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Black Struggle Is Not a Sound Bite: Why I Refused to Meet With President Obama

As a radical, Black organizer, I do not feel that a handshake with the president is the best way for me to honor Black lives.

President Obama in Washington, DC, on September 18, 2014. The Obama administration invited civil rights activists and leaders from around the country to the White House to discuss "a range of issues, including the administration's efforts on criminal justice reform," on February 18, 2016. (Photo: Drop of Light /

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On February 18, civil rights activists and leaders from around the country were invited to the White House for what the Obama administration has called a “first-of-its-kind” intergenerational meeting to discuss “a range of issues, including the administration’s efforts on criminal justice reform” and “building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.” The event’s guest list includes high-profile civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, student organizer DeShaunya Ware and others.

As the cofounder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, I was issued an invitation to this event, and various news outlets have already listed me as an attendee. But as a radical, Black organizer, living and working in a city that is now widely recognized as a symbol of corruption and police violence, I do not feel that a handshake with the president is the best way for me to honor Black History Month or the Black freedom fighters whose labor laid the groundwork for the historic moment we are living in.

When we confront issues of policing and incarceration, we must be very intentional about who is framing such dialogues.

I respectfully declined the invitation to the White House to discuss criminal legal reform and to celebrate Black History Month. I was under the impression that a meeting was being organized to facilitate a genuine exchange on the matters facing millions of Black and Brown people in the United States. Instead, what was arranged was basically a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president. I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it. For the increasing number of families fighting for justice and dignity for their kin slain by police, I refuse to give its perpetrators and enablers political cover by making an appearance among them.

If the administration is serious about addressing the issues of Black Lives Matter Chicago – and its sister organizations that go by different names across this nation – they can start by meeting the simple demands of families who want transparency, and who want police that kill Black people unjustly to be fired, indicted and held accountable. A meeting arranged to carry this out is one that would be worthy of consideration. Until this begins to happen on a mass scale, any celebrations of Black history that go on inside the walls of the White House are hollow and ceremonial at best.

Dialogue around the issue of the criminal legal system (and the injustice of this system) is crucial to the struggle against anti-Blackness. But when we confront issues of policing and incarceration, we must be very intentional about who is framing such dialogues, and what agenda that framing serves.

When we talk about criminal “justice” reform, we must first consider that which we are defining as “criminal.” In Chicago, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reign, we must ask why he is not considered a criminal for closing half of the city’s mental health-care centers. We must ask why he is not considered a criminal for conducting the largest public school closing in US history. We must ask why the State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is not considered a criminal for conspiring to keep hidden for over 400 days the videos of the killings of Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. We must consider who is criminal and what the criminal legal system is when Dante Servin – the Chicago police officer who gunned down Rekia Boyd – can be acquitted of involuntary manslaughter on the grounds that her murder was an intentional act, and leave a courtroom with his job intact. We must consider who is criminal when Emanuel, the Obama administration’s former chief of staff, let the Dyett High School hunger strikers starve for 30 days while fighting to save the only high school in their South Side neighborhood from closing.

We must consider what is criminal when Chicago State University, the city’s only predominantly Black university, may close due to the state government’s inability to pass a budget.

We must consider what is criminal justice when not one officer, including former Commander Jon Burge, has been held responsible for the torture of over 100 Black and Latino men that occurred for over 30 years in the city of Chicago – a city where torture continues today in places like Homan Square.

We must ask when and where justice can be found when just blocks away from Homan Square, Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and Deputy Mark Clark were murdered in cold blood by Chicago police and the FBI while they were sleeping 40 years ago last December 4.

We have a long road ahead, but the gains we have made have come through laborious organizing and antagonism of the system.

We must consider who is criminal when, the day after Christmas, 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier called 911 three times and was hung up on by the operator before Officer Robert Rialmo showed up and killed him and his neighbor, Bettie Jones, a mother of five, from 20 feet away. We must consider who is a criminal when this same officer files suit against the young man he killed for emotional distress.

Truly, we must ask, who is the criminal and what is justice and who is this system for, when George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, Jon Burge, Glen Evans, George Hernandez, Dante Servin, Anita Alvarez and Rahm Emanuel walk free? And we must ask, who then has been criminalized, who is behind bars and why are they disproportionately Black and poor?

We must ask what is criminal justice when children, the elderly, the disabled and everyday working people in the city of Flint, Michigan, cannot safely drink their water due to lead contamination which has occurred because the local government switched the city’s water sources in 2014 in order to allegedly save money.

And finally, we ask, what can criminal justice mean in a country that houses the most incarcerated people ever recorded in human history?

In Chicago, opposition to the oppression that perpetuates these circumstances has happened in the streets, at police board meetings and in community spaces. While we continue to live in struggle, battles have been won. In 2015, we became the first city in the nation to award reparations to police torture survivors. Our young people have protested and organized relentlessly. We have a long road ahead, but the gains we have made have come through laborious organizing and antagonism of the system.

The Cook County criminal legal system, federal and all county court and prison systems are corrupt and racist. In order to make substantive change, Black Lives Matter Chicago demands an end to cash bail. We demand an end to grand juries. We demand an investigation of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for extensive cover-ups of police crimes. We demand an end to all mandatory minimum sentencing. We demand the defunding and ultimate closing of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and Cook County Jail and all juvenile detention centers. We demand community control of all police departments with the creation of an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council with the power to hire and fire police officers and superintendents, by civilian representatives voted in by each neighborhood, with mandated inclusion of survivors of police violence and torture. We want a redirection of funds saved to support free health care for all; we want housing for abandoned youth, the homeless and nearly homeless; we want a federal jobs program for the unemployed and underemployed; we want a living wage for all workers; we want fully funded schools and fully funded crisis centers nationwide.

We demand the immediate closing of Guantánamo Bay and the return of the confiscated land to the people of Cuba. We demand the return of all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We demand an immediate end to all money going to Israel while the occupation of Palestine continues. We demand an immediate withdrawal of all US troops in Africa under US Africa Command. We demand an end to the ongoing police violence against Indigenous people and that this colonized United States be returned to Native peoples. We demand the immediate halting of the deportation raids of undocumented people. We demand full reparations for all descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Finally, we assert that true revolutionary and systemic change will ultimately only be brought forth by ordinary working people, students and youth – organizing, marching and taking power from the corrupt elites. No proponent of this system – Democrat or Republican – will upend the oppressive structures that maintain it. To hold the powerful accountable for their harmful and oppressive actions, we must continue to build power in the streets. We must act in concert and in coalition within our communities, because together, we have the power to uproot all oppression and systemic violence.

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