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The outpouring of righteous anger is great. 

But I fear for the future.


Mike Miller 

The Righteous Anger Is Right and Isn’t Enough

The outpouring of righteous anger on behalf of George Floyd and all those who have been victims of police brutality is great.  But I fear for the future, and have these observations if George Floyd’s six-year old daughter is to be proven right, “My daddy changed the world.”

I was part of an earlier outpouring of righteous anger.  For four years in the early-to-mid 1960s, I was on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the main organizations in the Deep South Freedom Movement, and was part of the larger national movement for civil rights.  That Movement won important things:  legal segregation and denial of the right to vote ended; a larger Black middle class was created; Black elected officials became common place; anti-housing discrimination legislation passed. There were others.

AND:  Black segregation, poverty and deprivation due to racial discrimination persist, and are in some ways worse than they were when we were doing our work in the 1960s.  Democratic participation for poor people of whatever color beyond casting a ballot, except for those few who are organized in a decent union or in an effective community organization, is mostly form and little substance.  Voter suppression threatens to undo what was won as Republicans and the Supreme Court they control limit the African-American vote.

For democracy to be real, sustained people power organizations as well as dramatic mobilizations and voting are required.

What Constitutes Police Reform?

From everything I’ve read, seen and heard, including my on-the-ground experience as a community organizer in Northern Black communities, African-Americans repeatedly say they want two major things from the police: 

(1) a respectful presence in their communities so that when a cop is needed one is available and does the right thing, and;

(2) an end to police harassment, brutality, verbal abuse and other unacceptable behavior.

They also want to take important things out of police jurisdiction.  Among them: mental health crises, drug use, homelessness and other problems better dealt with as public health, social welfare, housing, employment and other public policy solutions.  But ending a police presence is not one of them.

When an African-American resident looks out her window and sees people breaking into her car parked in front of her home, she should be able to call “911” and get a fast response from a respectful cop.  That the person breaking in is unemployed is surely a matter requiring action; it’s a different and related matter.  Unemployment and more may explain the break-in; they don’t justify it.

On the first two points, if you don’t say and pursue both, you don’t represent where the majority of people in the Black community are.  You don’t have to pay too much attention to what African-American leaders and everyday people are saying to see this.  If you fail to represent that majority, you will be marginalized–whatever the justice of your cause.  A broadly-united African-American community may still be marginalized—especially with this President and U.S. Senate, and in many states and local jurisdictions across the country. 

What Is Now Missing?

“Defund the police” is a divisive slogan.  “Demilitarize the police” is better.  “Re-imagine the police“ captures the idea that more than tinkering at the edges is required. “Restructure the Police” says what is needed—but the Devil is in the details; flesh has to be put on that skeleton.  

I watched the Minneapolis City Council President try to extricate herself from the implications of “Defund the police.”  CNN’s Chris Cuomo was doing everything he could to help her; she didn’t do very well.  Her clarification was better than the slogan—suggesting the latter should be replaced.  Slogans should sum up content in a vivid way, not require elaborate explanation. 

There are examples of substantial reform working.  Under the administration of Police Chief Chris Magnus—white and gay—in majority minority (Black and Latino) Richmond, CA significant reforms were implemented.* According to a Los Angeles Times report, “Community mistrust has gradually given way to collaboration, thanks to deepening bonds between officers and the neighborhoods they serve.”  Magnus acknowledged things remained to be accomplished, but his presence made a difference.  The Times report continues, “Community mistrust has gradually given way to collaboration, thanks to deepening bonds between officers and the neighborhoods they serve…[Magnus] disbanded roving street teams that had focused on arrests, replacing them with neighborhood-based policing. Officers attend neighborhood meetings and give out their cellphone numbers.”  Magnus introduced Ceasefire, a demonstrably effective gang violence prevention program.  After Ferguson, he held a “Black Lives Matter” sign.  Since his 2015 departure for Tucson, there has been some backsliding.  But the point I want to make is that with political will, the right policies and the right personnel, change can take place.

Fundamental reform is now possible…if our side doesn’t blow it.

What Do We Want?  A Parable

A group of old friends is sitting around in a St. Louis coffee shop planning a summer vacation for their families.  Several have very definite ideas:  Hawaii, safari in Africa, Great Barrier Reef.  They argue back-and-forth about the respective merits of each.

