As a 10-member delegation of Congressional Black Caucus members head to Ferguson on Sunday for a moment of Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday observance with its citizens, there’s been an emerging argument that now is the time for this second coming of the Civil Rights Movement to transition from its current protest phase to a much more mature public policy phase. As we speak, black elected officials on the state, federal and local level are engaged in a mad dash to draft bills addressing a number of issues related to police violence and misconduct.
There’s a big snag, though: nothing gets done on the policy end unless there are serious changes in the political climate. Without any dramatic alterations on the political landscape, don’t expect any radical implementation of public policy, much less full passage of it. Many observers, and even caucus members themselves, describe the flurry of police brutality, law enforcement data and criminal justice reform bills as “dead on arrival” in the very conservative House Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).
Republicans have shown no real public interest in addressing these issues, although CBC members claim that they will be getting hearings – at least – on the various bills introduced. But an emboldened Republican majority is running things in Congress and a very red political map of Republican governors and supermajorities in state capitols will keep that going.
The problem is that protesters are failing to make a very important distinction between Politics and Policy. These are two separate functions. They’re like cousins: they are definitely related, and yes, they support or, sometimes, fight each other. But the long-held perception that they’re identical twins is flat out wrong.
Ultimately, cousin policy can’t be implemented unless cousin politics is in the mix as bodyguard and hit man. Even when legislation becomes law, there’s no incentive for folks to follow it without political leverage in place to enforce it. President Obama may have signed the Death in Custody Reporting Act as an important nod to protesters, but it’s not like they’re whipping out the Grey Goose – many movement organizers don’t even know that happened.
And once it’s in place, there’s the question of funding and making sure there’s adequate political influence in cities and states to ensure police departments will be compliant.
Jim Crow didn’t suddenly crumble the day the Civil Rights Act was signed. Acceptance, albeit still slow, didn’t happen until black voters were mobilized into a solid political force to be reckoned with. Soon, we were electing black mayors, black city council members, and black state and federal legislators at a frantic pace. Eventually we got a black president. Since 1970, the number of black elected officials combined on the state, federal and local level has risen by about 650 percent (sadly, the folks who faithfully tallied that number over the past 44 years just went out of business last year – and no one seems to care).
We can quibble later over whether that’s translated into full equality for African Americans. But, you can’t argue with one clear fact: we have way greater flexibility to engage fully in society than we’ve ever had before.
Don’t get me wrong: this new discussion about transitioning from protest to policy is a very, very encouraging development. All movements, at some point, have to mature and grasp the legislative process. Recent criticism showed patience wearing thin from both prominent figures watching the movement and those within it as #BlackLivesMatter activists suddenly found themselves losing public sentiment. A recent YouGov poll shows 44 percent of Americans believe protesters should shoulder some responsibility for the murder of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenijian Liu – along with 40 percent saying police should have more say over law enforcement than the elected officials who pass their budgets and oversee their activities.
Such polling data reveal the uncomfortable reality that protesters are losing the public narrative, which is usually the direct result of a failed political game.
It’s been nearly six months since Michael Brown was killed, police unleashed blue fury on Ferguson, Missouri and Officer Darren Wilson got a pass. To date, the same mayor and city council are in place, with no plans for a recall election in the foreseeable future. That is downright unacceptable.
No heads have rolled and no public firings of ranking officials or police chiefs have taken place in any of those cities where there are large black populations that can be groomed, prepped and mobilized into ferocious take-no-prisoners political machines. Police officers are turning their back on the Mayor of New York City and actively engaging in “work stoppages” – yet, where’s the black political counter-act to that? Progressives and others are always clowning or bashing the Tea Party and other conservative political groups. But current civil rights protesters could actually learn something from them: Tea Party influence may have declined a bit in the past year, but Republican politicians are still forced to shape policy to their liking or face the prospect of job loss in a primary. Stand Your Ground and voter suppression laws would not have passed if powerful interests like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council hadn’t applied pressure on Republican state lawmakers.
Right now, that’s a missing piece in the movement. People want immediate change they can see, hear and touch. Passing bills through a complex legislative process few average citizens understand won’t make a bit of difference if political blood isn’t spilled first. Bills don’t give you control. Winning elections and running things do.