John Jackson Jr.; Rashad Robinson, executive director, ColorOfChange.org; and Benjamin Crump during the “Our Power, Our Promise” panel discussion hosted by The Root and WURD in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016
WURD Radio LLC

On Wednesday, as Philadelphia’s center was overrun by throngs of Democratic conventiongoers, The Root and legendary Philadelphia radio station WURD 900 AM collaborated blocks away on Broad Street to discuss what the black agenda might be—especially after what is shaping up to be the most contentious presidential election in nearly 50 years.

In the war to defeat Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is forced to kowtow to white voters amid the nation's tense racial climate. The unfortunate calculus determines that too much talk about a black agenda will alienate too many crucial white votes.

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That’s why The Root and WURD—not just the city’s (and the state’s) only black talk-news radio station, but one of the few in the nation that are black-owned—felt that it was necessary to have a conversation on black issues in Philadelphia, key to sorely needed African-American voters in battleground Pennsylvania.

Dubbed “Our Power, Our Promise,” the forum had both outlets teamed up in “a wonderful opportunity to bring local and national thought leaders together to talk about the black agenda at the closing of the Obama era,” noted WURD CEO Sara Lomax-Reese at the opening.

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I co-moderated the panel discussion, along with daily WURD host and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Solomon Jones, at South Restaurant, a popular African-American-owned, upscale jazz-themed restaurant in North Philadelphia.

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For two hours before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 black local and national influentials and a larger Philly-metro audience, who listened in via WURD’s live broadcast, the conversation gelled into a discernible “black policy agenda” shaped by legal, grassroots, political, educational and psychosocial considerations.

With remaining charges against Baltimore City police officers in the Freddie Gray case dropped that morning, criminal-justice issues dominated the discussion.

“It’s this pattern all over America is that police officers won’t go to jail for committing horrible acts, excessive force and brutality against people of color,” argued noted attorney and panelist Benjamin Crump. “But black people can get prosecuted on a rumor.

“The only case I can remember in recent years is the case in Oklahoma City where the 13 black women were raped by the white police officer. We just had so much overwhelming evidence there,” Crump pointed out. “But, even with that, it took an all-white jury four days. Four days.”

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That kicked off a charged discussion in which panelists examined not only systemic racism in the criminal-justice system but also how African Americans can navigate that minefield through community action and strategic political maneuvering.

Panelists agreed that it all speaks to a larger problem of gross prosecutorial neglect and disparity in everything from the most minor infractions ruining black lives to how state leaders and managers have, thus far, largely avoided criminal accountability in the Flint, Mich., contaminated-water crisis.

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This prompted a bigger question: “What’s our action? What do we do about it?” snapped Rashad Robinson, CEO of ColorOfChange.org, a national advocacy group. “We continue to show up at these moments and demand justice. It’s not just about the lack of trials and lack of convictions of police officers; it’s also the overincarceration of black folks we have to focus on.

“We have to talk about this in political terms. Seventy percent of DAs run unopposed, 90 percent of DAs are white,” Robinson continued. “They are not nervous about disappointing us because we are not contending in that political space. We can’t just do that through the nonprofit, 501(c)(3) process. Until we start leveraging black political power, prosecutors will see the only people they need to listen to are the Fraternal Order of Police and the police chiefs.”

Robinson described his organization’s efforts in creating a new national super PAC, or political action committee, that’s targeting district attorney races, a coordinated effort to recruit candidates who share black-community interests and to vote out district attorneys who don’t.

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Jason Johnson, politics editor for The Root, argued that it’s “not just a matter of voting. Because I notice a lot of people are disenchanted and feeling as if their voting doesn’t matter.

“So it’s also about us putting candidates forward and supporting them with those $5, $10 or $15 contributions,” added Johnson. “It doesn’t take that much to encourage candidates to run and to hold them accountable, as well.”

But, as political commentator and panelist Danielle Moodie-Mills suggested, political strategy, creating campaign infrastructures and sparking voter mobilization won’t mean much without a recharged national civics lesson leading the effort.

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“We have to have an educational process as to what a district attorney does. How your vote is valued in these places matter, and it’s important for people to fully understand what they’re voting for,” said Moodie-Mills. “Most people only pay attention every four years to presidential races. So we continue to have these conversations about down-ballot tickets, about elected officeholders such as city council, school boards and district attorneys, but we’re not educating communities about the roles these people play.”

“When we’re having these discussions about race and discrimination, there are political deficiencies, especially when we’re talking about the cultural, legal and educational context,” said John Jackson Jr., dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. “Movements like Black Lives Matter are misunderstood when they are simply thought of as forms of political activism, and not as existential activism.”

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“Ultimately, it’s really about having America, post-Obama, go beyond having silly dialogues about race between strangers that don’t go anywhere, but come down and get dirty about what is it that's so profoundly terrifying to us about difference,” he continued. “Why do we latch onto race, and all these justifications, for reproducing discrimination, exploitation and marginalization?”

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A greater challenge, all agreed, was not so much the need for an ambitious plan itself but how those various levels of activism, organization and thought leadership in the black community could be woven into one cohesive force for real change.

“We all know that change never occurs at the top,” acknowledged Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), who painted a gritty portrait of black elected officials wrestling against stacked Republican-majority odds in a hostile congressional environment. “It has to bubble up from grassroots activism. When you’re faced with a dysfunctional Congress, because it is, instead of just accepting the dysfunction, we have to do all that we can to mobilize and to put into action the grassroots activism that’s going to lead to change.”

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.