Police, people of color and a Jewish dream of justice


Last week, we watched in horror and dismay as violent event after violent event unfolded, each amplifying and recontextualizing the one before it. By Friday morning, July 8, five Dallas police officers were dead, three black men had been killed by the police (including the Dallas shooter), and countless families were broken and traumatized.

On Friday evening I was in the streets marching, chanting our movement’s simplest, yet most elusive assertion, “Black Lives Matter.” As a black person and a Jew, I was asserting the value of my own being — attempting to claim agency over my own body and the bodies of those who look like me in the face of racism and violence.

I usually find these marches and rallies empowering, but on this night I was deflated and sad. As we marched through the rapidly gentrifying streets of New York City, I couldn’t stop watching the faces of those people, especially white people — presumably many of them Jewish — who sat in outdoor cafes sipping wine or coasting by in the backseats of taxis. Some cheered or raised a glass, others gawked mutely; some were obviously annoyed at the minor disruption to their day. I joked darkly to a Jew of color who was marching with me that all of our signs should just say, “If you’re standing there, reading this, then you are part of the problem.”

On Sunday I joined a group of Jewish people of color, organized through Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, or JFREJ, to process and hold space for each other after a week of pain.

Many of those in the room with me have been active in the fight to pass the Right To Know Act , a piece of legislation before the City Council here that would help address the very issues that have brought our nation to this terrifying moment. It would create more trust and mutual respect between communities and the police by requiring officers to identify themselves with a business card when they stop you on the street, thus allowing you to follow up if you believe you were stopped or searched in a discriminatory or illegal manner.

It would also provide a remedy for unconstitutional searches by requiring officers to inform people when they have the right to refuse a search.

As I looked at the demoralized faces in the room, I understood why the week left us all so drained and depressed. For decades people of color have protested against discriminatory and violent policing. And while there have been some meaningful victories over the years, we have yet to win the true accountability that we need to secure our full civil rights and dignity. Ever since the death of Garner in my city — in some ways ever since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles 25 years ago — we’ve had the proof right in front of us, on our screens. We thought this new phenomenon — ubiquitous cameras providing new evidence of an enduring injustice — would shock the nation into action, but it hasn’t. We have organized and marched and rallied, thinking it would move the nation to value our lives and reform its policing. But it hasn’t.

All across America, local community groups are working to pass bills and make policy reforms such as the Right To Know Act. Each effort tries to address some small piece of the problem of racism and police violence — to chip off some tiny piece of the iceberg and make some progress. Our movement is growing, but not fast enough. Unless the Jewish community and everyone who is now watching from the sidelines gets involved, we will be sharing these tragic videos for years to come. Now is the moment to say “never again — not one more.” Now is the moment for white Jews to join us in the streets, to call your legislators, to donate your time and money. To invest in a future where we never have to enter Shabbat with the echoes of gunshots in our ears.

The only way we can ensure a future in which black lives matter and the police are trusted and respected by all is if white Jews, and all Americans, actively participate in the campaigns for racial justice and police accountability being waged all across the country by local organizations, especially those led by people of color. We can win, but only by creating movements too powerful to be ignored. In this struggle there is no neutral ground — if the Jewish community isn’t part of the solution, then it is part of the problem.

Like those people watching us march past them, most Americans don’t see this as their problem to solve. As Jews, we know what it means to fight for our survival while those around us do nothing. And as a Jew of color, I am tired of feeling abandoned by my friends and my larger Jewish community when they sit on the sidelines rather than fighting for my safety and full humanity.

Though  these weeks have been painful, I am still filled with hope for change and certainty that we will win. All I have to do is look at the community I am lucky enough to work with — the powerful, brilliant Jews of all races who are struggling for racial justice every day. They remind me of the most potent parts of our tradition: those that call us to strive for justice even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We won’t give up — we will pass bills like the Right to Know Act. With Jews at my side, I will be out in streets fighting for justice. Will you be there with me?

