About Protest and Return. by Lou Cespedes
I’ve been struggling to write because there are so many things I need to write about. As our city contemplates re-opening Monday, in the midst of protests, looting, police abuses, financial and health uncertainties, the tick-tick-tick of the time bomb grows louder by the day, seeming inevitably to take us all out one way or another. It saddens me greatly that another black man, murdered by police in this country, was the spark that has started a raging global fire. Simultaneously a nervous excitement consumes me. I remember having felt this feeling before while sleeping in Zuccotti Park. I still have my protest sign in my basement, wrapped in the plastic I used to protect it from the rain. I was so encouraged then, as I am now, but today I am wiser and more deliberate.
Paraphrasing the current president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who once famously said as the former mayor of Mexico City – “Our protest belongs on the streets, and our lawmakers belong in parliament – we should not stop our protest as prerequisite to legislate – but rather you should legislate while we protest.”
I keep thinking about that phrase, as I stare into the abyss and void of black leadership in this city. On every possible metric – in criminal justice, in healthcare, in education, on policing, on financial support for business, on the protests themselves – we’ve heard nothing worthy from them. The silence is deafening from the chambers of Albany all the way to the City Council; black pols and Latinx DA’s are cowering, hedging, and calculating how not to let a “good crisis go to waste”. Meanwhile one “black” political journalist has made a case for a “criminal justice agenda” – while equating “a failure to distinguish protest from looting”, and not police brutality, as the central malady. Conveniently he glosses over the fact that his closest friends in black political leadership are M-I-A. They are not invited his TV show to answer questions about why they are not acting on legislation. Those persons best equipped and positioned to buttress the organizational structures of the protest movement are purposefully on the sidelines, while this journalist “critiques” organizers by lobbing media projectiles into the crowd. Milquetoast statements of sympathy, handwringing, and calls for DeBlasio’s resignation are all a cacophony of voices masking the simple, undeniable, and inconvenient truth – the protests will end!
What doomed the “Occupy Wall Street” movement (a white progressive movement, I might add) is that it became everybody’s movement. Anyone with a cause could jump in, anyone with a grievance and a bullhorn made their way into what was essentially a “leaderless coalition of the disgruntled”. What is happening today is different. The BLM movement has improved dramatically from its beginnings, it has matured and wields great power, but it must now translate that power into politics. Otherwise, it will share the same fate as “Occupy Wall Street” – and it will all end unceremoniously while we sleep, as the police surround protestors with bright lights and garbage trucks. Many of the protestors today remember that all too well. Hopefully, they’ve learned.
Still of greater concern is that white progressives seem poised to make a case for DeBlasio to resign. They will hijack the movement to make it a referendum on the mayor, not because they care about George Floyd or police brutality, but because they’ve always had an axe to grind. Everyone from biking advocates to horse advocates will seize the opportunity Bill DeBlasio all too easily provides to humiliate him. That alone is not cause for his resignation, but it should be a glaring spotlight on the political and electoral apparatus of our city and a mirror on the voters that settled and re-elected this mayor – myself included. We had no good choices then, and we have worse choices now. We should be holding ourselves accountable, but I fear in haste we will make an even greater mistake if we allow or force DeBlasio to resign.
We should instead be demanding the resignation of PBA union boss Patrick Lynch and SBA union boss Ed Mullins. National leadership should be demanding that Roger Goodell to step down as NFL commissioner. Lawmakers in the state legislature should be taking Governor Cuomo at his word “that he will sign any legislation regarding 50-a” that the legislature produces. State AG Leticia James’ feet should be held to the fire. She should do the work she promised in prosecuting NYPD officers, and she should be supported by Governor Cuomo to run for Mayor of New York City, because no other person will do. She has the skill, support, and still has credibility to do it. Our current Public Advocate is a charlatan, a confidence man selling potions on a riverboat we call “progressivism”, without the wherewithal to manage his own crises, much less our city’s. If DeBlasio resigns, we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and we will all but certainly force the Governor’s hand. If anything, you should know by now that Governor Cuomo will act; and he telegraphed his case in stark relief last week during a presser. Excelsior will not allow New York City to descend into chaos.
The COVID crisis has taken a huge toll on our community and continues to be an eminent threat. During these protests not one black leader has raised their voice in caution regarding the high risk of infection or offered a creative alternative to address the transition away from protest, despite the creativity that exists in the crowds. We need to be smarter. During George Floyd’s funeral, the Rev. Al Sharpton preached a great sermon. He’s had a lot of practice delivering eulogies! I hear that sermon every Sunday, and it’s always the same. The problem is that for most people, Sunday sermons are the culmination of their week and not the beginning. You see, it only matters that you heard a great sermon on Sunday, if you can live through that sermon on Monday. That’s the difference between those that are called by G-d to lead, and your garden variety “Sunday Christian”. “
” (2 Timothy 1:7) Those were the words the Apostle Paul gave to his servant Timothy as he sent him away to do his work. We cannot remain in protest mode forever. Protest is not praxis.
As we begin the re-opening, we should not forget that the stated objective has been to “return to normal” – as if that were possible now. Exhaustion with our quarantine has been followed by the impulse to protest and gather. “Social distancing” now seems like a mockery as protests rage on. But make no mistake – black communities will bear the brunt of arrests, of beatings, of illness and of blame for looting in the weeks and months ahead. It pains me to no end – and it infuriates me, that we listen to sermons – we get excited in praise – and then go “back to normal”. Beware of protestors that are in it for the experience and not the long slog of the cause. They will go back to their comfort and privilege just as surely as they are going back to work on Monday. Are you?
Now more than ever we need to translate protest into political – financial – and media power. Elected officials should be legislating, not talking. They should be listening to the demands of protestors and moving quickly toward helping them achieve and enact lasting reforms.