On Black Resistance

**This is a speech I gave at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church for their Black History service on February 12th, 2017.**

I live in the West End neighborhood, and as I was walking on Chapel Hill Rd. yesterday I read this quote by Pauli Murray, posted in a mural on the side of a building –

“It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”

This expression of the complexities involved in holding multiple histories and perspectives at once, learning from and honoring them all, helped me frame the complexities in our history that I want to talk about today.

Personally, I am most inspired by stories from Black history where people insisted on their dignity and their rights as human beings by directly challenging the systems that oppressed them. From slave revolts to anti-lynching campaigns to lunch counter sit-ins, these are the stories that I want my children to hear when we talk about about Black history. When facing circumstances of extreme injustice, I take inspiration from people chose to resist, to refuse, and to disobey.

In light of this political moment, with the recent election of Donald Trump and the ongoing mainstreaming of white nationalism as a political force, I have been spending more time considering the roots of compliance and non-compliance in situations of injustice. I’m asking myself the question, what motivates this choice? How do people choose to obey or disobey? How can we inspire the resistance that we need from our people in this moment? The same resistance that we saw overthrow Jim Crow and consistently fight back against slavery?

One motivation behind compliance is of course, fear. Following the rules is the easiest way to get along. Most people don’t want to rock the boat or challenge the status quo. Non-compliance can get you hurt or even killed, as we saw in the number of slave revolts that were violently crushed, the extreme attacks on civil rights marchers, and the brutal lynching of any black man accused of even looking to long at a white woman, even when those accusations where entirely fabricated as we see now with Tim Tyson’s new book on the Emmett Till case.

The impact of this history continues to be relevant for our communities today. Black parents have always insisted that their Black children be exceptionally respectful in order to simply survive under white supremacy. Standing out, being non-compliant, or being disrespectful, is risky. These are basic survival strategies for oppressed communities.

Compliance by people belonging to majority racial and religious groups can be very dangerous for oppressed communities. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely quoted as saying “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” We see examples of how this appalling silence enables intense suffering and tragedy throughout our history.

At the time of the civil war, about 2/3rds of white people in the south didn’t own slaves, but the vast majority of them were content to live beside an enslaved population, enjoying the benefits of their white skin while their neighbors kept people in bondage. During Jim Crow, the vast majority of white southerners were not carrying out lynchings or joining the KKK, but they were content to live in separate and unequal spaces, ignoring the suffering of the black community, or shaking their heads sadly and continuing to eat their dinner.

This is what concerns me the most as we move into this political era – the willingness of people to tolerate extreme injustice and suffering as long as they themselves are not affected. In particular for Black people, I believe we will need to organize and motivate our communities to actively challenge that historical survival strategy of keeping our heads down and instead follow the paths of action and resistance of our strongest leaders – Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, and modern heroes like Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to take down the confederate flag at the SC state house after the shooting at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston.

Why is this so important right now? In the few days following Trump’s executive order on immigration, we saw ordinary people willing to carry out his orders without regard for the safety and well-being of the people in their charge. A federal employee at Dulles airport handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours. At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old disabled woman traveling from Qatar. She was held for more than 33 hours and denied use of a wheelchair. A federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a Somali woman who was traveling with her two children for 20 hours without food. She was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation.

This is happening right now in our country.

And since we’re talking about black history, it’s important to point out that three of the countries impacted by Donald Trump’s Muslim ban are in Africa – Libya, Sudan, & Somalia. I want to focus on Somalia for a minute, where millions of people have fled since 1991 when the government there collapsed. Almost ¾ of a million people live in refugee camps Kenya and Ethiopia, some who have been there for many years. What has been greatly underreported is that the number of refugees has been increasing sharply since 2011 due to worsening conditions, famine and terrorism. These people continue tolive in refugee camps, some of which have turned into semi-permanent slums due to the length and difficulty of the process they are forced to go through for resettlement.

