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Civil Rights Movements in Our Time

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley | April 28, 2015

In the aftermath of the protests and unrest in Baltimore yesterday, President Obama described the situation as a “slow rolling crisis.” This is a unique and significant moment in the history of our nation. At a conference this weekend on Othering & Belonging, New York Times columnist Charles Blow observed that “we are in the middle of a civil rights movement,” but one that is bottom up and crowd sourced. In truth, we are in the midst of simultaneous civil rights movements, and this is a source of cognitive dissonance.

woman holding sign

At a November 2014 demonstration in New York City (The All-Nite Images via Wikimedia Commons)

The gay rights movement, although it has a long way to go to achieve equality for LGBT populations (it is legal to discriminate against gay and transgender people in most states), is on the precipice of another historic milestone. Less than 60 miles from the protestors in Baltimore, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on the question of whether gay marriage is a fundamental constitutional right. Although we seem to be making tremendous progress on one front, our lack of progress on another is increasingly salient.

A disturbing mural of police brutality and state-sanctioned oppression is emerging more clearly into view. From Ferguson to South Carolina, Cleveland to Baltimore, these instances of police violence can no longer be viewed as isolated cases or defended as the conduct of “bad apples’”– but as part of the American fabric.

Violence and daily indignities against the poor black communities of this nation are embedded in systems of local governance funding that prey on them (as the Justice Department’s Ferguson report illustrated), in police departments that lack sufficient training and accountability for misconduct, in police unions that foster a defensive culture that protects ‘bad apples,’ in our criminal justice system which target them as part of a war on drugs, and in our prisons that now incarcerate more people than any other nation on earth.

anti-gay marriage protest

A protest during the Minnesota Senate debate on same sex marriage, which passed on May 9, 20 13. (Fibonacci Blue va Wikimedia Commons))

Some have noted the fact that African-Americans occupy key leadership positions in federal and local government, from the Presidency to the Mayoralty of Baltimore. Yet, the frequency of state-based violence seems to have abated little in recent years. This only underscores how deeply rooted these patterns are – how embedded they are in our institutions, structures, and governing practices.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement directs our attention to these systemic problems. And while the “asks” and policies that might flow from this movement are varied and emergent, that should not be surprising. The Montgomery bus boycott did not start off calling for a national Civil Rights Act or a federal judicial ruling, but rather to simply desegregate the local bus system.

The protests from Ferguson to Baltimore draw attention to the issues of police violence, the militarization of law enforcement, and the targeting of black and brown men. But the set of policy responses that will flow from that have yet to be – and should not be – fully determined.

The 1960s Civil Rights Movement, much like Reconstruction of the 1860s and 1870s a century before it, left much unfinished. The accomplishments, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, were tangible and real, but left much undone. The incidents of police violence that triggered the civil disturbances of the late 1960s, the basis for the Kerner Commission inquiry, revealed just how many structural problems were left unattended, let alone unresolved, by the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement calls us to act, but first we must listen.