Monday, August 18, 2014

My Apology to Black Leaders: It’s Not You; It’s Me

Photo from protest scene / August 14, 2014-SBJ
I owe an apology to local black leaders involved with the ongoing activities since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson Policeman.  When this tragedy jumped off, I responded with a bit of prose called “Now, you see me (see below).” The piece spoke to older generations and black leaders in general who are either drive-by motivators or those who have left black neighborhoods, like Ferguson, behind:

“Like absentee parents, you revisit the nightmare you abandoned to chase “the Dream.”  Where were you while poverty and unemployment mounted…while they packed the children of your parent’s parents in prisons, herded your kin into Gateway ghettos and stereotyped us all into irrelevance? Your impotent call for calm is too late, even though my blaze validates your worth.”

When asked about the essay during a KMOX Radio interview, I added that I’m waiting for “the best and the brightest” to return and commence with the hard work of saving youth, creating jobs and reclaiming and rebuilding communities.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the comment didn't go over very well.
“You sounded like a white man,” a long-time acquaintance and member of the Nation of Islam told me when I visited the protest site on Thursday.
I’m not sure if legendary comedian/activist/health guru, Dick Gregory’s comments were related to my essay or not but during our brief discussion that day, he bluntly asked: “What are you doing?” I tried to hand him my card and explain that I had started a program, the Sweet Potato Project, aimed at teaching black youth to be entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods, but Gregory just waved me off:
“Never heard of it!” he said before curtly walking away.

“You sounded like a white man...”

My good friend, entrepreneur Sterling Moody, who is well-connected with the well-connected, called to warn me: “Man, they’re pissed at you.”
I get it. Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crisesThe symbolic hands-up response to police brutality that’s been adopted internationally is simply brilliant. Although my frustrations weren't necessarily aimed at any specific individual, I can see how my comments could be deemed rude and dismissive.

Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crises?

Here’s the deal; it’s not you, black leaders; it’s me. I’m a journalistic dinosaur who’s been covering police brutality cases and the region’s reaction to them for more than 25 years. Metaphorically speaking; I've seen this movie too many times. As the publisher of a monthly magazine, my wife and I covered the 1997 adaptation where a gang of St. Louis Police officers severely beat Gregory Bell, a mentally retarded teen in his own home.  We explored the 1999 case of Julius Thurman, a young man who died from massive head injuries inflicted by police after they caught him burglarizing a pawnshop. Then there was the 2001 case where undercover drug officers fired 21 shots into the bodies of low-level drug dealers on a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot. In 2012 two St. Louis police officers shot a fleeing felon, Cary Ball, 21 times. Ball, who had led police on a car chase, did indeed have a gun but witnesses say he threw it aside and had surrendered before officers opened fire.
I guess I've become a curmudgeon who’s grown tired of writing about our collective negative condition and decided to do something about it. I believe that our salvation is in the hands of the young people we’re allowing to drop out of school and drop into nefarious lifestyles. We've watched our kids mercilessly herded into our nation’s prisons for decades. If we don't provide sustenance, employment and opportunities for disenfranchised youth, who will?
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations. I’m particularly impressed with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. His actions and words have brought much-needed respect and humanity to atmospheres of disrespect and inhumanity. Yet, days after taking control, we still see armored trucks, canisters of tear gas hurled at crowds and aggressive police in military gear.
Johnson’s a good man but he’s a part of a system that limits his power. He can't oppose the governor’s curfew. He cannot repair the damage of city and county police forces that have failed to hire and/or promote officers of color, who are charged with maintaining order in majority black communities. He cannot undo the psychological damage of National Guard, Highway Patrol or militarized police personnel who have allowed “race” to blur their distinction between US citizens and foreign terrorists.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations.

So, forgive me dear leaders, I’m just looking for a different kind of leadership. I’m looking for a do-for-self, sustainable economic and social plan that will finally get us past generational, race-based poverty and immune to stubborn racial prejudice.
Since the protesters made national news, national leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III have come to town. They've waxed poetically about “injustice” and demilitarizing the nation’s police forces but those issues were made glaringly important before they arrived by Brown's shooting, outraged protesters and organizations created to abolish harsh police tactics. 
Are they spokesmen or leaders? If the latter, where are they leading us?
Remember back in 2010 when Sharpton and PBS commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of Obama mentioning a "black agenda"…or not? It was Sharpton who promised that he and his National Action Network (NAN) would hold the Administration accountable. He vowed to develop a real agenda for Black America. Well, that's been almost five years ago. Where is the agenda, Reverend? This is what I was looking for when you spoke at Greater Grace Church on Sunday.
We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. For decades, we've had black aldermen, local, state and national legislators and now, we have a black president. But what good is all this if Obama can’t even speak to the disproportionate predicament of black people without being tagged a “racist?” With the poverty and unemployment rates among African Americans basically unchanged in 45 years, where is the incentive to invest more time, more energy or more hope into politics or politicians?

We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. 

I've learned from the young people I work with these past three years. We can capture their imaginations with programs that address their immediate needs. Talk to them about your “Rebuild Ferguson” plan created to employ youth who'll restore damaged businesses and neighborhoods. Excite potential young entrepreneurs with a County-sponsored plan that will allow them to join the businesses along the ever-bustling Florissant strip in Ferguson and adjoining municipalities. How about designating land in the area where they can grow food that consumers, restaurants and grocers can purchase? These are immediate ways to reduce the tension, empower the disenfranchised and include them in the regional economic mainstream.
So again, I apologize. I’m a guy who’s grown tired of waiting for racism to die. I’m an old dude who’s come to the conclusion that it’s up to those of us who've lived long enough to create new, sustainable, alternative systems that will finally address the inadequacies of our institutionalized current systems.
Perhaps I’m just a killjoy or a black guy "who sounds like a white guy" (whatever that means). The death of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests have given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for real, significant long-lasting change. Tweeting, posting, posturing and pontificating black politicians and speakers is all well and good but we need more. We need a solution, we need final economic resolution...
We need a plan.


John Deardeuff said...

Sylvester... right on.

John D - St. Louis

John Deardeuff said...

Sylvester - Right on

John D

Anonymous said...

Right on, Mr. Brown! Wear their embarrassment as a badge of honor. I appreciate your call of accountability to our "leaders" who too often in their complacency, echo the calls of "respectability" politics and offer NO SUBSTANCE. My heart grieves for the Brown family as this potentially significant movement, devolves into the circus reminiscent of last summer. Keep up the good fight.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Blog Post Brother Brown.

Mr. Raqib Supports you.