A push for a kinder, gentler society
“…through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities and other seats of learning. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.”
—activist, actor and athlete Paul Robeson
Recently, Dr. Melina Abdullah was up at 6AM for various and sundry preparations of interviews and meetings that would continue until midnight, a routine she observes seven days a week with an occasional break on Sunday. In 2022, she traveled two to four times a month in support of various legal procedures, the schedule that continues into 2023.
“The all-encompassing nature of the struggle can be overwhelming; I have (and do) experience moments of fatigue,” she admits.
This is a calling that doesn't pay the bills–on top of her college professorship that is her livelihood–along with her duties as a mother.
Building on the observation of Paul Robeson that “...there is no sheltered rear,” she holds to the reality that in spite of the exhausting nature of her calling, it is a necessity given the condition of Black existence in these United States.
A standard-bearer for change
“The history of Black oppression and freedom struggle provides both guidance and inspiration in this iteration of movement. We make it a practice to call on the Ancestors and learn from those who walked before us. ”
Best known as a co-founder of the Los Angeles' chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM), Abdullah's progressive roots go back generations to her paternal grandfather, German-Jewish economist Günter Reimann, who opposed Hitler's rise to power in his native Germany before fleeing to the United States (given this genetic legacy, she finds ludicrous recurring charges of antisemitism directed at her, due to her support of the Nation of Islam).
Moving on to the next generation, her parents were active in the progressive political movement of the East Bay Area where she was born. Moving east to Howard University then on to USC, her formal education was infused by the “womanist” feminist ideology of spirituality conceived by activist/author Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) and others, from which she launched her own personal agenda of progressive activism.
Abdullah hits the airport two or three times a month, flying off to various locales across the country to address the endless incidents of brutality, killings, and police malfeasance that have become a staple of the millennium in these United States.
One of the more recent of these recently settled is the pending release of a local Black male who was pulled from a classroom in the 1990s as an accessory to a robbery, then languished behind bars before activists pressured a re-examination of his case. In the last quarter of 2022, Abdullah and her colleagues successfully secured a monetary award stemming from Andrew Joseph III’s wrongful death involving the Tampa, Fla. Sheriff’s Department in 2014.
“The work that we are doing in the name of Andrew Joseph III is one of the greatest examples. After almost nine years of fighting his family won a $15 million jury award for the death of their 14-year-old child. We continue to fight in Andrew’s name to end qualified immunity–the unjust legal doctrine invoked by law enforcement to shield them from accountability.”
Unjust shootings: An ominous aftermath
“There’s a body of evidence emerging that suggests these incidents are having a negative impact not just on [victims’] family members, but there’s a broader community grieving; there’s a broader “threat” to the community; there’s a broader increase in personal vulnerability that’s having mental health consequences.”
—David R. Williams, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Many of the tragedies are the result of police interactions with mentally impaired subjects. Recently, questions have been raised about the impact of police violence on the mental health of the community after these violent encounters have occurred.
In spite of Los Angeles’ perennial reputation as a bastion of progress and tolerance, the southland is no stranger to abuse and cruelty. BLM contributed to a significant victory with the payment of $298,000 to the family of Wakiesha Wilson in 2017. Wilson allegedly hanged herself while in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in 2016, although she did not display any signs of mental illness or suicidal tendencies. More recently, BLM helped in the resolution of a $375,000 award to Los Angeles resident Deon Jones, after he suffered (and survived) multiple fractures and lacerations from a rubber bullet fired by an LAPD officer during a May 2020 protest.
Still remaining to be resolved is the situation involving 45-year-old Takar Smith, a father of six. He was shot to death during a mental health and welfare check by the LAPD on Jan. 2, after he exhibited behavior consistent with schizophrenia. Officers initially attempted to subdue Smith (who was brandishing a knife) with pepper spray and a Taser before resorting to firearms in an ongoing investigation.
In spite of these isolated victories, the offenses continue to mount. Along with the indignity and violence, the stress and fatigue within the community’s collective psyche escalate as well.
Abdullah understands too well the tension that is a byproduct of her multi-tasking existence. She notes that the signs of exhaustion, fatigue, and overall weariness are evident people of color everywhere, a condition alleviated by the solidarity fostered within the community.
“It’s so much more bearable to carry the load when others are sharing it with you. We also take great care to build a movement that is restorative by truly caring for one another. It means that fatigue still comes, but it leaves quickly,” she said.
Her observations of the collective fatigue this escalating violence has on African Americans as a whole is substantiated by scholastic research. Social Scientist David R. Williams conducted a groundbreaking study for Harvard University in 2018 that linked police abuse (specifically shootings) to the mental health of Black people.
More specifically, the report noted the firearm-related deaths exacerbate the “…day-to-day indignities that chip away at the well-being of populations of color.”
Similar studies conducted at the Center for American Progress and UCLA reaffirm these observations.
Addressing a problematic legacy
“Although the acrimony between communities of color and law enforcement is currently grabbing news headlines, it is an old story with the seeds of discord planted long ago.”
-from “The Intersection of Policing and Race,” Sept. 1, 2016 by Danyelle Solomon for The Center for American Progress.
Abdullah acknowledges the apparent rise in law enforcement related cruelty in recent years. She attributes this to a collective unwillingness to have honest conversations about the realities of race.
“The country has refused to reckon with its history of racism,” she says.
Until a widespread commitment to confronting these centuries-old issues takes place, she maintains “...there will continue to be violent anti-Black racism.”
Compounding this situation are the mixed reactions of mainstream society to these events, which range from apathy to indifference to misplaced remorse.
“The feelings of White people are less concerning to me than the conditions of Black people,” she says, proposing that they emulate efforts by progressive groups to counter these atrocities.
“If White people want to feel less guilty about racism, they should do the work to upend it. I am encouraged by organizations like White People 4 Black Lives who are doing precisely that.”
All this means Abdullah will remain shackled to what she calls an “…overwhelming but purpose full life.”
Commitment to the mission involves time away from family and the pastimes of everyday life.
“I would love to dance around my living room to (rock star) Prince all day and night“ she declares.
Instead she and her colleagues will “...pray with our feet to do the work.”
“This week in Los Angeles we’ll be standing up in court against the “BLM” Global Network Foundation, which has stolen the bulk of the resources and the platforms of Black Lives Matter in an effort to get back what belongs to the people.”
“On April 11th, we’ll be in rural Louisiana standing up for #RonaldGreene as the cops who killed him are finally charged.”
The soul-draining drudgery of endless travel through interchangeable airports, in indistinguishable cities, and often hostile courtrooms, seems to have no ending in the foreseeable future. For Abdullah and those within her political and social movement, there is no alternative, however.
“I try to be present for as much as I can, while also bringing the best (single) mother that I can be…remember that my three teenage children are also Black lives that matter,” she added.
“As long as they keep killing our folks we gotta respond…every time!”