A black American has a five times greater chance to be shot dead by the police than a white American. 15% of fatalities caused by police brutality in 2015 consisted of black men between 15 and 34 years old, while that category only makes up for 2% of the entire population. These numbers show the US still has a race problem, and a big one at that. Black Lives Matter activist Margaret Haule couldn’t agree more.
The discussion of police violence against African-Americans was a controversial theme in the presidential elections of 2016. Hillary Clinton, who recently lost the presidential race to Donald Trump, acknowledged the systemic discrimination in judicial processes and told the American people she would do something about it. Trump, on the other hand, the future US President, has criticized Black Lives Matter and consistently supported law enforcement against the accusations of racism.
The national discussion on racism in police departments has been going on for a while now. In the summer of 2014, the discussion picked up after two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, were shot to death by the police. As a reaction to this, Black Lives Matter arose, a grassroots movement that initially existed on social media, at least for the most part. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, launched by three activists – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors en Opal Tometi –was the third most popular hashtag with regards to social issues, according to Twitter. Now, the Black Lives Matter movement has transformed from a largely digital movement to one that occurs in real life. Occasionally, Black Lives Matter demonstrations take place, and in several cities all over the US, local branches have been set up. Margaret Haule established the one in Austin, the capital of Texas.
Why did you found Black Lives Matter Austin?
Haule: “Personally, I started it because I noticed a lot of anti-black racism within organizations. People find that hard to believe, because if you are involved in non-profit, if you are working for social services or for a humanitarian organization, you cannot discriminate, right? You must be one of these compassionate-type people. But even within these organizations, you will find discrimination and anti-black racism. Sort of like how some activists go to Africa and look down on African people. I have heard stories about folks who did Peace Corps or Mercy Corps and said a lot of racist stuff. So, I wanted to create an organization that not only stands up for African-American rights but is also lead by them.”
What does ‘black’ mean to you?
Haule: “When I say ‘black’, I mean African-American, which has both a racial denotation and a cultural connotation. A lot of American of African descent lost their cultural identity because of the disruptive effect of slavery. Today, we’re still suffering from the effects of slavery. That is why we have Black Lives Matter. We want people to see us as equals. We want to give the word ‘black’ a more positive connotation.”
Do you think Black Lives Matter is a continuation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s?
Haule: “The movement has its roots in black liberation, civil rights and community organizing. At the same time, we’re trying to overcome some of the challenges of the civil rights movement in which women’s work and the work of LGBTs was pretty much silenced or erased. Ella Baker’s and Bayard Rustin’s contributions, for instance. Most people do not know much about them. Bayard Rustin was a gay man who was a significant architect in the march in Washington D.C. where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’-speech. And Ella Baker has spent over 40 years in different civil rights agencies. She believed we were all called to be leaders. She had seen too many organizations dissolve due to their charismatic leader dying, moving on or quitting. There should always be people to pick up the reigns. Some would say the Occupy-movement was a classic example of a movement that dissolved due to its lack of leadership.”
The numbers show a disproportionate number of African-Americans are victimized by police brutality. But some people deny there is an actual problem…
Haule: “There is a real problem. Any time there’s a loss of life, it’s very serious. In addition to actual deaths, there are several cases of inhumane treatment. And many incidents are never reported or fully investigated.”
Do a lot of cases make it to court?
Haule: “Yes, but police officers have a sort of immunity and they have powerful unions that can hire the best defence attorneys. And also, some of the information isn’t available to the public or people will have a hard time obtaining it because the investigative methods aren’t available to the public. Next, there has also been a lot of retaliation against witnesses of police brutality. This was the case with Ramsey Orta, for instance, who filmed Eric Garner’s death. He is now serving his four years in prison. Feidin Santana, the man who filmed Walter Scott’s shooting, also received a lot of retaliation.
“There have been many cases in which police officers have tried to obstruct justice or tamper with evidence as they did with the Walter Scott case. Now, with the use of body cameras [in some states, police officers are obliged to wear a body camera], it has improved a lot. But still, those cameras can be confiscated or damaged after they fall to the ground, for instance, which was the case after the shooting of Alton Sterling.”
What has to change? And how can it change?
Haule: “One of the most important issues is to make drug testing of police officers obligatory. In Vallejo city, California, for example, police officers are not drug tested before being hired. There’s a particular officer there who has killed multiple black men. His name is Sean Kenney. And he brags and laughs about it. He’s still working now. A lot of officers who commit these acts of violence are repeat offenders like Kenney.
On our website you can see our detailed list of demands. Perhaps an additional one will be added: overturning the Graham v. Connor act that allows officers to shoot when they feel threatened. ‘Feeling threatened’, of course, is a very vague description. Graham v. Connor has been a way of escape for many officers.”
Would tragedies be avoided if more money went to police training?
Haule: “Perhaps, but we’ll have to do more research on that. Because anytime we want to involve more training or more funding to officers, it may be taken away from the community.
Another tricky matter concerns the education and degree of police officers. A lot of licensing boards require degrees, but licenses for police officers don’t require degrees. There’s a strong correlation between the use of force and an officer’s education level. The higher the degree, the less likely he will use force. At the same time it has been brought up that requiring a degree may limit the number of African-American officers. We have to think of ways to overcome that.”
What about changing gun laws?
Haule: “Guns won’t be going away, but we could look at other ways to disarm someone. There has to go more research into it. Gun policy is different in every state and Texas is pretty unique. People can openly carry guns here. There are many weapon experts claiming that it would be safer if we would not know when someone is carrying a gun.”
Does Black Lives Matter Austin support the Democratic or Republican party on the federal level?
Haule: “We want to remain neutral. Of course, I do recognize that the president has power to make a change, especially through executive actions, but I’ve seen the challenges and disappointments. Bills that look promising just dying off. I’m focused on the local level because that is something more concrete and something where you can get a handle on.”
What does Black Lives Matter Austin do exactly?
Haule: “We raise awareness through events which are chiefly focused on the victims of police brutality. We want to keep their names alive. We do events on their birthdays or on the anniversary of their deaths, for instance. And we do canvassing, block-walking once a month, sometimes more than that.
The main thing is changing the narrative of police brutality victims. They tend to bring up the victim’s past as a way of damaging their credibility. We hope to overcome this. We want people to know that this was someone’s brother or sister, son or daughter, friend or neighbour. They were thriving human beings. Their past should not be used against them because they aren’t here to defend themselves and it doesn’t change the facts that occurred.
Finally, we also hold public meetings to discuss our strategy. Sometimes, in our meetings, people who have lost their child, relative or friend come up to us and ask for help. They are relying on informal networks for information. We can help them pursue justice.”
Would you like to add something?
Haule: “Yes, just to encourage people to do something. You don’t have to be part of a chapter to be part of the movement. You can take part online, go to marches, or donate money through our website. Just do something! There’s this saying we have: I believe that we will win. I do believe we will win.”
This article was originally published in Dutch on DeWereldMorgen.be. Jasmien Dewilde helped with its translation to English.