No Masses, No Movement

Black Boomers Shout Reparations in the Court—But Go Silent in the 'Hood

The obvious disconnect between the old civil rights guard and the reigning hip-hop generation seems to be the reason why, for the first time in civil rights history, the masses aren't down with the cause. Closer examination of the generation that by all rights should be leading the first civil rights movement of their lifetime reveals that mobilizing them could be a task well beyond the current leaders' reach.

It cannot be denied that we have aided in our stereotyping as the race's black-sheep generation. The people who came before us were lulled to sleep by the civil rights victories of the 1960s, and they left us to our own devices. Ignored by society, the latchkey kids grew into the untamed hip-hop nation. To our elders' dismay, we have created a music that legitimized so-called Ebonics, made words like nigga, bitch, and 'ho expressions of ghetto love. Worst of all, we have glorified thug life and managed to kill each other at a rate not even Osama could top. Many parents have given up on the offspring, and if current trends continue, half the males of the hip-hop generation will be behind bars by the year 2010.

But others keep the faith, recognizing the true revolutionary strength of this group, who defiantly used their voices to transform the day-to-day suffering of black youth into the multibillion-dollar cultural phenomenon that hip-hop is today. Able to see past the psychological damage done to a generation by all kinds of ills, from NYPD-occupied schools to racial profiling and police brutality, these parents challenge themselves to reach their children before it's too late.

illustration: Mirko Illic


Sidebar: Ask people in Bed-Stuy about the reparations movement, and you'll get an earful.

After one of the rallies, I rapped with such a parent. Ciscely Johnson stared out the window of her Bed-Stuy apartment at a half-dozen boys violently arguing on the corner. Guns in waistbands and fashionably adorned red bandannas indicated members of the Bloods street gang were having beef with some neighborhood kids. Ciscely's anger was apparent as the familiar sound of gunshots filled the air. "You kids don't value your lives," she screamed frantically. "Your ancestors didn't have the luxury of dying for a cause as stupid as yours."

The 46-year-old mother of two teenage sons surveyed her neighborhood, and tears trickled down her cheeks. Ciscely is well known in the community for, as one neighbor put it, "always trying to save these kids, who can't be saved." She has known many of the boys since infancy and struggles to accept their outcome. "As hard as I try I can't totally blame them; they lack pride in self. Look around," she said. "Everything negative in this world is stuck in these neighborhoods."

Ciscely glanced over to the Atlantic Avenue Armory shelter on the corner of Bedford Avenue, which houses hundreds of ex-cons, drug addicts, and others deemed socially unfit. She points to a busy crack spot, with deadheads smoked up and zombied out scattering up and down the steps of the abandoned brownstone. "Society at large has turned a blind eye to these people and has coldheartedly stood by and let them fester in this sewer. As a result, their children have paid the price."

Ciscely, a product of the civil rights era, is not satisfied that leaders of the reparations campaign have made sufficient efforts to empower the people. "I'm not used to this kind of media-driven movement. I come from a time when our leaders were in the trenches dealing directly with us, preaching and teaching every day till they went hoarse. If you had a needle in your arm, they pulled it out and got you high on the movement. If you were selling drugs, they dumped it and made you sell newsletters for the cause instead.

"As a people we are destroyed," she went on. "We've been promised a better quality of life by so many, yet conditions remain the same. Now they're just supposed to pop out of the darkness and care about reparations."

Who could make them care? Russell Simmons doesn't think it would useful now to have establishment types like Charles Ogletree try to reach the hip-hop community. "They listen to Ludacris, not him," Simmons says. "They understand that they have been wronged as a people. The details of reparations will unfold naturally, and they'll spread it." He wants to roll out a campaign based on the theme of "40 Acres and a Bentley," using radio spots and magazine ads. "[The Bentley] has become the highest American aspiration for this generation, unfortunately, so we have to use that to engage them."

A champion at engaging the youth, Malcolm X once said, "If you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them, and the causes that produce it, they'll create the program." There is no Malcolm X now, no one voice of strength and encouragement to guide the youth through this movement. For the last 37 years, hip-hop and street life have been our mentors and providers. Prisons have made us better criminals, public schools have ensured our inadequate education, so fighting for a cause does not come naturally to many. If reparations are all about repairing the present so the future can be brighter, the lawyers and academics will have to roll up their sleeves, kick off their expensive shoes, and get their feet dirty walking the streets, looking for a way to bridge the divide.

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