One of them who had been quiet asked, “How much money do we have for this vacation?”  After a moment of silence, each puts on the table what they can spend. 

“Well,” said the one who raised the money question in the first place, “I guess we should start planning for California or Florida.”

Debates about political program are often like that.  The currency of politics is power:  votes, boycotts, strikes, disruption, public embarrassment and other tactics express it.  People power requires a wide base of support.  With people power, these tactics can lead to substantive negotiations between status quo power and insurgent power.  Without it, little changes.

The Danger

We need to remember these things:  From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to more-or-less the mid-1960s, there was broad support for civil rights.  But:  in 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenge to seating the racist “regulars” at the Democratic Party Convention was defeated. In 1966, there was the greatest shift in representation in the House of Representatives from one party to another since the 1930s–except this one was from Democrat to Republican.  By the end of 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was spiraling into nonexistence.  The Martin Luther King, Jr/Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)-led “Poor People’s March” in 1967 was a relatively marginal effort.  In 1968, an integrated Mississippi Democratic Conference (MDC) delegation was seated at the Democratic Convention—but MFDP delegates were only one-quarter of its members.** In 1968, largely using his racist “southern strategy”, Richard Nixon was elected President.  He was re-elected in 1972 by a huge majority, defeating George McGovern in all but two states.  George H. W. Bush similarly used race to beat Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

In the North, despite the civil rights movement even at its peak, these things were taking place:  “urban renewal = Negro removal” was a slogan and fact; Federally-funded highways were doing the same thing; unemployment for Black adults was twice that of whites, and twice again for Black teens; police harassment and brutality combined with police absence when they were called and needed; red-lining and disinvestment in cities was the rule; exploitive absentee landlords; cheating merchants; payday loans; on-and-on. 

Though it offered major and important policy changes, on these matters Lyndon Johnson’s “anti-poverty program” was mostly to coopt and undermine community-based efforts for change.  These issues persisted at the height of the civil rights movement.  The massive destruction of African-American and Latino wealth during the 2008/09 recession took place during the Obama Administration.  Banks were protected; homeowners weren’t.

Those who want significant change sometimes observe, “We are on a long march through the institutions.” I agree with that.  If the current demonstrations don’t lead to sustained, broadly-based/mass-based organization there will be cosmetic change in police departments (if that) and not much more.   

The reform campaign is fraught with opportunities for divide and conquer.  The reformers must attend to that possibility.  Observing the fate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, noted African-American scholar Charles M. Payne said organizations “have to be built to withstand specific challenges external and internal.”  Police reform heightens that necessity.

The Long March

I hope that out of this massive outpouring of positive energy there will be young people who draw the same conclusion drawn by the 22-or-so young African-Americans, mostly southerners, who dropped out of school and became SNCC’s first full-time organizers.  I hope there’s a Bob Moses, who brilliantly directed a united Freedom Movement in Mississippi, among them.  They would do well to carefully look at what SNCC’s mentor Ella Baker did with her life.  I hope some of them will go into workplaces and become internal union organizers, as some have already done, and others will become full-time community organizers.  I hope people will learn from Saul Alinsky’s community organizing in Black, working-class White and Latino neighborhoods, and from those who carry on his tradition.  I hope they will learn from Fred Ross, who Cesar Chavez called “my secret weapon,” and that they will learn from Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gil Padilla and others who were at the center of what became the United Farm Workers of America.  I hope some will develop a new SNCC, one that learns from the mistakes we made and create something capable of building the people power required to sustain “the long march”. 

“Freedom,” we used to say in SNCC, “is a constant struggle.”  Never in my lifetime has it been more important to remember that.


*  Read the Richmond story in  “Top Cop.”  Steve Early. Washington Monthly. November/December, 2016.

** See The Politics of Change—The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of the Rise [and Fall] of Insurgency.  Rachel B. Reinhard and Mike Miller.  Available at in August.


Mike Miller’s background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), co-coordinator of the farm workers union Schenley boycott, and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on labor, community organizing and politics have appeared in numerous publications.  Write him at [email protected]  Learn more about his work at


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