Guest column: Freedom Inc. faces down racist media narratives

https://bit.ly/2YyS3Gg

Supporters of the Madison non-profit examine how a recent Daniel Bice column gets it wrong.

Photo: Freedom Inc. co-executive director M. Adams.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s June 2 article about the nonprofit Freedom, Inc. and its work against police violence and for Black lives was highly misleading and featured quotes that inaccurately characterized that work. The premise of reporter Daniel Bice’s piece appears to center on 1) the claim that the nonprofit has a “radical” “agenda” that Wisconsinites do not or should not support, and 2) that the organization’s work does not warrant the level of state funding it receives. We unequivocally refute these claims. This premise feeds a racist narrative that attempts to suppress the voices of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color (BBIPOC) leaders calling for systemic change in defense of Black life while ignoring the context of their work and the urgency of their demands.

Freedom Inc.’s “agenda” is working for a reality in which Black, Southeast Asian, and LGBTQ community members are free from domestic violence and from the state violence that has killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sylville Smith, Tony Robinson, and so many others. The organization’s agenda is working for a reality in which everyone from elders to babies have their human needs for food, housing, education and safety met. Its agenda is to love, protect, celebrate and build power with communities in the face of institutions (including police, government, healthcare, and education systems) that both historically and currently treat Black people as less worthy (of home and farm loans, responsive health care, food security, well-resourced schools, enfranchisement, and their lives).

That “radical agenda” demands the full and active support of all people of conscience.

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Someone who decides this story is about what a Black, Brown and queer-led organization protesting police violence gets in grant money is trafficking in a racist agenda. While Bice expresses personal displeasure that Freedom, Inc. receives taxpayer funds—federal and state grants designated for services they provide to survivors of gender based violence, among other programs—he also implies, without any evidence, that they might be misusing those funds. For lack of evidence, Bice is left to quote Republican State Senator Steve Nass from Whitewater asking Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul to investigate the organization’s use of grant funds. Nass provides no evidence either, but has a history of using his position to threaten public funding to the UW System and force “reform” in response to campus conversations about racial justice and identity.

Whether it is the hiss of a toxic tear gas canister choking the voices of protestors, or the pen of a white legislator issuing unsubstantiated calls to investigate and defund a nonprofit that protects and serves BBIPOC communities, using institutions like the police, military and government to silence demands for change is violence. It is a reminder of who in our society holds the power to oppress others. The press has power. Implying without evidence and against the record that a Black-led group that works to end violence at both the interpersonal and the systemic level is somehow not worthy of the funds it receives is itself a violent act.

A person who knows that communities of color are underfunded and that the racial wealth gap is as bad as it was in 1963 should support this funding. A person who believes that elders should be able to get counseling services in their own language should support this funding. Someone who thinks that kids should have access to summer literacy programs with adults who love them, champion them, and who see them, should support this funding. Someone who believes that domestic violence survivors should receive culturally responsive services should support this funding.

A person who supports Freedom, Inc.’s programs should support its funding, unless that person sees Black people who demand that police stop killing their children, their brothers and sisters and loved ones, as a threat.

Underlying Bice’s article are racist narratives that describe Black rage about the dehumanization of Black people, and Black power-building in the community for justice, as dangerous. Bice prints and does not challenge Nass’ comment that “The taxpayers of Wisconsin should not be funding any group that supports rioting, looting and actions to terrorize citizens with street violence,” which falsely characterizes Freedom Inc. Bice also uses Madison radio host John “Sly” Sylvester’s inaccurate characterization of Freedom Inc.’s co-executive director M. Adams’ words: “She also said your windows will be safe when we get our way.” This casts Adams’ words as a menacing threat, when in reality Adams’ “way” is ending the murder of Black people, something we all should want.

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These narratives discount Black people as reliable narrators of their own experiences and needs, even against the evidence of data, documentation, and human decency. They play on respectability politics to imply that Black leaders of organizations don’t deserve the kind of money their white counterparts do. These racist narratives, including the focus on respectability politics, can only operate when those producing the narrative omit historical context of 1) the conditions that lead to uprisings, and 2) the community-led conversations and actions public officials have refused to engage with over years.

If we are dedicated to ending the murder of Black people and pervasive anti-Blackness, we must learn to see these common arguments against and misrepresentations of uprisings as what they are: an unwillingness to support the right of Black people to exercise power over their own lives. This is unacceptable. By prioritizing property and maintaining “order” over caring for whole humans, they funnel funding to racist institutions instead of to structures that are life-giving. They criminalize people for protesting injustice unless it is done quietly and politely over the slow course of decades, despite—or because of—the reality that such polite protests rarely receive a response.

“Stop murdering black people, and your glass will be safe,” is the quote Bice shares from M. Adams. As a country, we have historically placed greater emphasis and resources on the protection of property and the economy than we have on human life and well being. The bloodiest war we ever fought was over white people and white businesses’ desire to continue claiming ownership of Black people as property. Those who read M’s words—delivered during a June 1 press conference—as a threat to glass and business instead of a call to protect Black lives do not belong in public service positions.

Senator Nass’ quotes wildly mischaracterize Freedom Inc.’s tactics. For people who have not attended the protests (like Nass), they have been led by expert organizers for a community grieving and raging and celebrating and loving their Black and queer families. The protests are demonstrations of mutual aid, as people offer water, snacks, masks and support to strangers. The protests push to build a world worth those who’ve been murdered, and worth the beautiful and brilliant youth whom Black leaders like Freedom Inc. and many other organizers across the state won’t allow as a sacrifice.

This is a moment for all of us, particularly for those of us who are white, to examine our own racism and think critically about our responses to the ongoing protests. We cannot authentically recognize the needs for the services that Freedom, Inc. provides while delegitimizing the organization because it “isn’t shy about” demanding systemic change. To do so upholds those same systems that are continually and consistently doing violence to the BBIPOC and queer communities that Freedom, Inc. serves and is led by. These communities are the only ones with the right, the experience, and the expertise to set the agenda for liberation.

May more of our tax dollars, individual dollars, appreciation, and love go to this radical work. We are so grateful for Freedom, Inc.’s leadership, and care. Find out more about Freedom Inc. and all it does at freedom-inc.org and facebook.com/AboutFreedomInc/.

Support Freedom, Inc. Support the Movement for Black Lives.

Friends of Freedom Inc.:

Laurel Bastian

Lane Hanson

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