Black women face increased violence

— Black women were murdered at more than double the rate of White women in 2012 and almost all (92 percent) of these women knew their assailant, according a report titled, “When Men Murder Women” by the Violence Policy Center.

The annual study, now in its 17th year, “examines FBI data and “details the reality of homicides committed against females by single male offenders.” In homicide cases involving Whites and Blacks, most of the victims know their assailants.

According to the report, 11 times as many Black women were killed by a man they knew than by a stranger in 2012. More than half (56 percent) were married to or in relationships with the men who murdered them.

Tony Porter, co-founder and co-director of A Call to Men, believes that this statistic cuts to the heart of the problem.

“The vast majority of men are not violent; it’s the minority of men who are. While we as good men, well-meaning men, don’t hit, or abuse, or rape, or assault, we participate in a culture of manhood that allows the minority of men to perpetrate violence,” he said, adding that if women alone could end the violence in their communities, they would have already done so.

“If we can engage that majority of men to take this issue on, we might be able to have a much better chance of stopping and ending or putting a big dent in it.”

Porter’s domestic and sexual violence prevention organization tackles negative social norms and encourages more healthy and respectful definitions of manhood through training and education for men, boys and communities.

“We as a society would still allow me to stand by and watch something terrible happen to a woman. I’m not asking that I be held accountable by law, because I did not commit a crime, but…I am asking that I be held accountable by society on some moral level. I cannot walk away from that and still be seen as one of the good guys,” he said.

“We participate in promoting less value of women. We still treat women as the property of men. We don’t believe that women are the property of men, but we still use a lot of those tenets that were passed down from a time when women were the property of men.”

In addition to subconsciously acting on these beliefs, Black men often have the added layer of socioeconomic circumstances that that breed violence. Racial oppression, chronic joblessness, and income inequality, for example, can breed the hostility and desperation that lead to violence in Black communities.

“Where the value lessens, the violence increases. When we talk about induced self-hate, we’re talking about racial oppression. And when you concentrate poverty…when you put 6,000 financially poor people in a square four-block radius…you will have violence,” Porter said, adding that this doesn’t excuse personal responsibility, but are factors.

“So…there’s going to be a higher rate of violence, and that’s not just Black men on Black men, but Black men on Black women as well. There are many things going wrong that are creating this reality…in the Black community.”

According to Avis Jones-DeWeever, a gender, race and class researcher and former director of the National Council of Negro Women, similar conditions make gender violence more severe for Black women. For starters, living in such areas of concentrated poverty means Black women have less access to services, or poor-quality versions of those services.

“It’s a huge problem, because we have particular cultural challenges that maybe are not addressed in other programs that are aimed at women in general,” she said. For example, Black women, among the most religious of all Americans according to data from the Pew Research Center, may be receiving messages from the pulpit that encourage them to keep their families together, no matter the cost.

She explained, “Black women understand that Black men might be at higher risk of fatal encounters with police…so they might be less likely than their White counterparts to report their abusers to the police.”

There’s also the matter of guns.

“The number of Black females shot and killed by their husband or intimate acquaintance (111 victims) was more than three times as high as the total number murdered by male strangers using all weapons combined (33 victims) in single victim/single offender incidents in 2012,” the report states, adding that 57 percent of all Black female homicide victims had been fatally shot.

Francine Jones-James of Duluth, Ga., owner of Bubbas Gun Sales, is one of the few women – and even fewer Black women – in the U.S. to hold a federal firearm license, which authorizes her to run background checks and conduct interstate transactions on customers’ behalf.

Most of Jones-James’ clients are Black men, who, like her husband, enjoy hunting and target practice.

“Individuals with a background of domestic violence, perpetrators, should be prohibited or restricted from purchasing a firearm,” said Jones-James, who also believes in universal background checks.

“Second, I believe women should learn how to properly use and store a firearm for self-protection. When being abused, a woman should consider all means of self-protection, including a firearm. However, she must learn the responsibilities of firearm ownership in her state.”

The report cites research that finds that women living with a gun in the home triple their chances of being shot and killed. It cites another study from Harvard School of Public Health that found that “hostile gun displays,” usually against women, may be even more common than gun-related homicides in the home.

Avis Jones-DeWeever advises women in violent relationships to try to create a comprehensive escape plan and secretly save the money to execute it.

“What most people don’t understand is that when women do leave, that’s the most dangerous part of the relationship. Oftentimes when you hear on the news that somebody’s boyfriend has killed them, it’s because [the victim] has just left them or is about to leave them,” said Jones-DeWeever, who also serves on the board of directors for the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“Leaving sometimes isn’t enough…you might need to be prepared to, frankly, start all over. As we’ve seen, unfortunately, many times having an order of protection is helpful, but it’s not going to save your life. It really requires developing a plan…it means connecting with your family, your friends, people you love and trust to help you do that.”

She also advises those who believe a loved is being abused try to maintain ties with the person, especially as the abuser attempts to isolate him/her; additionally, set aside money for the person, and let him/her know you can assist with an escape plan, financially and otherwise.

Jones-DeWeever said, “We need to think about ways in which the community, specifically, could take more responsibility around acknowledging the fact that our women and our girls are oftentimes in danger. We need to figure out ways in which we can be better about making sure that our girls, and the women in our communities can have a greater likelihood of living lives that are free of violence.”

Porter said, “What outrages me is how we as men still can live with the mindset that as long as it’s not me and mine…I don’t have any responsibility. Black men, our responsibility extends beyond our families, because we have a community of sons relying on us.”

