“You ever been here?” Yterenickia Bell asks me as we wait for the door to the Cascade Skating Rink to be unlocked. “It’s historic,” she says, ushering me out of the December rain and into the fluorescent-lit roller-skating spot in west Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood. “People have been gathering here for years.”
The rink is awaiting the night crowd. Video games sit silent in a corner. The snack bar is dark except for a flashing neon sign. But it’s not empty: a handful of people in orange shirts and masks are chatting at the other end of the rink before braving the rain to get out the vote for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. Bell is the GOTV director for Care in Action, an advocacy group whose members are mostly nannies, housecleaners, and home health workers. “We operate out of here because we have everyday folks that are workers that may have lost their jobs due to COVID, and a saturation of them live in this area,” she says. “It’s the community helping the community.”
I’d come to Georgia to see Democrats’ ground game ahead of the Senate runoff, and in particular, to understand the role that this group of domestic workers, most of whom are women of color, has had in turning the state purple. Right now the rink is the center of the action. From here, Bell has been organizing 250 door-knockers a day to get the word out about the race and voting logistics. “It takes people who are committed to this work, who know what’s at stake,” she says. “They have to get up every morning at eight o’clock to be here by nine for training and then go out to their specific turf and knock on people’s doors.” In the two months leading up to the runoff, Care in Action reached out to 5.85 million voters, either by phone, by mail, or in person, including more than 1 million door knocks. “Georgia is about to save our whole democracy, so we’re all in,” Bell says.
Those efforts paid off. Just after Georgians elected a Democrat for president for the first time in 30 years, they went on to pick Warnock, a Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, to represent them in the Senate, clinching Democrats’ narrow control of the chamber. In majority-Black precincts, early numbers indicated that the turnout in the January runoff would surpass that of November 2020 and reach a level not seen since Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Republican turnout was also strong, but not enough to turn back a second blue wave in so many months.
Though Care in Action is not affiliated with Stacey Abrams, who has been widely credited with turning Georgia blue, its work is a direct extension of Democrats’ decade-long effort to reshape the state by organizing voters of color. “What it takes to win in Georgia is a multiracial coalition,” says Rep. Nikema Williams, who served as Care in Action’s deputy director in 2018 and now holds the US House seat formerly held by Rep. John Lewis. And just as that coalition did not come together overnight, it also drew upon generations of organizing by Black domestic workers. “I do believe that investment in long-term, community-based organizing and power building does pay off,” says Ai-jen Poo, Care in Action’s senior adviser and the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Throughout our history, Black domestic workers have organized and have really asserted their dignity through organizing.”
Atlanta is the birthplace of that movement. The first recorded domestic workers’ strike was in 1881, when Black women in Atlanta left their posts to demand better wages. Dorothy Lee Bolden helped create the National Domestic Workers Union of America (a precursor to NDWA) in the city in 1968. It was less a formal union than an education and advocacy effort, which Bolden led for nearly three decades. She built an infrastructure that took the union directly to the people it represented, using public buses to hold informal meetings and recruit domestic workers during their daily commute. There were two requirements to join the union: Members had to be domestic workers, and they had to vote.
Bolden started her career as a domestic worker when she was 9, washing diapers for the family who employed her mother as a housekeeper. As an adult, she cleaned houses and looked after children during the day, and spent her nights watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches on television while she sewed for her daughters. She marched with King when he came to Atlanta and she organized a boycott of city schools in 1964 to protest disparities in education quality between Black and white children, and she applied the lessons from her activism to the NDWU. “A domestic worker is a counselor, a doctor, a nurse; she cares about the family she works for as she cares about her own,” she said in 1983. Even so, she noted, domestic workers “have never been recognized as part of the labor force.” She was determined to change that, and in doing so she built a lasting community among domestic workers where there once had been disempowered people working in isolation.
The NDWU eventually spread to 10 more states, won workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits, and helped raise the minimum wage in Atlanta by 33 percent. Bolden also had an influential voice that affected national policy; her expertise was sought by presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
The movement fizzled a bit in the ’80s as union power declined but it was revived a decade ago when Poo began organizing home care workers to push for greater labor protections. After notching win after win, she realized that the women she’d helped bring together were an untapped voting bloc. In 2018, she launched Care in Action to get out the vote for women candidates who stand by policies that domestic workers could benefit from. That same year, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia while pushing an unabashedly progressive agenda that included expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring quality public education. Abrams received Care in Action’s first endorsement, and the group mobilized 300 domestic workers to canvass for her.
