Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith, AP
SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Dating back to the 1800s to Harriet Tubman who returned after escaping from slavery to lead others to freedom, organizing/activism has always been a necessary part of life for African Americans in the continued quest for social and racial equity.
Black activists over the past few months were joined by others around the world following the horrible, police-involved deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Described as vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change, present-day activism is not just about taking to the streets, it’s a range of actions such as 12-year-old Keedron Bryant’s “I Just Wanna Live” song that provides prayer over the lives of African Americans.
It’s also voter registration, gathering signatures for petitions calling for police body-worn cameras, showing up time after time to speak at City Council meetings, advocating on behalf of the African American community, organizing walks through high-crime areas as a stand against it.
A long list of noted activists and organizers includes Martin Luther King Jr.; El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X; Ella Josephine Baker, a civil and human rights activist; Fannie Lou Hamer, civil and voting rights activist; Amariyanna Copeny, civil rights icons Dr. C. O. Simpkins of Shreveport and U.S. Congressman John Lewis who died on July 17 at age 80 after battling pancreatic cancer.
In Shreveport, activists Breka Peoples, fiery and focused, and organizer Omari Ho-Sang, articulate and poised, each brings the perfect temperament for the role they play alongside hundreds of others calling for police reforms and justice for police custody deaths of Tommie McGlothen III, Wavey Austin, and Anthony Childs who also died during an encounter with police.
An autopsy by the Caddo Parish Coroner’s office failed to provide a definitive cause of death. But Dr. Todd Thoma determined that Austin’s death was due to cardiac arrhythmia secondary to febrile delirium.
Thoma ruled McGlothen’s death was caused by excited delirium, but possibly could have been prevented. The investigation into McGlothen’s death is still ongoing. The coroner ruled Childs’ death a self-inflicted gunshot would to the chest, something the family and others continue to question.
It was Peoples who first sounded the alarm regarding McGlothen and Austin via social media posts.
No longer part of the 45 Days of Action, Peoples is now with The People’s Promise group and continues to utilize her Facebook page as a platform to speak about SPD wrongdoings.
Activists calling for justice for McGlothen, Childs, and Austin, resulted in approved Shreveport City Council legislation requesting a federal level SPD investigation.
Peoples credits her grooming for activism to Jeri Burrell who serves on the DeSoto Parish Police Jury.
“She’s been training me for years,” Peoples said of Burrell. “She said that as long as you stay honest and truthful, people will follow you. Whenever someone calls me, I’m on the move and I won’t stop until it’s done.”
Peoples also credits Minister Marvin Muhammad with the Nation of Islam, (not to be confused with Marvin T. Muhammad), as one of her advisors.
“Marvin T. Muhammad is not an advisor but he helps me whenever I need something. “What we do is very trying, it’s not easy and it’s mentally and emotionally draining but we continue.”
It was Marvin T. Muhammad who asked in a letter to the Shreveport City Council, whether they would call for an SPD investigation. Muhammad said in fact, he requested an investigation of SPD and the Caddo Parish Coroner’s Office following the officer-related shooting of Childs last year.
Even in the face of adversity and death threats, local activists continue to raise their voices.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not the one who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers it.″
“People shouldn’t be afraid,” Peoples said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to be truth-tellers or to step out and help their brothers and sisters.”
But how do they continue in the face of such trauma and hatred?
“People keep me going and people keep me pushing but there was a time I felt I wanted to walk away,” Peoples said. “Minister Muhammad talked with me and told me not to give up. He said, ‘We got you and we’re going to all stick together. This is something that you started so we’re going to do this together.’”
Peoples questioned why it took two months to place the four police officers involved in McGlothen’s death on administrative leave.
“We need an audit,” Peoples said in an interview prior to Shreveport Councilwoman LeVette Fuller calling for an investigation of the Shreveport Police Department. “We need a real police chief and a real deputy police chief. We need people that will hold them accountable.”
Peoples has been vocal in her call for SPD Chief Ben Raymond to step down.
Ho-Sang, All Streets All People/45 Days of Action, emerged from the back of the crowd of protesters gathered on the steps of the Caddo Parish Court House, taking hold of the megaphone mic during a May protest calling for police reforms in the name of McGlothen, Austin and Childs.