He continued, “When we talk about prevention…how are we spending time with our sons and other boys? The more we promote and model healthy and respectful manhood, the more we decrease violence against women.”

Black women mobilizing for 2016 vote

— As the 2016 election cycle ramps up, Essence magazine and the Black Women’s Roundtable have teamed up to mobilize and re-energize Black women voters.

The partnership hopes to raise the profile of the already-powerful Black women’s vote. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Black women had the highest turnout of any group, with 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Black women hitting the polls in 2012 despite a national decline.

“When we’re engaged and folks address our issues, we turn out [to vote]. In turning out, we want to make sure our needs are met,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, a national civic engagement network.

She continued, “So we wanted to…get this information out early enough that it can resonate in the election cycle.”

One way the partnership plans to do this is through its Power of the Sister Vote poll, which Essence launched with its readers last month. The results from more than 2,000 respondents were released this week as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and we should not take that for granted,” said Essence Editor-in-Chief Vanessa De Luca. “I wasn’t surprised at all at how enthusiastic [readers] were about the survey. Unfortunately, it’s so seldom that people ask. We got the opportunity to share our opinions.”

Campaign season began early and under unconventional circumstances. Several candidates for the Republican nomination are pulling significant interest, making it difficult to identify a clear frontrunner and causing quiet divisions within the party. The Democrats have twists of their own – among them are an email controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton that threatens her run for the White House.

One advantage to this lengthy and uncertain election season is that Black women can better position themselves as a crucial voting bloc.

“What I do know is that I haven’t seen us come together enough to leverage our political opinion. We need to get the sense of the timing. You always hear about [our high turnout] once the election’s gone down the road,” Campbell said. “It’s to the benefit of our communities to make sure our communities are respected in 2016, and that our issues are elevated and addressed.”

The Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court ruling, which nullified the Voting Rights Act’s (VRA) protections against voter discrimination, has also helped create a unique political landscape for 2016. The states flagged for continued voting rights violations are home to a majority of Black women – without Sections 4 and 5 of this key civil rights legislation, these states have already begun redistricting communities and tightening voting requirements.

“The voting rights issue is definitely something Black women are concerned about. That issue will resonate not just as a policy issue, but a practical issue as well,” Campbell stated, adding that without Congressional intervention, voters “will go into election season in January with people changing the rules willy-nilly.”

She continued, “We don’t have the same level of [voter] protections we once had. It’s new territory.”

Voting rights is one of many issues affecting Black women in political discourse today. With topics such as criminal justice reform, fair wages, and weakened access to women’s health care in the public spotlight, De Luca pointed out that there’s much for Black women to say.

“There’s so much more at stake that is of concern to our community. And it’s not just a presidential election year, it’s also a Congressional [election] year,” De Luca said, adding that the absence of President Barack Obama does not necessarily spell Black voter disinterest.

“That’s a fallacy. People may think, ‘it’s not going to be Obama so what does it matter’… but I’d argue it matters more than ever.”

Aside from rallying Black women to wield their political power, Essence has also joined the BWR’s Healthy, Wealthy & Wise Empowerment Tour. The multi-state tour, which ends at the end of the month, addresses income inequality, health justice, criminal justice and retirement security; its final stops are Orlando, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., and Detroit, Mich.

Ultimately, De Luca and Campbell hope the partnership empowers Black women and girls in a variety of levels.

“It’s key for Black women to elevate ourselves, and in a way that our voices are heard,” Campbell said, adding that the actions send a positive message to Black women voting for the very first time, and those who may be feeling jaded.

She explained, “We want to make sure we’re encouraging the power of our vote to still resonate. Black women have to start leveraging our opinions, and if we can do that, we can definitely make change.”

Business group gearing up to drive business to black car dealers

— According to IHS, an international industry data company, Black Americans spent an estimated $8.4 billion on cars in just the first four months of 2015. In the coming year, the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (USBC) is determined to direct that cash toward Black-owned dealerships.

“In the Asian community, their dollar stays in their community 28 days before it ever leaves,” said Ron Busby, president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. “In the Hispanic community, their dollar stays 21 days before it ever leaves. But in the Black community, our dollar leaves within six hours. So we don’t have to worry about the majority not supporting us, we’re boycotting our own.”

The USBC is a national association of more than 100 African American Chambers of Commerce and small business organizations working toward Black economic empowerment. In signing a memorandum of understanding with the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD), the USBC hopes to appeal people in the market for a new car to buy from Black dealers.

The agreement will connect Black car dealers to their local Black chamber of commerce, and will encourage the chambers to get the word out. The USBC also has an interactive listing of Black-owned car dealerships included in its online Black business database.

“It’s not just about OK go buy a car from Mercedes or BWM but if you want a BMW…here’s where you should go to [make] those purchases,” Busby explained. “The thing we determined is, let’s say you’re in a community and there’s not a Black-owned dealership of your [car] choice. We will contact the Black dealership [nearest you], and he will either meet or beat the price of that local dealership in your community, and ship it to you free of charge.”

In addition to making it easy to buy Black when car shopping, the partnership will examine whether automakers are returning the favor of Black patronage by re-investing in Black communities.

“We outlined where, which cars African Americans were spending money. And it was ironic that Toyota was the number one car for African American spending,” Busby said. “Are they spending money with us – that’s where we want to make sure. Are they advertising in our Black newspapers? Are they hiring Black employees? Do we own their dealerships?”

The USBC-NAMAD agreement is the fifth year of such agreements for the USBC, which aims to grow Black economic power by driving Black dollars to Black businesses, particularly in industries that already attract many Black customers.

