COVID Recap Webinar: BLM, Civil Rights, and Civil Disobedience
6:04PM Jun 17, 2020
black lives matter
Good afternoon. Welcome to our weekly lunchtime webinar on elections in time of Coronavirus. This week we are going to be having a presentation on Black Lives Matter: Reform or Revolution and we will be starting very shortly. Just to let you know you're in the right place now.
I see some folks are still getting in, but I will go ahead and walk us through our through our introduction and then we will get into it.
So here's here's what we'll be doing today. I will be giving our short update on the July 14 election here in Maine. And then I will be turning it over to our featured presenter, Michael Kebede, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, who will be discussing Black Lives Matter. And then we will close it up with our calls to take action. So, thank you so much for joining us and we will go ahead and get into it. Just just a few reminders. This presentation is in a webinar format. So everyone is muted except the presenters. To ask a question, just type it into the q&a box. And we will get to as many as we can. We'll read those out and answer what we can. This webinar will be recorded and available to watch later.
Today's speaker, as I mentioned, is Michael Kebede, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. I'm Will Hayward and I'm the advocacy program coordinator. So where do things stand with the July 14 election? Well, we have some news, that's kind of exciting. Absentee ballot requests have already doubled from the total for the 2018 primary election. As you know, we've been encouraging people to vote absentee. I know the Secretary of State has been very outspoken on this as well. So it's really exciting to see that so many people have been requesting their absentee ballots.
And those ballots have started to arrive. I
got mine this weekend. I decided to share some facts which the City of Portland decided to share. I know a lot of people have begun to receive their ballots, and it varies on a town-by-town basis, but people who have already requested their ballots should be beginning to receive them this week. There's also some other things that have been happening in relation to the Executive Order the governor issued about a week and a half ago. The Executive Order covered a wide range of things that municipalities are allowed to alter for the July 14 election and we've already seen some action from some of the cities and towns that have multiple polling places. They announced that they will be validating their polling places, trying to figure out how many polling places they will have. Some also have started to roll out secure drop boxes where people can deposit their ballots, not through the mail, but still deposit their absentee ballot in a safe manner. And then finally, poll workers--this has been exciting. So at Monday's city council meeting, the city clerk mentioned that there were no difficulties recruiting poll workers. They put up a forum for people to sign up and over 100 people did. As you know, they're still encouraging more people throughout the state. A lot of courts are still looking for people to work, but we have heard of places that are fully staffed for July at this point. So it's really exciting to see that people are stepping up and signing up to do this work. So we're feeling a bit better about that. These are just some updates on where things are for the July election. I do want to give as much time as possible for our feature presentation on Black Lives Matter with Michael Kebede. Michael works as the policy counsel at American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, where he advocates state- and local-level for policies that advance civil rights and liberties for all people. I'm so glad you could join us today to talk about an issue that is very important in this moment, so I will turn it over to you, Michael.
Thank you, Will, and thanks to everyone who joined this webinar podcast. I don't know what we're calling it. I am a big fan of the League of Women Voters. I think that it's done extraordinary things for Maine politics. I've learned from it, I continue to learn from it. Ranked choice voting and clean elections are a couple of the many many extraordinary things that this world organization has done for Maine. And I appreciate all your work and engagement in that direction. I titled this talk Black Lives Matter: Reform or Revolution. I'm going to try to keep it to 20 minutes, because I know human beings struggle to fix their attention on something for longer than that period. Reform or revolution: Black Lives Matter. This dichotomy in some respects is false and in some respects is real. And I'm going to try to flesh it out first. So the reform direction is led by people like Barack Obama. And the revolutionary direction is led by people like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. These three black women who I just described are the founders of the national movement for black lives. And they coined the term Black Lives Matter and they have put forward a radical socioeconomic transformation agenda, which is different from the reform agenda of people like Barack Obama. Barack Obama entered this debate a couple of weeks ago, when he put his entire political weight behind this slate of reforms titled Eight Can't Wait, eight to memorialize the minutes that Derek Chauvin spent on George Floyd's neck, killing George Floyd. Whether Black Lives Matter, whether this national movement, which is not international, ends up in socioeconomic transformation in a revolutionary direction, or ends up simply in a reformist place will be decided by the quality of the allyship of the powerful and the privileged, of people like those of us in my organization, and people who are tuning into this webinar right now. One more point about this dichotomy. The reformist direction has been