Duckler: Black leaders have cautious optimism

  • In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, JerriAnne Boggis stands next to a statue of Harriet Wilson in Milford, N.H. Wilson, who was born in Milford, is considered the first female African-American to publish a novel on the North American continent. Boggis is part of a group of African-American and white scholars who are working on what they hope will be a statewide, black history trail that recognizes African-American contributions. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole—AP file

  • Rep. Caroletta Alicea of Boscawen speaks during the New Hampshire Women's Day of Action and Unity rally in front of the State House in Concord, N.H., on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ—Monitor file

  • State Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, introduces an amendment to a bill seeking to raise the New Hampshire's minimum age for tobacco use to 21, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Lawmakers returned Wednesday for the first day of their new legislative session. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) —AP file

  • Marques Milbourne of Tilton Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/25/2020 12:22:30 PM

It’s been two months since four Minneapolis cops were charged with crimes connected to the death of George Floyd.

Two months since the video of an officer’s knee pressing against the back of Floyd’s neck, his body lifeless, for more than two minutes touched something deep in America. And two months since the Black Lives Matter movement grew in stature and significance yet again, earning a spot in the pantheon of acronyms.

BLM.

Those letters now speak for themselves. Black leaders are optimistic like never before, but they are also cautious and cynical at the same time. They fluctuate, seeing hope here, status quo there.

Take Marques Milbourne of Tilton, for example. He’s a 36-year-old Black man, young enough to represent the BLM passion of today, while able to monitor growth through the ensuing years.

He grew up in New Jersey, in an area not always kind to Black people. (He gives high grades to New Hampshire State Police and local cops). His wife is white and they have two small children. They worry that down the road it could be an issue for their kids, once bullies learn they’re from a biracial home.

But make no mistake, the goals and needs of African Americans are palpable these days, the momentum as strong as ever, even. White people hungry for an egalitarian society feel it, too, and in fact are joining marches and rallies across the country in giant numbers. Sort of like in the 1960s. Rallies, demonstrations, clashes with police are still happening in major cities across the country.

“It’s awakened people to social issues and the systemic issues that have plagued this country for years,” Milbourne told me. “I think that there are enough people now who want to see equality and a fair shot for everyone.”

He continued: “It seems like we are heading the right way. I think this is a turning point. People want to know more about culture, so it doesn’t seem to be an overnight, fly-by thing.”

The energy released after Floyd’s death was and remains atomic as discussion about racial intolerance grows and the country searches for solutions.

Black leaders and activists cite the longstanding changes needed to end entrenched systematic racism. Money for education. Addressing racism early and often in school. Sensitivity training for cops.

But civil rights activists told me that policies and rallies don’t compare with the heart transplant this nation needs.

That’s why Milbourne put on the brakes before going too far with his optimism.

Milbourne has some ideas for concrete, tangible change, like repealing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which contains funding incentives for incarceration and led to a high arrest rate among Black people. Milbourne sees the law perpetuating a biased, unfair judicial system.

“Current day America is truly not an even playing field,” Milbourne said. “Slavery has plagued us since Jim Crow Laws. The War on Drugs Crime Bill put African Americans behind the 8-ball. African Americans are already disadvantaged by those struggles.”

Milbourne knows history. He cited an often-forgotten tragedy, the Tulsa Massacre, 99 years ago, when mobs of white residents killed Black people and burned down their businesses in Greenwood, which had been an affluent African American community.

“That’s not talked about enough,” Milbourne said. “That set African Americans as a whole back 100 years. They lost old money, early businesses that could be big by now. They took all that away.”

African Americans want it back. BLM was founded in 2013 after the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted.

BLM members coordinated marches and rallies across the country, protesting police brutality and other forms of injustice against African Americans.

After the shooting death of Michael Brown and a deadly chokehold put on Eric Garner by police the following year, the spectacle of racism had entered America’s consciousness like a locomotive, and it’s only grown from there.

Now, BLM has the traction of a chained tire. The organization exists as a decentralized network, with chapters around the country. There’s no registration required. A passionate and devoted stance against racism gets you in the door.

Jerrianne Boggis represents the respected, elder statespeople in the BLM cause. She’s an individual who hopes for progress today and more in the future, after her torch has been passed.

Her voice and input would be welcome anywhere, by any movement. She’s a towering figure within the state’s African American community. She’s the head of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and a member of the New Hampshire Civil Rights Commission.

She said support from white people helped rock the status quo boat in the 1960s, but it didn’t go far enough to create real discussion and real concern and real change. She’s making no guarantees this time.

“History shows us that through the Civil Rights Movement whites joined us and we, in the end, did not see any systemic changes,” Boggis said. “So we’re back to where we are today and it did not change the hearts and minds. Some Black people, me included, view this moment with a healthy skepticism. We are very slow to change, especially around the issues of race, because they are so deeply embedded that beliefs are tough to overcome.”

David Watters, a Democratic senator from Dover, and his wife are a white couple who adopted an African American son, Harper Watters, now a standout dance soloist with the Houston Ballet.

David’s school years coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, when attack dogs and fire hoses were the preferred tools of government to squelch a movement. Today it’s riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Watters remains part of the quest years later, attending a BLM rally in Dover this summer at the age of 69. He said it drew thousands.

“Racism, our country was founded on that,” Watters said. “That’s not to say it’s hopeless. It’s just a reality that history shows, and the question is what is different? Black people were quite literally putting their lives on the line to force the country to live up to its ideals and become a better society.

“So 50 years later, history teaches us to be skeptical,” he added.

Then Watters, like everyone else I spoke to, pivoted, saying, “I sense a new openness for conversations. I hope there is change this time and there is evidence that the conversation is moving to what needs to be done and how to do it. People in authority who have created this system, and that includes me, are white, and they have to listen and understand the leadership of people of color.”

Caroletta Alicea of Boscawen is an African American activist who’s seeking her fourth term in the House this fall. Her daughter, Stephanie, opened a charter school in Concord. Her grandson, Samuel, earned headlines four years ago, when he took a knee during the National Anthem as a member of the Merrimack Valley High School football team, protesting police brutality against African Americans.

“It’s satisfying that there are more than just people of color celebrating diversity,” Alicea said. “People are accepting. The cell phone is a reminder that someone is always watching, and that’s brought this awareness that we could finally be comfortable with showing to the world.”

The United States is watching. Changes are being made. There’s talk of de-funding police departments and funneling that money toward educational opportunities for Black people. Statues of Confederate figures in the South are being pulled down.

Washington’s NFL franchise will change its nickname, the Redskins. The image of Aunt Jemima has been removed from packaging and the company is changing its name. And Gone with the Wind will now be shown with a disclaimer explaining that the movie’s depiction of slavery was totally false.

“I’m excited to see people moving that way,” Boggis said. “People are now looking for root causes and they’re questioning and realizing that something is wrong. How did we get here?”

How, indeed.


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