Confronting & Community

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2013 Nehemiah Action Assembly

April 18, tomorrow, is the date of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s fourth Nehemiah Action Assembly, and some of us are looking forward to it. Some observers have criticized us, because they think our approach is “too confrontational.”  I beg to differ.

After 6 months of research and dialogue, CAJM has identified specific public policy changes that will reduce the number of students being suspended or arrested in school, and that will change the harmful practices of “investigatory stops” by Charleston and North Charleston police. At the Nehemiah assembly we will ask elected officials & law enforcement leaders for public commitments to our proposals. They’ve all received the proposals by now, so there will be no surprises from CAJM at the meeting. If these officials say yes to our requests, we’ll applaud. If they say no, we’ll try to negotiate a partial yes. It’ll be a bit uncomfortable for people to say no if, as we hope, more than 2,000 members of local faith communities are present.

This may be why the Mayor of North Charleston has announced he and his police chief won’t show up, despite a Post and Courier editorial last week urging them to do so. He says that CAJM uses “bullying tactics” and demonstrates “sheer disregard to treat folks with common decency.”  In a P&C article today, some people are quoted supporting CAJM’s activism, while others complain about how confrontational and impolite we are.

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2014 Nehemiah Action Assembly

So I’d like to say a few things about this organization and why it matters to me. Maybe you’ll be impressed by a grassroots organization, with 30+ congregations across the Charleston area, because you think, as I do, that this in itself is a big deal. Would it help if I pointed out that I’d lived in Charleston since 1992 and before CAJM, had had never had a conversation with anyone from from St. James Presbyterian on James Island, Charity Missionary Baptist Church on East Montague, the Central Mosque of Charleston, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, or New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist? That even in a town the size of Charleston, I also hadn’t met numerous people I now know from Circular Church, KKBE, the Unitarian Church, and my own congregation? Maybe that won’t be as impressive to you as it is to me.

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I’m always impressed when we gather to vote on which problems to research and act upon in the coming year. Potential problems to work on have emerged from hundreds of small group meetings. Then at the fall “Community Problems Assembly” of all CAJM members, we cast our votes, congregation by congregation. When this happens, when I see my whole community participating, I can see that it has the potential to be a real community, rather than just the place where all of us separately are living. Everybody present is hopeful that we can figure out at least one thing we could make better, one way our community could become more just.

I doubt I can prove to you that just by existing, CAJM is doing something important. Just for us to be together in the same room, seeking common ground, affirming our desire to lift up those who have fallen and to speak up for those who have been marginalized, that alone is a very wonderful thing. It’s hard for me to overstate this, or to know how to make that matter to you. Most congregations in Charleston are self-segregated. In my church, we’re worshipping and serving others alongside fellow members who look like us, who live in homes like ours, whose life histories are like our own. There’s nothing evil about a group being homogeneous, but our separation from each other is part of what makes injustices persist—when we don’t all see those who are suffering, when we assume the opportunities we enjoy are naturally occurring phenomena rather than something a community must build and rebuild in order to make them available to everyone.

CAJM does more than hold large meetings. I’ve attended dozens of smaller meetings with people who might have the power to address the problem we’re working on. While researching the high number of suspensions & arrests in public schools—not the particular public schools my kids attended, because we were able to move into a preferred school zone or send them to public charter schools—CAJM members have conversations with school board members, superintendents, principals, juvenile justice officers. People from different parts of Charleston are in on these meetings, trying to understand the problem and what new policies the interviewee might be willing to support. It’s fascinating to be part of a team of volunteers with different experiences of Charleston seeking a better understanding of why things have gone wrong and how they can be fixed.

Another thing that’s important about CAJM and, really, any form of activism, is the need to play the long game. CAJM knows that holding an assembly doesn’t solve the problem. People who say “yes” at the Nehemiah Action still have to go and do the thing they promised to do. After our 2015 assembly, CAJM folks continued to meet with County Council members, persuading them to actually vote for our proposed program, as some of them had already promised to do. It was touch and go for awhile, with people changing their minds and suggesting they’d rather just defer the issue. On June 16, two months after CAJM’s assembly, a whole bunch of us showed up at the County Council meeting, and that’s when they actually did vote to fund the wage recovery program—a modest salary for a Legal Aid lawyer you can call to help you when your employer doesn’t pay your overtime, or doesn’t pay you at all.

You may have noticed this yourself: people don’t always do what they promise. And they don’t like to make commitments that might hamstring them from doing something else. Our former mayor, of whom I am a very big fan, did not work very hard to keep his 2014 semi-promise to CAJM, his assurance that he’d try to ask people doing city-funded construction projects to set aside some entry-level positions for young people who are unemployed. He did speak in favor of a proposal to this effect he brought to City Council,  a very vague proposal that only applied to very large projects, none of which are scheduled for the next two years. Riley, much and justly beloved, was not running for re-election; he was trying to complete some other projects that mattered more to him (the new Gaillard, the museum of African American history, both very worthy projects), and I’m guessing the people who’d help him get those things done, they aren’t particularly interested in entry-level jobs for unemployed young people, and he didn’t want to spend his political capital that way.

Plus, it seems to have hurt his feelings permanently that when he came to our meeting in 2014, he didn’t get to hold the microphone and talk as long as he wanted. A CAJM member was holding the microphone when Riley was invited to respond after saying “no” to our ask—our request that he promise to set aside 25% of the entry-level jobs in city construction projects for unemployed young people. He knew before he got there that he wasn’t going to be able to hold the microphone. He knew CAJM was going to ask for 25%, because we had discussed the number at prior meetings with him. He knew he could have countered at 10%, and the moderators would have negotiated with him, but he didn’t want to negotiate. He knew that if he ran again, most of the people in the room would vote for him anyway. I would have, if he’d run again. He’s still the best mayor Charleston has ever had, and he doesn’t like to be told what to do, even by the people who elected him. People are that way.