around for as long as police have been around, as has the revolutionary direction. The revolutionary direction has gone by the term "abolition." And by abolition, abolitionists typically mean the creation of a world that removes the need for policing, prisons, or surveillance. And by reform, we mean things like banning chokeholds, removing sovereign immunity, and making police better. So, as I see it, the country, and many parts of the world, are teetering on either side of this divide between reform and revolution. In order to describe exactly how this divide is playing out, I'll focus in on George Floyd's life. None of us can think of George Floyd, without thinking of the horrible eight minutes--I still haven't been able to bring myself to watch the entire video. But none of us can think of George Floyd outside the eight minutes, that were the last eight minutes of his life. But George Floyd, of course, has a larger biography, and thinking about that biography will help us understand what the Black Lives Matter movement is calling for. So George Floyd was born in North Carolina raised in a poor part of Houston called the Third Ward. And he was convicted of several crimes of poverty, things like theft and robbery, and he engaged in social work. He engaged in social work through the church structure. He helped people in his socioeconomic circumstances get jobs, get food. He also worked as a music artist and an athlete. He worked as a bouncer and as a delivery man. And his autopsy revealed that he had COVID-19, and other sources revealed that he had COVID-19 for several weeks and had recovered from it. His autopsy also revealed that he had fentanyl and methamphetamines in his system. So he probably had some form of substance use disorder. And so when reformists look at Floyd's murder, what they latch on to are
things like police reforms, things like removing bad apples, and improving the interviewing process for police stations, lawsuits against police stations, impact litigation. I call this entire package of reforms, the judicial strategy, and this judicial strategy has been a mainstay of social movements for over 100 years in this country. The most famous example of the judicial strategy is the series of lawsuits that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. That series of lawsuits started in the 1930s. A lot of fancy visionary lawyers waged that war. And they achieved the most famous decision in American jurisprudence, Brown v. Board of Education. Of course, we know that schools right now are more racially segregated than they were in 1950 or in 1960. And so there is not necessarily a causal relationship between impact litigation, between the traditional strategy and concrete change. Another example of the judicial strategy is tort litigation. And this is one of the solutions that we have heard over the last few weeks, proposed as a way of making murders like the kind that killed George Floyd less likely. And what it actually means in practice is to allow people to sue stations and officers. And if you do that, if people fan out across the country and bring lawsuit after lawsuit, policing will improve. Revolutionaries and abolitionists, like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and coiners of that phrase, look at Chauvin's murder of Floyd. And they see policing as a problem. But they call for a more radical solution. And the solution is fiscally and very precisely captured in their rallying cry that you've all heard: Defund police. Defund police and reinvest the money in social services and health care and housing. Because the fact is, if George Floyd was born in Canada, or England, or Denmark or Finland, he probably wouldn't have been accused of the crime that led to his murder, which is passing a counterfeit $20 bill. George Floyd lost his job, right when the pandemic hit. He was working as a bouncer. And if he was living in Canada, he would have gotten a $2,000 check within a month, and he wouldn't have found himself in a situation of economic precarity. And so what the movement leaders of Black Lives Matter and local organizers tell us is you can't just focus on the last eight minutes of Floyd's life, you have to focus on his entire life. And if you focus on his entire life, you see that the social supports necessary to ensure a dignified and a thriving life simply weren't there.
And so, they do have a reformist goal. Absolutely. But the revolutionaries who gave us this movement describe the reformist goal not as the "end all be all," but as a harm reduction method, which is an interim measure between now and defunded police.
Now one of the distinguishing features of reformism versus revolution is a lot of reformers tend to be highly educated, tend to be lawyers. And my suggestion to you is something terrible happens to the moral imagination. When you go to law school, you learn to think inside the box. I mean, I went to law school and you become imaginatively beholden to the system. And it becomes difficult to work toward and to try and achieve a radically transformed world. Because the way you see change is determined by the instruments that you've honed and, learned to use and so reformist movements are led by lawyers. Obama is a lawyer, a lawyer's lawyer, but revolutionary movements like the BLM movement are led by organizers and artists. Garcia, Cullors, and Tometi are all those things. Another division that maps on to the reform versus revolution dichotomy is the nonprofit infrastructure: groups like the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters, and then the social movement infrastructure, which is made up of organizers, and strategic alliances between them, and things like unions. So the nonprofit infrastructure has a wishlist, we have a series of goals, we have legislative goals, we have local goals, and social movements have a much more radical vision of where the world needs to go.
