By Tyler Tines and Julia Craven
BALTIMORE -- The scene was relaxed. The ties came off. Kicks got laced. Charm City was a breeding ground for progressivism, interracial understanding and an honest discussion about racial justice at the annual Progressive Congress Strategy Summit on Friday.
Twenty-nine members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other progressive leaders are gathering for two days of discussion about the systemic challenges of fighting injustice, among other issues expected to shape the political landscape in the coming year.
They're addressing a variety of topics that plague communities of color nationwide, including the Flint water crisis, structural racism in Chicago, the invisibility of black women in discussions about racial disparity, the wealth gap and how banking systems have typically worked against people of color.
Members of the congressional caucus made it clear that these are the issues they will focus on in 2016.
"If Flint were a white, affluent city, there would be no lead in the pipes. There would be no poison. Our children would not be facing the issues they do now,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the caucus whip, said during the panel.
“We have to look at the nexus between economic inequality and racial inequality. We need to step up and talk about race being a factor in every policy we have in this country," she added.
The decision by the summit organizers, the nonprofit Progressive Congress, to host their annual event in Baltimore this year was no coincidence, as many noted on Friday morning. The city has been home to many grassroots initiatives for decades. And just last year, protests erupted after a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died after a “rough ride” in a police van.
Charm City served as both a backdrop and microcosm of the multiple nationwide issues the caucus wants to address.
"The future is bright. Think about this country. In the mid-1990s, we were told welfare is a problem and the poor are lazy. They said, 'If you didn't want to lock everyone up, you are soft on crime,'” said caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Since then, however, he says the nation is beginning to wake up to the reality of income inequality and police violence and the need for justice reform. “Now these are positions we are leading the way on and the American people support. We are leading the way into tomorrow and we have a responsibility to keep this up."
With that responsibility comes accountability, members of the caucus noted.
"We are sometimes left with the fundamental responsibility, politically, from keeping the worst from happening. The long view doesn't get as much attention and thought as it should,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), another co-chair of the caucus. “There is a seam, a coil that runs through all these discussion points. That coil has to do with wealth and power, racism at its core and neglect.”
Those at the summit cited the killing of Laquan McDonald -- an unarmed, black 17-year old boy who was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke -- to highlight the imperative of building trust between police, government and communities of color.
"What's going on in Chicago? It's what's always going on in Chicago: structural racism,” Cook County Commissioner Jesús García said. “Why are the nation’s eyes on Chicago? Because the lid has been blown off about structural racism in Chicago.”
The Windy City, Garcia said, looms large in the conversation about systemic racism not only because of McDonald's shooting, but also due to the city's history of redlining, cutting education funding and other decisions.
"It all got blown up because of a video of a 17-year-old shot by a Chicago cop, cops watching what happened and then lying about it,” Garcia continued. “It shows what powerful people can do to keep control of the structures in a city like Chicago while claiming it's a global city and an oasis of racial harmony."
But Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who frequently discusses black women’s rights, also noted how the narrative of coming to the aid of black men and boys has dominated the discussion.
There have been congressional hearings and marches focusing on the importance of black men's lives, she said, but they sometimes don't include black women.
"People with problems are not problem people,” Crenshaw said. “Boys, girls, men, women live in the same communities. They go to the same underfunded schools. They deal with the same stereotypes and same police departments. If we don’t focus on the group, we support this idea that there’s something particular about half of us that draws all of these negative consequences. And that’s not a structural analysis.”
Caucus members were pleased with the results of the summit's first day. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said the discussion showed that the progressive movement was going strong and underscored the importance of speaking out about environmental racism, highlighted by the Flint water crisis.
Knowing the caucus's adversaries, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said, Congress should be ready to put something in place to counteract systemic racism instead of merely reacting every time something happens. Assisting grassroots organizations will help change that dynamic, she said.
Comments from the caucus’s newest member, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), received the most applause. Coleman said she’s in this fight because people of color have the least support and advocacy and are in the greatest need.
“We are talking about issues of the moment, but they are a result of a systematic disinvestment of resources and benign neglect and an overt campaign to render us impotent, unhealthy and more,” Coleman said.
“We are in a war of classism and racism and sexism, and if we don’t come to that reality now -- and stand up against it now -- and stand up against it and recognize there is no quick fix and there is a process we have to engage in, we will lose this opportunity,” she added.