People who worked on that campaign recall there was a beautiful synergy in domestic workers rallying for the possibility of Abrams becoming Georgia’s first Black governor. “We were very intentional about running a program that reached out to people that have been overlooked in the political process for way too long,” Williams recalls. “Our unique skill set was having our membership actually do the canvassing. It really changed the game for us and the way we were able to expand the electorate.”
Though Abrams lost her bid, thanks in no small part to the voter suppression tactics of her opponent, then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Poo and others felt they had bottled lightning. Indeed, in terms of people pounding the pavement, Care in Action was the largest independently funded grassroots effort in Georgia during the 2018 election cycle. Since then, it has expanded into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. It started small, focusing on a few state candidates and the presidential election, with an eye toward expanding its operations in Georgia.
Despite the challenges presented by a pandemic that forced a rethink of its campaign outreach and infrastructure, Care in Action was able to carry the energy from 2018 through two more hard-fought races in 2020. “I think that [Abrams’ loss] was the momentum that we needed, that propelled us to be ready and to be able to launch for the Senate runoff as well as engage in a general,” Bell says. “We were able to essentially flip our state blue.”
The stakes are clear to Melanie Jackson, a domestic worker in the Atlanta area who tells me that canvassing with Care in Action made her feel like she was making a difference in a state whose elections have deep repercussions for the rest of the country. She recalls a recent conversation she’d had with a Black man in his 30s who told her he wasn’t planning to vote—he just didn’t feel like there was any point. She says she stared at him, incredulous. “You’re gonna miss the first opportunity to send a Black man from Georgia to the United States Senate?” she asked him.
He responded, “Sister, just because you said that, I’m going to go vote for the guy.”
“We locked eyes,” she told me. “I know that he went and followed through on that, and he probably thought about me as he was pressing those buttons. No doubt in my mind.”
The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
“Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable.”
Policing in America is facing a PR crisis. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the term “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for thousands across the country. Six months later, however, America has not defunded its police force––and in fact, has in some cases taken steps to give police departments even more money. Instead, police forces across America have taken an insidious approach: painting their departments in blackface.
After the January 6th Trump riot at the Capitol building, Yoganda Pittman, a Black woman, was named the new Chief of Capitol Police. Her appointment followed the resignation of former Chief Steven Sund and the arrest and firing of several white police officers who were found to be in attendance at the MAGA riot. Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals who falsely believe that allowing Black folks to infiltrate or run law enforcement agencies will lead to higher levels of safety for Black Americans. The termination of several officers who took part in the riot has convinced many that we are one step closer to “reforming” the police by weeding out the racist, bad apples within the department.
“Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals.”
This is a nice narrative, but a false one; in order to understand why, we must look at the history of policing in this country. Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system wherein squadrons made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. These “enforcers” were in charge of locating and returning enslaved people who had escaped, crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, and punishing enslaved workers who were found or believed to have violated plantation rules. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865, America created its modern police force to do the exact thing under a different name: maintain the white supremacist hierarchy that is necessary under racial capitalism. The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
Liberal media has also contributed to the recent valorization of Black cops. In the days after the January 6th riot, many news outlets aggressively pushed a story about Eugene Goodman, a Black capitol police officer who led several rioters away from the Congress people’s hiding places while being chased by a white supremacist mob. Several news outlets published testimonials of Black police officers disclosing instances of racism within the department. A January 14th article in ProPublicanotes that over 250 Black cops have sued the department for racism since 2001: some Black cops have alleged that white officers used racial slurs or hung nooses in Black officer’s lockers, and one Black cop even claimed he heard a white officer say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
“Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system.”
These white officers’ racism is unsurprising, and I am not denying any of these claims. But focusing on these singular, isolated moments of racism wherein white cops are painted as cruel and Black cops are the sympathetic victims grossly oversimplifies the narrative of structural racism that modern American policing was built upon. After hearing these slurs that they were allegedly so disgusted by, these Black cops still intentionally chose to put on their badge, don their guns, and work alongside these white police officers who insulted and demeaned them, laboring under a violent system with the sole purpose of harming and terrorizing Black and low-income communities. Similarly, while Goodman’s actions most likely saved many lives during the riot, we cannot allow one moment of decency to erase centuries of racist violence.