And so during times like these when there is a popular ferment, an uprising across the country and across the world, nonprofits kick into high gear and take advantage of this new energy, which is not bad in and of itself. It's only bad when that's where the conversation ends, and the movement's goals are totally sidelined. Still another dichotomy that maps on to the reform versus a revolution dichotomy is electioneering versus systemic change. So electioneering comes down to investing one's social change hopes in one person and trusting that they will achieve the goals of the movement versus systemic change--something that the League of Women Voters, is very familiar with, which has to do with not just putting a candidate forward, but also attempting to make the system more democratic, more representative. Now, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter in Portland, a couple of Fridays ago, put forward many local and state demands, almost all of which were systemic in nature. And this is exactly the type of visionary change-making that I think captures the difference between reformism and revolution. One of their goals was to close Long Creek Youth Development Center and other abolitionists before them had called for the same. Another one of their goals is to abolish the city manager position. Other people before them had called for the same. The city manager position (for those who are unfamiliar with it) was established in the early part of the 20th century by an alliance between the Chamber of Commerce and the Ku Klux Plan, which saw the manager system as a way of strengthening Yankee wealth, power and influence. Now, as I said, the last few weeks have given nonprofits like the ACLU, a huge, huge legislative opportunity. Colorado is the best example that I know of, that's taken advantage of this new energy and achieved reforms that seemed almost impossible, just a month ago. So this last Saturday, Colorado passed the most comprehensive police reform packages in the country. It set limits on police use of force and banned chokeholds, it mandated data collection, and it makes sure cops who are fired from one agency don't get hired by another. These are great, these are excellent. But these are what the movement leaders who gave us the Black Lives Matter movement are calling short term harm reduction. They have to be waged in service of the long term goal of a world without prisons, police and surveillance in order to truly advance the movement. Now, what's the deciding factor between between whether reform serves revolution or reform forestalls and hampers revolution? And my suggestion to you is that there are three things that all fall under the umbrella of allyship that decide whether revolution is helped by reform or revolution is hampered by reform. And I don't have a PowerPoint presentation. And so I am trying to make this as easy to remember as possible. I've called them the three A's of allyship: ask, adopt and attribute, and I'll repeat them. But first I'll describe them..
Ask: One way to advance the revolutionary and radical goals of the movement is to ask
local organizers, movement leaders, what you can do. And from the conversations I've had, and from the exchange of having local organizers and movements, the best way to ask is to list your resources and capabilities. So what are the resources and capabilities of the League of Women Voters, for instance, and how to put them at the movements disposal? Say, this is what I can do. And would you like me to do something with it? So the second is to Adopt. This one is hard for nonprofits like the ACLU of Maine, but in a transformation that shocked me certainly, and many others in the national organization and throughout local branches, our National Executive Director effectively said "pencils down" on all of the local reform efforts we're doing and get behind the Defund Police goal. That was major. Defund police is a goal put forward by the National Movement for Black Lives. It's the central demand. And the ACLU nationally seems to have adopted it. And so by adopt, what I mean is get your policy objectives from the movement, you will have your own policy objectives. As an organization, you'll have your own mission statement. And so, adopt all the movement's goals, unless you have a good existential reason not to. And if you do have an existential and very, very good reason not to think very carefully about how hamstrung you are. So adopt your policy objectives from the movement.
The third is Attribute.
This one's also hard for nonprofits, including for our own, where resources always feel scarce, competition for grants is rampant.
So there's a lot ofcredit that the movement deserves right now, for these raft of changes sweeping the country. Colorado is one that I described. But if you do not attribute what you're essentially doing is you're coopting, tokenizing, and appropriating, you're using the movement's words and goals as your own, and you're failing to attribute it. And there's a long history of that in the United States. And so, given the fact especially that nationally and locally, here and elsewhere, the movement is led by mostly women and entirely black people, and nationally, the same thing is true, given that very fact, it's very important: attribute where you've got your policy objectives from Give credit where credit is due.
Okay, so how has Maine responded?