In 2013, for example, an MOU with the Congressional Black Caucus lead to a $5 million deposit split between five Black-owned banks around the country. Other past partnerships have targeted Black-owned media, hotels, banks, and more.

Black consumers can also foster these efforts via the USBC mobile app. Powered by GPS, it allows users to find Black retailers, service providers, and more in their current area, in real time.

“The reason that other communities and ethnic groups don’t have many of the same concerns that we have is because they are in control of their own economies. We very seldom in our conversations, talk about an economic agenda, and at the end of the day this is still a capitalistic society,” said Busby.

He also pointed out that supporting Black businesses isn’t merely a noble exercise – it is also a solution to unemployment. Studies show that people of color tend to hire other people of color. Therefore, if the estimated 2.6 million Black-owned businesses in the country had enough profit to hire employees, we could significantly impact the lives of the 1.7 million Black Americans reported as unemployed as of July.

Busby explained, “Currently African Americans spend less than 3 percent of their net income with Black businesses. If we want to decrease unemployment, or get rid of it all together, all we have to do is allow each one of those small businesses to hire one new employee. That doesn’t take an act of Congress, that doesn’t take changing the budget, that’s just changing our decision of where and how we spend our money.”

The USBC-NAMAD agreement was announced at USBC School of Chamber & Business Management, an annual conference for Black chamber of commerce leaders and business owners held in Washington, D.C. each July. The agreement will continue through next summer. Then, the USBC will announce another Black trade organization partnership in a different industry for next year’s economic push.

“Each year we talk about the commitment of ‘Black dollars matter,’ and how to reenergize our community through an economic agenda. Our deal is to bring facts and information to change the mindset, and then show you good examples to correct [habits],” said Busby. “If we know better, we can do better. We always look to someone else to fix our community, and we own a trillion dollars.”

Marketing aggravates obesity in black children

— Today, close to one in four Black children – as young as 2 years old – is obese. And the $161 million spent on advertising unhealthy foods to Black and Latino youth at most recent count is not helping.

“We see more of this [marketing] in our community in general…in the placement of billboards in our community, [and] the fact that there’s less of the healthier products in our community,” said Vikki Lassiter, executive director of the African American Collaborative Obesity Network at the University of Pennsylvania.

“By consequence, there are a lot of cheap things that are easily accessible. So you have a mix of products that are available, and are seen more often in your community – it’s a continuous stream of seeing the unhealthy more than the healthy.”

A new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut details how this aggressive advertising is magnifying the obesity epidemic. And although companies are pursuing Latino children and teens most aggressively (in terms of dollar amount), Black children and teens have the highest levels of exposure to ads for processed foods. Candy and gum brands in particular increased their Black-targeted advertising spending by 39 percent, amounting to approximately $140 million.

The report examines all restaurant, food, and beverage companies with $100 million or more in advertising spending in 2013 – a total of 26 companies, representing a few hundred brands. It also includes all of the companies participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which pledges to only advertise their healthier choices in child-targeted media.

These companies represented 75 percent of all food-related advertising on Black networks – and less than 1 percent of it was for healthy products. In addition, Black children are getting a “double-dose” of these ads.

“The double-dose relates to the fact that mainstream media is something that Black and Latino children are definitely watching, but then there’s targeted advertising/marketing to Black TV networks,” Lassiter said. “So you have…candy and fast food and soda companies investing to promote in Black targeted TV. But while they’re watching BET, they’re also watching things on NBC and getting all this marketing.”

Even without the double-dose, Black children have the highest levels of exposure to ads for processed and junk food, viewing 70 percent more food-related TV ads than their White peers.

The nation’s demographic changes are a primary reason for the level of this targeted marketing. There’s also the general marketing technique of exposing people to the product when they are young to create lifelong preference and loyalty spending. But Black kids have their own particular appeal.

“Then you have the other piece of it, in terms of, urban communities and Black youth being trendsetters,” Lassiter explained. “Marketers…want to test things out first with Black youth to see how that might trend out.”

The researchers point out that completely stopping brands from marketing is neither reasonable nor preferable. Many of these companies use a part of ad revenue to support Black communities in meaningful ways. Still, among the 267 most-advertised brands of these 26 companies, only one healthy brand– Yoplait Light – was advertised to Black people.

“There’s this disconnect…when you look at how some of these companies will support athletic events, or concerts to bring community togetherness, yet in the same regard they have more of their products that are unhealthy throughout that same community,” Lassiter pointed out.

“So there’s definitely this huge disconnect with what do these companies really stand for and value, especially because there’s research to show that it is possible to be profitable and largely healthy.”

Brands will always need to market and advertise their products, but Lassiter said that helping children understand what they are seeing is a good way to combat the effects.

“One thing that’s important is for children to have an understanding of what marketing is – the fact that this message is purposely meant to influence you, that not everything is meant to be taken at face value. That if you drink soda, you’re not going to be living the life,” she explained.

She also recommends that parents talk about nutrition and their purchase choices while grocery shopping, to help young people understand what they are putting in their bodies.

“We still have a lot of work to do – in terms of community advocates and public health practitioners – in making this information shared and understood,” Lassiter said, adding that this is one of the report’s goals. “We need to be really vocal about it. We don’t like what we’re seeing, and we deserve and need better.”

On 50th anniversary, Medicare and Medicaid still vital

— As Medicare and Medicaid turn 50 this week, the nation takes a look at the impact of two of the most significant government programs ever launched.