The great Zora Neale Hurston once said: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Her words ring ever true today, and these Black police officers are an excellent example of why. It’s tempting to believe that putting Black folks on the force will solve racial violence, but this is a liberal myth we must break free of. Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable: a quick look at many Black folks in power today, such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Lori Lightfoot, and Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately prove this to be the case. Everyone supporting racial capitalism must be scrutinized and held accountable, regardless of their identity. We cannot on the one hand say that ‘all cops are bastards’ and then suddenly feel sympathy when those cops are not white. If we want to defund and abolish the police, we must resist the narrative that Black cops have anything to offer us.
Mary Retta is a writer, virgo, cartoon enthusiast — a queer Black writer for sites like Teen Vogue, The Nation, Bitch Media, and Vice.
The inherited disadvantages of slavery and the inability to transfer wealth to ADOS descendants have been a significant contributor to the bottom class positionality of this ethnic group. This series is published to encourage study and dialogue. It is an instrument for personal empowerment. The guide creates a space for the civic engagement participation of Reparationist in national coalition-building, including petitioning for significant revision (or
replacement) of the bill H.R. 40 (S.1083) currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress.
As a young housing activist about a decade ago, Jesse Kanson-Benanav started to notice that many liberal residents of Cambridge were hostile to integration. Whenever a developer proposed a few units of affordable housing, white homeowners would line up in opposition, citing concerns about parking or residential “character.” Although they said they valued diversity, they worked tirelessly to thwart the developments that would actually make it more feasible for Black and brown families to move into their neighborhoods.
“It really struck me as out of step with the image that Cambridge purports as a progressive and welcoming community,” he said.
Kanson-Benanav, now the president of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, recently thought of those Boston-area liberals when a friend sent him a photo of a lawn in Newton with three yard signs. Two pushed back against affordable housing projects, reading: “Right Size Newton” and “Right Size Riverside.” The third sign said, “Black Lives Matter.”
Increasing the housing supply for Black Americans would be one of the quickest and most effective ways to bring about a more just society. Even now, the legacies of “red-lining” and other forms of segregation, predatory lending, and housing discrimination continue to push many Black Americans away from wealthier, better-schooled neighborhoods. But efforts to fix this problem by building affordable housing in suburban communities and affluent parts of cities have often been met with anger from white residents worried about “density” and “crowding.” White progressives in particular have a long history of refusing to integrate their communities, even as they vocally support civil rights movements.
At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has record levels of support, large, even majority-white crowds have gathered in cities across America to call for the end of systemic racism and police brutality. To achieve real equity, though, white allies will have to move beyond symbolic displays of solidarity and actually help Black Americans get into their neighborhoods.
ONE OF OUR great societal myths is that Black and white neighborhoods are separate because Americans like to live alongside people with shared backgrounds or because poor and rich people pick the neighborhoods they can afford. The reality is that federal and local governments segregated communities through elaborate feats of social engineering.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the federal government created the suburbs by insuring home mortgages and offering subsidies to developers who mass produced single-family homes. As a result, suburban subdivisions began to sell at rates easily affordable to Black and white Americans alike. But the Federal Housing Administration incentivized developers to keep the suburbs white-only, refusing to grant loans unless there were physical barriers between people of different races, such as highways and, in at least one instance, an actual wall. Oftentimes, Black Americans were explicitly barred from suburban homeownership by leases that forbid renting or selling to “any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” The federal Public Works Administration even went so far as to purposely segregate previously integrated neighborhoods, building separate housing projects for Black and white families and listing each development’s racial designation. These programs concentrated Black Americans in poverty-stricken areas without easy access to jobs, health care, or transportation.
After the Supreme Court deemed segregation unconstitutional in a series of cases, white cities and suburbs fought to maintain the old layouts anyway, passing local zoning restrictions that served to prevent Black Americans from moving into their communities. Since the restrictions had to appear race-neutral to be legal, they relied on economic means to keep out Black Americans, who had not accumulated wealth at the same rate as whites because of segregationist housing programs. Zoning requirements typically enforced minimum lot sizes or forbid developers from building low-income housing in all-white neighborhoods, rendering homes in those communities unaffordable to Black buyers and renters. Many of these same ordinances continue to ensure that Black and white Americans remain separate and unequal.