Almost all of us believe that if we were put into a situation where a bold moral choice was necessary, that we would make the right choice. The truth is that so many of us don’t. We are so very used to just living our lives that it’s hard for us to stop and take a stand.

I think about how much less of the degradation that Pauli Murray speaks of that Black people would have had to endure if more of those facing these choices were unwilling to be bystanders.

I believe that non-compliance and resistance is like a muscle – you have to practice. Protests, rallies, demonstrations, direct actions, and civil disobedience are opportunities for us to exercise and grow our capacity to resist.

Yesterday at the HKonJ Moral March in Raleigh, tens of thousands of people gathered under the leadership of the NAACP to fight back and assert a positive vision for the world we want to see. At the Women’s March in January, and at many smaller rallies and demonstration, I see that same energy and vision. More and more people are deciding to take a stand and get involved. I believe that it’s these spaces that we can encourage more people to not just be bystanders and to actively intervene when they see situations of injustice.

Sanctuary

**This is a statement I gave at a demonstration against Donald Trump’s immigration & refugee policies on Friday, January 27th, 2017.**

My Friends and Neighbors,

As much as I wish it was under different circumstances, I am proud to stand with you today and offer my unequivocal solidarity to the immigrants and refugees, their families and loved ones that share this community. I want to make it clear that I am committed, both in my personal capacity and in my capacity as your representative, to do absolutely everything that is in my power to protect every single member of our community from the destructive, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic policies and actions of the Trump administration.

If you march, I will march with you. If you protest, I will protest with you. If you need sanctuary, I will shelter you. I will stand behind you and I will not back down, wherever the next few months or years take us, and there are many others in this city who will stand with you as well. We are ready for a fight.

The Durham City Council has on many occasions in the last 2 years reiterated our commitment to a diverse and inclusive community.

In October of 2015, we unanimously passed a resolution supporting the resettling of Syrian refugees in our community.

In February of last year, we unanimously endorsed a resolution from our Human Relations Commission urging federal immigration officials to release Durham youth being detained in immigration facilities and to suspend raids in Durham targeting immigrant youth.

In April of last year, we passed a unanimous resolution opposing the discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ House Bill 2 and calling for its repeal.

In June of last year, we endorsed the Faith ID program, an initiative that allows undocumented and other immigrants to obtain identification that can be used to help them access community resources.

Finally, in November of last year we passed a resolution condemning hate speech, racism, and Islamophobia and issued an open letter to the community. In that letter, we write:

“The Durham City Council (1) condemns all hateful speech and violent action directed at Muslims, those perceived to be Muslims, immigrants and people of color; (2) categorically rejects any politician’s anti-Muslim rhetoric used as a tactic to influence voters or inflame hostilities; (3) commits to pursuing a policy agenda that affirms civil and human rights, and ensures that those targeted on the basis of race, religion or immigration status can turn to government without fear of recrimination; (4) reaffirms the value of a pluralistic society, the beauty of a culture composed of multiple cultures, and the inalienable right of every person to live and practice their faith without fear; and (5) pledges to work to make Durham a city that reflects those values in word and deed.”

I believe that it is an act of violence to deport young people who were brought here by their parents as children. It is an act of violence to separate parents and children, spouses and partners, from the connections that form their lives. It is an act of violence to lock up children with their parents on the border, sometimes for years, without access to proper care, people who pose absolutely no risk to our communities.

It is unconscionable for us to turn our backs on people who are fleeing violence and oppression rather than welcoming them as neighbors. We are a nation of immigrants and immigration has built this country, but we are also a nation built on stolen land with stolen labor. We are a country that has dropped bombs on the residents of nearly every nation we seek to ban from entering this country. We owe these people sanctuary, and we should turn no one away.

I want to quote the poem Home, by Warsan Shire, a Somali-born British poet. This poem was inspired by the war and refugee crisis in Syria.

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.”

It is my belief that migration is our birthright as human beings. We have an inalienable right to travel this earth without fear, to build and create with each other, to build families and lives of purpose and happiness, without the limits of borders and walls.

