Monday, February 6, 2017

The Struggle For Civil Rights In Salem, Oregon

The struggle for civil rights in Salem has many bases and facets and contradictions. Some communities are better organized than others, some work well with building independent political power and some don’t, some are more progressive than others or are in transition, some are more likely to be targeted in these early days of the Trump administration and by Trump’s supporters than others, and some will build solidarity in that fight while the concept of solidarity is new or frightening for others. There is a greater tendency to compete for resources than to build unity at the base between communities, a fact of life which echos through all of Oregon. Salem’s power structure, its establishment, and the police often seems to be in motion in and around these communities, tapping into community issues and working with willing leaders to head off potential disturbances. Salem’s majority-white “progressive” organizations often do not reach out to people of color and don't give their issues and their communities priority.

The Salem-Keizer NAACP and the majority-Black churches are the organized voices for the African American community here. A measure of how dire the situation faced by Black people in Salem is can be gauged by looking at the schools and the experience of African American youth. Black students account for about 1 per cent of the students in Salem but also account for about 2.4 per cent of the out-of-school suspensions. The Black student drop-out rate is at 10.4 per cent and the graduation rate is at 64.7 per cent. The NAACP and the churches are prioritizing education and hope to win changes in the school district which will help Black youth succeed.

The NAACP’s African American Youth Leadership Conference provides some support for the young people and attention to the problems they face, but it is not enough. It helps a bit that there is at least a liberal veneer in the school district, but that is insufficient when real structural changes are sought, and many of the changes needed can't be won piecemeal and in a system which doesn't prioritize education in the first place.

Groups like the Salem Leadership Foundation and the churches and corporations and politicians behind it really do seek to undermine public education or replace it with something else. The Foundation and these corporations have been strategic in appearing to befriend some local leaders in the people of color communities who want public education to succeed for everyone. Thus, a box has been created. Think of the SLF and its sponsors and affiliates as "police lite."

People who want to get involved in transforming the school experience for young people of color can connect with the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality and the NAACP. A long-haul struggle will be needed in Salem to push back the Leadership Foundation and the banks and other institutions backing them, build a genuinely progressive anti-racist movement and majority, unseat the City Council people backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the real estate interests, restructure education and policing and transportation, provide housing services for all without discrimination, green-up Salem and win on the quality of life issues which especially affect people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ people and workers. This is long-haul fight requires a multiracial coalition and a fightback program and we don't have either of those yet.    

The immediate need is to turn out for the School Board meeting on Tuesday, February 14 at 6:00 PM at 2575 Commercial St. SE to support a push for the hiring of a Community School Outreach Coordinator to work with African American youth. The establishment probably wants to settle this issue quietly, put making a decision off, and argue over funding and so on. Funding could be delayed at a time when there is a statewide budget crunch. Meanwhile, Black youth suffer. We’re asking the community to step up, regardless of what the establishment wants, and begin turning out for the School Board and other meetings which affect the young people. Our school district is now "majority minority" and things have to change. The Salem-Keizer Education Association, the local Oregon Education Association affiliate, has some smart leadership and active members who are a step ahead of the curve.

Other events are coming up or are being planned which impact the struggle for civil rights. Here are a few of the key events where people of color and white allies working with them can step up:

* Meetings are being held on the first Saturday of every month to plan the next Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events. We hope that the coalition will broaden, include Muslims and Jews and others on equal terms, and have a community-organizing focus. The next planning meeting will be held on Saturday, March 4 at 1:00 PM at Pauline Memorial A.M.E. Church.
* The Rosa Parks birthday celebration and play will be held at McKay High School later this month. Look for details and show up. The cost is $10.00.
* Salem’s Juneteenth Celebration will be held on Saturday, June 17 at Riverfront Park, starting at 10:00 AM and with lunch at noon.
* The NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet will be held next October.

Volunteers are needed for all of these events. White allies should be joining Salem’s Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC--see Facebook) and participating in the actions RJOC supports. Everyone should be attending the webinar series on The Movement For Black Lives platform. The next study session will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 4:00 PM and at 5:30 PM at 3850 Portland Road NE, first floor.

The upcoming Urban League Lobby Day on February 24 will be a great opportunity to jump in and do the right thing. Please participate!

Every step taken needs to be a step towards a broad civil rights struggle agenda, people power and principled unity.

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