When Dr. Cornel West finally took the mic on Friday night, he didn't enter from house left where the event team was standing. He evolved to the stage, climbing there from his seat in the front row. In his black suit-and-tie-with-French-cuffs uniform, the 62-year-old literally crawled over the lip, pulled himself to standing from down on all fours and then hobbled a bit before striding to hug his co-panelists (more on them in a minute). It was a small and inelegant human struggle, a particularly evocative thing to witness given the reason 700 people had packed the auditorium at Lincoln High School. It seemed to be a visual incarnation of what is taking place in Southeast San Diego.
This event was put together by a non-entity that goes by the name of Reclaiming the Community (RTC). Per the program notes, RTC is "a coalition of individuals, community leaders and organizations that embrace the historic, rich, and diverse culture of Southeast San Diego, and recognize its ability to become a leader in community participation." In the same vein as Black Lives Matter, this is a leaderless-but-inclusive, community-based, community-driven group that rejects traditional organization hierarchy. In other words, it is true grass roots aimed at doing the work overt in its name. To underscore this point, organizers were intentional about ensuring many seats were available to residents of the community being served.
And in case anyone thinks such an undefined shape-shifting group is ineffective, they need only have been present at this three-hour-plus event to experience the power individuals can have.
There's no question Dr. West was the hook here: In his classic oratory style, he took us to church, enumerating injustice after injustice, both contemporary and old as time, while gesticulating like a mad scientist conducting a symphony. He thundered, riffed and free-styled like the jazz music he adores and which he frequently refers to (Coltrane's "A Love Supreme") as metaphor for that which is necessary to the survival of humanity.
"Justice is what love looks like in public," he said, inspiring the community—and those of us outside of it—to take action. "When you love folk, you protect them, you respect them, and you correct them." This was a pep rally of epic proportions, which is by no means belittling to the event, but rather calling on pep rallies to do better.
But the evening was less about the marquee (or the inspiring facilitator, Khalid Alexander, or the only invited politician, Rep. Shirley Weber) and more about Brandon "Tiny Doo" Duncan and Aaron Harvey, two black men who exhibited a riveting combination of strength and vulnerability as they shared how their lives were upended when District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis employed a little-known law Alexander calls "the Lynch Code."
Voter-approved penal code 182.5 is essentially a guilt-by-association farce with non-farcical ramifications. Individuals are identified as gang members (using extremely vague and broad criteria that would make my article club a gang) and tracked in a database. The Cliffs Notes version is that anyone in the database can then be held responsible for activity of other gang members whether or not they have knowledge about said activity. Dumanis used this obscure law to charge Duncan and Harvey with nine murders based on rap lyrics (the former) and Facebook posts (the latter). Neither had a criminal record. Each spent a significant time in jail and faced life sentences.
A judge dismissed all charges against the two men in March, but their lives are changed forever. Both are now activists and seem to be emerging as important leaders. Duncan said that he now has "a different purpose." With respect to his music, he said he wants to "spread a better message but still do me."
Even as these roses grow from concrete, the impact of the experience has been traumatic. When asked to speak about how their lives were affected, both men were tender and emotional. Duncan spoke of his children who were left without their father for many months. And Harvey said that it wasn't the tangible losses—job, house, car—that were most painful. "I lost a piece of my sanity," he said, opening a rare window into the mental anguish of racist policies. "This ballot initiative passed when I was 11 years old almost cost me my life 15 years later."
This is not new stuff. While many of us (myself included) have turned our gaze to more widely publicized and caught-on-camera injustices perpetrated against black people in other cities, there is a long-standing pattern of systemic injustice taking place not five miles from my front door. For decades, this community has been decimated and their futures stolen through the relentless and targeted—though not filmed or otherwise witnessed—harassment by law enforcement. Penal code 182.5 is but one piece of the cultural genocide widely experienced by Southeast residents, and widely ignored by the rest of us. It deserves our attention, our action, our investment. It is in our mutual interest to care.
Dr. West's presence was important, saying to Duncan and Harvey and so many others: You are seen. You are not alone. You matter. It's true, too. It might sound hyperbolic, but Duncan and Harvey got up from all fours, hobbled a bit and are now hitting stride. They are emblematic of what reclaiming the community is all about.