I watched an interview recently with Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who was a lead organizer for the Women’s March on Washington and has recently been targeted by Islamophobic abusers online. In this interview, she spoke about the role of love in our movement, and she said “our work is not done, because our love for our people is not done.”

It is with love for all of our people that I am calling us all to action. It’s time for us to fight like our lives depend on it, because they do.

HB2 and Consequences

I’m sure it goes without saying that as a queer North Carolinian who is committed to social justice, I am against HB2 for all the reasons that have been so well articulated by my movement family these last several weeks. Rather than rehashing the whys and hows, I want to dig a little bit more into the many varied reactions to this legislation and the consequences of those actions on the state of NC and Durham in particular. Specifically, I want to talk about boycotts.

I do not oppose boycotts of NC in response to HB2.

This is an awkward position to take. I’m now an elected leader of a city in North Carolina that is certainly going to experience negative impacts as a result of these boycotts. However, I’ve supported many, many boycotts in the past, of companies, states, and an entire nation, and I won’t be a hypocrite by rejecting this tool just because this time it’s directed at me (and for good reason). Boycotts are a highly effective nonviolent tool of political and social resistance, and in this case they are doing exactly what they were designed for: putting pressure on our elected officials to repeal this terrible legislation. Unfortunately for us North Carolinians who don’t support this legislation or those in office who created it, we are caught in the middle of this fight and face the potential for real harm based on the actions of our elected leaders. This unfortunate position (among other things) is motivating us to do exactly what boycott proponents want us to do: rail against our elected leaders about the harm they are causing us with this backwards legislation and demand that they make things right by repealing HB2. Their actions are creating the environment of public disapproval and pressure that is needed to get this legislation repealed.

The people who are to blame for the jobs that we’re losing, the concerts that have been canceled, and the quick and  traumatic decrease in our national and global reputation are not those whose companies, organizations, and governments are refusing to spend their money here in NC. Their actions are a critical part of the groundswell of local and national opposition that will eventually lead to the repeal of HB2. The only people to blame are our state legislators who voted in this terrible mess. We elected them, and we need to un-elect them.

Boycotting NC isn’t the ONLY way to fight HB2 of course, and for those of us who call NC home it’s not a very attractive option. I very much respect the artists and organizations that are choosing to come to NC in spite of HB2 and help us build a better state and a better future right here. A number of local governments, companies, and organizations have issued statements opposing HB2, including the Durham City Council, Durham County Commission, and Board of Education, and I’m sure more will continue to do so. Artists have chosen to perform their scheduled shows and donate the money they make to anti-HB2 efforts. Many local businesses are choosing to make their bathrooms gender-neutral to protect trans customers and community members and posting messages of solidarity. The overwhelming response from people here in Durham has been to support and love our queer and trans community members, and that is a real opportunity for us to come together and become the kind of community that we want to be.

People who are concerned about the impact of HB2 on our communities also have the opportunity to invest in work to protect queer and trans people here in NC. There are many spectacular organizations around the state doing work on the ground to support and strengthen queer and trans communities and fight for our rights and our liberation. Here are some from right here in Durham.

Southerners On New Ground

#WeAreThis Queer & Trans Youth Mobilization Fund

LGBTQ Center of Durham

iNSIDEoUT 180

For us who call NC home, there are many ways to take action. Five people were arrested blocking the street in front of the governer’s mansion a couple of weeks ago, and many more have been to protests and public events in opposition. There are big plans for when the legislature comes back into session. We can spend our money at businesses that are inclusive and we can push the groups we are part of to take a stand, be more inclusive, and learn more about the experiences of trans people in our community.

I’m hopeful that it won’t be long before we repeal this awful bill and pass inclusive nondiscrimination laws across the state and the country. Until then, I support everyone doing whatever is in their heart to fight for us.

