Socialists Don’t Kill Us; Cops Do: Open Letter to Rep. Jim Clyburn

Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

As someone who has recognized the crucial role you played during the primary to secure Trump’s defeat in the election, I write to you from a place of deep concern in light of your recent comments following your party’s presidential win.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, in response to the host’s question about the tension between the left and moderate wings of the party, you said the following:

“I’ve been Black a long time. I don’t know of any Black people that I’ve been involved with in politics who are comfortable with socialism. They don’t like the term. They are very much a part of the mainstream, and they work to become a part of the mainstream here in this capitalistic society. … So, people can say what they wish to say about it, but the fact of the matter is that that’s a real problem. And that is what happened to us back in the Sixties. John Lewis and I were in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. All of a sudden we woke up one day, “Burn baby burn” was the big slogan back in 1965. It destroyed our efforts. And I saw the same thing happening to Black Lives Matter when it comes to “Defund the Police.” Nobody wants to defund the police. I don’t know of a single African American who wants to defund the police. And they tell me that’s not what they mean when they say it. Well, soundbites kill you. If that’s not what you mean, don’t say it.”

With these remarks you are not only adding gasoline to the fire of fears being stoked by the very white Republican conservatives who despise you, you are also sending a very misleading message about Black people at this critical moment when the party should be working together to advance the issues that sit at the center of our community’s concern. And if that was not bad enough, you are offering a vision for the party that, if followed, will actually backfire.

You may not like the forthright way in which the likes of Bernie or AOC expose and address class issues or appreciate the sloganeering within segments of the Black Lives Matter movement that challenges the national veneration of the police, and you may believe that these tactics threaten the party’s platform overall, but the data has been pretty clear for some time now: The future of the Democratic Party is pro-Black democratic socialism.

You may believe that the party is and should remain pro-capitalist, but the Democratic Party is already comprised of scores of eligible voters who are not shook by socialism. According to one NBC News exit poll, “Democratic voters think favorably of socialism in 4 Super Tuesday states.” In all 13 Super Tuesday states, voters between the ages of 17 and 30 voted overwhelming for Sanders over Biden. It wasn’t even close. Many of those voters were Black. Sanders won the youth vote in your state of South Carolina as well. Taking 43% to Biden’s 26%. Although most Black youth may have supported Biden in that state contest, Black youth activists are very much engaged in working for issues that you would describe as socialist.

What all of this means is that democratic socialism is on the Democratic Party’s horizon. That sun is rising whether old guard Democrats like it or not. Though Bernie is the titular image associated with socialism in this contemporary moment, he is not the sole leader or the inspiration for a lot of us.

Our reality is inspiration enough.

In fact, there are many leaders that we can turn to. Most notably, we can turn to none other than a man you followed, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The same white segregationist pro-capitalist Southern interests that tried to red-bait him and scare away all the “good” white folks are the same Republicans that label any contender to their corporate-welfare agenda as socialist. Seems to me you and your moderate Democrat colleagues are taking a page out of their playbook in making comments that try to manufacture distance between socialism and the Black community. Implying that Black people are somehow content with a capitalism that discriminates against us at every turn and kills us without consequence.

Their tactics did not scare King or cause him to step away from his activism against a system that exploits Black labor and deprives Black people of our constitutional rights. In fact, King would come to make the connections with what he called the giant triplets of materialism, militarism and racism. Are these not the fundamental issues that lie at the heart of the call to defund the police? King’s vision as articulated in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech of a world society where military spending is redistributed to meet the social needs of the poor is no different in spirit or action than when activists today call for redirecting funding away from the police to meet the healthcare and educational needs of local communities. It was King, himself, who said in a speech in 1961 to the Negro American Labor Council, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

You and your moderate Democrat colleagues should take your cue from King who didn’t disparage the activists who cried “Burn Baby Burn.” Following the Watts rebellion in 1965 that you referenced, King walked the burned-out streets with them, listened to their grievances, then turned to the nation and said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The Democratic Party establishment distanced themselves from King then just as you are distancing yourselves from the Martins and Fannie Lous of today. For the past half century your party has been too busy chasing after the Dixiecrats that left and are never returning, when you should be facing forward and seeing the electorate teeming with an entire voting bloc that has yet to be ignited and engaged.