Medicare serves roughly 52 million Americans as of 2013, about 10 percent of whom are Black. The program is part of the Social Security Act and was created to provide health insurance for seniors regardless of income or health status. Today, Medicare covers seniors, permanently disabled people of all ages, and people with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) or end-stage kidney disease.

“Medicare in the African American community [has] been a lifesaver,” said Karyne Jones, president and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging. “Without it, a very large majority of Black seniors wouldn’t have any health care. As a result of … all of those institutional things that occurred, we didn’t have jobs in the ‘40s and ‘50s and even ‘60s that provided [retirement] health care programs or insurance programs. So it’s a blessing.”

The wealth gap is one of the primary reasons Medicare is so instrumental for Black seniors. While most beneficiaries are White, and most have modest fixed incomes, Black beneficiaries often have little to no retirement funds compared to White people. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 95 percent of White beneficiaries had retirement savings, close to $90,000 on average. Meanwhile, the average amount saved by the 81 percent of Black beneficiaries who had personal retirement funds was more than $10,000.

Further, pensions have weakened over the last decade through state deficits and penny-pinching corporate policies.

“There was a time when, if you worked for a place for a long, long time, after you retired you could still have some insurance with that company. Those days are gone,” Jones said. “You can imagine what it’s like to work all your life without coverage – as you get older, those chronic diseases start kicking in. And if you’ve not caught them early or been able to maintain them, they’re worse as you get older. And just think, you have no medical coverage, you have no health care? So your life expectancy and the dignity of your life is zero. This is a program that is crucial.”

While policy analysts and politicians agree that Medicare has been one of the nation’s most effective public programs, the logistics of the program are very confusing for both beneficiaries and health care providers.

There’s also the prevalent belief that the program is slowly spiraling out of control.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the program’s $505 billion allotment was 14 percent of the last year’s federal budget. The program regularly overspends its limit, and will only get more expensive; the cost of health care rises each year, millions of Baby Boomers are retiring, and the smaller number of younger workers and payroll taxes from dwindling wages will not be enough to support the Boomers.

Medicaid – Medicare’s equivalent program for low-income Americans – is even more contested in its 50th year.

According to Samantha Artiga, policy analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation, the racial disparities that make Black seniors reliant on Medicare are the same ones that make Medicaid so vital for Black families and individuals. She points out that Medicaid covers more than half of all Black children and Latino children, and that Black families are much less likely than Whites to have high wages or insurance through their employer.

“Medicaid has really played a pivotal role in helping to fill this gap in coverage,” Artiga said. “And then also, when we’ve done focus groups or interviews with families, we really hear over and over about the raw impact Medicaid has on their lives, in terms of providing a sense of financial security, feeling protected from high medical costs…and ability to focus on other areas of life.”

Originally intended for children, pregnant women, parents on public assistance, the disabled, and impoverished seniors, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has further expanded the program to cover low-income people regardless of whether they have children.

The ACA tried to require all states to cover these citizens and offered to fully fund the expansion with federal dollars, as states continued to administer the program. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled the expansion mandate unconstitutional, and made it optional for states. As it stands, 19 states have rejected the idea, including almost the entire South (except Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia) the region with the highest concentration of Black Americans in the nation. More than half of all non-elderly Black people still without insurance as of March are Medicaid eligible under the new guidelines, but many live in non-expansion states and will likely remain uninsured because of it.

“There still remains some significant gaps in coverage for low-income adults and these disproportionately impacted Black Americans,” Artiga said. “We’re seeing now, with recent data, declines in uninsured rates since implementation of the ACA, and those declines have been larger for Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites, suggesting already a beginning of some narrowing of these coverage gaps. But they still remain more likely to be uninsured than Whites.”

Lawmakers and experts assert that Medicaid and Medicare are becoming too inclusive and expensive to sustain. Fraud, abuse, and waste have also become a real problem. These widespread scams charge for services that aren’t actually provided and pocket the federal funds; authorize unnecessary services, or bill necessary ones incorrectly; or administer services to someone other than the beneficiary – sometimes even after the person is deceased. The misuse consumes additional billions in taxpayer money each year.

There are also concerns about insufficient access to specialty care through the program, and the already-strained availability of care providers particularly in rural areas.

Both sides of the political aisle believe the systems need to change – progressives favor tighter security accountability on the current systems, while conservatives advocate a complete overhaul.

Although the programs have both done a great deal to address health care access gaps, Artiga said that government-sponsored health coverage is not a cure-all for ending disparities. Still, the programs have achieved measurable positive outcomes over the past 50 years.

“You don’t want to live in a country where you continue to see an increase of poor, unhealthy people. That drags on the entire system,” Jones said. “I can’t believe that this country still believes that your health should be only as much as you can afford. Medicare and Medicaid stand at the beginning of us at least acknowledging our own humanity. I’m hoping that not only do they expand the benefits, but that they recognize that a healthy America is a prosperous America.”

A push to address black-on-black violence

— As cities across the country have mobilized massive street protests over police violence and misconduct, a familiar question has been raised by their opponents: Why does violence within the Black community garner less concern than police violence?

According to crowd-sourced database, Mapping Police Violence, 304 Black people died at the hands of police last year, 101 of them unarmed. But Black offenders were responsible for 90 percent of the nearly 2,500 Black homicide victims in 2013, according to data compiled by the FBI. Between 2002 and 2011, the homicide rate was 6.3 times higher for Blacks than Whites.

Detroit-based community organizer, Yusef Shakur is on a personal mission to end the community violence he once perpetrated. By the age of 19, he had co-founded a gang and was given up to 15 years in prison, where he met his father for the first time. Through positive guidance from his father and a personal decision to do better, Shakur left prison determined to repay his debt directly to his community.

