Protesting the Democratic Party in a Trump World

This was cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog. 

I missed a protest on Monday night. I’d hoped to be at the Congressman Don Norcross (D) town hall (one of my students was receiving an award that night and invited me). I was unaware that local activists from NJ Communities United were staging a protest against the Urban Hope Act — a Norcross-sponsored bill that let to the closing of numerous schools here in Camden. Though I was unable to attend the event, I want to share video of what happened and talk a bit about a wider issue that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to: how do we both work with and push the local Democratic Party to improve in the age of Trump? And how do we do that without leaving behind our brothers and sisters of color (which has so often happened in the past)?

Here’s the video (a special thanks to Fabian Brown a local entrepreneur and artist who, despite considering himself not political, was intrigued enough to take and share this video) — it picks up after initial disruptions by Camden Communities United (an offshoot of the activist group that’s been effective in Newark with protests around education). The activists interrupted the event to highlight the Congressman’s role in promoting “No Excuses” schools through the Urban Hope Act, and the related state takeover of the school district (which happened in part because of local resistance to the Urban Hope Act). The video begins as Congressman Don Norcross hands the mic to Camden Mayor Dana Redd because the optics of quieting the protestors were better:

🔴 Live Congressman Norcross

Posted by Fabian Brown on Monday, April 24, 2017

At the end of the video, Congressman Don Norcross calls for a coffee break during which he engaged with the protestors (largely Mo’Neke Ragsdale) directly:

🔴Live Congressman Norcross speaks with local residents about failing school systems in Camden NJ after a heated protest

Posted by Fabian Brown on Monday, April 24, 2017

There’s a backstory here. Mo’Neke Ragsdale got her start as an activist when her local school — Lanning Square — was closed. For close to a decade, she was promised it would be rebuilt once it had funding. But when Gov. Christie took office, he froze all School Development Authority construction, including Lanning Square. When the Gov. came to Lanning Squaren for a press conference, the announcement was not that they would rebuild the school, but that the school would become the first “Renaissance School” — a hybrid-charter school made possible by the Urban Hope Act. A bill which was written by then state-senator Don Norcross.

I missed the protest, but it hit close to an issue I’ve been struggling with in our new world of Trump. How do we balance the historical damage that has been done, particularly to communities of color, with the national threat of a Trump presidency? In other words, how are we to treat Democratic politicians that have perpetuated deep local divides, but are also part of a critical resistance movement to oppose the current president?

And, perhaps, most importantly, if we are going to work with politicians with troubling histories on issues of racial justice, how do we ensure people of color aren’t hurt again?

It’s a question that has haunted me throughout the past few months, and as I watched this video, it all ran through my mind again. In the second video, Congressman Norcross 1) makes the case that he was helping the Camden community and 2) perpetuates deeply problematic and misinformed stereotypes of urban schools as failing. Yet, we know that the largest driver of these “absolute” test score rankings is income — Camden’s low-performing schools face the most difficult challenge in the state because they face the most challenged student population in the state. Closing schools with the worst absolute scores damages communities who need the most help.

Reasonable minds can disagree on the Urban Hope Act, but the pairing of it with a state takeover of the school district, and the political pressure put on those who voted against the Kipp-Cooper Norcross Academy downtown, showed a clear willingness to undermine the democratic rights of people of color. That it was arguably done with good intentions does little to change that it disenfranchised this community.

And yet, I can applaud when Congressman Norcross — my Congressman as a Camden resident — is pushing back against deportation policies. These are the troubling complications of navigating political support in the times of Trump, when there may not be the luxury of having local politicians pass purity tests while they are needed to fight on another front at the federal level.

I know my friends and readers are all over the place on this. I have friends who chose a disruptive and confrontational protest at this event. I have friends who are running to replace Democratic politicians, and those who worked with them and ended up on a slate of candidates alongside the individuals they oft criticized. I have others putting in time inside of the party, hoping to move it from the inside, and still others who believe in the ideas of the Republican Party or even its Trump wing. I want to hear where you are, and how you try to improve the Democratic Party in the age of Trump.

I think this is where I am: I want to work with Democrats, and think there is important work to be done in not only organizing and opposing what we’re seeing at the national level, but considering prudent compromises that protect the vulnerable. But I am not willing to perpetuate disparities and disenfranchisement of my brothers and sisters here in Camden (or in other communities) to do so. Too often throughout history the same people have been left behind in the name of compromise, and that needs be fought regardless of party.

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