The massive demonstrations by immigrants and their
supporters have been magnificent to behold – many
hundreds of thousands in cities across the country,
with total participation well over a million. Most
progressives are ecstatic, believing that a new
era of activism has begun. But, as a Black man,
I’m feeling twinges of a different emotion: shame.
I have long held that one reason for the generally
poor protest record of African Americans, locally
and nationally, over the last few decades is due
to the mass incarceration of Black youth. Movements
are youth-driven. Historically, and everywhere,
young people are the energy of mass protest. When
a critical mass of Black youth are locked up or
under some version of criminal justice system
control – such as parole and probation – it is
understandable that they will not be anxious to
confront state power.
I still believe this is a factor – but then we
witnessed the glorious turnout among immigrants,
a high proportion of whom were liable for deportation
should they fall into police hands during a confrontation.
Yet they still marched, and chanted, and nobody
covered their faces. It has been suggested that
the demonstrations were so large and enthusiastic
because the immigrant community is desperate,
wracked with fear of the Republican’s draconian
immigration bill. But that doesn’t explain it.
Fear paralyzes, or causes the person to flee,
to hide. There has been no evidence of paralysis
among the immigrants. There they were, moving
steadily forward, hundreds of thousands in plain
The immigrants put Black America to shame, with
their high levels of organization and effectiveness,
their fantastic morale and strong sense of solidarity.
It is true that African Americans staged the Million
Man and Millions More rallies – ten years apart.
One was a mass spiritual gathering, the other
more like a huge picnic. The first, in 1995, produced
no demands. The second, in 2005, produced so many
demands that there might as well have been, none.
And that, I believe, gets to the root of the problem,
the cause of the collective apathy and quietude
in Black America. We have been unable to mobilize
around a few paramount demands.
This is a problem of leadership – and I don’t
mean individual leaders, but the class of people
who assume leadership in Black cities across the
nation. Black folks need and want a living wage.
Black youth are treated like beasts by the criminal
justice system. But the leadership class in Black
America cares more about Black business contracts
than a living wage, and doesn’t want to even talk
about mass incarceration. In fact, most of these
so-called leaders don’t want mass mobilization
– they would rather act as power brokers, deal
cutters. They discourage us from making demands
for the masses.
And so, the immigrants, with their unity around
a shared demand, have shamed us. One can only
hope that they have shamed us into action, and
that we learn from their example. For Radio BC,
I’m Glen Ford.