Justice: a need for sustained activism

Below is Pietro’s general position-statement for this part of the website. Other pages linked from here focus on specific injustices that need to be addressed. The general purpose of this page is for us to figure out when/where/how to protest specific issues, and then translate that social momentum into permanent changes in law and social rules. We will try to avoid redundancy here by referring you to organizations that are effective in addressing specific injustices.

December 12, 2014

Several weeks ago I was appalled–but not surprised–by the Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO. I considered issuing a statement to all of my students, but that alone would only be more words on the internet, and I could tell them directly the next time that we met for class. But the subsequent exoneration of NYPD Officer Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, the revelations about the extensiveness of torture used by the Bush Administration, and the revelation of a California Highway Patrol officer in plain clothes trying to turn a peaceful demonstration into a riot in Oakland–all in the span of two weeks–requires a deeper, more sustained response.

The purpose of this section of UrbanPolicy.net is to serve as a forum for my students and myself to clarify how we should respond to these gross injustices. To be efficient, one of the main functions of this forum will be to refer us to other organizations, like Project Rebound and Ban the Box. The one distinctive feature of this forum is that it is designed for the hundreds of students I have taught for the past ten years at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. Many of you know each other, an all of you know me; so this is not a place for anonymous venting and ‘flame wars’. Rather, it is a place for a large group of people who know each other to coordinate radical understanding and radical action.

What do we mean by radical? The original meaning of ‘radical’ is root. In activist terms it means changing the fundamental rules of a society. Here, it means to push for changes in the fundamental rules in order to make our society more just. This is how Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. understood and used the term radical. What these people teach us is that the most effective way to promote radical change is through nonviolence. But they also teach us that effective activism requires confrontation. And if the laws themselves are unjust, then as ethical human beings we must break those laws in a nonviolent way to challenge their injustice. In the past, overtly racist laws were obviously unjust. Today, the laws and implicit social rules that favor the rich, favor whites, favor men–all of these laws and practices reveal the grotesque and widening gulf between laws and justice.

Which leads to the vital question of the politics of position. Why would I, a white man, argue for radical change to dismantle white male privilege? Several reasons. First of all, I don’t like seeing my wife, my daughter, my mother, nor any women subjected to sexism. Second, as an Italian-American, I have the peculiar perspective of being part of a group that was reassigned from being ‘colored people’ to being ‘white’ in the 1950s. It is an eerie thing to know that the Color Line is occasionally readjusted, when it usually plays the role of an impenetrable wall of injustice. I’m glad to be on the favored side, but I am also noticing that African-Americans–who have been Americans far longer than my family–have never been reassigned. Identity and personal experience do matter, even as they place limits on how much we can ever really understand the brutality of systematic discrimination against others.

There are also much more basic reasons to agitate for justice. Maybe, despite our racism as Americans, we can still see each other as fellow human beings (citizens or otherwise) who deserve equal treatment under our laws. That is the fundamental mission-statement of the United States of America, and it is ratified as hard law by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So we are not only authorized, but actually obligated to confront, challenge and change any laws and practices that are unjust in practice. And here is my pitch for the role of urban planners as radical activists: we write and amend the local rules. Not only can we resist segregation and gentrification and police brutality, we can also design the policies for access to housing, actual racial integration, and law-enforcement that is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Frankly I am amazed that this has to be called a radical agenda. When urban planning becomes the radical activism of a country, the grotesque degree of injustice in that country is revealed.