, and replace them with forward-thinking representatives.

Black lives won’t matter if you don’t vote.

In the 1970s and ’80s, especially in African-American and Latinx communities, young men continued to be demeaned, abused and killed by police. In Colorado — particularly in Aurora, Colorado Springs and Denver — there were regular confrontations between police, Chicano and Black people. Demonstrations demanding an end to police misconduct increased. In 1976, following the police killing of a young African-American, protesters demanded the creation of a Civilian Review Board in Denver to investigate allegations of police misconduct and oversee the police department. That cry was never met, nor even answered.

A decade later, a 21-member commission was finally created to consider establishing some sort of civilian oversight board of the Denver Police Department. Over several months, the commission heard public testimony from community members — mostly people of color — about the various ways they had been disrespected and abused by police. The commission’s major recommendation was to establish a Civilian Review Board to oversee the Denver Police Department.

Although not without local struggles, over the last half-century establishing oversight committees has been seen by those advocating for them as the way to check police misconduct. That was and is incorrect.

Even though local police departments almost always oppose the establishment of these oversight mechanisms, activists did not realize that police unions and associations would participate in their creation and dilute their strength even before they began. Further, once those committees were established, in cases of alleged abuse, other police officers testified in support of their peers (the “Thin Blue Line”). They said that each act of misconduct was actually necessary, the “justifiable use of force” rationale. Police were not prosecuted, even for unmitigated murder. As with corrections officers, police organizational culture determines behavior, even when police are accused of murdering innocent civilians.

Police and their unions or associations comprise a powerful lobby, and police vote! Few municipal political candidates want to alienate them. It has been easy for elected officials to ignore bad police behavior even where oversight commissions exist, because voting has not been seen as an additional form of protest by those most disrespected and abused. Consequently, police misconduct continues.

To counterbalance that political force, progressive people and those in communities of color must vote. To properly respond to today’s Black Lives Matter movement and to change police behavior, to regain social decency, social safety-net programs, civil and voting rights, environmental protections and our international good will, we must vote, and vote early, this year.

So now what?

After October 2, you can request a ballot in person at the County Clerk and Recorder's office. Ballots will be mailed out to registered electors after October 9. If you don't vote in person, vote as early as possible and get your ballot in quickly.

At the presidential level this year, we must vote for the imperfect Joe Biden. We cannot abstain or write in anyone else’s name. Either would be a vote for Trump. Further, if we really want change, we also have to vote at the state and local levels, where decisions about law enforcement are made.

On his deathbed, the late Congressman John R. Lewis said to an old friend, “Everybody must vote in November. It is the most important election ever.”

Black lives won’t matter if you don’t vote.

Roger Kahn was a community organizer and a professor. Currently, he is a small-business owner and author. Contact him at RogDiKahn@aol.com; find out about his book at rmkahn-cbauthor.com.

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