No More Fergusons Means No More Partisan Manipulation
By Dr. Lenora Fulani
Sept. 5, 2014, 6 p.m. - Grief can be a terrible blinder. Tears of rage and sorrow can fill our eyes and make it hard to see, even though we have the experience that we have become more lucid, more knowing and more capable in the face of tragedy. My fear is that the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York will make us, will make black people blind and will foster illusions about the political actions we must take. We should not allow that to happen.
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Congressman John Lewis, whom I deeply admire and whose service to the cause of civil rights and voting rights is legendary, is among those now on the stump. "Ferguson has made it crystal clear to the African-American community and others that we've got to go to the polls," he said. Rev. Al Sharpton, with whom I just marched in Staten Island and who had me speak at his rally there, observed, "People feel like they would be betraying the spirit of what happened in Ferguson, as well as enabling this impeachment rhetoric, if there's a low turnout.” We are truly caught in the crossfire. How? Because we, who have been victimized by a profound and never-ending racial violence, are to be blamed if we do not turn out in record numbers to prevent the Democratic Party from losing seats in the US Senate. Who made up those rules? Not us, that's for sure.
It is well known in the Black community and in political circles that I am an independent. I ran for president twice as an independent in 1988 and 1992. In the first run I became the only African American and only woman to access the ballot in all 50 states. In the second, I used my candidacy to forge an alliance with the Perot movement and through the founding of the Reform Party propelled the earliest development of a new movement for political reform, one aimed at opening the electoral process to include independent voters of all racial backgrounds and political persuasions. This was based on the belief that the political parties - Democrat and Republican - were becoming completely vested in their own self-preservation and less willing or able to address the crisis of rising poverty, the breakdown of social infrastructure, and to reverse an interventionist foreign policy that undermines peace.
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Today 42 percent of Americans are independents and that includes many, many Black, Latino and Asian voters, especially young people. The political system is very hostile to these voters, locking us out of primary voting in many states, forcing us into a second class status as participants in the political process. I have appealed to the Black community on many occasions to use its power to be independent as a means of leveraging our interests.
Recently, when Black voters cast ballots in the Republican primary runoff in Mississippi against the far right Tea Party candidate and for a moderate Republican, the whole world took notice. Mississippi is a state with an open primary, where all voters can choose which primary to vote in. Through this system Black voters were able to slam the door on right wing extremists.
In New York City in 2005, through the NYC Independence Party, I led a powerful coalition of Black and Latino independents and Democrats to pull 47 percent of black voters away from the Democratic Party and for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Democratic Party bigwigs from Hillary Clinton to Eliot Spitzer (remember him?) went on a rampage to undercut the independent movement. We survived, but the message to the Black community was clear. Stay put, politically speaking, or you will pay a serious price. For the most part, we have stayed put. And we continue to pay a heavy price for that immobility, do we not?
These instances of exercising independent political power were just the faintest beginnings of what can and should be a tool for Black empowerment. It's old news that we are taken for granted by the Democrats and that our political power is greatly diminished by being entirely predictable. Need I mention that the Governor of Missouri and the Mayor of New York City are both Democrats? Missouri and New York are where the two recent episodes of the excessive use of force by police took place. And yet we are being asked, some would say coerced, to buy the idea that the Democratic Party is our savior and the Republican Party is evil incarnate. Neither is true.
Each party represents a segment of the American public and both want to prevent new forces and new alignments from changing the game. This is why the growing movement for political reform - in particular that wing which is focused on reforming the primary system to downgrade the power of the parties and upgrade the power of the voters - is so important. I am a strong supporter of that movement and I want the Black community to join me in doing that. That is how we build our political power. We need to be part of new coalitions, with diverse interests that develop our capacity to grow our political strength. We need a system that encourages—rather than represses—new coalitions.
Barack Obama, who was elected president by winning the support of independent voters in the Democratic Primary in sufficient numbers to defeat Hillary Clinton, will be leaving office in two years. Electing him was a great accomplishment for the nation and for Black America. His ability to lead, however, was greatly impaired by the demands the Democratic Party placed on him to re-enforce its power. He turned down many overtures from the progressive wing of the independent movement to develop a new majority coalition and this has greatly weakened the country and, ironically, the Black community. Sadly enough, the legacy of America's first black president may be to leave the Black community more isolated, deprived and underdeveloped than it has been for 60 years. Black people feel very protective of Barack Obama. He is Black, and he has come under vicious attack from the Right Wing. But the Democratic Party opportunizes off of that and tries to extend it to require loyalty to the party above all else. Promoting the idea that justice for Ferguson means voting for Democrats is one more manipulation in that game.
As far as the upcoming Senate races are concerned, my message to the black community is this. Make sure the candidate you support gives their support to all forms of voter mobility - open primaries, nonpartisan primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, etc. No voter, regardless of race, political creed or color, should be required to join a political party in order to participate in an election. That is a violation of the most fundamental of voting rights!
Nothing can bring Michael Brown or Eric Garner back to life. Both were poor Black males, like millions of others, for whom this country cannot find a place, other than in jail or in the grave. We must be willing to make real and significant changes in the way our political process works if we mean to take these deaths seriously. The same slogans, the same funeral grief, and the same voting patterns simply are not enough.
Recently, in response to pressure from independents and the nonpartisan reform movement, New York Senator Charles Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responsible for electing Democrats to the US Senate, reversed his prior position and publicly endorsed a Top Two nonpartisan election system in which all voters - Independents, Democrats, Republicans, third party members - get to vote in every round of every election. This is a sign of the growing strength of that movement, a movement in which my very dear friend and colleague Jacqueline Salit is a major leader.
However, the conventional wisdom is that Black people will not rally to this cause, that we have one and only one political home and that is in the Democratic Party, so the inclusion of non-Democrats is of no value to us. We must defy that conventional wisdom! First of all, many of us are independents –about 31 percent according to some polls. And second, we need to coalesce with other Americans who share our belief that the system is no longer working for the American people. 63% of independents in New York, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, say that the death of Eric Garner "was a tragic thing and there is absolutely no excuse for how the police acted."
My colleagues Dr. Jessie Fields and Alvaader Frazier, Esq, are leading a campaign directed at Schumer demanding that he lead the fight for nonpartisan elections in New York. Hundreds of signatures were gathered in just a few hours at Harlem Week. The Black community is hungry to find new ways of expressing ourselves. We must do more than go to funerals and weep, but then turn a blind eye to the political changes that must occur. We must free up the Black community to become more powerful. Join me in building a national Black Reformers Network.
Dr. Lenora Fulani is a developmental psychologist, education innovator and the country’s leading political independent. In 2006, she initiated Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids, a successful, alternative approach to addressing police / community relations.
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