Is the Fight for Justice Throwing Away Its Shot?
I’m a Hamilton nut! The Broadway musical is on constant rotation in the Anyabwile home. More than that, I feel a great inspiration from it–from beginning to end. Perhaps the third track, “My Shot,” captures the spirit of the entire production and why I enjoy it so much. In this song, Lin-Manuel Miranda introduces us to the newly immigrated, young and ambitious Hamilton, who resolves:
I am not throwin’ away my shot
I am not throwin’ away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot
In many ways, the remainder of the musical unfolds this ambition to not waste an opportunity to at once make something of himself and to contribute to the founding of a new nation.
Following the shooting deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arberry, people around the world (literally) took to the streets to declare “Black lives matter” and to call for change. Universities renamed buildings. Corporations issued statements. Municipalities removed confederate monuments. Congress authored bills. The surging protests were unique in the history of the world. I can’t think of a single time in world or U.S. history when so many people from so vast a range of backgrounds rallied under a single banner on behalf of Black people. The protests even cracked the studied hardness of a Ta-Nehisi Coates, who expressed for the first time the semblance of hope that this moment might be different.
But we’re a couple months beyond the cresting wave of protests. People are slowly making their way back to work and routines. Diversions, like NBA playoff basketball, are recapturing the attention of many who once used pandemic-created boredom to take interest in justice. Counter-protesting voices have gathered steam. And, we’re two months away from the next U.S. presidential election. All of which prompts the question: Is the fight for justice about to throw away its shot?
Lin-Manuel’s Alexander Hamilton asserts, “this is not a moment, it’s the movement.” For that to be true, some things will really need to develop that at this point seem lacking.
First, there will need to be some spearheading figures and organizations that continue to galvanize and direct efforts. If this is a movement, then it’s certainly not the same kind of movement as the classic Civil Rights Movement, with its seminal leaders like Dr. King and leading organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, and SCLC. Today’s efforts are far more diffuse, organic, digital and democratic. That provides energy and speed. But loose democratic energy doesn’t do as effective a job as organizing, organizations and leadership at providing continuity, perseverance and progress between incidents or protests. We will throw away our shot if we cannot find a way to create some level of shared centralized leadership.
Second, there will need to be agreement on what “winning” entails. Thus far, the movement is a disparate collection of ideas, policy proposals, organizations and hashtags. On the one hand, that very diversity is a reflection of the energy and creativity at work. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, any movement that lasts and succeeds must be able to state its goal in a short and compelling way. There are various actions that could be taken, but which one captures the moral and civic imagination and moves the feet of continued protest? If we agree that Black lives matter, how do we show it in the most substantive way? Certainly success is not merely the renaming of university buildings and the removal of statues. We need to define the “win” such that when it happens everyone knows it happened and we have opportunity to measure its effect. We need to define the “win” so that we tighten messaging and provide a simple dashboard indicator for pressing the gas or brake, turning left or right. Again, leadership is vital for this kind focus.
Third, there will need to be some way of continuing and mounting pressure for change. Right now, the movement tends to gain its strength from recurring incidents of police misconduct. As I write this, news is breaking about the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police. A fresh round of outrage may stimulate more protests and awareness. But we need a way of keeping the pressure on besides new stories of tragedy and injustice. We need a way of celebrating victories. Nothing keeps a player in the game like winning. And we need ways of holding political actors accountable. It’s an egregious injustice that House Democrats have stalled debate on policing reform measures when a significant amount of their bill overlaps with the Senate version. We cannot allow political performance (the mere drafting of bills) to short circuit actual policymaking and debate. But without leaders and organizations clear about the win, most of the millions of people taking to the street do not know how to apply pressure.
Finally, there will need to be a lot of thought given to what the aftermath of winning will entail. We cannot allow ourselves or others to slip into thinking the movement is about what we’re against rather than what we are for. No lasting movement can be built on visions of a negative future. We need eloquent and moving descriptions of the life we’re hoping to create. A life where a child born in Flint has clean drinking water, attends quality public schools, graduates without pregnancy or abortion, completes college or a trade or joins the military, along the way forms a family through marriage and childbearing, and repeats it all with their children–all while being and feeling free, being and feeling served by their government and police forces, being and feeling fairly treated by the justice system, being and feeling included as full citizens and members of society.
It’s not unlike the kinds of questions faced by the founding fathers of the nation. Those questions are captured in rhythm and rhyme by Lin-Manuel’s young Alexander Hamilton when he spits:
And? If we win our independence?
Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states what’s the state of our nation?
I’m past patiently waitin’ I’m passionately mashin’ every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow
We need this movement to think about the state of our nation and perhaps for the first time think past tomorrow. If we don’t, we will throw away our shot. I trust you understand that if we throw away our shot, that means we’re throwing away some of our sons and daughters to be shot. It’s time to rise up.