“Urban environments are like a dried-up lake; so people turn on each other out of survival. They don’t know what they’re doing is out of hatred and anger, they take it out on the person that’s next to them, because they don’t know how to take it out on the people downtown in the City Council building,” he says. “They don’t know how to articulate themselves…how to organize a boycott, so you take it out on other folks. Throw in drugs, lack of education, guns all those things are a recipe for genocide.”

Shakur’s organization, Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood, seeks to rebuild a sense of community in the “Zone 8” section of Detroit through back-to-school bag giveaways, block parties, survival kits for indigent residents and families, and one-on-one mentorship. Fourteen years after his release, he is an award-winning organizer and remains embedded in his neighborhood as a positive influence, particularly on those who commit the crimes that have made Detroit infamous.

To him, the victims of these crimes are just as important as those slain at the hands of racist authority figures.

“When any [deaths] happen, there’s outrage. We know tons of people who get killed but the media doesn’t talk about it,” Shakur says. “There are folks who do candlelight vigils, folks crying on the floor and things, but there’s no media coverage. But if it’s a high-profile situation, that brings Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, then we see the outrage.”

Many of the stories that have become major headlines and have fueled national protests began as local efforts. Trayvon Martin’s murder, for example, only became a major media story after relentless social media campaigning and Sanford, Florida’s “Justice for Trayvon” protests spread across the country – and it still took 44 days of action to secure George Zimmerman’s arrest.

It was Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal that sparked the Black Lives Matter organization.

“The local is the national. There’s no way that there would be a national conversation about state violence if local residents in Ferguson and St. Louis didn’t take to the streets,” said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the nationwide Black Lives Matter activist network, which began in 2012. “The other piece is, there’s lots of Black people, for the last 40 years, who have been figuring [out] how do we deal with harm inside of our communities.”

While the death toll of “Black-on-Black crime” is distressing, it is worth noting that most crime happens within communities and races. White offenders were responsible for 83 percent of White victims in 2013, and Latino offenders were responsible for 74 percent of Latino victims.

Cullors said that the tug-of-war between community violence and state violence is among the most common criticisms Black Lives Matter receives.

“The focal point is state violence, but that is not the end-all be-all. When myself, Alicia Garza, [and] Opal Tometi created Black Lives Matter, it was never just to talk about law enforcement or vigilantes. It was actually about a broader conversation about anti-Black racism and the impact in our communities,” she explained. “It’s about broadening what state violence means. If someone is homeless…if people in the community aren’t able to have jobs, that’s state violence.”

Shakur lives and works in the crosshairs between state and community violence. Sometimes, he uses the respect he’s earned in his neighborhood by inserting himself to break up fights and conflicts. But he’s also seen a police officer roll up to a group of young boys and hop out of the car to say, “I can’t wait to put you in prison.”

He believes that community violence and police/state violence are different issues that share a link as effects of White supremacy.

“Folks are not using a historical context. When Trayvon Martin gets killed or Michael Brown, et cetera, it reminds you of Emmett Till. It reminds you of your grandfather getting lynched. It reminds you of the reality of being Black in America,” he said. “But the work has to be twofold. It has to be 30 percent police, 70 percent on us. We have to do the work internally to restore interpersonal relationships. If we clean up what we have to clean up, it makes it easier for us to organize against the police, because the police are going to do what they’re going to do.”

Each of the Black Lives Matter co-founders is also a grassroots community organizer.

Cullors is a founding board member of Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based grassroots group working to empower incarcerated people, their families, and their communities. Alicia Garza has been involved in several grassroots groups across the Bay Area, including People Organized to Win Employment Rights, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where she has held leadership roles. Opal Tometi is executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a New York-based Black advocacy group.

Cullors believes that community violence is largely a reflection of state violence, both literal and in the form of oppression. For this reason, the two issues, though separate, are not at odds.

“Much of the harm happening in our communities has a lot to do with the trauma of living in a racist, capitalist country. The trauma of not having a job, the trauma of not being able to feed your own children. The trauma of being abandoned at a young age because your family are drug users, the trauma of being in the foster system,” Cullors said.

She added, “Let’s actually deal with the root causes of that trauma. The fight around intra-community violence is a fight about not only the state…but our conversation – it looks like an internal conversation – is about what do we do to take care of ourselves. Where are the spaces that we fight for our communities to have what they need so we don’t harm each other? ‘Black Lives Matter’ means a new way of fighting for freedom.”

Clean power plan affects black quality of life

— When Cheeraz Gormon received an invitation to lobby in Washington on behalf of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan with environmental legal advocacy nonprofit, Earthjustice, she was bewildered.

“You couldn’t have told me even last month that I would be on Capitol Hill actually talking about the Clean Power Plan. I was like, ‘Wait, I don’t deal with climate change or any of that,’ I don’t have any expertise in it,” said Gormon, an international spoken-word artist, activist, documentarian, and award-winning advertising copywriter.

She felt if anyone could use an advertising makeover, it was environmentalists. Gormon always thought of them as people who chained themselves to redwood trees.

“But it was always an in-family conversation. Why there’s no trees in our neighborhood, why we have to live near all these factories that [are closed], the different smells, what they’re spraying in the air, saying they’re spraying for mosquitoes. After I accepted the invitation, I went back and connected the dots,” Gormon said.

In her hometown of St. Louis, where half the population is Black, the Meramec coal-powered electricity plant that sits on the Mississippi River pumped an average of 20,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air per year between 2007 and 2010, according to an NAACP report. This byproduct contributes to acid rain, as well as chronic heart and respiratory diseases such as COPD, asthma, and emphysema.

