By Lawrence Rogers
The Black Lives Matter, Social Activism and the Carceral State panel, hosted in Convocation Hall on Friday, February 10, brought some of Tennessee’s leading thinkers on social justice and race in America to campus. The panel consisted of Middle Tennessee State University associate professor Sekou Franklin, Vanderbilt University professor Lisa Guenther, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center Ash-Lee Henderson, and Sewanee’s own Armonté Butler (C’17).
The first speaker, Prof. Sekou Franklin of MTSU gave a history of black youth activism. He noted that, while youth activism is constitutive black social activism—even black history—as a whole, one ought not romanticize youth, that it was inter-generational and multi-generational organizations that led to the eradication of the old Jim Crow laws in the South. He then connected the decline of black youth activism after the Civil Rights Era to the institutionalization of African American rights movements and the advent of black politicians, ending with the genesis of today’s Black Lives Matter movement and the mantra “I declare, we ’bout to be free again.”
Following Prof. Franklin, Prof. Lisa Guenther of Vanderbilt brought the Black Lives Matter Movement into perspective, bridging the gap between slavery, the convict-lease system, and the current carceral state in the U.S. Her principal argument was that the racist economic exploitation that began in earnest with slavery lives on in the form of mass incarceration. As America’s aversion to blatant racism has grown, so has its ability to disguise racism. She argued that modern police forces evolved from slave patrols in the Antebellum South and modern prisons from plantations. The connection between plantations and prisons solidified with her description of the first prisons, known as prison farms, which were essentially plantations worked by convicts rather than slaves.
Ash-Lee Henderson, claiming to have come from an organizational tradition rooted in culture, began her presentation with a protest song entitled “The People Rise,” inviting the audience to sing and clap along with her. She continued with a more detailed history of the birth of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, beginning with a Facebook post by activist Alicia Garza after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, which read, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” Henderson then attacked the penal system and its mistreatment of black people, claiming it is “jacked up to put our people in cages” and even more “jacked up to make money off putting our people in cages.” She finished her presentation with two marching orders. The first was to read the vision of the Movement for Black Lives online, and the second was to watch the Movement for Black Lives’ monthly webinar series.
Following Henderson’s presentation, Armonté Butler described his experience working with Southerners on the Ground (SONG). His work, based in Atlanta, focused on pinpointing and eradicating the city’s various means of exploiting the most vulnerable and most underrepresented of its citizens, primarily LGBTQ and minority groups. Butler claimed, when the city decided to increase its revenue by implementing more aggressive traffic-ticketing policies, the brunt of the financial burden fell on those least able to bear it. In response, SONG held multiple events to draw attention to this injustice, including marches and an event in which SONG volunteers fixed taillights and taught Know Your Rights courses.
Over the course of the evening’s discussion, one argument common to every panelist crystallized: that Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives have been effective. Prof. Guenther pointed out that the U.S.’s incarceration rate’s status as the highest in the world is now common knowledge as a direct result of the activism of people under the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter. Prof. Franklin noted, in terms of policy adoption, BLM’s efficacy is an unequivocal fact: since Alicia Garza posted that historic Facebook status in 2013, 24 states have begun to consider more aggressive systems of checks and balances for police and 17 have considered demilitarizing their police forces entirely. Prof. Franklin went on to argue that the Democratic Party adopted the most progressive law enforcement reform policy in the history of U.S. electoral politics ever because of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives.
Following the presentation portion of the evening, audience members were encouraged to ask questions of the panel members. One question focused on the panelists’ vision for prison reform. Prof. Guenther responded that while prison abolitionism are her ultimate goal, the immediate goal is simply to avoid implementing any legislation that more deeply entrenches prisons in our society. Following questions on the roles the faith community and of primarily white institutions (PWI’s) like Sewanee in the fight for equality and justice, the panelists recommended reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and examining our own institution’s minority-recruiting measures and the role of people of color on faculty at the university.