Entertainment industry mogul and “Selma” producer Oprah Winfrey took some flak from young black activists last week for criticizing anti-police-brutality protesters, suggesting they lack leadership and have failed to articulate clear demands in the way that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s did.
She’s right in that no single group or figure has risen to lead the movement that has sprung up around the sentiment that “black lives matter.” That’s intentional; they say they see everyone in their movement as leaders and they use social media in a way that they believe obviates the need for help from a single organization with a thick Rolodex.
Is it accurate, then, that they haven’t articulated what they want? Groups that have coalesced around the issue have drawn up demand letters and asked for specific policy changes.
The demands, such as body cameras and citizen review boards, may lack the punch and drama of what the Selma marchers wanted: the ability for African Americans to exercise their right to vote. The protesters would argue that’s because their target is not a specific law that openly discriminates against black people, but rather something more internal and insidious — institutional racism.
Their desire is to see better accountability of police who might harbor racist views, and an end to policies that have the effect of disproportionately hurting African Americans.
But their demands run the gamut, from better urban schools to changes in the way cities raise money from traffic tickets — a wide array that some critics have said dilute their impact.
Here is a look at some of the demands that they have laid out in various places:
1. Bodycams and dashcams.
Activists, including the parents of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., have demanded that police be equipped with tiny cameras to wear on their uniforms and cars to record their interactions with citizens.
They’ve partially won this battle. President Obama pledged more money to police departments for the devices, and the Ferguson police have started using them in the wake of Brown’s killing. Look for more states to consider bills to equip their local departments this spring.
2. Special prosecutors.
In Missouri, officials all the way up to Gov. Jay Nixon (D) were criticized for allowing the St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch to lead the investigation into Brown’s killing. The concern was not only that McCulloch’s father, a police officer, was killed by a black man in the line of duty, but that he has a close relationship — as do most prosecutors — with law enforcement.
McCulloch (D) and his supporters countered that his past was not an impediment to his impartiality, noting his 25 years of service in that office.
Protest groups in Ferguson and New York have asked that special prosecutors be installed to investigate all instances of use of force by police.
3. Training for police.
Protest groups say police should be better trained on ways to de-escalate situations without resorting to deadly force.
4. Civilian Review Boards.
Particularly in Missouri, groups have asked for these bodies, which are basically citizen panels that do their own investigations and oversight of police-involved shootings. Communities around the country have these, with varying degrees of power. The groups in Missouri are asking for a powerful one that has the ability to subpoena witnesses.
5. Changes to city budget formulas.
A big issue that arose after the heated demonstrations in the wake of Brown’s killing was the reliance of many Missouri local governments on parking and traffic tickets for their revenue. Some communities draw as much as 30 percent of their revenue from these sources.
The problem, critics say, is that it has created an incentive for communities to come down hard on traffic scofflaws, and that the offenders who are forced to pony up these fines — often to avoid jail time for failing to pay their tickets — are disproportionately poor black people.
There is broad concern over these practices, and a Republican senator in Missouri has introduced a bill that would dramatically cut the percentage of a city or town’s operating budget that could come from traffic fines.