Linda Green and Karyn Pomerantz, 6-25-2021
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, antiracist activists are bringing national issues into local neighborhoods by fighting vaccine inequities, police violence, imprisonment, and housing injustice. This blog advocates for multiracial unity and anti-capitalist politics. It supports organized, coordinated movements independent of electoral politics that include direct action and political education: walk the talk! While many activists participate in demonstrations and national and international campaigns, it is essential to recruit neighbors to sustain a mass movement against racism in their communities and on the job.
This article describes several campaigns in this County and beyond, our challenges, and opportunities, and recommendations for other places.
How Can these Efforts Advance the Struggle?
The advantage of the local struggles lies in the ability to build close ties with neighbors whom we come to know in multifaceted ways. From working on cars, mutual aid projects, block parties, book clubs, and virtual or in-person discussion groups the continuity of relationships gives activists opportunity to build trust and have political conversations over time. Multiracial and multiethnic grass roots participation strengthen these organizations. Racism can be explored in all its dimensions and differences in analysis and experience can be enlightening. Even as residents may have different ways of experiencing and thinking about racism it is possible to find common ground in improving our community.
Challenges often include overcoming generational and gender divides. Young people, parents, retirees all have different experiences and needs. Successful reforms require mass actions and participation as exemplified by the uprisings across the world. There is a continuing need to engage in more outreach, political education, and social activities to meet new members and consolidate current ones. Making inclusion woman friendly also requires childcare and joint responsibility regardless of gender.
Maryland’s four-month legislative session can pull local activists away from the day to day community work that is necessary for substantive antiracist change. The promise of legislative reform, just like the promise of progressive politicians, can be seductive. And while these campaigns might help us meet more people we have to remind our friends that the promises do not materialize year after year. We have to explain how racism and capitalism serve the rich in the judicial and business sectors. Developers, bail bondsmen and the Fraternal Order of Police make sure that legislators will limit their agenda. The candidacy of people like Kamala Harris based on “race,” gender, or sexual orientation attempts to co-opt us into thinking individual politicians change the way capitalism works. Electoral politics may place more liberal politicians in office but do nothing to change the reality of exploitation in the workplace or communities. Capitalist relationships between workers and owners who need to increase their profits by reducing our wages and services cannot be voted away.
How Can We Grow the Movement?
Building sincere personal relationships with people is essential to recruiting more activists. Showing up to meetings and events, listening to people’s stories, acknowledging personal weaknesses, and persistence help forge these friendships. “I felt like an equal, valued,” was a comment a black revolutionary reported in a discussion on building a movement. He said that a co-worker held multiple conversations with him over time to explain political ideas and listen to his views. Instead of viewing political work as a burden, we can approach it as an opportunity that people will welcome.
Mutual aid activities like food pantries and rental assistance can lead to more political activities. Food pantries attract many people and can disseminate information. Helping people meet essential needs can free them to pursue more collective strategies.
Building multiracial, multiethnic leadership, membership, and leadership strengthens our work. It overcomes centuries of lies that workers have different needs and aspirations because of our identities. It develops trust and friendships among people intentionally segregated from one another. Such solidarity can be nurtured from local housing struggles to rebellions in Israel/Palestine, Haiti, India, Colombia and elsewhere.
Struggles in Prince George’s County, MD
Mount Rainier Organizing for Racial Equality (MORE) began after the murder of George Floyd with a multiracial rally of 250 residents. Organized by a small group of black, Latin, and white people, MORE went on to establish a weekly food pantry serving apartment residents, an effort at rental assistance and a citywide vaccination event. MORE jumpstarted a continuing campaign to remove armed police from the County high schools and has been investigating ways to replace city police with other support personnel. A MORE member organized a vigil to support Asian and Pacific Islanders following the mass murders in Atlanta. MORE also participated in the neighborhood’s PRIDE parade and Juneteenth celebration.
Community Justice (CJ) formed in 2019 when police killed Mr. Leonard Shand who had suffered from police harassment and was pursued by police from several jurisdictions as he moved down the street near a high school and busy shopping area. Instead of de-escalating his actions, the nine police officers shot him down like a dog. The police murder of William Greene and severe injury to D’Monte Blake have been additional targets of protests on neighborhood streets and at the Hyattsville police station. CJ members have been active in statewide efforts to successfully repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights and to eliminate cash bail and pretrial detention.