It's been a mixed bag. Our state and local governments have responded in a way that was initially worrying. But I've seen certain transformations that are extremely helpful. And this is the last thing that I'll say, before soliciting questions. After a week of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Maine's largest city, our mayor fully got behind Barack Obama's Eight Can't Wait campaign. I described this earlier. It's essentially a set of reforms that promises to end the type of violence that killed George Floyd.Eight Can't Wait's eight reforms purports to reduce police violence by 73 (or some other such very precise number) percent. So the mayor sees these protests and announces Eight Can't Wait. And she did that on Saturday, June 10, I believe. Several days later, there was the Health and Human Services meeting in Portland and the entire Council was there. The mayor was there. What really shocked me and blew my mind was within just a few days from Saturday to Tuesday, she had stopped talking about Eight Can't Wait and started talking about Eight to Abolish. Eight to abolish is a more radical, revolutionary goal of local abolitionists, organizers who are in line with the National Movement for Black Lives Matter, who do not want to swap abolition with reform. And so the mayor Kate Snyder and the rest of the councilors got a flood of calls and emails from constituents telling them Eight Can't Wait is too little. Eight to Abolish and defund police are the true goals of the movement. And that's what you have to get behind. And the mayor seems to have listened. And that was extraordinary. So she went just in a few days from Eight Can't Wait to Eight to Abolish! Something else that I heard at that meeting blew my mind as well, not just her transformation. The council called for a presentation by the local police chief about exactly wht police do. And I thought I believed in defund police before this moment, but after this moment, all doubt was removed, and that's because of a couple of statistics that the police chief shared. Last year, Portland Police received 85,000 calls for service. Of those 85,000 calls for service, 2600 resulted in arrests. Of those 2600 arrests, fewer than 100 needed a use of force. These numbers are approximate. I'll repeat them: 85,000 calls for service, 2600 arrests, fewer than 100 uses of force. What this underlined for me and for the City Council is that the overwhelming majority of work that the police do is not the kind that requires a gun, that requires violence, that requires the right to use violence. It's the kind of work that social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists are better equipped and better trained to do. It's everything from talking someone off the ledge, so to speak, someone who is engaging in self-harm behaviors to intervening in a domestic dispute, from getting a cat out of a tree to dealing with a noise complaint.
Our national--pardon me--our state government has had a kind of mixed response. Our governor released a statement last week that I'm sure many of you already have read. But my summary of it is, she is sincerely reflecting about the legacy and the nature of systemic racism in Maine and elsewhere. She does not think that Maine is exceptional because it's so overwhelmingly white. There's this widespread view that Maine doesn't have the same problems as Minneapolis does, or Boston, or LA or some other place with more people of color. She seems not to share that view. She seems to think, yes, actually, there's serious systemic racism in Maine. But her solutions are very reformist in nature. She concluded her letter by saying that she has asked her Department of Public Safety and Commissioner Mike Sauschuck, who was formerly chief of police in Portland, to review police policies, and to come up with recommendations for how to improve policing. Now that's a very explicitly reformist direction. And as I said earlier, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's only a bad thing if it is understood as the only response to the current moment, the only culmination of this popular energy leading to probably the most diverse, cross-class, multiracial movement we've seen in the country's history. What will decide whether the reforms advance or hamper change? The larger movement of transforming our society to make prisons, police and surveillance totally unnecessary will be driven by the quality of her allyship and the quality of our allyship, whether we ask, adopt and attribute every time we want to advance the goals of the movement for Black Lives. My final comment is that if the movement for Black Lives's goals were totally adopted, they would be a rising tide that lifts all boats, not just black health, not just black mortality, but also the health and well-being of all people in the United States. And I'll stop there.
Hey, thank you so much, Michael. Now I will open it up for questions. If anyone has any questions they would like to ask, put it in the q&a box. I have one here from earlier in the presentation "I think he touched on this a bit but I know it is a very large topic of discussion. So what do advocates mean when they say defund the police?"
That's a great question. That question comes from Ann Luther. I believe there are many answers to this question. The best ones I've seen are in the movement for Black Lives Matter website. They have an divest/invest section in their policy platform. What they mean essentially is take money out of police, prisons and surveillance and put them into social services, housing, education, essentially transform our system to look more like those the systems of Norway and Finland and Denmark and to look less like our system. Another great place is a recent column in the New York Times by Mariame Kaba, one of my favorite organizers and abolitionists. She has an excellent column titled something along the lines of "when we say abolish police, we mean abolish police." Another place is a book by a criminologist, Alex Vitale. The book is titled "The End of Policing." And he goes through some of what I went through. The book is right now available for free online. I'm sure Will is willing to send everyone the link to that book. But the book describes exactly what police do, how just how much of their work we would--if we thought carefully about it--give to professionals trained in social work, counseling psychology, other forms of health care. And defund police simply means to give the job that police are doing to people who are actually trying to do those jobs. Yeah, I'll stop there.
