By Hannah Brandt
On Feb. 27, Donna Brazile spoke to a relatively full house in the North Gym at Fresno State while a softball game roared a few meters away. The two events started at about the same time, so the same concrete corner saw different feet file in different directions. It was not only attire that marked the division between attendees. One cannot help but imagine the stadium filled with both crowds, hushed so one could hear a pin drop as she repeated 11 times, “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words Eric Garner gasped before dying.
Perhaps some of those who chose softball over history and politics that day will catch Brazile on Finding Your Roots with Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS later this year. Doing genealogy for the experience revealed to her our “rich, diverse, common” history in America as she can claim freedom fighters, Confederate soldiers, and Irish ancestry. Yet many in her family were merely digits in the documents. Slaves were not listed as people with names, but property represented by numbers. This is a stark reminder of our shared history that affects our everyday thoughts, words, and actions.
Soon there would be a “pilgrimage to the Deep South” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Ala., for voting rights. She planned not to celebrate as if Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous dream has been fully realized. “While we have African American senators, representatives in the House, and one Supreme Court justice, we are losing the War on Poverty, voting rights, mass incarceration and segregation.” Recent examples of injustice in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland have galvanized a new movement as people of African descent continue to struggle for freedom in the United States.
Brazile spent much of her talk deconstructing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which she instructed us “not to read it as history, but as a call to what you can do. We must work for change, to make his dream reality today. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1864, King proclaimed, ‘the Negro is still not free.’” Brazile went on to say that “50 years after King’s speech, most things keeping us back are the same things that held us back then.”
Heavy-handed policing in riot gear to mostly peaceful protests in Ferguson, New York City, and Berkeley bears a striking resemblance to the aggressive police reaction to similar protests in the 1960s: rifles inches from faces, plumes of teargas, batons plummeting down upon heads. Photos of the historical side-by-side with the present, it is almost impossible to distinguish the difference.
Brazile alluded to this herself. “It will take a lot to repair the torn fabric between communities of color and law enforcement, a hole that grows larger every day. Just because you wear the badge does not make you bigger or better than the rest of us. You must be a role model, must focus on protecting the public. Too many people are still telling us to calm down instead of helping us get justice.
“My biggest concern is jobs.” Quoting King, she noted, “Without work, dignity can be an illusion.” Brazile is tired of the talk about the success of Wall Street without a focus on the continued suffering of Main Street. Unemployment always affects people of color, especially Black people, most of all. At the height of the Great Depression, the national average unemployment rate was 25%, but it was 40% among African Americans.
During the recent financial crisis, the national rate topped out at 9% (Fresno is still at 11%) but, for African Americans, it has reached 25% in many places and is even higher among Black youth. For all the discussion of the very real wage gap between men and women, Black and Hispanic men make less than White women, Black and Hispanic women less yet. Asked how she maintains hope in the face of this continued inequality, Brazile responded, “I get a strength from those who came before me, from those who made a way from no way. Don’t focus on the barriers, look for the opportunities.”
That optimism does not obscure reality for Brazile. She denounced the increasingly powerful Far Right for perversely using the Great Recession as an excuse to roll back the Great Society and New Deal programs that have been vital for inching African Americans toward greater equality. Voting rights gained through years of organizing, culminating with the march at Selma, have been systematically rolled back on course to be obliterated.
Lest we in the West delude ourselves that segregation and voter suppression were a peculiar Southern institution, that is a myth. Segregation, often against Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, was a Californian and Southwestern institution. Recent voter ID laws in the West have had a similar impact on immigrant populations as they have had on African Americans.
King’s final years focused on opposing the war in Vietnam and fighting poverty. Some have suggested that later agitation—not the boycotts, sit-ins and marches on Washington or Selma—is why he was targeted for death. His house, however, had been bombed in earlier years. The Montgomery boycotts of the 1950s were acts of protest meant to undermine the Southern economy if the racist system refused to change.
The South did not budge for more than a year, holding on to as many forms of institutional segregation as possible. Still, when King broadened his focus from Southern racism to all the injustice in America’s way of life and foreign policies, repercussions were broader, too. He lost supporters; threats and surveillance increased. Though often forgotten, Brazile highlighted the women of the early movement, also targets of threats and abuse.
Although the current movement and media focuses on police targeting of Black males for harassment, abuse, and violence, Brazile emphasized that Black women are systematically mistreated and killed by police as well. She spoke of her own experience being pulled over while police were looking for someone in a red car with an Afro. She was in a black car without an Afro.
In 2013, Washington, D.C., police killed Miriam Casey she drove onto a restricted road near the White House. Her actions were denounced as crazy and her story dropped, but evidence suggests police reacted with excessive force. This is striking after capital officers careened along that same street in a drunken stupor in March while other officers were inspecting a potential bomb there. They were not suspended from their jobs afterward, let alone shot at in the moment.
Brazile applauded the sustained explosion of activism following the events in Ferguson. “If you want laws to change, you must get involved. We need everyone to engage in making change, not just politicians.” Particularly impressed by the actions of young people, she encouraged two 17-year-old girls who came to the microphone seeking wisdom by saying, “This is your ordained hour. Even if it is just the two of you, you have started a movement.” Do not be discouraged by the enormity of the problem. “We can do this. We can create lasting change now: one person at a time, one project at a time, one community at a time.”
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist who has previously published in the Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. Contact her on Twitter @HannahBP2, where she runs @FresnoAlliance.