“Tamir Rice was 12 years old. He was murdered outside for using his imagination.”
The day after the announcement that there would be no indictment of the police officer who killed the Cleveland boy, with tweets and think pieces sprouting out of our nation’s racial woodwork, those words from Mississippi-born writer Kiese Laymon arrested me. With tear-filled eyes and a rage-filled heart, I tried—yet again—to make sense of America’s merciless plague of black death. I couldn’t. I still can’t. I mean, how much sense can we make of it, when black children can’t play outside without fear of losing their lives at the hands of those sworn to protect them?
“Until the killing of … black mothers’ sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son,” Ella Baker proclaimed in 1964, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
It’s winter in America, but the political climate is sweltering. Politicians are sweating under the heat of organized protests, while many activists are fighting the fatigue that comes with resisting institutionalized racism. Yet, today’s freedom fighters refuse to rest—from Ferguson to Yale, from Mizzou to Baltimore.
As the 2016 election draws near, the energy of Black Lives Matter is center stage. The Democratic Party is hustling to secure the black vote; black millennials are an important demographic.
“If blacks’ support of Democrats drops from the highs of President Obama’s 93 and 95 percent showings back to the historical average of 85 percent, it could cost Democrats a net of 2.8 million votes,” Donovan Ramsey wrote in a recent New York Times article.
Clearly, Democrats can’t afford the cost of losing black voters. But can black millennials afford the consequences of dancing with the “party of our parents”?
I came of age in the ’90s under the first “first black president”: Bill Clinton. I vividly remember church deacons praising him over Easter dinner, just moments after praising God. President Clinton is “on our side,” I was told, just as God was. But was he? According to political scientist Naomi Murakawa, policies under his leadership established mandatory sentencing minimums, expanded the federal death penalty and gave billions of dollars to local police departments—helping to establish what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” To be sure, Clinton’s 1994 “Three Strikes, You’re Out” federal crime bill, alongside his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which ended “welfare as we know it”—helped replace an imperfect safety net with an insidious carceral network.
Clinton wasn’t our messiah after all. He was, however, our John the Baptist: preparing the way for black millennials’ uncritical embrace of the Democratic Party and its “true savior,” Barack Obama. A messianic figure with a Midwestern tongue, Obama evangelized the nation with his own set of parables about personal responsibility and the so-called American dream, couched in a brilliant campaign about “hope” and “change.” But as his second term comes to an end, that hope is eclipsed by the hellish conditions of black America—from underemployment and over-incarceration to generational poverty and police brutality. Truth is: since 2008, America has seen more corpses than “change.”
Despite the failures of Democratic politicians, black and white alike, black millennials are expected to subscribe to a stale civil rights narrative. It goes something like this: “Your ancestors couldn’t vote; they fought and died so we could vote; so get out there and vote!” Yes, voting has long been a tool within the black freedom struggle in the United States. But what does it mean for Tamir to be the target of police bullets as black millennials become the targets of the Democratic Party?
It means that our votes matter, but our lives don’t.
Our ancestors didn’t die so Tamir could vote. They died so he could live. So he could play outside without being killed by police. Herein lies the irony and tragedy of American democracy: Tamir, once 18, could have voted. But that day will never come, because unfortunately it’s still against the laws of white supremacy to be black and outside the comfort zone of white people. The ballot has its benefits, but it’s not bulletproof.
When I was barely Tamir’s age, I was already conditioned to pledge allegiance to the Democratic Party. “Those were the good ol’ days,” some of those same deacons tell me to this day. This form of political engagement is misleading. It embraces stories about politicians’ personalities that fail to say a mumbling word about their actual policies. Style replaces substance. The Nae Nae so easily obscures the numbers. Barbershop talks so easily block our view of the brothers who frequent them, many of whom are trapped within a vicious circle of joblessness and jail. And by the time we see the bigger picture, the paint has already dried—our schools closed, neighborhoods gentrified and communities left with little hope.
Perhaps the Democratic Party engages black millennials in a similar way to how those cops engaged Tamir: by “murdering” our imaginations, as Laymon wrote, for simply being black and outside. That is, black and “outside” the boundaries of a particular, respectable, nonviolent, civil-rights-oriented, “What would Jesse or Al do?” style of politics. This dance between black America and the Democratic Party is designed to keep black millennials inside, on the dance floor of national elections, and outside, off the playing field of radical politics. It arrests our history of resistance, shoots down our freedom dreams, and ultimately assassinates the radical imagination necessary for our liberation.
Black millennials can’t afford to dance to the beat of the Democratic Party’s drum. Theirs is a broken record of empty rhetoric and broken promises. If we, “too, sing America!” as Langston Hughes proclaimed in 1945, then—in 2016—black millennials must sing a new song. Not only in the national election, but in the day to day struggle of black political life. Who will be the drum majors of our freedom struggle?
The answer isn’t in the collective chorus of our “daddy’s civil rights movement” or the reactionary refrain of our mama’s Democratic Party. It’s in us.
Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer and scholar based in Newark, N.J. He is currently a Ph.D. student in religion and African-American studies at Princeton University.