Saturday, 12 Jun 2021

Opinion | A Cry of ‘I Can’t Breathe’ United a Generation in a Gasp for Justice

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By William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Dr. Barber is the president of Repairers of the Breach and a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Mr. Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of “Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good.”

In Elizabeth City, N.C., the morning after a jury in Minneapolis found the former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, a unit from the county’s Sheriff’s Department dressed in tactical gear arrived at the home of Andrew Brown Jr. They were there to serve drug-related arrest and search warrants.

Within minutes, 42-year-old Mr. Brown was dead, shot at the wheel of his car. He was hit by five bullets, including one shot to the back of his head. The North Carolina prosecutor in the case has called the shooting “justified.”

If George Floyd forced America to face the question of whether an officer who abuses power can be held accountable, Andrew Brown Jr.’s blood cries out from the ground of eastern North Carolina for deeper change. Justice demands systemic and enduring transformation — something that younger generations will see and trust as authentic. We call it the Third Reconstruction.

Consider our recent history, starting with Mr. Chauvin’s trial. For us, it brought back memories of the summer of 2013, when a jury in Florida found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Mr. Zimmerman had shot and killed the 17-year-old boy who was guilty of nothing more than walking while Black in a gated community. Our legal system’s failure to hold Mr. Zimmerman accountable for killing Mr. Martin sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. It rallied a generation of young people who refused to accept white police officers regularly killing unarmed Black people, not unlike how white Americans regularly lynched Black Americans in the early 20th century.

And that moment — the rise of Black Lives Matter — in turn recalled the movement galvanized by the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, who was murdered with impunity in Jim Crow Mississippi. The horror of his lynching inspired a generation of children who looked like Till to confront a system that denigrated their Black lives and undermined democracy. Over the next decade and a half, they grew up to be the college students and young adults who led sit-ins at lunch counters, organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi, petitioned their fellow Americans to see voting rights as a moral issue at Selma and built a Rainbow Coalition in Chicago to advocate the dignity of all poor people.

The reckoning that Emmett Till’s generation demanded took time — and it was subverted and sabotaged at every turn. But the young people who saw themselves in Till eventually contributed to a Second Reconstruction of America in the mid-20th century, expanding democracy and pushing the nation toward the promise of a government that would represent all of its citizens.

Now the Trayvon Martin generation has come of age and is pushing the nation toward a Third Reconstruction. The death of Mr. Floyd, along with those of Breonna Taylor and so many more who’ve joined the litany of lives taken, marked a turning point in the movement: His cries of “I can’t breathe” united this generation in a collective gasp for justice.

But what does that justice look like? Accountability for Mr. Floyd’s murder is not justice. If we cannot stop the killings of unarmed Black people before they happen, any collective affirmation of Black life rings hollow.

As hard as it may be to achieve, the Third Reconstruction is about more than Black people surviving encounters with law enforcement. It’s about America taking steps to protect and value its Black citizens as it has never done before. A Third Reconstruction is about ensuring Black Americans are no longer twice as likely as white Americans to die in a pandemic. It’s about remaking a system that saddles them with student debt and then offers them poverty wages.

A Third Reconstruction will ensure that all Americans can access decent housing for their families and quality education for their children, as outlined in a resolution introduced Thursday by Representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal, and supported by our organization, the Poor People’s Campaign. Their resolution seeks to ensure all Americans access to clean and unleaded water and, in the face of widespread voter suppression efforts, a guarantee that their participation in American democracy is expanded and protected.

The Third Reconstruction is about confronting policies and practices that produce death, whether from police killings, poverty, lack of health care, ecological devastation or unnecessary war. It is, in short, a declaration that unnecessary death is intolerable and that democracy is still possible.

In 2020, following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, we witnessed the most votes cast in a federal election in U.S. history, with a higher percentage of eligible voters participating than we’d seen in decades, and maybe even more than a century. From the Fight for $15 to the Sunrise Movement to the Poor People’s Campaign, this generation has linked up with movements to connect systemic racism in policing with systemic racism in economic inequality, ecological degradation, health disparities and voter suppression. In our work with the Poor People’s Campaign, we saw thousands of Black, white and brown Americans reach out to millions of poor and low-income neighbors like them, encouraging them to join a movement that votes for a transformative agenda in our public life.

  • William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believe that “the Trayvon Martin generation has come of age and is pushing the nation toward a Third Reconstruction.”
  • David W. McIvor, a political theorist, recalls the “wild swings between hope and anguish, possibility and anxiety” of last summer’s protests.
  • Elizabeth Hinton, a historian, writes that “the history of Black rebellion demonstrates a fundamental reality: Police violence precipitates community violence.”
  • Six young Americans reflect on how the past year has changed them: “I’ve been a lot louder these days.”

And then, 11 months after Mr. Floyd’s murder — thanks to the courage of Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed Derek Chauvin with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck — the nation witnessed a police chief testify against one of his own and a jury vote to hold Mr. Chauvin accountable for murder. It was a measure of accountability that Trayvon Martin and so many others were never deemed worthy of, and the crowds in Minneapolis celebrated with chants of “I am somebody.”

But even as Mr. Chauvin’s trial was approaching and underway, the police continued to kill Black and brown people. We added names including Donovan Lynch, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant to the list of souls we mourn.

As with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the Second Reconstruction, any fundamental change in American policing will require federal legislative action that we do not currently have the political power to achieve. Even the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which does not fundamentally reimagine law enforcement but does introduce protections against the abuse of power, is languishing in a Senate where Republicans are using the threat of filibuster to silence any real debate.

The Third Reconstruction is about more than any single bill or the agenda of a political party. It is about building power to fundamentally reimagine what is possible in our society. Both the First and Second Reconstructions in American history happened because moral movements reclaimed the promises of democracy and a new, expanded electorate insisted on new priorities. If the Trayvon Martin generation has pricked the nation’s conscience and sparked a moral movement, we believe a coalition of poor and low-income people who have historically been “low-propensity” voters has the potential to shift the political landscape. We must organize around an agenda that lifts from the bottom so that everyone can rise.

No single verdict or election can bring about the racial reckoning America needs after 400 years of building systems that have rested upon white supremacy. But the generation of young people who saw themselves in Trayvon Martin knows that whatever the color of their skin, their lives will not matter in this society until Black lives matter in our public policy.

William Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of “Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good.”

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