By Bankole Thompson
Somebody at General Motors is living in the past, not in the era of the black lives matter movement. Perhaps GM needs to join the visibly angry demonstrators – white and black activists- who are defiantly marching through the streets of Detroit every evening to honor the memory of George Floyd, and to demand that leaders like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan push immediate police reforms that will end all forms of police brutality and human rights abuses.
The phrases that are being chanted at these grassroots demonstrations organized by diverse and organic activist groups, not the politically orchestrated unity march led by Whitmer and Duggan, will make you cringe, but they represent visible frustrations and deep pain and agony about a status quo leadership that has looked the other way whenever black people are massacred by the police.
The demonstrations that these young people are engaging in reflects what the writer James Baldwin, one of the most significant voices of the Civil Rights Movement alluded to when he said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
That is why the announcement that General Motors made Friday evening that it was setting up a $10 million fund as a response to the nationwide protests, not only misses the mark, but betrays the spirit and the demands of the protests that are taking place. George Floyd died at the hands of an all too familiar police brutality inflicted upon black people in this country. But nowhere did General Motors in their announcement make any commitment to end the repressive police practices that took his life. Instead they chose the all too familiar route of donating what appears to be a significant amount to promote racial justice and inclusion, soft acceptable terms that companies can readily stand behind and use as brand enhancements.
The protests are not about whether General Motors or any other company believes in inclusion or not. The protests signs don’t convey any message about a GM community inclusion advisory board that gets to decide who should get a corporate check for a chicken dinner or diversity project. Instead, some of the powerful signs at the protest that read: “White Silence is Violence,” “Enough is Enough” and “Stop Killing Us,” are a direct challenge to the white corporate elite in Detroit to finally take up police reform as a major issue.
Let’s be clear. The demonstrations that have seized the nation’s attention are about defending black humanity. If General Motors believes in the mantra that black lives matter, they should join the quest for serious police reform by using their influence and leverage over Mayor Duggan to rein in the Detroit Police Department, which has had many troubling issues involving police misconduct recently.
When General Motors needed to be bailed out with public money, they flew their corporate jets to Washington D.C. to ask for a bailout. They can use the same resources to go to the nation’s capital now and push for a Congressional legislation that will eliminate the protections that police have that shields them from lawsuits in cases involving excessive use of force. For example, they should support Boston Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s efforts to end the immunity that basically protects officers from civil lawsuits in police brutality cases. Pressley has teamed up with Michigan Congressman Justin Amash in introducing the Ending Qualified Immunity Act.
Black people are dying far too much and too frequently at the hands of the police in this nation. General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra and other corporate leaders need to boldly declare that they will use their resources to end police brutality. That is the kind of reform we need to end the scourge of police violence on black people, not another diversity fund to be disbursed in the community, which can become a tool for political patronage.
I was very disappointed about the announcement of an inclusion fund but not shocked because that is exactly what companies like General Motors and others are comfortable doing. It doesn’t force Barra or any major business leader to use their platform to champion police reforms.
George Floyd did not die for General Motors or any company to rush and create a racial diversity fund. The best way to honor his death is to finally bring an end to police brutality. I said in my Detroit News column that we should not allow Floyd to die in vain, and one way to do that is for corporate leaders to make some significant commitments with an action plan that correlates with the demands of the demonstrators who are expressing black rage throughout the nation and around the world.
A corporate fund, such as the one announced by General Motors, is a convenient and an easy way out of the crisis of directly addressing police misconduct because it doesn’t bring Barra and other senior executives at the automaker in a face-to-face encounter with police chief James Craig or Mayor Duggan and insist on police reforms. General Motors doesn’t get to use its clout to say directly to the political leadership in Detroit that as a business that is invested in the city, it will no longer tolerate another form of police brutality like the one that was caught on tape in 2018, when a Detroit police officer was repeatedly punching a black woman who was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital for mental issues.
Also, when it comes to donating these funds, it is often the selected groups like Rev Wendell Anthony’s Detroit NAACP, who are recipients of the funds because they won’t hold corporate interests accountable to matters of black life. It was no surprise that the General Motors announcement came 48 hours after Anthony paraded some white CEOs including Barra to publicly condemn racism without making any commitment to police reforms.
Unless General Motors is ready to join the fight against police brutality, and see to it that rogue officers on our police forces who engage in gross human rights abuses are punished to the fullest extent of the law, the fund that GM announced is nothing but the typical cosmetic gesture that doesn’t fundamentally change the structure of institutional racism in police departments around the nation. It would be seen as simply a deflector from the serious demand for corporations to address the human rights concerns of black people.
It is time to end the repressive apparatus in our police forces that subjects black people in Detroit, and other places around the country, to all kinds of indignities. Doing so requires socially conscious corporations and their leaders to engage in a showdown with the forces that promote apartheid type of policing in our communities.
That is what we are asking Mary Barra and other leaders to commit to and follow through on, not an inclusion fund.
Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a popular two-hour radio show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org