“Power does not cede power without some sort of confrontation,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby when the Post and Courier asked him to comment on our organization. This is, of course, a truism of politics. If I’d been mayor, I too would have preferred to make all my own choices about how to govern during my last two years. If I’d been the school superintendent or school board members, I’d have preferred to make my own choices about what to spend and what policies to implement. It’s more of a bother to do what someone else has asked for, especially if you believe yourself to be working for the greater good already. So CAJM follows up and asks people to keep their promises. Sometimes, when we do that, people end up doing more than they promised. At the 2013 assembly, police chiefs agreed only to meet and talk about how to reduce juvenile incarceration, but during later meetings with CAJM, they went so far as to develop a common “Risk Assessment Instrument” (to help them figure out if they could send the non-violent youth offender home rather than making them stay in jail before appearing before a judge). We got the school district to agree to pilot Restorative Justice in just two schools and now, after many fits and starts and stalls and partial successes, leaders within the district have gotten interested in what Restorative Justice practices can do (it’s not like this is just OUR idea, it’s working in other districts like ours) and they’re considering using it in all CCSD schools.At our meeting tomorrow night, we’ll be asking for public commitment from school board members for this and other policies we believe will reduce the horrendous number of arrests within our schools. Over 1000 students arrested at school in the past two school years—that can’t be good, y’all.

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CAJM members stand up during a meeting of the Charleston County School Board in March 2016.

I hate to say this, but I think it’s possible that some of the people who complain about CAJM’s “confrontational” tactics—maybe not all of them, but at least some of them—are unconsciously troubled when nonwhite people insist that a white elected official do something. In some instances, of course, white people can accept that this might be necessary. Even the Post and Courier, to my astonishment, called out the chiefs of police and the mayor of North Charleston for refusing to meet with citizens concerned about the frequency with which police stop motorists for suspected minor traffic offenses, or for no reason at all. Many members of CAJM have experienced these stops. Many of the people stopped are poor and/or nonwhite, like Walter Scott. Even the P&C can see that this is a problem, that the mayor and police chiefs should be willing to come to CAJM’s meeting. But when the problems are less dramatic than unarmed citizens getting shot in the back, people with a certain amount of power are more likely to grumble about CAJM’s “confrontational” tactics.  I don’t know for sure that race is involved, even at an unconscious level. I just think it might be.

Race is often more involved than you think, if you belong to the race whose race seemingly doesn’t matter, i.e., if your race is white. I know this intellectually, and then I get reminded of it periodically in new ways. At that June 16 County Council meeting, I’d come for the wage recovery program, but a lot of other people were also there because of a vote on where to build the new library on James Island. I’d read a few emails on the subject that made it sound like they ought not to build a new library, but retrofit the old Bi-Lo shopping center on Folly Road, since that seemed more centrally located. It seemed clear and simple. But when I sat in the meeting, seeing 100 or more people there to support the other library, I realized that the proposed new library would be in a neighborhood I never go through, it’s not on my way to anywhere I usually go, a historically black neighborhood. And suddenly it was very clear that race was involved in this decision, and that we needed the new library closer to where these constituents lived, the part of James Island that had never had a good library. I was quite surprised to realize this was an issue. Surprised at how much I had not known about the place where I’ve lived for 24 years.

That was June 16. I’d wanted to write about the meeting in this blog that Joe had just started that month. Then the next day Dylann Roof came to Emanuel AME. I couldn’t get back to writing about activism, about how constructive change happens in a community. We were very busy then, rightly so, being shocked and grieved and angry. We were busy trying to respond to something horrible, trying to say collectively and convincingly that we wished it weren’t so, trying to say too that this was not a new thing, that it was a terrible continuation of crimes and sins that have been happening as long as we’ve been a country.

We were busy then trying to respond to a wrong. Painful as that has been, it’s easier to say that something is terribly wrong, a lot harder to do something right. Making good change happen: that takes thousands of little steps, hundreds of setbacks and redirects, patience and resilience and stubbornness. Someone else quoted in the paper today was critical of CAJM’s approach because, in his words, the group chooses to “badger you and harass you and harangue you until you agree with our proposal.” Well, you might say that, I suppose. This person also disliked CAJM’s tactics because, he said, the Judeo-Christian tradition stressed “building relationships and solving problems through finding common ground.” I look for common ground too—it’s really nice work when you can get it. CAJM tries to find as much common ground as we can in research, interviews, our extensive back-and-forth before and after our assembly. But sometimes you have to insist on things. Sometimes you have to overturn the money-changers in the temple, throw the tea into Boston Harbor, be a little confrontational.

The crazy and beautiful thing is that while doing this, I’ve felt more a part of my community than I ever have before. I’ve witnessed incredible goodwill and resilience and solidarity from people I wouldn’t have had a chance to know otherwise. A little confrontation, a lot of community, maybe a little more justice. That’s what we seek and work for and hope for.

And the last thing I wanted to tell you is how one of CAJM’s organizers closed a recent email. “On April 18th we will proclaim the story of love and unity and will not be deterred!” It’s hard for me to explain why that simple sentence fills my heart up, makes me feel so hopeful. Dum spiro, spero.

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See you at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Rivers Avenue, 7 PM. Everyone is welcome.

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