The effects have been disastrous. Effectively barred from high-quality housing, Black Americans stayed renters, often in economically depressed areas, while white Americans gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity as their homes appreciated in value. As Richard Rothstein writes in his book “The Color of Law,” the modern wealth gap between Black and white households is entirely attributable to this difference. As of 2016, the median Black family had only 8.7 percent as much wealth as the median white family. In the greater Boston area, the median net worth of non-immigrant African American households was $8 in 2015, while the median net worth of white households was $247,500. Housing inequality has also limited educational opportunities for Black children by concentrating them in the same underfunded schools, contributed to mass incarceration and police brutality by ghettoizing Black Americans in over-surveilled neighborhoods, and even shortened Black life expectancies by placing Black people in polluted areas with poor access to medical care.
What this means is that there is an obvious contradiction between supporting social justice movements and trying to maintain the segregated system behind almost every modern racial disparity. “When you talk about preserving the character of a community that exists because of oftentimes intentional racist exclusion, you’re really perpetuating the white supremacy that post-World War II suburban expansion was built upon,” said Kanson-Benanav.
But even in an era of heightened racial consciousness, efforts to undo exclusionary zoning or build low-income housing in white neighborhoods tend to trigger fierce backlashes. Adriane Musgrave, a former candidate for the Cambridge City Council, still remembers meeting a woman who talked enthusiastically about wanting to empower the Black community but quickly grew hostile at the mention of the Frost Terrace apartments, an affordable housing development under construction near Porter Square. The woman claimed that she was planning to leave the area once the apartments were built because they were going to “ruin the neighborhood” and “bring drugs and loud music.”
Musgrave had previously been booed, hissed, and berated for speaking in favor of public housing, but the encounter with the woman still shocked her. “I’m sure she thinks she’s super progressive,” Musgrave said. “But she didn’t want to live next to lower-income people of color.”
André Leroux, founder of the Great Neighborhoods Program, a network of advocates for affordable housing and zoning reform, believes that most white progressives are able to hold these contradictory stances because they simply lack historical knowledge. “I think a lot of people are not aware of the history of segregation and how our communities became segregated through housing and zoning policies and planning,” Leroux said. “People just assume that this is the way that it is.”
Another reason housing reform has failed to gain momentum is that white residents want the physical characteristics of their neighborhoods to remain the same. Many of them worry that new developments will ruin the qualities that attracted them to low-density areas in the first place: the wide open spaces, the greenery, the direct sunlight, the easy parking. It’s easy to understand why homeowners would want to hold onto these benefits, but the problem is that they are almost always maintained at the expense of other people who don’t have the privilege of choosing where and how they live. As Brookline Select Board Member Raul Fernandez put it, “All of those creature comforts are more important to [homeowners] than someone else’s ability to be able to afford to live in whatever condition that is.”
The irony is that the vast majority of affordable housing developments exist free of controversy after they get built. Most of them have little to no effect on crime rates and property values, and long-term residents eventually forget about the toxic political fights they generated. “After these drawn out battles, the lawsuits, the yelling, there’s not a peep about it,” Leroux said. “People just move on.”
HOUSING ACTIVISM IN the North was a prominent but lesser-known part of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s campaign for racial justice. In 1966, King held a march in Chicago to demand that the city allow Black residents to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods. As the protesters crossed Marquette Park, they encountered a white mob that pelted them with projectiles, one of which struck King in the head. He would later claim that he had never faced “mobs as hostile and as hate-filled” as in Chicago. He added: “Many whites who opposed open housing would deny that they are racists.”
Building off King’s legacy, Black Lives Matter has been trying to link affordable housing to racial equality for years with limited success. But as the movement gathers momentum, activists are hoping that real change is finally on the horizon. “I don’t think wealthy, educated white liberals can play ignorant any longer,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of Liveable Streets Alliance. “There’s just so much data.”
It’s not clear whether the recent protest movement has had any tangible effects on debates over whether to build more housing in the suburbs. Some activists, like Beyazmin Jimenez, a board member of Kanson-Benanav’s organization, Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that the current racial climate has been an “awakening” for many white homeowners. “They’re now asking questions like, ‘Educate me. What are the policies that have led to our city being so segregated?’” she said. As an example, Jimenez cited the town of Hamilton, Mass., previously a hotbed of anti-affordable housing sentiment, which began to hold conversations around fair housing after the George Floyd protests.
Others, however, said that they haven’t seen sufficient evidence that the surge of racial awareness among white Americans has carried over into housing policy. “I don’t think enough people have made the connection yet,” says Jarred Johnson, also a board member at Abundant Housing Massachusetts. Adriane Musgrave told me that she is “not optimistic at all” that newly enlightened white liberals will bring about meaningful reform on the issue.
