The death of 13-year-old Devin Brown at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department has generated a wide array of complicated emotions in the black community, including shock and anguish, confusion and introspection. Why, people wondered, was this boy killed? Could his death have been prevented? Were the police rash and trigger-happy? Or were they simply defending themselves?
But while the community searched for real answers to complex questions in the days after the shooting, the traditional black leadership of the city did no such thing. Instead, our leaders reacted in ways that were all too predictable.
The Urban League’s John Mack immediately jumped in -- before the investigation had even been opened, much less completed -- saying, “Some police officers don’t value the lives of young African American males.” The ever-pugnacious Rep. Maxine Waters beseeched the community to “demand justice.” The NAACP’s Geraldine Washington said police were supposed to " protect and serve, and they’ve got it wrong.”
Not only were these responses predictable, but they were inflammatory, offering new reasons to question the health of America’s civil rights advocacy groups, not just in Los Angeles but across the country. The leaders of these groups say they represent the interests of black Americans, yet it seems increasingly clear that their lives rarely touch the lives of those they claim to speak for and, in many cases, that they never move outside their own cloistered, out-of-touch activist circles.
The troubles in the civil rights movement were signaled late last year when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth resigned his leadership post at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after many decades of service and Kweisi Mfume stepped down at the NAACP.
These are great, august organizations that once served as the flagships in the nation’s most important battles against racism. But over the last three decades, the aims and goals of these groups have undergone little change -- even as the racial landscape has been dramatically reconfigured. Instead, they have dug in their heels, downplayed racial progress and continued to argue, despite evidence to the contrary, that the condition of black men and women in the U.S. remains precarious.
In a desperate search to maintain their own relevancy, these groups have insisted on making white racism their nearly singular focus. This has not served them well. At the SCLC, Shuttlesworth was among a handful of veterans who were part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s original staff that launched civil rights campaigns in places that now ooze with history -- Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham. But he resigned last year -- some say he was forced out -- amid financial problems, board squabbles and a dwindling membership.
The NAACP has its own problems. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization, it began the long slide toward irrelevancy somewhere around the end of the 1970s.
This directional drift was no doubt helped along by the antics of its president in the early 1990s, Benjamin Chavis, who led the group to the brink of financial ruin. Although his replacement, Mfume, nurtured the group back to fiscal health, he failed to grow its membership or construct a forward-thinking agenda. The NAACP continues to fall back on shopworn themes of racial victimization.
Despite the overriding message of victimization coming from these organizations and groups like the Congressional Black Caucus, there is a growing sense in the community, particularly among black youths, that traditional civil rights groups and leaders, while often viewed affectionately, are relics of another era.
With rare exceptions, the quest by civil rights groups to recapture the vibrancy and relevancy of a bygone era often leads to the advocacy of issues that cause a great deal of head-scratching. This tendency was exposed by the recent shameful episode involving Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where Rep. Waters (backed by a host of community activists and other leadership figures) led a series of protests and demonstrations in an attempt to “save our hospital” -- even though the hospital teeters on the brink of closure because of irregularities that resulted in the deaths of patients.
It was stunning to watch leaders arguing that efforts to close a hospital that was killing its black and brown patients was somehow the result of a conspiratorial racial animus toward the black-run institution.
This all follows closely on the heels of last year’s Stanley Miller incident, in which a black auto thief was “beaten” with a flashlight after a car and foot chase. A week before the Brown shooting, the district attorney angered community activists by refusing to prosecute the officer who beat Miller.
In its written explanation of the decision not to prosecute the officer who struck Miller, the D.A.'s office said: " ... the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.... The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowances for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments -- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.”
That seems like a reasonable standard, but civil rights and community leaders have nevertheless acted as instant judge and jury, proclaiming officers guilty of abuse -- or, in the case of Devin Brown, essentially murder -- even before critical facts are established.
Last October, a 14-year-old boy was gunned down in a South Los Angeles alley. He begged for his life on his knees before being shot 19 times by street thugs. The killers are believed to be black. But the fact that he was killed by other black youths meant that his brutal death was largely ignored by the same civil rights figures who are now voicing outrage over the police shooting of Devin Brown.
Have they not noticed the black-on-black homicide rate in South L.A. -- and across the country? According to the U.S. Justice Department, 94% of all blacks killed between 1976 and 1999 were killed by other blacks. It would be heartening to see civil rights groups -- rather than clinging to victimization in a vain attempt to maintain a hold on racial relevancy -- zero in on the racial gap in learning, the absence of fathers in all too many urban homes and the disproportionate levels of inner-city homicide. Until then, many who are claimed as a part of the civil rights constituency will continue to ask, “Who needs them?”