Last Monday night was my first time in a church since my sister’s wedding two years ago. All around me were the hallmarks of a Black church service…impassioned choir, well-dressed parishioners, everything you’d expect, especially considering the church was Ebenezer Baptist, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s pulpit and resting place, considered one of the Stations of the Cross of the American Civil Right’s movement. As the choir finished, the organ played a plaintive melody that I assumed was an old hymn until I recognized the tune: it was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
I was there along with about 500 other people to listen to Attorney General Eric Holder speak on the outrage and unrest gripping the country in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting. Many African-Americans see Eric Holder as the Obama administration’s “race man”; the inside man changing the system from within and his efforts at rolling back the draconian sentencing laws that disproportionately effect Black men has been unprecedented. This night he was in a unique position: an African-American who happens to be Attorney General of the United States, serving under an African-American President, explaining how he wants to correct the inner workings of a legal system that has historically underserved African-American citizens.
Mr. Holder’s speech was reflective of the legal scholar he is. It was an erudite summation of the steps his Justice Department is taking at the federal level regarding this case, as well as outlining several initiatives including addressing the militarizing of local police departments, racial profiling, body cameras on officers and new guidelines for police interaction with the communities they serve. It wasn’t a speech that used the conventional methods politicians use when speaking to Black crowds. It acknowledged the deep anger at what’s happening in Ferguson and historically without falling back on emotion with no plan of action.
That’s not to say emotion didn’t make it’s presence known: during Mr. Holder’s address a group stood up and interrupted him by shouting slogans protesting the grand jury decision and concluded by chanting “no justice, no peace” loudly and repeatedly. Once they finished, Mr. Holder acknowledged them by saying that their anger is understandable and even managed to drop a Tupac reference.
The crowd got what it came for, reassurance from someone in authority that their complaints are being heard. The question now is, will those promises have any teeth? Attorney General Holder’s initiatives will likely face an uphill battle in a congress filled with new members brought in on a wave of Republican victories, although there has been lots of chatter even in Republican circles about overreaching heavy-handed policing. Also, he is retiring, and it remains to be seen if his successor, Loretta Lynch, will continue to make the Brown shooting investigation, along with the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice cases, priorities in her Justice Department.
On one hand, we can never know what role politics will play in rectifying these tragedies but if anything the people who are angry about them need to keep these issues in the public consciousness. The outburst during Mr. Holder’s speech reminded me of that. Social change isn’t always about speeches in pristine places. It’s a battle, in the streets as well as over negotiating tables. For any lasting change to happen, the angry and the people in power who want these tragedies to stop are going to have to come together.