Thank you. The next question comes from Sarah Break "Where can I go for current info about Black Lives Matter in Portland and their demands and progress?"
That's a great question. I believe they have an Instagram page and a Facebook page.
So those are the two places where they announced their actions and describe what they're doing. I don't know if they're tracking their progress. I will say their list of demands is quite long. I think they had more than ten, more than 15, state and local demands. Then they had a local city manager related demand.
One of their demands, for instance was to remove school resource officers from schools in Maine. I know that Portland school board had a meeting until quite late last night about this issue. And the school board introduced a resolution to end Portland schools' relationship with Portland Police Department, in so far as it encompasses school police. And one of the points in the resolution was, whereas the local Black Lives Matter chapter called for the removal of school police from the school budget, we ... and so on and so on They may not be tracking all of these things. But a lot of these things are happening. Monday night, Councilor Ali introduced a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency in Portland, and I believe that one of the things he cited was what local Black Lives Matter activists called for. Once again, I don't think that the Black Lives Matter chapters, or groups, are tracking this. But if you keep your ears to the ground and listen, read the Press Herald and attend city council meetings, all of these facts will emerge.
Thank you. So you've spoken about what organizations can do these days, what can individuals do beyond donating?
That's a great question. I don't think the answer is that different from what organizations can do. Everyone has their own skill set, and no movement worth its name. has no no place for everyone. In other words, to put that in a clear way, every movement should have a role for everyone. And you know, if your strength is making signs, then you can make signs for the next rally. If your strength is making phone calls, then that if your strength is conversations, then talk to the people in your neighborhood and the people in your family about exactly what defund the police means. Talk about that third rail issue, whether it's racism, whether it's prison abolition, whether it's police abolition, educate yourself about that and enlighten everyone in your circle of influence about it. If you have a lot of money, certainly give as much as you can to the movement. But one thing that I would caution people against is deciding that this is the appropriate objective without consulting others and running with it. Ask, Adopt and Attribute.
Thank you. Um, can you talk a little bit more about the role of city managers? Does the city manager supervise the chief of police? And then how does the the upcoming charter commission vote give us an opportunity to further the work of Black Lives Matter locally?
That's a great question.
The city manager has quite a bit of power in Portland and elsewhere, but it's a complicated type of power. It's a complicated type of power because the city manager is appointed by elected officials, and yet has a lot of power over the way the city runs, for instance, decides which city officials get fired and hired, proposes the budget and so on. And so, you know, the local Black Lives Matter movement, for whatever reason, has has decided to focus on this one issue. They've listed several reasons but they all essentially relate to the effect the perceived effect of the city manager system on the most marginalized members of society. And, you know, I don't know if they're making the argument that all city managers everywhere have an inherently discriminatory effect on the most marginalized sectors of society. I think what they're saying is that, in Portland, that's been the case, and they have reasons why that's been the case. And as for the question about the local charter commission, I think absolutely. In order to achieve the local Black Lives Matter movement's goal of dismantling that office, you have to vote on the charter elections on July 14. And there are many procedural steps after that. We have to get candidates on the charter commission that support those goals. And then those goals have to turn into a series of recommendations in the charter commission's report, and then the city council has to adopt the Commission's recommendations. As I understand it, that's how the process works.
Thank you. Um, next question. Oh, go ahead.
Since they made that demand, I've done a little bit of reading. And it turns out that other local organizers and abolitionists have honed in on this issue as well. Oakland is one area where I believe where this happened where local organizers decided that they would prefer a strong Mayor to a strong city manager rather than a manager Mayor system. They want a strong Mayor system And I've talked to a political scientist who teaches at Bowdoin, her name is Chryl Laird, who's not our leading national expert on this issue, but certainly knows more than I do. And she agreed that a strong Mayor system essentially shortens the distance between public opinion and public policy. But the city manager does is extend the distance between public opinion and public policy. And as I understand abolishing that position works makes the mayor more accountable to the people.
Great, thank you. Next question comes from Douglas Nielsen. "Much attention has been given to the presence of violence in the current public protests. How do you understand the violence and is it necessary for progress?"
That's a great read, Douglas Nielsen. So, you're right. media have emphasized looting and rioting and other forms of violence. And part of the way I understand that is the imperatives of journalism marketing dictate the content of journalism: blood sells, violence sells, conflict sells. And so blood is what we read about, violence is what we read about, and conflict is what we read about.