The power company has not installed a sulfur dioxide monitor at this plant, but has spent $600 million on purifying “scrubbers” at its St. Charles County facility, west of St. Louis near the airport, where the population is 88 percent White.

In Missouri, 83 percent of the electricity comes from burning coal, which higher than the national figure of 50 percent. These coal power plants are the nation’s and the world’s chief source of air pollution. The Clean Power Plan – a component of the latest update to the Clean Air Act, which began in the 1950s – requires states to reduce their coal power plants’ emissions by 30 percent of 2005 levels, over the next five years.

Neighborhoods that border power plants and refineries are known as “fenceline communities,” and are almost always low-income, of color, or both.

The NAACP report grades and ranks the nation’s coal-fired power plants based on how harmful they are to communities of color. Among the top 12 most hazardous plants, Black people accounted for 76 percent of the surrounding populations. Another study by the University of Minnesota found that people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide – a gas that irritates and weakens airways and aggravates existing heart and respiratory issues – than Whites. For families living in fenceline communities, such as Port Arthur, Texas, Dearborn, Mich., and Pittsburgh, Pa., cancers, heart, and lung conditions strike across generations.

Satoria Briggs, activist and member of the Hip Hop Caucus, knows that from first-hand experience.

“Moving into the Southeast side of Chicago…there’s things I can’t do because of my activity-induced asthma. But it’s activity-induced – it shouldn’t just be there. When there’s piles of petcoke sitting around my neighborhood, that’s directly affecting me,” Briggs explained. “BP has a huge refinery where they have petcoke piles. The cancer rate is higher in this area. You’re being affected. And because you’re not going to say anything much, they’ll throw you this and that.”

Petcoke is a powdery black byproduct of the oil refining process that can be reused as a fuel in some cases. Some oil companies keep it outside in neat exposed mounds, where the dust is easily whisked into the wind and air each day. Briggs recalls seeing schoolchildren arrive to school lightly dusted in it.

Last year, the Hip Hop Caucus launched the People’s Climate Music project and the Home album, featuring tracks about climate change from artists such as Common, Raheem DeVaughn, Ne-Yo and many more. Earthjustice invited Briggs to lobby as a representative of the Caucus.

The finishing touches on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan are expected next month, but the plan has drawn fierce objections from the beginning. Concerns center on energy companies’ profits and the financial burden of meeting tighter standards; states rights and the EPA’s limited power in creating or enforcing rules covering the energy business; and the political struggle between state legislators and local economies lubricated with coal and oil money.

The plan mandates that coal-fire power plants must choose from four methods to reduce their carbon emissions. They can upgrade their facilities and/or practices with state-of-the-art public health-friendly equipment; convert to natural gas, nuclear, or renewable energy; or switch customers to energy efficiency programs and practices.

States will be required to provide the federal government with a proposal on how they will use these methods to comply with the Clean Power Plan. States that refuse or submit inadequate plans will have to comply with a cookie-cutter plan from the federal government.

Critics assert that the plan violates the Constitution by giving a federal agency power over a state function. They also argue that it hinders private profits without providing “due compensation.”

Some feel the plan is unnecessary.

Over the past several years, some companies have been voluntarily reducing their impact on the air and surrounding neighborhoods. Some critics say that these efforts would have reached the Clean Power Plan’s goal in time, without federal intervention. Further, even if the plan is successful, it will do little to impact climate change. The EPA concedes that the proposed reduction pales in comparison to the level of greenhouse gases produced across Asia.

But as state legislators, energy companies, pundits, and the White House squabble, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans disproportionately suffer the effects.

“We can’t keep thinking that this environment stuff is separate from your asthma, or your ADD, or your COPD. All this stuff comes from the environment,” Briggs says.

“When I was first asked to do this, I was not super knowledgeable on everything. But I have 126 first cousins on my mom’s side. I can say 60 percent of them have asthma. You don’t have to actually know all the logistics. You should just know that if you can’t breathe, that’s an issue.”

‘Black Panther Party’ film seeks wider audience

— The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, the first feature-length film to focus on the origin and downfall of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is making waves in the film community. It’s been a breakout entry at the Sundance Film Festival, and has already won an award at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

But for acclaimed director Stanley Nelson, the real triumph will be in getting the film to the masses.

“We’re going to film festivals…and getting great, great, great responses. But one of the things that we feel is that film festivals reach a certain segment of the population,” says Nelson, the filmmaker behind Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till, and other notable documentaries on the African American experience.

“Another segment of the population doesn’t go to film festivals, and those people are the people we want to reach in the theatrical release.”

Thanks to financial backing from PBS, the film will have a theatrical release in more than a dozen cities across the country this September. Still, the documentary team hopes to raise additional funds through donations website, Kickstarter ( These funds will support the film’s expansion via broad advertising, and public appearances and events with the filmmakers and Black Panther Party leaders.

“Our hope is that if we raise a bit more money…as we go through these [13] cities, if we’re successful and recoup our investment, then we’ll just put that money into going to more cities,” Nelson explains. “Our goal is not to make a profit, our goal is to get people out and have as many people see it as we possibly can.”

Other documentaries and movies have either focused on Black Panther figures such as Kwame Toure and Assata Shakur, or have explored the Panthers as one part of a larger picture. The Black Panther Party focuses solely on the organization in its entirety and weaves together a variety of voices, from Party martyrs to those tasked with their destruction. The film also boasts original content from notables such as Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Henry Douglas, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, and more.

