“But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” –James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook” from The Fire Next Time
Today I remember Freddie Gray. I remember his life cut short by the Baltimore Police Department. I remember his spine nearly severed as he was flung around the back of a police van. I remember the hours it took before he received medical treatment. I remember the week his family watched as life left his body. I remember the zero convictions of the officers who killed him. (We soil the memory of Freddie Gray to see mere indictments as a victory. Indictments that relieve killers of culpability are a paltry consolation prize for the dead and the survivors.) I remember the anger boiling over on the streets—the flames, the rocks, the broken windows. I remember the media obsessing over “thugs” and “violence” and “black rage,” and yet neglecting the root cause of this rage, police brutality against black bodies.
I remember Freddie Gray on this day because white students at the institution where I work mock his suffering. They flaunt his suffering—wear his suffering as a literal costume, display his suffering like a trophy, smile at and spread his suffering. I am writing a book about the legacies of lynching, but it doesn’t take a scholar of white supremacist violence to see that past rhyming with this present. I can’t help but think, as I prepare to teach James Baldwin’s short story, “Going to Meet the Man,” today, how freely and comfortably these students trivialize and celebrate black death. I am left wondering (But am I? Is there much to wonder at anymore? Don’t I know by now?) what they think of their African American classmates and professors, and the black Charleston community they are actively displacing through gentrification. And so, I turn back to my lesson plans with an unsatisfying sigh that fails to expel the disgust and anger I feel. There is a mountain of grim work ahead.
For the last 10 months, I’ve been working as a community organizer in Charleston and North Charleston. I work for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), which is a local nonprofit made up of 28 congregations and organizations in the area. We’re an interfaith organization and consists of Catholic parishes, Baptist and Methodist churches, as well as the synagogue and a mosque. We work together and are united in our pursuit for justice.
My job as an organizer is to build relationships with members of the community so that we can make systemic changes. We go through an annual process with three focus areas. First, we conduct house meetings throughout the area to listen to community problems. Members of the community share personal stories about how a community problem is affecting them. Then we vote on the top problem that emerged out of our house meetings. Secondly, we research the problem by meeting with experts to make sure we are finding best practices. Thirdly, we conduct an investment drive to ensure that we are financially stable. Using this process, CAJM has made some lasting changes in the community. Our work has resulted in two hundred extra pre-K slots added per year throughout the Charleston County School District and schools that now use programs to teach students conflict resolution. We have also worked with the four local police departments to implement an objective scoring tool in interactions with juveniles, and we’re currently pushing Charleston and North Charleston to audit the police force for racial bias.
I became interested in community organizing when I did my Capstone project for African American Studies. I researched the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. My research led me to focus on the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly how the church served as the institution where leaders organized. I noticed that the church wasn’t functioning in the same way in today’s movements. As a part of my analysis, I researched Civil Rights leaders and their methods of organizing. Out of all of the leaders I researched, Ella Baker influenced me the most. Baker and her work with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and her advice to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) stuck out to me. Baker argued, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” What she meant was that everyone has a place in organizations, and successful movements don’t need one leader telling them what steps they should take. It was this paper and research that encouraged me to look more into church-based community organizing.
Brandon Chapman is a community organizer for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 with degrees in African American Studies and Political Science.