Then, as now, the efforts of the establishment to achieve justice did not go far enough. Leadership was diversified to the degree that enabled a class of Black leaders to emerge that was more than willing to operate within the confines of white liberalism. Content with integrating what King would come to consider a “burning house.”

The ones criticizing those that call for such progressive policies are also criticizing the man they claim to have followed. King was supportive of all these measures and more. If you are unwilling to do the more that is required now, then you should stop claiming to be followers of King and using your activism of a half century ago as justification to dismiss those active now.

An objective look at the facts would show that what most of the progressives in the party are calling for (universal healthcare, cancellation of student debt, raising the minimum wage, defunding the police and holding killer cops accountable) would benefit the Black community the most.

You say the Democrats lost seats because Black activists and progressive Congressional leaders put too much emphasis on radical ideas. Actually, Black Democrat candidates that ran on a solid platform of defunding the police won their contests such as Congressional newcomers Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. Both besting longtime incumbents in both parties. These Congressional leaders and the others that push for these “radical” ideas represent the future of the party. And that future is now.

To put it flatly, it is insulting that the Democratic party would scapegoat the one central issue facing the very community that is ultimately responsible for it winning the White House. Remember when Obama was in the White House? No one would ever consider his policies as socialist. Yet, that did not stop Republicans from attacking him and calling him and Michelle everything under the sun but children of God. You’re blaming the wrong people, sir. Going after the activists who are risking their lives in the streets to achieve a measure of justice in our society is not the kind of leadership we expect or need from a respected Black Democratic leader.

And, by the way, soundbites don’t kill us. But cops sure do. Here in Philadelphia where I live, Walter Wallace, Jr. was shot and killed by two police officers just days before the election. He was experiencing a mental health crisis which led his family to call 911. A defunded police department would have meant that healthcare workers trained in de-escalation could have responded to that call. In that reality, Mr. Wallace would still be alive today celebrating the birth of his child born a few days after his murder.

In city after city, year after year, police department budgets are bloated with additional millions as social services like public libraries, public health centers, public schools and recreational centers are defunded to the point of becoming ineffective. This is unacceptable. And yet, rather than make the case to the American public as to why defunding the police is the humane and responsible thing to do, you and your fellow Democratic leaders have decided to double-down on rhetoric suggesting that there is nothing wrong with continuing to shell out millions into a bottomless pit of police misconduct, corruption and murder. Shameful.

“Defund the police” should be a top priority for a president-elect who said he’d have the back of a Black community that always had his.

What this election proved is that there is no Democrat presidential win without Black people and the multiracial America that votes with us. The enemies of our movement are not those candidates who ran campaigns calling for defunding police that continue to kill us with impunity. The enemies of our movement are those that continue to threaten our lives and those that support them. We are not worried about some Communist plot to overtake the country. But we are concerned about those white supremacist militiamen that stormed the capitol and threatened to kidnap a governor. We are concerned about the white men who murder us in the streets and receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in crowdfunded support. We are concerned about Republican leaders doing everything in their power to repress our vote.

Rep. Clyburn, we are very much concerned about a Democratic Party that has yet to put some respect on our vote. We are tired of being left holding the bag for a party that continues to take us for granted.

The party’s continued support and defense of over-spending on police in cities that are starved of social programs is a recipe for the party’s demise. The future of the party is inextricably tied to its ability to heed the call of those marching in our streets today. It is tied to the party’s capacity to heed the call of the one they claim to honor, Dr. King, who said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

For Black people in this country, this death is more than spiritual. It is actual. Our very lives are under constant threat in a country that continues year after year to spend more money on police than on programs of social uplift and development. We are over being shot in the back by police and stabbed in the back by politicians. We don’t need to see you kneeling, draped in Kente cloth. We need to see you working together to secure our constitutional rights. The Democrats won the White House because of the Black vote. That is not debatable. If you want to keep the Executive Branch blue, you will stop attacking the wing of the party that is its future and work with them to envision and execute policies that center and advance Black lives.

Fail to do this and you and your moderate Democratic colleagues won’t have anyone to blame for the party’s demise but yourselves.

Activist and educator, Ewuare X. Osayande is the author of several books including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement. His latest book is a collection of poems entitled Black Phoenix Uprising. He is the founder of ORIJIN: The Osayande Racial Justice Initiative. Learn more about his work at racial-justice.org.

Activist. Poet. Essayist. Author of Black Phoenix Uprising. Learn more about his work at Osayande.org.