Affordable Housing in Transit Areas

The reason we have the goal of 15% of housing in transit areas being affordable to families at 60% AMI is not just because Durham needs more affordable housing in the city as a whole. It’s because these areas are the MOST critical areas to ensure that we retain affordability. We want affordable housing specifically in transit areas because;

1) low-income people are less likely to own vehicles and need access to transit to get to jobs and amenities;

2) it’s a way to make sure we are growing by inclusion, making sure that we are creating mixed-income communities in these areas that are going to be (already are) highly desirable for private developers and therefore, without our intervention and given the motivations of for-profit companies, very likely to become some of the most expensive areas of town;

3) we want to prevent the light rail line from becoming a vehicle for displacement of low-income people from their homes, like another transportation project in Durham did, specifically the construction of 147 and the destruction of the Hayti neighborhood.

If we don’t provide the structural environment, meaning tools and incentives for developers, to make sure this happens, it just won’t happen. The market has no problem providing density, because denser development is more profitable anyway, but the market rarely creates affordable housing on its own, and it’s not going to get us anywhere near 15%. The offers we’re seeing from developers have all been less than 2% affordable, and while we appreciate those efforts, it’s not enough to get us to our goal. 

Our affordable housing consultant and concerned community members have suggested that the reason our density bonus, which is one of the few ways we can legally incentivize affordable housing given our state regulations, doesn’t work, is that we set base density too high. There are few situations in which a developer might ask for a density bonus because they can already build as densely as they want. In order to get 15% affordability in these areas, we need to set our base density lower, and require developers to provide affordable housing or other public goods to get the density they want. 

If we approve re-zoning to higher density before we have these tools in place, we’re just giving it away instead of using it to leverage to kind of development we want – not just dense, but mixed-income, inclusive, accessible development in these critical areas of the city. If we don’t get this right now, we’re not going to be able to go back and do it over.  Without a comprehensive effort on the part of the city, we will end up with the same sort of development we have on 9th street and downtown – dense, but inaccessible to most Durham families and especially to the families who most need access to this transit line. I think we need to wait until we can plan each of these station areas as a whole, lay out exactly what we want, set up the programs and incentives that we need to get it, and involve the community in the process, before we rezone transit areas.

It’s very important to me that our concerns about equity don’t take a back seat to our desire to see dense development happen in these transit areas. Equity and inclusiveness isn’t something we can deal with later, after we have everything else figured out. We have to think about it now, and incorporate the desire for equity into all the plans for how our city develops, particularly around these transit stops. We need to think about building an inclusive neighborhood first, not last, and we need to make informed decisions in line with that value. The light rail is 10 years out, so we can take the time we need, and also, we’re the people who control at least one aspect of how long things take by assigning resources to the department’s that need to make that happen. If we want this to go faster, we can assign more resources to the planning department or hire a consultant to help. It’s more important to me that we do this right than that we do it quickly.

On Policing and A New Police Chief

Policing is fundamentally an exercise of power, and there is an inherent imbalance of power between police and the community. The authorization by the state to use force, including deadly force, against others is an incredible amount of power, and I believe we give that power away with far too few meaningful checks on it. That is why we have police brutality and abuse. The problem is the structure of the system, not a “few bad apples.”

The way we give people their power back in the context of this system is to establish real, meaningful citizen oversight of the police. This transforms the very nature of police, from an institution that has power-over the community to an institution that has power-with the community. “Crime” (what we think of as crime – because there’s plenty of anti-social behavior that isn’t seen as criminal) is most commonly a the recourse of people who are forced to live with a lack of opportunity to survive in more productive and pro-social ways, and we obviously cannot police our way out of poverty and oppression. What we can do is only deploy police as a last resort, to do these two things:

1) Investigate violent crime

2) Protect vulnerable civilians

In that context, I think some of the goals of transforming the Durham police department are as follows (not an inclusive list, I’m sure there are more)

3) Reduce use of force incidents

4) Reduce arrests and prosecutions for nonviolent and drug “crime”

5) End racial disparities in policing

6) Hold police accountable to the community

So here we are with the opportunity to pick a new chief who can really start us down this road and be an agent for a shift in culture in the department to one of transparency and accountability. The first step in finding that person is, of course, the search process:

There needs to be substantial community involvement in that process in order to do two things:

1) To meaningfully build a conversation with the community, on our way toward implementing meaningful reforms together

2) To increase the possibility that we get someone who is more likely to serve our interests.

