Nehemiah Action puts area leaders' feet to fire 

Grill Marks

Last week's Nehemiah Action at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church drew around 2,000 people from 30 area congregations to watch as leaders from the Charleston County School Board and the cities of Charleston and North Charleston were called out on the issues of arresting school children and complaints about racial profiling. Unfortunately, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry's event also drew a lot of heat from critics who were uncomfortable with some of Nehemiah Action's approaches to social justice.

What was it again that Martin Luther King, Jr. said about white moderates — something about being more concerned with order than justice? It's strange that we don't see that quote enough, much as we don't often see this one: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice." The supposed tension that CAJM created at its most recent event is a result of the absence of justice.

The complaints about CAJM's tone and tactics are based on a number of errant assumptions about power in America and the structure of contemporary society. For one thing, the presumption that people asking for justice must do so respectfully, especially from a system that never fully accepted them as members of society in the first place, is beyond ridiculous.

Equally ridiculous is the idea that the manner in which leaders are asked questions at Nehemiah Action — they can only answer yes or no and have no more than 30 seconds to speak after each answer — constitutes a form of harassment. Outside of Nehemiah Action, the balance of power is still clearly with the civic leaders, most of whom — yes, the white ones — drove away from the event without the constant need to watch out for a police officer who might stop them under some "pretext" or another.

This flip-flop of the power dynamic is important, too, in understanding why CAJM adopts such a hardline yes-or-no format. It is a move to shortcut what is known as the "pivot," a common strategy employed by anyone who wants to dodge a question by delivering an answer that centers on their strong points and avoids addressing the questions they've been asked, questions that often highlight their shortcomings. Todd Rogers, a Harvard University behavioral psychologist, decided to study the pivot following a Bush/Kerry debate in 2004. He found that a politician who pivots away from a negative question about their policies toward a positive answer about a different issue somehow manages to end up looking better in the eyes of the average viewer.

The tactic isn't relegated to debates, of course. If you've ever watched an interview with a politician or one of their always-multiplying sycophants on television, you've seen the pivot in action. Sadly, it is all-too-often the case that members of the "professional media" will only halfheartedly push the issue, assuming that it gets pushed at all. CAJM's format forces politicians to give a simplistic response because the alternative is to let them weasel out of taking responsibility for the decrepit systems they control.

In addition to criticisms about Nehemiah Action's tone, CAJM has been called naive when it concerns matters of city governance. One question in particular called for hiring a specific independent auditing firm to review Charleston and North Charleston police departments, while another wanted individual actions to be carried out inside a relatively short amount of time. The notion is that this is not how city governments work is absurd. City governments circumvent their own inner workings all the time, but most often for the enrichment of its own elites. Perhaps CAJM understands that cities which violate their own policies should be called out for their misdeeds, and that demanding equally improper action to correct the inequality in our society is one way to do that. After all, it's funny how it seems naive or ridiculous for a citizen's group to demand a study of the police but not at all ridiculous that in America the police are murdering citizens seemingly at will. Tell me again about unity, patience, and incremental change, please.

If there is any real criticism of CAJM that I could level at them, it would be this: they don't go far enough.

They aren't calling for a general strike to cripple the retail industry in North Charleston or the tourism industry in Charleston. For that matter, they aren't calling out Mt. Pleasant at all or attempting to cripple its service industry. From my viewpoint, the ruling elite of the Lowcountry should be thankful that the direct action from CAJM is limited to a single, yearly, somewhat uncomfortable grilling of elected leaders that yields the occasional result.

Just imagine what they might do if they moved from rallies to strikes.


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