Their main fear is that the white homeowners supporting Black Lives Matter will abandon the movement once it begins to make material demands on their neighborhoods — just as many white liberals abandoned King in the ’60s. Although many northerners supported King in his campaign to desegregate the South, they quickly grew antagonistic when he shifted his attention to the racist housing policies in their own communities. By the time of his assassination, he had grown increasingly unpopular with the white liberals who had once heralded his activism. “People with privilege are comfortable signing a statement, are comfortable calling someone else racist, but that’s different than the long hard work of transforming a policy,” said Thompson.
There have already been worrisome signs that history is repeating itself. In June, the CT Mirror reported, the residents of Weston, Conn., marched through the town in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, chanting slogans and raising placards. Weston’s elected officials urged the overwhelmingly white crowd to fight systemic racism and examine their personal biases. Eight days later, those same officials voted unanimously to adopt a housing plan promoting the development of two-acre single-family homes. The town’s median sale price of $668,000 seems unlikely to dip. Weston is only 1.4 percent Black.
More tests of this new civil rights movement will occur at the local and state levels as white liberals are once again called upon to integrate their communities. President Trump grasps this, which is why he’s been tweeting lately that “suburban dreams” are endangered by the prospect of more low-income housing coming to prosperous communities. Essentially, Trump is goading suburbanites to weigh their fear of affordable housing against their commitments to racial justice, and he’s betting that white people will fall back on standard operating procedure.
Indeed, without an obvious boogeyman like a murderous cop to condemn, white allies will have to ask themselves if they are truly willing to make the compromises necessary to alleviate racial injustice. This would entail the elimination of single-family zoning, a receptiveness to building affordable developments, and increased tenant protections for low-income residents. In practice, it would look like Minneapolis — which recently reformed its zoning code to allow taller buildings with more units in areas that previously contained only single-family homes — or Newton, which just voted to approve the affordable Northland development after a contentious and drawn-out debate.
Jarred Johnson, one of the activists with Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that increasing levels of support for policies like defunding the police have made him cautiously optimistic about the prospect of substantive housing reform. “I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of folks to change their minds,” he said. “I do think there’s a capacity for change. And hopefully when they have that light turned on them, they’ll respond in a positive way. I get it. It’s hard. Change is hard. But it’s essential.”
Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State
During recent anti-police brutality protests and marches across the United States, American police forces have displayed the very behavior that brought people to the streets in protest. Activists have been harassed, beaten, arrested, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas, and shot and killed by white vigilantes encouraged by police. Critics have focused their blame on the largely peaceful protestors rather than the violent police forces whose actions have been caught on camera. The police have also used their arrest power to try and stifle protest including, in one incident, arresting the only Black state legislator in Kentucky during a protest against the police violence that killed Breonna Taylor. Police abuse during social justice protests has a long history and has been part of the resistance to the kind of radical political change needed for racial justice. Angelo Herndon’s activism in the 1930s, his frequent arrests, and his unjust imprisonment is part of this long tradition of using police to prevent racial justice and stifle dissent.
In 1937, Herndon published his memoirs titled Let Me Live, where he related his family’s poverty, his employment struggles, and most importantly his radicalization in the Communist Party. The book is sometimes considered one of the first prison memoirs, but some scholars have recently argued that it is a poignant critique of racial capitalism. Herndon’s story of growing up in poverty and facing racial discrimination and police harassment demonstrate what Charisse Burden-Stelly has described as the “mutually constitutive nature of racialization and capitalism.”
In Let Me Live, Herndon describes his growing awareness of capitalist exploitation as well as the use of police as capitalist agents to control Black bodies. Herndon was born in Wyoming, Ohio in 1913, one of eight children. His family’s precarious financial position declined further after his father died from miner’s pneumonia when he was nine years old. At only thirteen, Herndon and his older brother Leo left home and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to find work as miners. His first job as a miner, working and living in a segregated community, was a wake-up call. His wages, which were meant to help his whole family, were often consumed by company fees leaving him and his brother barely able to support themselves. Frustrated, the Herndon’s left Kentucky and went to their father’s birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Leo found a job, but Angelo remained unemployed. In the process of trying to find work, Herndon met a labor agent who convinced him to leave town for work on a bridge. When he arrived, he realized that he and other Black laborers had been lured to work as slave laborers policed by armed guards and given no wages. Herndon and a few other workers managed to escape, despite being chased by dogs.
