Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Power of Fear and MSD

As I watched this week the scant news coverage of the press conference held by several community organizations to denounce the Metropolitan Sewer District's minority inclusion on its billion dollar project, I thought about the owner of a construction company who sat in my office during the genesis of this city's movement for inclusion.

     His hands were noticeably shaking, and his voice quivered as he spoke from across the table to me and the leaders of the black contractor's organization.  His fear was obvious.  Not fear of physical safety.  Rather, fear of economic loss, and fear of his business as usual peace being disturbed.

     He was there in response to a letter I had sent him on behalf of the group - which was to become our standard opening salvo - giving him ten days to either increase the minority subcontractors on his job, or face our shutting down the project.  He acquiesced to our demand, and diligently implemented it.

     I learned valuable lessons from that encounter, which stayed with me as we marched forward over the years with a movement that involved disruptive protests and cutting edge litigation, and which achieved milestones such as the city enacting a law mandating minority and women inclusion.  I learned first and foremost that if the white power structure does not fear blacks exercising power, it will not change the status quo.

       In saying this I realize that there are those who argue that comity yields more results than confrontation.  My experiences - and I think history - cause me to beg to differ.  And I think the MSD situation presents a case in point.  For despite MSD and these organizations having negotiated an inclusion agreement, and despite their having had rounds of intense talks about the inclusion deficiency, MSD remains entrenched in espousing that all is essentially well.  MSD views them as partners with whom they have a difference, not adversaries who pose a threat.

     I also learned that engendering fear in the power structure has consequences.  One being that it causes it to gravitate towards the blacks who seek to work with and inside the system in order to evade and undermine those confronting it.  The head of one black institutional organization once told me that "there are tree shakers, and there are jam makers."  His metaphor's meaning was that there are blacks who shake the tree of the white establishment, while other blacks make jam - i.e. benefit - from the fruit that falls.

     Another consequence I learned is that the power structure will strike back at those who strike it.  The fear the black contractors organization struck in the construction industry emanated from their being fearlessly driven by the cause of economic justice.  We see that kind of fearlessness in the millennials - black and white - in their struggle against the police and criminal justice system. 

     One wonders if, in the enduring black economic struggle, the organizations sitting across the table from MSD will make it shake and quiver.

Eric E. Vickers 

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