Baltimore begins clean-up after riot over police-custody death


Baltimore residents on Tuesday began to clear the wreckage of rioting and fires that erupted after the funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody, while the city's mayor defended local law enforcement's light initial response.

Acrid smoke hung over streets where violence broke out just blocks from Freddie Gray's funeral and spread through much of the poor West Baltimore neighborhood. Nineteen buildings and 144 vehicles were set on fire, and 202 people were arrested, according to the mayor's office.

Police said 15 officers were injured, six seriously, in Monday's unrest, which spread throughout the city as police initially looked on but did not interfere as rioters torched vehicles and later businesses.

Looters had ransacked stores, pharmacies and a shopping mall and clashed with police in riot gear in the most violent unrest in the United States since Ferguson, Missouri, was torn by gunshots and arson in late 2014.

Gray's death gave new energy to the public outcry that flared last year after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere.

“It's a very delicate balancing act, when we have to make sure that we're managing but not increasing and escalating the problem,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters on Tuesday.

Police in Ferguson came under intense criticism last year for quickly adopting a militarized posture, using armored vehicles, showing heavy weapons and deploying tear gas in a forceful response that some said escalated tensions in the St. Louis suburb.

New York's police department took a more flexible approach in protests later in the year, monitoring marches that crisscrossed the city but largely averting the kind of violence seen in Ferguson and Baltimore.

For nearly a week after Gray died from a spinal injury on April 19, protests in Baltimore had been peaceful.

'HERE TO HELP OUT, MAN'

On Tuesday, volunteers in Baltimore swept up charred debris in front of a CVS pharmacy as dozens of police officers in riot gear stood by and firefighters worked to damp down the embers.

“I'm just here to help out, man,” said Shaun Boyd, 30, as he swept up broken glass. “It's the city I'm from.”

National Guard troops on Tuesday began to stage around the city, including in front of the police station where officers were bringing Gray at the time he was injured.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, declared a state of emergency on Monday and Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, imposed a one-week curfew in the largely black city starting Tuesday night, with exceptions for work and medical emergencies.

Baltimore-based fund manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc said it would close its downtown office on Tuesday. Legg Mason, also headquartered downtown, said its office would be open, but it was encouraging employees to work from home.

Schools were closed on Tuesday in the city of 620,000 people, 40 miles (64 km) from the nation's capital.

A day after rioters hit a mall in West Baltimore, the Security Square Mall outside the city closed after reports that protesters could be targeting it.

“When you see the destruction you've also got to realize there's pain, there's pain behind a lot of this,” said U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents the region hit by the rioting.

The mayor, he said, should “assure us that the police department be looked at from top to bottom, everything from parking tickets straight up to indictments for murder.”

CAUGHT OFF-GUARD

Gray was arrested on April 12 while running from officers. He was transported to the police station in a van, with no seat restraint and suffered the spinal injury that led to his death a week later. A lawyer for Gray's family says his spine was 80 percent severed at the neck while in custody.

Six officers have been suspended, and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations.

Much of Monday's rioting occurred in a neighborhood where more than a third of families live in poverty. Parts of it had not been rebuilt since the 1968 rioting that swept across the United States after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Deadly confrontations between mostly white U.S. police and black men, and the subsequent unrest, will be among the challenges facing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on Monday and condemned the “senseless acts of violence.”

In 1992, more than 50 people in Los Angeles were killed in violence set off by the acquittal of four police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King. Dozens died in 1968 riots.

Rashid Khan, 49, and his neighbors were cleaning up his King's Grocery Mart on Tuesday after looters caused what he estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 in damage.

Khan said he believed people from outside the neighborhood had caused the damage.

“Neighborhood protect me,” Khan said. 

Hope breeds strength


PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.

This time, it was visible.

The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.

The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.

In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.

The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.

When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.

Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.

The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.

As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.

Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.

Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.

The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.

Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.

The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.

It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.

The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.

In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.

Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.

New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.

From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.

The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.

When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.

Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.