“One of the things we tried to do in this film is make sure it’s exciting and we tell a new story to everybody,” both the well-informed and the newcomers, Nelson says. “Some of the great things that have happened in the screenings is, people who were Panthers themselves come up to us and say, ‘You know, I was in the middle of it. I didn’t know half the stuff that was in the film.’ There’s a lot of new information.”

Donations through the Kickstarter come with interesting perks, ranging from social media shout-outs for donations as small as $5, to T-shirts, tickets to screenings, autographed photos, and more. For those who cannot donate, Nelson recommends sharing the Kickstarter link with others (

New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle and Washington, D.C. are the 13 initial cities slated for wide release this fall. The film will also be screened at several film festivals around the country throughout the summer. More information on these screenings can be found on

Most schools teach little to nothing about the political and social movement launched by the Black Panthers. And in the midst of today’s movements against injustice and discrimination – from police violence to reproductive rights – the film is well timed.

“We want a lot of people to see the film, especially young people. It’s not only a film about the Black Panthers, but the Black Panthers represent young people who really became involved in changing the world,” Nelson says. “Right or wrong, they did feel like they were changing the world. And we want young people to get that message.”

Life of black man displayed in zoo matters, too

— An ordinary Internet search on Ota Benga yields black-and-white photos of a petite Black man, almost naked, smiling with a row of spiky teeth. Some accounts say he achieved fame in the early 1900s as part of controversial human zoo exhibitions in the United States.


(Courtesy photo)

Author Pamela Newkirk

But a look below the surface reveals a true tale of extreme racism, cruelty, and widespread collusion in the kidnapping and dehumanization of a man.

This is the meat of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, a shocking historical biography of Benga’s experience as a museum attraction – most notably as “the pygmy at the [Bronx] Zoo,” on display in an enclosure with an orangutan between 1906 and 1910. Benga was later relocated to Lynchburg, Va, where he committed suicide at the age of 32.

Due on book stands in June, the historical biography retraces Benga’s journey using primary sources such as published articles, museum archives, and first-person writings from Samuel Phillips Verner, the man who abducted Benga and brought him across the Atlantic.

“So much of what I read in the archives was so chilling,” says Pamela Newkirk, journalist and author of the book. “And I guess the thing that surprised me to was the extent to which the statements of elite and institutions go unquestioned. For more than a hundred years, the story of Ota Benga was told by the same people who exploited him, and that narrative has stuck all of this time.”

Currently, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, published in 1993, is the book of record for learning more about Benga’s life and death. It tells the story of Verner’s exploits as a missionary in the Congo, his fascination with the racist scientific theories of the day, and his guilt over his treatment of Benga, all culminating in a tenuous friendship between Benga and Verner. This book’s co-author is Verner’s grandson, who died in 2013.

As Newkirk gathered primary sources, she was surprised to find so many news articles, scholarly studies, and first-person accounts, written in real-time as Benga’s life unfolded. And despite clear evidence, some academics were reluctant to have the narrative disturbed.

“There were some institutions that were not as forthcoming as one would hope,” she says. “But I did find a lot more than I ever thought I would. Even if one institution had withheld information, there was a lot more, so I wasn’t overly reliant on one place.”

In reading, she began to understand why some sources seemed so guarded.

“One of the main things I found is that he was hunted, like one would hunt an animal,” Newkirk says, referencing an article Verner had written about his method for capturing the people derogatorily called pygmies. “He was in no way complicit in his exhibition, and he resisted being there. Stories have been told as if he was a happy subject of that degradation.”

According to Newkirk’s research, scientists and anthropology pioneers were among the first and loudest to defend and justify Benga’s confinement. Newkirk explains that the theme of the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904 – also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, the first place Benga was held captive – was human advancement. Many indigenous people from around the world were kidnapped or coerced into performing in exhibits depicting man’s progress from “savage” settlements to the “civilized” White Western world.

“It was all predicated on notions of science and anthropology. When The New York Times defended the [Bronx Zoo] exhibition, they defended it in the name of science,” she explains. “There were questions of whether or not he was human, whether he was The Missing Link. It was the most eminent men of New York City who defended and supported this exhibition.”

Newkirk, who is also the director of undergraduate studies at New York University, where she teaches about media representation of marginalized groups, draws parallels between the racist beliefs that enabled what happened to Benga, and today’s racial climate.

She says, “The refrain of ‘Black lives matter’ rings in your ear when you see what people are capable of doing. They said that the African is so close to the ape…. When you look at what was considered ‘educated’ and ‘modern’ and ‘advanced,’ those were the views that were considered progressive in that period.

“This is so deeply rooted in American society – this idea that Black people…are animals. My book is historical…but I leave it to others to see how deeply embedded these ideas are and how they became…the foundation for policy.”

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga goes on sale June 2. Pre-orders are available now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Newkirk hopes that her book is instrumental in correcting the historical record of Benga’s life in the United States.

“The most important thing for me is to correct the historical record. It’s just such an insult that the man who’s most responsible for exploiting him has been depicted as his friend and savior for a hundred years,” she says.

“[Benga’s] life was worthy of this kind of exploration, because Black lives do matter. I think we owe that to Ota Benga.”

Concussions a greater problem for black youth

— Despite the flurry of news about NFL lawsuits over concussions, the problem affects far more athletes at the high school and junior high school level, according to the federal government statistics.

In 2009 alone, nearly 250,000 youth age 19 or younger were treated in emergency rooms for sports and recreation-related injuries that included concussions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2001 and 2009, the rate of such visits rose 57 percent.