Herndon’s time in Birmingham radicalized him further. When he finally found work with a mining company, he was disgusted with the company union that failed to advocate for workers. He witnessed a coworker’s death after management failed to make necessary repairs to the machinery he worked on; he and other employees moved his body out of the way to continue work. While traveling through town he witnessed a conductor beat a Black man who did not defend himself; his frustrations mounted until one day he refused to move on a Jim Crow car, he was left alone after the conductor told people he was crazy. In June 1930 he happened upon an Unemployed Council (UC) leaflet announcing a meeting, this was Herndon’s introduction to political organization and the Communist Party (CPUSA).
Herndon became a UC organizer and began attending meetings, organizing events, and traveling to UC conferences. He respected the UC and CPUSA for embracing an antiracist position and calling for working-class unity and he came to believe that communism was the “only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.” Unfortunately for Herndon, the police did not take kindly to communist organizing and especially to a Black communist. As Marion Ross argues, Herndon’s “redness” and “Blackness” made him a criminal in the eyes of the law. His first arrest came when he tried to organize his fellow miners into the United Mine Workers, he was charged with vagrancy, though he was employed, and held in solitary confinement for seven days.
At his trial, the prosecutor focused on the threat Black men posed to white women’s virtue; this was enough for a guilty sentence and twelve months imprisonment and a $500 fine. When the prosecutor painted Herndon as a sexual predator, he was alerting the all-white jury to the belief that the Black body had to be controlled to secure white supremacy. His conviction was eventually overturned in the circuit court, but it was enough to move Herndon to officially join the CPUSA. Soon after he was arrested again walking to a CPUSA Labor Day rally; he was held for eleven days with other prisoners detained for mental illness. After his second arrest, Herndon’s memoir pivots from a story of radicalization to one of fascist police abusing him and his fellow organizers with impunity.
Herndon’s every movement in Birmingham was followed by police who arrested him on any pretense; it became such a frequent occurrence that he claimed it drove him further into the arms of the CPUSA. But it also became too difficult to live there, so in 1931 he took a job with the Trade Union Unity League to help organize longshoremen in New Orleans. Even in Louisiana the police dogged his every move, and he was arrested again. He also became active in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, nine Black youths arrested for allegedly raping two white women on a train.
Herndon returned to Alabama to organize for the Scottsboro defense and to try and help with the organization of sharecroppers in Camden County, but he was chased out of town by the threats of a lynch mob. When he arrived back in Birmingham he was arrested right off the train. Herndon did not stay long, he was sent to organize for the UC in Atlanta, GA in 1932. When the city announced it was going to drop over 20,000 people from the relief rolls, Herndon sprung into action. He began producing leaflets and organizing marches, all of which brought law enforcement attention. While picking up mail at the post office he was arrested and charged under an 1861 law to prevent slave insurrections; the place where he was staying was raided and all of his pamphlets and books were seized, later to be used against him in court.
Herndon described his subsequent imprisonment, trials, and conviction as being “crucified by capitalist law and order.” He was held incommunicado until a fellow inmate smuggled out a letter to the International Labor Defense, an organization devoted to defending workers. It was this arrest that prompted Herndon to write Let Me Live; in it he described his months in solitary, then on death row, the “kangaroo court” trial in which the prosecutor went into a “lynch frenzy,” and his conviction and sentence of 18-20 years on a chain gang, a death by labor sentence. This arrest would make Angelo Herndon a household name for radicals raising awareness about the dangers of the police state and its concerted efforts to quash social justice. All told, Herndon would spend two and a half years in jail while his appeals were heard. After the CPUSA mobilized a global defense around Herndon, the charges would eventually be dropped, and he would be free. He later described his imprisonment as an “apprenticeship in the revolutionary struggle.”
Herndon recognized what even today some Americans are only just realizing: that the police are not public servants meant to keep the peace, that they are agents of social control. While speaking to other prisoners, Herndon told them that if there was a “decent government” who cared for people’s needs, rather than protecting capitalist profits, fewer people would be imprisoned. Herndon was arrested so many times as a known UC organizer that he lost count; he recruited others to the UC and CPUSA by arguing that they had to make change because we are all “in the same leaky boat.” His memoirs have been described as prison literature, a critique of racial capitalism, communist propaganda, and in the tradition of slave narratives — it is also a book about police abuse and control and policing as a tool to control Black America and working people. It is a narrative that is all too familiar to today’s activists, that policing is a barrier rather than a path to social justice.
