What's next for the American Winter of 2014?
A real social movement to remake America should be about more than just police body cams.
This explains why I never became an A-list (or even a D-list) political pundit. Just a few weeks ago, I was telling someone that I expected only minimal uproar when the grand jury decision came down in the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson. Sure, fiery protests had raged in that Missouri town for 10 days back in August after the unarmed 18-year-old had been gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson. But that was August -- when school is out and folks are outdoors in the balmy weather. Protests (or, as some feared, riots) in winter? "Just doesn't happen," I said.
Until it did. What we have witnessed over the last 10 days has truly been an American moment for the history books, a movement of remarkable hope forged by tragedy and bloodshed. The double whammy of the news that a New York City cop had not been indicted after using a banned chokehold in a case that the medical examiner had already ruled a homicide, killing a man committing the less-than-minor crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, was an unexpected tipping point.
To a remarkably diverse, mostly young group of protesters already energized by last month's failure to indict in the Ferguson matter, New York's Eric Garner case sent people pouring out into the streets -- not only in New York and San Francisco but in politically "redder" locales like Nashville and Dallas. And neither rain not sleet nor hail nor snow has stopped the flow of marches or the freeway shutdowns, and the people come back night after night, even now at the crest of the holiday season. Just tonight here in Philly, scores of protesters staged a "die-in" outside the Eagles game.
Call it the American Winter, a movement every bit as spontaneous, every bit as surprising as the Arab Spring of 2011. But as the large wave of demonstrations come up on the one-week mark, there are many questions as answers? How will it end? What do the protesters want? That's not just coming from casual, armchair observers -- I've wondered these things myself.
After all, the 2011 Occupy protests -- a more conscious response to the Arab Spring -- fizzled for many reasons (including coordinated government harassment) but one of its biggest problems was a lack of specific demands. The protest movement of 2014 is larger and much more diverse than Occupy. And its outrage is focused on an undisputable set of real problems -- police violence, the systematic harassment of low-income and predominantly minority communities, and a complete lack of accountability from the justice system -- yet that focus is also, arguably, narrow.
On Saturday night, some of protesters in New York were handing out a very direct and short list of demands -- fire all of the cops in the fatal encounter with Eric Garner, appoint a special prosecutor for police misconduct, and pass a New York State law making chokeholds a crime. That's a great list, and hopefully there's enough forward-minded people in New York to make those things happen -- but New York is just one of 50 states, after all. What's more that list -- and some of the solutions that are being tossed about, like body cams on cops and retraining officers -- seems not ambitious enough.
Police violence in America is a problem, a big problem, and it can't be trivialized. But it's not the disease -- just a symptom of a much broader illness. The truth is that America's many social maladies -- with more income inequality, more people in jail, and more money wasted on weapons than other industrialized nations -- are the result of a coordinated agenda that strengthens a small elite population at the hands of large marginalized communities -- storking racism and other resentments to keep working people divided. These are big problems that require a big, sustained movement, with big ideas.
Will body cams shoot footage of the charter school grifters and their hedge-fund enablers as they allow neighborhood schools in communities of color to crumble and close? Will that special prosecutor for cops also have prosecutorial powers to go after all the Wall Street bandits foisting mortgage and student-loan scams on the public? We can outlaw chokeholds by cops, but who will ban the stranglehold on our political system by billionaire donors? As a protest movement that is so big, so bold and so new that it doesn't have a name enters Week 2, I hope some participants start thinking goals...and start thinking big. Body cams on the police are a start -- but nothing more than a start.
The social movements of the 1960s took on huge problems and accomplished some amazing things -- ending segregation, winning voting rights for blacks, and turning public opinion against the Vietnam War. The problems we face today are actually more vexing -- because they run so much deeper. But in just a few days, we've seen that people once again want change, and once again they're willing to take risks to get it. America's winter of discontent just may foretell brighter days ahead.