Life After Release (LAR) was formed by formerly incarcerated women in 2018. LAR supports women leaving jails and prisons, holds fund raisers for bail, such as Mothers Day Bailout, and holds weekly participatory defense meetings with family and loved ones who are incarcerated or facing charges. While centering black and brown victims of overpolicing, the participatory defense team is multiracial and multigenerational. By providing this guidance and support, over 717 days of prison have been saved in the past 18 months.
Court Watch is a separate program of LAR that has trained 40 lay persons and students to observe hearings and trials to identify infractions by prosecutors and judges. A report by Howard University law students identified multiple issues with specific judges and prosecutors and provided feedback to the courts. Over a thousand cases have been logged. The ability to observe the court virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic made this new initiative possible. A current campaign to continue this accessibility as the courts reopen is critical to allow more people to be trained and see what actually happens. As the court watch team says “Justice dies in an empty courtroom.” Recently the campaign received increased publicity when Fiona Apple named Court Watch during the Grammys and regularly participates in court watching.
The police have murdered scores of young men and women in Prince George’s County without any court proceedings. Activists often led by mothers and other family members such as Marion Hopkins from Concerned Mothers are now demanding indictments and trials of the perpetrators. Dorothy Elliott, the mother of Archie Elliott, has demanded an indictment of her son’s killers since the 1990s. Police killed Archie after arresting him on a traffic charge and placing him in handcuffs in the police car wearing only his shorts. Now 80 years old she spoke powerfully at a rally at the courthouse in Upper Marlboro on June 14, 2021 where Community Justice and other supporters challenged the current prosecutor to reopen the case against the police. Demonstrators also called for the release of names of police who are not allowed to testify because of their prior lying in court – the Brady List. Protests have forced the county to admit that such a list exists. Think how many people may be unjustly incarcerated by lying police!
Police abuse of young people continues today in the county and in the public high schools. School Resource Officers (SROs) and certified security guards patrol school hallways and arrest black and Latin students for behavior issues, rarely are weapons involved. But many parents, principals and teachers are still convinced that they need police. MORE, along with Safe Schools and PG Change Makers bring students, parents, teachers, and other residents to support School Board initiatives to end the program.It is necessary to educate neighbors and coworkers through social media, town halls and petition drives. Student voices are critical. A neighboring county passed legislation to remove SROs but allowed them to patrol areas outside of the schools. County students led the campaign to convince the community to oppose police in their schools.
Housing security affects many county residents, especially Latin residents living in Langley Park and Hyattsville apartments. Paying exorbitant rents for units that are falling apart, some have joined CASA and PG Tenants Defense to resist eviction and join in a rent strike. These groups have also reached out to educate people about rental assistance programs and have gone door to door in several apartment complexes. Because of their immigrant status, they are not eligible for health and welfare benefits. Fear of detention and deportation magnify their vulnerability. As unemployment benefits and rent moratoriums expire, these protests are becoming more critical.
Nearby Washington, DC renters, led by Stomp Out Slumlords, have organized 24 tenant committees and rent strikes to oppose gentrification and rent increases. Public housing residents have been fighting displacement that developers sponsor to build more profitable luxury condominiums. Brookland Manor residents are rallying against the eviction of hundreds of families. The local Public Health Awakened (PHA) DC chapter wrote a letter to the City Council to promote affordable housing, public safety, and health care services, and joined coalitions to protect immigrants from deportation. EmpowerDC, a grass roots group fighting for housing in DC, finally won money in the city budget to transform the historic Crummel School into a community center after more than 10 years of mobilizing.
Showing international solidarity, MORE and PHA DC have sponsored programs to encourage vaccination. MORE included vaccinators at a food distribution event and held a vaccine equity vigil with Justice is Global’s “Free the Vaccine” protest so people around the world will have access to vaccines. Extending this global solidarity, members of various groups have joined demonstrations against Israeli assaults on Gaza and the West Bank.
The Limits of these Struggles and the Power of Workplace Organizing
While these community-based organizations address crucial needs, they do not have the power of workplace actions that can disrupt the economy, such as work slowdowns, strikes, and union building. Recently, long-shore workers in Oakland, California refused to unload cargo from Israel to protest the bombings of Gaza. Bus drivers in Minneapolis refused to transport protesters against George Floyd’s murder to jails. Organizing on the job is essential to threatening capitalism. Strikes can disrupt commerce, shutdown industries, prevent travel to jobs, limit energy and water supplies, and block Internet connections. While reform struggles like the “fight for 15” do not abolish capitalism, they can unite workers and expose our potential enemies and opportunities. Linking workers and community organizations can build a mass movement to take power.