Concussions occur when the brain is shaken violently against the skull. Although concussions are the most common brain injury, widespread awareness and concern about this issue in the world of student athletics is fairly recent.

But it is especially relevant for Black communities, particularly young men most likely to die from traumatic brain injuries, according to the CDC. And according to data from research nonprofit, Child Trends, 50 to 60 percent of Black American high schoolers were on a sports team in 2011.

In severe or untreated cases, they can cause brain damage, seizures, emotional distress, and death—in fact the CDC estimates that 5.3 million U.S. citizens are living with disability as a result of a traumatic brain injury (or TBI, an umbrella term that includes concussions).

“From an athletic trainer perspective concussions have always been a big concern. Coaches seemed to think that injuries increased because [athletic trainers] were there, but really it’s that awareness is increased,” says Jennifer Rheeling, a veteran athletic trainer in D.C. Public Schools and chair of the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee for the D.C. State Athletic Association.

“In the last five years particularly with the NFL starting to talk about it, and the lawsuits, has helped immensely now that people get it on a mainstream level. What they thought was just getting their bell rung was really a concussion.”

On the most diligent and well-resourced student teams, players take baseline tests—a battery of motor skill drills and survey questions to record their individual peak cognitive health—and have athletic trainers who check for signs of decline. If a concussion is suspected, a player does another test to compare those results to his or her baseline. The ImPACT Concussion Management program is currently the program of record for these tests among school athletic programs.

But according to Dr. Vernon Williams, neurologist and medical director of the Sports Concussion Institute, a lack of access to care compounds the (now fading) problem of awareness. ImPACT, for example, costs a minimum of $400 per year for 100 baseline tests and 15 post-injury tests for one school. Meanwhile, many schools and school districts, largely populated by Black and brown children, routinely have to make cuts to balance their budget.

“We have coaches who understand the need, but they have different resources. For example, we know baseline testing for people in contact collision sports can help evaluate when people get injured,” Dr. Williams explains. “But it’s uncommon for people to have access to state-of-the-art baseline testing. Players, school systems, and parents don’t have access to those funds. But we can still implement treatment using creative measures.”

Currently, Dr. Gary Harris, who specializes in computer engineering and serves as associate provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Howard University, is working with engineering students and the Bison football team to devise an inexpensive concussion monitoring system, using an open source platform.

(“Open source” is a tech industry term that means the equipment and information to create this system is public as opposed to proprietary, so as to encourage others to innovate and improve on the idea).

The project uses a computer chip attached inside the helmet that measures impact up to 100 gs of force. For reference: a sneeze is about 2 or 3 gs of force on the human body; an F-16 fighter jet barrel roll exerts 7 to 9 gs; a car crash at 45 mph is about 60 gs. Concussions usually happen with collisions between 80 and 120 gs.

The chip records the force of impact for every collision—it can be programed to transmit this information wirelessly, say, to a cell phone app. Or, it can be downloaded from the helmet using a USB cable. It can also be programed to send an alert when a hit exceeds a certain threshold.

“You can have an entire team’s list where you know all their shock, trauma, and incidents on file,” says Dr. Harris. “We still don’t know the threshold of force for brain damage, we don’t know how many hits it takes, but the first thing we have to do is collect the data.”

Each of these chips costs approximately $30.

Technology is also being used to improve care and outcomes the aftermath of serious concussion cases. Interactive Metronome, a health tech company that creates neurological research-based brain training programs and activities, is one example. The activities are designed around “brain timing”—the ability to clap to a beat, for example. As users play games and do activities that test their reaction time, those brain cell connections are repaired and strengthened. Originally (and primarily) used to improve motor skills and cognitive function in children with ADD/ADHD, the program is beginning to see success with TBI rehabilitation.

“We fit into concussions in a new way, which is helping out when those [post-concussion] symptoms don’t dissipate,” says Nick Etten, vice president of Strategy and Business Development at Interactive Metronome. “There’s a lot of emphasis on technology these days—it’s really important in the world of concussions and cognitive rehab. We’re starting to understand that there was a big void in information.”

Technology has helped improve identifying and treating concussions; on the prevention front, sports health care professionals now have the backing of the law. In all 50 states, a student athlete must be immediately removed from play if a concussion is suspected, and cannot return to practice or play without medical clearance. Some states also mandate that a student must remain free of symptoms or remain on the injured list for a set period of time, even if they gain medical clearance immediately.

But there are still holes in preventing these injuries.

“There’s clearly benefits to legislation in terms of drawing attention to the issue of concussions and having some foundation across the board with how they should be managed,” says Dr. Williams. “I think there are some variables…related to who should be allowed to clear players.”

He and Rheeling have both seen athletes on under-resourced teams get clearance from an emergency room resident, for example, in contrast with athletes who take a concussion test against their baseline with their team’s athletic trainer. They’ve also seen instances of students underreporting their symptoms, coaches resisting care recommendations, and parents being lax in monitoring their child’s rest after a concussion.

Emerging laws are attempting to add another layer of protection by regulating the number of weekly practices involving rough contact drills, thus reducing exposure to collisions and risk of concussion. Trainers, coaches, parents, and athletes can also receive guidance through resources such as the American Academy of Neurology online Sports Concussion Toolkit, and organizations such as the Sports Legacy Network.

“We’re at the end of the beginning as relates to concussion management. We’re learning more every day and the process will continue to evolve,” says Dr. Williams. “We’re out of the phase of explaining what a concussion is, identifying symptoms…. It’s no longer an unrecognized epidemic, we’re aware of the issues and that [a concussion] has to be managed effectively.”