We've seen it before—the injustice, the reactions, and then the discussions and tweets after another tragedy makes its way into the headlines, and our consciousness. We work through hours of commentary, "think pieces," marches, and then online petitions and panels.
But what exactly should people be doing? Where should the energy go, and what should be pushed for? We've talked about it in generalities, but let's talk specifics on what would get results on the issue of the moment: police brutality.
A number of officials have pointed out that activists need to put pressure on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint an independent prosecutor in the case involving New York City police Officer Daniel Pantaleo's killing of Eric Garner. In many states the governor can appoint one. In other states the legislature must change state law.
Votes and Money
The two languages that people in elected office understand are money and votes. If an advocacy group begins to show that it can influence elections, then it will win the attention of elected officials. Just as the Tea Party combined fundraising and voter participation to elect its candidates—who now dominate Congress—communities like Ferguson, Mo., have to focus their efforts and resources to produce the change they want to see in their city's political leadership.
Organize, Organize, Organize
What the best, most effective political-advocacy organizations do is strategize and organize. The National Rifle Association doesn't have marches. What it does have is a very targeted focus on issues.
"The success of the civil rights movement has taught us when tragedy occurs, don't agonize; organize," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told The Root. "What we have seen spontaneously is that young people across the country have begun to organize in protest to the epidemic of police brutality. We need to take that organization and translate it into legislative action."
But what legislative action, specifically?
Jeffries pointed out that funding for community-policing programs has been cut. In response, on Dec. 1 President Barack Obama called for Congress to appropriate $263 million for police training and body cameras.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) is promoting a bill, the Transparency in Policing Act, that would provide federal funding for body cameras. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) has co-authored a bill that would put the reins on the Defense Department 1033 Program—which allows the Pentagon to give civilian police departments surplus war gear for free, including armored vehicles, drones and grenade launchers. On Wednesday, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) secured passage of legislation that requires police to record deaths in police custody with the Department of Justice—the first legislative advance to come out of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
These types of proposals are shaped by specific and targeted political pressure and advocacy on the part of activists and citizens. In the case of an often-gridlocked Congress, leverage is necessary to attach legislative language onto larger spending bills that are required to pass.
It may not sound sexy, but even in the age of Twitter and Facebook, simple letter writing is still effective in political advocacy. Although Twitter offers immediate reaction, politicians still pay attention to pen-and-paper letters addressed to them on specific issues. Why? Because a snail mail letter from a constituent in their district is likely a letter from someone who votes.
"We have to stop trying to organize and strategize after a crisis," said IMPACT co-founder Angela Rye during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Legislative Conference in September. "At some point we have to really stop and strategize to discuss what we have to do to prevent the next Trayvon … to prevent the next Michael Brown." She also pointed out that pushing template legislation and targeted letter-writing campaigns work.
Marching for the sake of marching—without concrete demands—has come under much criticism as being ineffective. But there is no denying that recent demonstrations, after the nonindictments of Pantaleo and Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, have focused worldwide attention on the issue of police brutality.
"It wouldn't be an issue without the marches and the protests," said the Rev. Al Sharpton last Friday on his radio show. "The idea of marching and protest is not to solve problems; it's to raise the attention and raise the notice of a problem."