Black Lives Matter

“What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force? There are so many answers and so contradictory; and such differences for those on the one hand who meet questions similar to this once a year or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily.”

W. E. B. Dubois

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

On May 25th, the world watched in horror   as George Floyd, a community organizer in Minnesota, was slowly murdered by a Minneapolis policeman.  This video made us all traumatized witnesses to a horrible murder.  With raw, callous indifference an ‘officer of the law’ violently pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck, ignoring pleas for his life, his labored ‘I can’t breathe’, and finally his heart-wrenching call to his deceased “Mother!”  He then slipped into unconsciousness and death. For Harlem, this murder was all too familiar – with so many echoes of the ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ cries of Eric Garner (2014) and others in the long history of victimization and police violence. Our entire nation faced the reality of racial terror that Black men and women fear in every interaction with the police.  George Floyd’s death became the spark of a momentous uprising that began in the U. S. and spilled into the streets throughout the world. For the first time, Black protesters were joined with hundreds of thousands of white men, women, and children in marches whose size exceeded those of the anti-Vietnam war protests.  “I can’t breathe“ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ became the slogans blazoned on walls from San Francisco to New York, from London to Johannesburg. Within 24 hours hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets and hundreds of artists drew his sorrowful face on buildings, banners and in one tragic case, on the rubbles of bombed homes in the rebel-areas of Syria.

Here in New York’s Harlem a network of community organizations grouped in the Greater Harlem Coalition follow the rich tradition of activism in Harlem.  Our community has been a center of African American political mobilization for over 100 years. Now, as in countless times before, Harlem challenged America to fulfill its stated goal of democracy.  As America’s ‘Black Mecca’, Harlem has focused the nation’s conscience on acts of violence against African Americans locally and nationally.  In 1917 the NAACP met in St. Philips Church to organize the famous Silent Parade (28 July 1917) to protest the East St. Louis Riots [May-July 1917]. And later Harlem protested the Tulsa Race Massacre [1921] when whites destroyed a proud Black community – ‘Black Wall Street’ – and massacred some 300 Black Americans.[1]  There followed mobilizations for Marcus Garvey, frequent protests of the lynchings, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1939) and riots.  Harlem has always demanded that the American promise of equal rights, justice, and opportunity extend to all people.

The Greater Harlem Coalition (GHC), an alliance of over 60 local businesses, block associations, and faith-based organizations, represents over 4,000 residents in the Harlem area. We firmly support and respect the right of people within our community who are struggling to get the services they need. However, The New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) and the Department of Health and Mental Health (DOHMH) have systematically overloaded our community with substance abuse and mental health programs.  The GHC was formed two years ago to address a policy of Medical Redlining inwhich local, state, and federal agencies (along with program service providers) saturate minority communities with drug treatment facilities far in excess of the drug dependent population in the area.  These are the programs that wealthier and more privileged communities have rejected and opposed. 

Harlem is /was NOT an area with a large concentration of drug addicts — at least until service organizations saturated the area with treatment facilities. The presence of unmonitored patients vulnerable to predatory drug sellers is tearing at the fabric of community stability. In areas where dozens of clinics are concentrated the trip to treatment must pass a gauntlet of temptations, harassment and crime. This could be avoided if New York adopted community-based and distributed addiction programs that reflect actual addiction rates rather than destroy areas historic areas like Harlem with an assault on Black heritage. 

The Floyd murder sparked a powerful national and international movement against racism, inequality, and for the regulation of police violence. Here at home, this murder has forced America to interrogate our flawed democracy in which the historic conditions of racist violence and discrimination have thwarted the opportunities and safety of Black people. The antiracist work of Color of Change, Black Lives Matter and older organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are bearing fruit.  The Greater Harlem Coalition supports these organizations and their initiatives to hold police accountable, to reform a prejudicial justice system of mass incarceration, and to eliminate the laws and policies that constitute a near-impenetrable system of structural racism.  The nation is now engaged in a wide-ranging and powerful discussion that is centered on racism and systemic inequality

In our nation’s capital demonstrations showed that the streets were ungovernable and police abuses of demonstrators only made the protests grow. The government’s weakness was exposed in the president’s use of the military to evict peaceful protestors from Lafayette Park. The holding of a presidential photo op backfired because it   strongly resembled the tactics of authoritarian leaders and suggested that the U.S. military forces were engaged in domestic politics. The backlash only increased the number and intensity of protests.

The Greater Harlem Coalition can use this tragedy to discuss how this political energy can assist us to explore the ways that we can be most effective in our community. Specifically, many in our community and beyond are demanding a reconceptualization of our police forces and an analysis of the Coalition in the context of racism and white privilege. Racism and white privilege are two topics that are the ‘800-pound elephant’ in the room that impact and underlie so much of what America and its institutions are built upon.  We welcome the opportunity to support the members of our   60 organizations to begin an honest discussion that, though uncomfortable will strengthen   our unity and effectiveness as an organization. We may call upon the assistance of professional groups that work with multi-cultural community organizations – Undoing Racism: The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond https://www.pisab.org/. Perhaps the Greater Harlem Coalition can be an example of how a mythic Black community can retain its historic significance and mediate the conflicts from gentrification.


[1] https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=TU013

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