How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.
Deirdre Cooper Owens is the Linda and Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer and has won a number of prestigious honors that range from the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies to serving as an American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology Fellow in Washington, D.C.
Cooper Owens earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in History and wrote an award-winning dissertation while there. A popular public speaker, she has published articles, essays, book chapters, and think pieces on a number of issues that concern African American experiences. Recently, Cooper Owens finished working with Teaching Tolerance and the Southern Poverty Law Center on a podcast series about how to teach U.S. slavery and Time Magazine listed her as an “acclaimed expert” on U.S. history in its annual “The 25 Moments From American History That Matter Right Now.”
Her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (UGA Press, 2017) won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African American women’s and gender history.
Professor Cooper Owens is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. She is working on a second book project that examines mental illness during the era of United States slavery and is writing a popular biography of Harriet Tubman that examines her through the lens of disability.
We will be talking with her about Black America in the pandemic, historical underbelly of health history and its impact on us today. How we find comfort, how we face our fears and our deaths.
One of the most common refrains when a democracy collapses into an autocracy is that no one could have seen it coming.
The motivation behind this myth is the absolution of the powerful. After all, what cannot be predicted cannot be prevented, and therefore the failure of officials to safeguard our freedoms should be forgiven. This is the story we hear as Donald Trump approaches a possible second term and the U.S. plunges into unprecedented turmoil.
The premise, of course, is a lie.
Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
What “No one saw it coming” tells you is who the powerful consider to be “no one.” “No one” are the multitude of marginalized Americans who warned in 2016 that their rights had always been on the line and would be even more so now. “No one” are the people who knew that a future American autocracy was possible because their ancestors had been subject to past ones: slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, and other forms of legal subjugation that were destroyed only through decades of defiant demands for their eradication.
Freedom was always a moving target. So are Americans under Donald Trump.
Trump is not the cause of the American crisis, but its culmination. The fragility of rights that members of marginalized groups have always experienced has been widened to encompass the country as a whole. In the 21st century, political, economic and technological freedom were all radically curtailed. Americans signed away their rights unwittingly and unwillingly – through the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance in the wake of 9/11, through social media companies turned surveillance monopolies, through the deference to corporations that is a survival mechanism in an economy structured on precarity.
The loss of legal rights over the past 20 years – voting rights chief among them – has been accompanied by a culture of fear that is as effective in derailing democracy as any decree. What does it mean to have freedom of speech when your words are data-mined and shot back at you as targeted propaganda? What is freedom of assembly when your every movement is recorded and reproduced online, when human lives are reduced to hashtags?
There are few worse feelings than being watched but never seen.
Trump exemplifies this era of exploitation. The reality TV president sees citizens not as human beings, but as disposable background players in a show starring himself. The U.S. media — an industry both exclusionary and desperate after decades of financial turmoil — has long proven an easy mark for the Trump team. Complex catastrophes are no match for the easy media lure of personality politics. The framework of spectacle to which Americans have always been drawn — soap operas and pro wrestling, talk shows and tabloids – is Trump’s native vernacular. To some degree, this was always our national political language, but there is a soullessness today that feels new. Whatever entertaining quality politics once possessed is gone, replaced by a culture of profound dehumanization that endangers the American experiment.
Protesters demonstrate in Freedom Plaza against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers on June 28, 2018.
WIN MCNAMEEGETTY IMAGES
Freedom is never just about rights or laws. Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
That yearning — to simply be and have that be enough, to not have to prove your innate worth time and time again to a dubious arbiter — is at the heart of every struggle for human rights.
At a time when the world seems to be closing in on us, whether through apocalyptic change disasters, like the wildfires in Australia, or surveillance apps that monitor our every move, the dehumanizing quality of the Trump era — like separating migrant families and housing them in unsanitary border camps — is particularly gutting. With dehumanization comes disposability — a cheapening of the cherished, a commodification of every casualty.
There is a litany of horrifying images from the Trump era, but the worst may be a grinning Donald and Melania Trump holding a baby orphaned in the El Paso mass shooting like it was a trophy, giving the world a thumbs up after the baby’s parents were gunned down. What future does that child face? What present, so devoid of empathy and teeming with violence, made that moment possible?
