by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If there’s one thing Jamala Rogers “gets,” it’s that the various progressive struggles — of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native people for civil rights, of women for equality and Queers for equality and protection under the law — are linked. It came through in the way she got the job as political columnist for the St. Louis American, an African-American weekly, in 1994: she confronted the paper’s publisher, Donald “Doc” Suggs, and demanded to know why he had only one woman columnist, and all she wrote about was religion. Suggs saw her point that his paper needed a woman writing about politics, and gave her the column she writes to this day.
Rogers’ sense that all struggles for equality and freedom are linked comes across in her new book, The Best of “The Way I See It” and Other Political Writings, 1989-2010. (“The Way I See It” is the name of her St. Louis American column; since 2006 she’s also contributed to the BlackCommunicator.com Web site. The very first The Way I See It column reprinted in her book is one from June 1998 called “Human Rights Are Gay Rights,” which directly took on the religious and secular leaders in the African-American community who oppose Queer rights. “The African-American community has definitely absorbed anti-Gay messages from the mainstream that feeds into the very similar forms of discrimination we experience daily,” she wrote with her usual bluntness. “That should sensitize us not to victimize others. This isn’t always so.”
The outspoken columnist and activist (she’s the chair of the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, and co-chair of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization) came to San Diego November 15 to speak at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park. Co-sponsored by the World Beat Center and Activist San Diego, Rogers’ speech took place against a nationwide campaign of police repression against the Occupy movement, in which campers protesting the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. were rousted by police using suspiciously similar tactics in various cities.
Rogers’ origin story of how she became an activist reminded her audience that the repression against Occupy was nothing new. “I was in 1968 in Kansas City, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she recalled. “There were rebellions all over the country” — itself a revealing choice of words, since the mainstream media then and now called them “riots.” “In my community, six people were killed and the drugstore at which I worked was leveled,” Rogers said. “The National Guard was called in. My mother said, ‘Don’t go down there. Stay at home.’ So I went down there.”
When she did, Rogers recalled, “the first thing that hit me was the smell of tear gas. But the most important sight was a U.S. tank coming down the street. It was a clear message that you could be killed if you got out of line.”
Rogers said the 1968 riot in Kansas City was one of the two most important events that have shaped her life. The other, she said, was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the blatantly racist ways authorities handled both the evacuation of New Orleans and the cleanup and rebuilding afterwards. “I had a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder just watching it on TV,” she said. “I went to the Gulf four summers in a row and saw no changes in the [poor, mostly Black] Lower Ninth Ward and a lot of things in the [upscale, mostly white] French Quarter. So I wrote a column calling the Bush administration’s attitude towards Katrina genocide.”
She didn’t just mean that as a metaphor. According to Rogers, “people were shot in the back by the police as they tried to get away from Katrina, and one person was burned in a car.” She said that, like the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991 and the 1992 acquittals of the four police officers who beat him, which sparked the 1992 L.A. riots, the activities of the police in New Orleans and its suburbs showed how differently white and Black people see the police.
“White people see the police as really serving and protecting,” she said, “but in lower-class communities and communities of color, the role of the police is occupation and repression.” Indeed, one peculiar sort of hope she holds out regarding the Occupy movement is that its white participants, too, are getting to see the police behaving badly. The rousts, the arrests, the meaningless and arbitrary rules, the destruction of property and physical attacks by police on Occupy protesters are the same things “we get on a daily basis in our communities,” Rogers said.
One story Rogers covered was about an African-American professor who did a study of how the St. Louis police functioned in communities of color. “”The study was so controversial, no American journal would publish it. It had to be published in Great Britain. We felt he should do a presentation to Black mothers who thought their children were doing something wrong because they were getting in trouble with the police. The police in St. Louis had a model of stopping people that had nothing to do with ‘probable cause’ [the Constitutional standard]. They would stop students going to school with backpacks. The police would rip open the backpacks, saying they were looking for drugs. If this happens twice a week, sooner or later the kid is gong to bad-mouth the police, or they’re going to be late for class and have a bad attitude in school. White mothers don’t have to deal with this. Black sons are programmed from the fourth grade to be part of the criminal-industrial complex.”
Rogers also exposed scandals relating to racism in the St. Louis Fire Department, which she encountered soon after she settled there in 1972 and which is still going on. “When I first came to St. Louis I was told by a Black firefighter who said the firehouses were so segregated, the white firefighters didn’t want their silverware washed with the Black firefighters’ silverware. That was in 1972, and in 2007 a Black person was beaten for going into a firehouse to use the phone.”
One of the columns from her book she read at the November 15 event (“Where’s the Fire?,” page 101) was about Sherman George, the first African-American fire chief in St. Louis’s history, and how he was denied the control over promotions his white predecessors had had. Eventually the white mayor, Francis Slay — a former corporate lawyer who was re-elected by wide margins in 2005 and 2009 — fired Chief George for “insubordination.” Slay has been in the news more recently for taking a tough line against the Occupy movement in his city.
Rogers says her writing and activism are about “the ways people live in a community, and the privileges and racism that keeps people from not only being equal but realizing our full potential as human beings. Our schools are now under the control of the state, and there’s little to offer the kids. I can remember shedding tears when Barack Obama was elected president and I worked in his campaign, but those of us on the Left know that there are limits to what any elected official can do. We have to raise up our voices and talk, and that’s one of the things Occupy Wall Street is doing.” One of the things we have to talk about, Rogers said, is how “there’s almost a parallel government, and definitely a parallel military force,” that protects America’s rich and powerful.
Asked how to reach white people and give them an understanding of the African-American struggle, Rogers said, “You have to really inform people with statistics and numbers from sources they think are legitimate. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we all heard about the ‘welfare queens’ and not about the welfare corporations get. … Some of it is fighting people with information. The rest is taking people into the community. People who have relationships with people of color learn about it.” She noted that Washington University in St. Louis actually warns their students, “Don’t go north of Del Mar” — i.e., don’t go into St. Louis’s Black community — “and the kids don’t, except for a few who want to see the whole city.”
Rogers closed her prepared remarks with a short bit of advice on how to build a better, healthier and more effective movement for progressive social change. “First, do no harm to the movement and the organization,” she said. “Second, do what you say you’re going to do. We have to deal with homophobia, genderphobia and racism.”