James Powell was 15-years-old when one hard summer the NYPD killed him. He’d been sitting on a apartment stoop with some other black teenagers when the building superintendent grew frustrated after the kids refused to leave and sprayed them with a garden hose.
A cop arrived, claimed Powell had a knife, and shot him twice. No one saw a knife but the cop. A quick ambulance response might have saved Powell’s life but ambulances don’t arrive quickly in that part of town. The cop was cleared by a grand jury.
If you don’t recognize the name James Powell it might be because he was killed in 1964, just two weeks after the Civil Rights Act passed. His death led to Project Uplift, a War on Poverty program to create jobs in Harlem which you also are unlikely to have heard of. A few years later the boulevards not far from where Powell was killed were renamed for Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King. In 2020 “Black Lives Matter” was painted in bold letters on one of the streets nearby. You can now even ask Alexa and she will respond, “Black lives matter. I believe in racial equality.”
That black people’s lives matter isn’t debatable, but how much they really matter is a real question. It would be beyond cynical to make a Groundhog Day remark out of James Powell’s life and its aftermath, but not beyond the truth.
The rioting and protests across New York City has in a way succeeded in one of its specific goals, to defund the police. On June 15 the city closed down the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime unit, 600 cops tasked with preventing violent street crime. Once described as elite by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the unit responsible for the choke hold that killed Eric Garner was seen by the black community as a left-over from the stop-and-frisk era. It was the successor to the Street Crimes Unit closed down in 2002 following the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo.
Two days after the latest unit fell victim to BLM, DJ Jomo Glasgow was gunned down at a house party in Brooklyn. His was part of a 205 percent increase in shootings in NYC so far in 2020, the bloodiest toll since 1996.
Adding to the current day carnage are two other fulfilled BLM demands: the mass release of prisoners due to COVID risks in city jails, and the ending of bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Persons released under bail reform went on to commit 299 additional major crimes. The shootings in NYC are in predominantly black neighborhoods. And therein lies the failure of BLM successes: they take black lives that matter.
Other BLM demands center on money for food, housing, and justice. Over the last 50-some years (federal, state and local) governments spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty. In 2012 that amounted to $20,610 for every poor person in America. Here in NYC, one out of every 14 people already lives in public housing, with the average resident staying 18 years. In a city where the overall population is 26 percent black, 45 percent of those in public housing are black.
Food aid? Predominantly in black areas. More than 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers (the average for all other groups is 41 percent.) Children in a single parent family are five times more likely to be poor than children growing up in married couple families. Poverty levels among blacks are largely unchanged over decades. The money didn’t help because it was supposed to be a helping hand, not create a victim’s lifestyle, and no one wants to admit the cash outlays from the Great Society and War on Poverty are the only reparations which will ever be paid.
The modern case for more reparations is made by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a hero of BLM after her work in the NYT’s alt-history 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones, where those before her stumbled, has found the specific thing reparations is going to fix: economic inequality for blacks. In What Is Owed she writes “While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To fix that means, to her, reparations.
Hannah-Jones is going to need a helluva lot of money. There are some 37 million blacks in America. Offer each $20,000 in reparations. That’s $740,000,000,000, about a thousand times the current defense budget. And it won’t pay much rent in NYC, where the median household income is $63,000, never mind close any gap in economic inequality. There is no case for reparations resolving any real-world problem except maybe white guilt.
The basic ideology of BLM is flawed. Blacks killing blacks is called a distraction. Single families are irrelevant. Mountains of money spent just seem to mean more money is needed. But the biggest flaw is BLM removes responsibility from the black community. Nikole Hannah-Jones inadvertently sums it up best: “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap.”
The BLM narrative claims that following the Civil War systemic racism was willfully instituted across the nation to keep blacks oppressed. The splay of problems, especially multi-generational poverty and crime, is not the fault of black people. It is something created (and thus the “fault”) of white people and it must be resolved by white people. BLM is a “to do” list of things white people must do. Protests are designed to get white people working on that.
Coupled with the lack of personal responsibility is the BLM emphasis on pranks and symbols. Streets are renamed, BLM painted on murals, Gone With the Wind sent down the memory hole, and every TV show, movie, and ad is seeded by boycott threats with an ever-growing palette of POC. Go ahead, keep going: show us videos of Karens calling 911, teach history from Broadway musicals, cancel all celebrities, tear down all the statues, rename Columbus, Ohio to Wakanda, rename everything. History shows it all means nothing because it has changed little. James Powell was killed in 1964.
The BLM narrative is a sweeping view of 400 years of history where the parts fit together like Legos from that first slave wading ashore in 1619 to a killing in Minneapolis in 2020, some sort of Protocols of the Elders of White Bread. It ignores how an alleged white supremacist society has over time made its peace to accommodate and promote other minorities, Asians, people from the Indian subcontinent, Cubans and Hispanics among them, albeit unequally, and overcome waves of hate and racism against, in no particular order, the Irish, the Jews, the Catholics, the Italians, women, gays, and streams of refugees, never mind comfortably elect a black president twice and give him two black attorneys general. If we are white supremacists with systemic armor, we have done a really bad job of it.
One would think a fundamentally racist society worried about losing majority control would not be so generous. The argument that none of those groups grandfathered into the American Dream were ever slaves—the supposed one thing which sets blacks apart—depends on all of us believing a society of immigrants recreates racism anew with each generation, holding a grudge for 400 years over something none of their relatives had anything to do with.
In NYC, Spanish Harlem is full of warm, mom-and-pop cuchifritos restaurants while black Harlem is infected with corporate fast food. The corner store bodegas which straddle neighborhood borders were once owned by Eastern European Jews who gave way to the Italians, then Indians, Koreans, and now Yemenis. Whole Dominican families run dry goods shops in black neighborhoods. Are they all racist? Is everyone in on it? The whole BLM narrative rejects Dr. King’s dream of insistence on content of character. Skin color is everything and race goes from being one important issue to something that matters more than anything else. Being black becomes so controlling of destiny that it can only be fixed by whites.
The horrors of slavery are endless, made worse because, no matter how many times retold, history cannot be changed. Discrimination is part of American society as it is every society, and must be fought. But a narrative that says black people have little personal responsibility when a random white guy with no historical or family connection to slavery does, one which demands someone else fix things (mostly with free money), one which is so childishly and regularly diverted by ultimately empty, symbolic gestures, cannot succeed.
James Powell was killed in 1964 and everyone is still saying and doing the same thing expecting different results. That’s what matters.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.