So far there has been a survey and several listening sessions with the consultant who is doing the search. I think the survey was lacking and the listening sessions were well-intentioned but poorly attended. That’s both our fault as a community for failing to turn our people out and the fault of the city administration for not reaching out more. We all need to do better on that account.

The process continues – when they narrow the field more, there will be opportunities for members of the public to participate in in-depth field interview process (mock community meetings, mock investigations, etc.) The city’s (and consultant’s) current plan is to have 2 police chiefs, one city manager, and one community member on this panel. I will be pushing for there to be 3 community members instead, thus balancing the number of police “insiders and outsiders” who will be on the panel. Also there’s a question of who the citizens are. It would be very easy to pick 3 citizens who have no concerns with the way policing is done in Durham to be included and then claim that we’d gotten community involvement. I think instead we need to actively reach out to groups that are critical of the police department, and of policing as a system, and bring those people and their very important ideas into the conversation.

So then we come to the kind of person we want. I think we want someone who is a change agent. Someone who has taken troubled departments with tense community-police relations and transformed them. Someone who has experience working with and within a racially diverse community. Someone who understands mass incarceration and can give officers reasonable instruction regarding how to treat teenagers caught smoking weed (LOWEST-LEVEL PRIORITY). Someone who understands how unjust and broken our immigration system is and can give officers reasonable instructions on how to respond to people who are driving without a license (because they can’t get one) or who are in domestic violence situations that are even more terrifying for them because of their immigration status. Someone who can model and show respect for de-escalation and non-lethal force, particularly in situations involving mental-health crises, as is clearly necessary based on the two recent shootings of mentally ill black men by the DPD. Someone who recognizes that police are not the solution to problems in our community and believes in efforts to reduce poverty, provide meaningful educational, economic, and social opportunities for our residents. Someone who will live here in Durham and feels a commitment to this community because it’s their home too.

I don’t want to discount the need to reduce violent crime in our community, particularly because those communities that are most impacted by aggressive policing are also disproportionately impacted by violent crime. There have been 2 murders within a half mile of my house in the last 6 months, in an area that’s generally much calmer. This is a situation that the community is very concerned about. But it’s important that as we seek to address these issues, we’re not just trading one problem for another – violent crime for violent policing. The DPD has been actively pursuing a number of people in Durham who are suspected of homicides and aggravated assaults, and they’ve found quite a few of these specific people who have been creating very dangerous situations for our residents. Things have quieted down quite a bit – far fewer shootings for the last month than there were in last few months of last year. It’s important that we focus on intervening with specific individuals who are responsible for causing harm, and not increasing policing and surveillance of entire communities in response to the actions of a few. That’s a no-win proposition.

What’s terrible about this round-up though, even though it’s effective, is that most of these people are very very young.  We need to intervene earlier with people who are in troubled circumstances. We need to recognize that the development of the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment isn’t complete until 25 years old, and those in difficult circumstances will need support beyond their teens to be successful. We need to be supporting young people by building strong communities and providing opportunities to contribute to those communities in meaningful ways. We need to figure out ways to keep our communities safe while still having compassion for perpetrators.

So, I’m so glad we’re having this conversation about how to change our police culture in Durham. Getting a new chief who can better serve our communities is a step in that direction, but it’s not the only thing we need to do.  I also believe we need to adopt and fully implement all of the FADE & HRC recommendations, end the war on drugs, increase capacity for mental health de-escalation, engage in real racial equity training, give meaningful power to the civilian police review board (or get rid of it), limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, expand misdemeanor diversion programs, raise the age, end bail for nonviolent crime, have a community investigation of conditions at the county jail, end arrests that are solely for “resisting arrest” (and so much more).