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Harlem Protest – A Reflection 

​​​​​​The following is my random thought, sort of like a diary entry, or perhaps just a rant — so be forewarned, ladies and gentlemen.

Last night was one of those rare moments that allow you to publicly give your middle finger to the law enforcement, assuming you live in a country where your constitutional rights to a peaceful protest are respected. Hearing people say “fuck the police” out loud and joining them without looking at my back felt good to some extent. Such moments make people fearless and empowered until, of course, things turn chaotic and violent, and the police begin aggressively breaking apart the protesters, whether pepper-spraying, brutally beating or arresting. 

The Harlem street protests were peaceful though traffic had to be diverted. The police exercised all kinds of maneuvers to control and intimidate the crowd: few times they formed long lines, signaling that they may surround and arrest people, and they had a helicopter following us from above.

People came out to protest the cold-blooded murders of two African American men by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Police violence in America has become an everyday news and African Americans are the majority victims because of racist policing that has existed since the establishment of this country.

Leadership, Social Media and Activism 

Creating mass awareness; expressing anger, grief, frustration; and reacting against the corrupt and violent system is, no doubt, better than silence or complete submission. But practically speaking I was sad since I could see why those in power will keep on getting away with murder.

Today there are too many scattered voices and there’s no organizational activism in place. The young people, who were protesting and insulting the police, have good intentions and passion for social change, but there was a clear absence of guidance or leadership that could enlighten and guide them to the next steps. They know very well that protesting alone won’t change what they are up against, but they are missing organizational structure that can absorb their energy and enthusiasm.

Idealism is good but without pragmatic approach and strategy for action, it really means nothing, especially for an already disenfranchised community.

I believe that social media has made people think they are fighting for social change without really doing the hard work of organizing on the ground, just like it used to be before. 

The youth are out in the streets expressing their outrage everytime a police murders an innocent person of color. But once the protest is over, feelings of discouragement and disillusionment creep in; the main platforms that make the youth feel they are doing something worthwhile are the social media sites.

Think of the social movements in the 1960s for a moment: from the boycotts in the South to the Marches on Washington; from the Freedom Riders to the Union Strikes; from the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Black Panther Party; from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and MLK to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. I am not saying all these movements were perfect; in fact, far from it. But their efforts had brought America to its knees, despite the government’s brutal attempts to dismantle them, and they had achieved significant milestones such as instilling self respect, ending social segregation and forcing Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act as a concession. And that happened because people were organized and competent leaders, such as Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, MLK, and plenty of others had marched with them, until they got assassinated. Those leaders inspired the youth and helped create physical platforms that truly empowered the community to act.

Without leadership that can channel the anger and frustration into concrete actions; and without exploiting the diverse skills, talents and knowledge of the individuals within the community, bringing change is a daunting task. Just talking, and more talking on social media. More selfies and fancy tweets to get likes and retweets; and, in some cases, shameless self-promotion at the expense of the dead.

If people rely too much on social media, it will only give us a false sense of accomplishment and building a movement. Innocent people will continue to die and the youth will go out and protest in the streets, for a day or two, make a noise and block traffic, and then they will go home and sleep on it, waking up to tweet about it. And life will go on as normal until the next fatal shooting.

Today’s Black American Elites 

Why aren’t the most influential Black Americans from all backgrounds coming together physically and planning and organizing and demanding legislative actions collectively? Why aren’t people like Beyonce or those in the Black caucus in Congress rallying behind the common people and marching on Washington and occupying it, until Congress agrees to do something tangible, just like the leaders in the past did, instead of releasing press statements and posting on social media tweets and insta pictures from their comfort zone? 

In a country where there are more than enough intelligent, successful and very well educated Black people, how come there are no powerful lobby groups and community organizations at the national and local levels, like the Jewish community have, for example, that the Congress and local politicians fear and listen to should they want to secure the Black vote and money? (Please don’t mention NACCP or any of its variants as a counter argument because we all know where they stand and they are no match for AIPAC that hardly compromises on Jewish interests.)

Where are today’s MLK, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X leading the people and marching and boycotting on the ground? I don’t know.

But I do know one thing: The Black community is doubly screwed in this country — by their own elites and by the powers that want them to remain marginalized, disorganized and divided. And that makes me more angry than what the racist, coward cops are doing. I think it is a sad tragedy. 

Social media advocacy without the old school grassroots organizing cannot effectively challenge a system that kills and then blames the victims. Both the old methods and the new tools must be combined without the latter substituting the former, inspiring one small change at a time, giving the youth a real purpose and accomplishment. That was how people like MLK fought the system and brought some change. 

Social media cannot be an alternative to grassroots activism that brings people together physically, creating lifelong friendships. 

Small group of protesters and cops face-off blocking traffic after midnight. Harlem, 8 July 2016.

After the Protests 

After the protest was over, some of us were talking, standing in the corners of Harlem. And it hit me then that we were standing there for an hour, or more, and we didn’t even know each other’s names. 

Change begins from the simple act of getting to know each other; otherwise, if I don’t hear from you the next day and I don’t even know your name, how exactly are we going to change society? That’s what I reminded my new friends whose names now I know. 

Too be young , gifted and black…is a beautiful thing. Sad that a Black person has to speak up to remind the world that our lives matter, too.

Ethiopia and America

And what does this whole thing mean as an Ethiopian? A whole lot. Police violence is even worse in Ethiopia. At the very least, today in America, I could say “fuck the police” and I may still make it home safely without a scratch. Just ask Oromo Ethiopians how many people have been killed, beaten or arrested in the last few months for demanding basically the same thing: accountability, democratic process, justice and fairness.

I was happy to meet one Ethiopian at the Harlem event. I told my new friend that I barely meet fellow Ethiopians during such protests that are not about Ethiopia. 

Sadly, most diaspora communities think what happens to African Americans is none of their business though we have benefited from their struggle, from the past to the present. 

I have learned that not only African immigrants but also people of color from other backgrounds seem to think their fates are disconnected from the African Americans. I blame lack of awareness, cultural bias and colonialism for the indifference and disconnection, but obviously there are more factors, including the fact that the system wants us to remain divided and disconnected, seeing each other as unrelated or rivals.

If there were visionary leaders among the Black American community and the diaspora communities of color, it wouldn’t be difficult to create a powerful umbrella organization that strongly stands for the interests of non-white people across America. 

An organized social movement and a powerful advocacy organization is the most effective way to fight back an oppressive system, whether in America or elsewhere. But the more people are divided, the easier it is for the authorities to abuse their power; I hear you, that’s common sense, right? In the meantime, though, there are some people, including white Americans, who make a career out of the misfortunes of Black people, as my Ethiopian friend pointed out during our discussion after the protest.

Anyway, just sharing my reflections.

***

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