A Pivotal Moment for Racial Justice

Eric Ward, Program Officer of Ford Foundation's Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program, reflects on emerging opportunities for the racial organizing movement. 

This post originally appeared on Ford Foundation’s Equals Change Blog, which you can find here.

On December 3, a New York grand jury announced that no indictment would be delivered in the police killing of Eric Garner. Following the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who shot another unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri in August, this news set off protests across the country. But these deaths weren’t isolated incidents: On November 22 in Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police who mistook his toy gun for a real one; on December 2 in Phoenix, police shot Rumain Brisbon when they thought he was grasping for a weapon instead of the medication he was actually reaching for. And on December 8, 22-year-old Cedric Bartee was shot by police officers in Florida. Witnesses report that Bartee had his hands up at the time of the shooting.

While the relentless pace and intensity of this violence can leave us feeling discouraged and hopeless, there is room for significant optimism. We are in a pivotal moment, one filled with opportunity for the racial justice field. In ways we haven’t seen before, these killings are being brought to public attention and generating significant outcry. Cultural figures including country star Garth Brooks, comedian Chris Rock and players from the St. Louis Rams and Brooklyn Nets are making public statements in opposition to police violence, making the issue increasingly hard to ignore. We’re seeing broad-based coalitions coalesce around racism targeting blacks. And we’re seeing emerging leadership that is young, multiracial and national in scope, exercising tactics and strategies that are grounded in a deep analysis of systemic racism and prioritize people-centered democracy.

In this movement, there is no single charismatic leader and no single anchor institution. National organizations are not driving the agenda but instead playing support roles that amplify on-the-ground organizing. By creating social tension through non-violent direct actions (mainly targeting commerce and transportation), young leaders have effectively nationalized the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Their incredible energy has produced significant of pressure that has compelled the White House and the Department of Justice to announce federal changes to policing practices, the creation of a commission to study police violence, and federal review of racial profiling guidelines. As I write, protests have entered their 124th consecutive day.

Now is a moment where each of us should seriously consider what role we play in supporting these emerging leaders and their growing network. The Neighborhood Funders Grouphas launched a new tool for philanthropists and others looking for more information and ways to engage in this movement moment. (You can learn more by visiting Funders for Justice.) The site serves as a virtual information hub to help philanthropists and donors support efforts in Ferguson, related organizing across the country and community-based efforts to strengthen inclusive democracy. The new online space includes news and events, opportunities for funders and analysis, case studies and reports.

What’s happening today is an Ella Baker moment. Baker was a leading civil rights strategist committed to youth-centered local action as a means of change. Her commitment to non-violent direct action, locally organized, provided the momentum that was needed to nationalize the 1960s civil rights movement in the South. Like Ella, this emerging leadership is also conceptualizing an inclusive democracy—one that is people-centered, locally supported, transparent and accountable. They need and deserve our support.