“Right now, we are dealing with immense pain and trauma!” Ho-Sang said, her voice quivering with anger and passion. “On these very courthouse steps Ella Jo Baker, after Martin Luther King Jr. said he would never come back to Shreveport, she came back and organized sustained action for sixty days to make sure that everyone was able to register to vote. People died, people swung from these trees that we’re standing in front of, but yet they came!”
Ho-Sang said later that King did not return to Shreveport because the people were not willing to stand up and speak out.
Whether born or groomed to fight injustice wherever or whatever form it shows up, for Black activists, leaders, and organizers, sitting still and doing nothing, is not an option.
Hundreds of young people organized and gathered taking to the streets along with Peoples and Ho-Sang, calling for police reforms and removal of the Confederate Monument that stands at the front entrance of the Caddo Parish Courthouse. Hurting yet continuing, bewildered yet continuing, because staying silent is not an option.
Ho-Sang considers herself an organizer versus an activist.
“Activism is a really important part of organizing,” Ho-Sang said during an interview with The Times on the 45th Day of Action on July 15. It’s the number of days Raymond said it would take to complete the investigation into McGlothen’s death.
“It’s an important piece of especially the protest movement,” Ho-Sang said. “Activists, we show up when we need to be there. We bring awareness to issues. We engage the folks in the public and shine a light on dark places. What the organizers do is take all the folks who are now paying attention, and organize with teach-ins, and engage folks in action, do power mapping, and really tailoring that energy that activists bring to the room into long-term systemic organizing.”
Sparked as a senior in high school, Ho-Sang’s activism and organizing efforts started while studying the late playwright, Lorraine Hansberry.
The young activist attended a predominantly white, private school on scholarship from sixth through 12th grade.
“In Birmingham, we have mountains, so literally, I would drive off the mountain to the westside into poverty where I lived and where my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived,” Ho-Sang said. “That really bothered me and caused a lot of internal tension for me going to school. I had a great education but it also radicalized me. I did an independent study on Lorraine Hansberry and directed her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” and used the donations from that to give to an inner-city school.”
From there, Ho-Sang realized her power to make a change and went on to Tuskegee University in Alabama.
“Flipping that myth around Black inferiority really pushed me into action,” Ho-Sang said, adding that her time at Tuskegee was completely transformative.
Ho-Sang said she’s heard from the talk on the street that the protests that have taken place are on a level Shreveport residents have never seen before.
“They’ve seen indications of it but nothing like the channeling of a moment into something long-term and consistent that knocks at the core of what really is holding Shreveport back and holding America back,” Ho-Sang said. “The reason I think people are saying this is a new level for Shreveport is that people in Shreveport have been waiting and crying out for justice. There has been a paralyzing fear to stand up in fear of retribution. Now, I see those chains being broken because there’s power in numbers but there’s also power in consistency.”
What is the evidence the 45 Days of Action brought about?
Ho-Sang said the evidence is people feeling emboldened to speak out so that their voices are heard during City Council meetings, people making demands of local government, and holding them accountable.
One example is the Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins announcing the purchase of police-body worn cameras for all Shreveport police officers amid the calls for police reforms.
The city received $100,000 donation recently from a local business group toward the purchase of the body cameras. Another $100,000 is needed to make the purchase. Perkins also put in place an executive order banning chokeholds.
Additionally, the Caddo Parish Commission reached a settlement with the Daughters of the Confederacy to remove the monument from its courthouse location.
“That’s what we wanted with 45 Days of Action,” Ho-Sang said. “We wanted people to see these small victories, so people will know that this method of organizing around shared issues, makes a difference.”
The 45 Days of Action group also registered voters. Ho-Sang said the problem in Shreveport is not voter registration, which is a high percentage, but the turnout.
She added that various organizations are planning toward increasing voter turnout.
Ho-Sang, who left Shreveport three times only to return, considers Ella Jo Baker, one of the great organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, as her spirit guide.
She added that she realizes she won’t be able to leave Shreveport until her mission here is complete.