Along with “No one could have seen it coming” lies also the idea that “The Founders never predicted this” in the archive of excuses for democracy’s demise. But the Founders absolutely predicted this — if not the legal architecture, then the moral forfeiture, which they often framed in terms of suicide.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long,” John Adams wrote in 1814. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln expressed similar thoughts on what would ultimately destroy America: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Each warned that America was its own worst enemy. Many also believe we are our own best hope.
We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
The problems Americans face are so innumerable that they overwhelm. As a nation, we are indeed weary. Still, there are concrete actions people can take to slow the entrenchment of autocracy: voting, protesting, and creating or supporting independent organizations that combat corporate or state control are a few suggestions. But all of this requires maintaining presence of mind in a political environment designed to annihilate it. The greatest threat of the Trump era is the loss of what makes us human – our empathy, our individuality, our imagination.
The antithesis to freedom isn’t subjugation but surrender.
Oppressive governments can control what they take from you, but not your willingness to fight for it. They can never fully know you, and the unpredictability of human nature means no outcome is an inevitability, even in an aspiring autocracy. We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
Freedom of thought is a freedom that can never truly be taken, but you must guard it nonetheless. In an era of rampant dehumanization, it is more important than ever not to surrender in advance.
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HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)
In January 1973, George Romney, Nixon’s enigmatic Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, administered an open-ended moratorium on its 1968 initiatives to open up single-family homeownership to low-income borrowers by providing government-backed mortgages. The experiment to make homeownership accessible to everyone ended abruptly with massive foreclosures and abandoned houses, but the questions ignited by these policies persisted. Some analysts insisted that the failure of HUD’s homeownership programs was proof positive that poor people were ill equipped for the responsibilities of homeownership. African Americans experience homeownership in ways that rarely produce the financial benefits typically enjoyed by middle-class white Americans.And they insisted that it more specifically implicated low-income African Americans as “incapable” homeowners. Others pointed to HUD’s obvious mismanagement of these programs as the real culprit in their demise, and, importantly, how the programs gave an industry already known for its racial bias new opportunities to exploit low-income African-Americans. But the lessons from HUD’s experiment were muddled by other economic sensibilities, including the commitment to private property and the centrality of homeownership to the American economy.
Today, homeownership, even for low-income and poor people, is reflexively advised as a way to emerge from poverty, develop assets, and build wealth more generally. The historic levels of wealth inequality that continue to distinguish African Americans from whites are powerful reminders of how the exclusion of Blacks from this asset has generationally impaired Black families in comparison with their white peers. Owning a home as a way to build wealth is touted as an advantage over public or government-sponsored housing. It grounds the assumption that it is better to own than rent. And the greatest assumption of all is that homeownership is the superior way to live in the United States. This, of course, is tied to another indelible truth that homeownership is a central cog in the U.S. economy. Its pivotal role as an economic barometer and motor means that there are endless attempts to make it more accessible to ever-wider groups of people. While these are certainly statements of fact, they should not be confused as statements on the advisability of suturing economic well-being to a privately owned asset in a society where the value of that asset will be weighed by the race or ethnicity of whoever possesses it.
The assumption that a mere reversal of exclusion to inclusion would upend decades of institutional discrimination underestimated the investments in the economy organized around race and property. The concept of race and especially racial inferiority helped to establish the “economic floor” in the housing market. One’s proximity to African Americans individually, as well as to their communities, helped to determine the value of one’s property. This revealed another reality. Markets, as in the means by which the exchange of commodities is facilitated, do not exist in vacuums, nor do abstract notions of “supply and demand” dictate their function. Markets are conceived and constituted by desire, imagination, and social aspirations, among other malleable factors. This does not mean that markets are not real, but that they are not shaped by need alone. They are shaped by political, social, economic, and in the case of housing, racial concerns. And in the United States, these market conditions were shaped and stoked by economic actors that stood to gain by curtailing access to one portion of the market while then flooding another with credit, capital, and indiscriminate access to distressed and substandard homes.
HUD’s crisis in its homeownership programs in the 1970s reveal deeper and more systemic problems with the pursuit of homeownership as a way to improve the quality of one’s life. It is undeniable that homeownership in the United States has been “one of the important ways in which Americans have traditionally acquired financial capital” and that the “tax advantages, the accumulation of equity, and the increased value of real estate property enable homeowners to build economic assets. . . . These assets can be used to educate one’s children, to take advantage of business opportunities, to meet financial emergencies, and to provide for retirement.” Investment in homeownership, and its role in the process of the personal accumulation of capital, has been fundamental to the good life in the United States.