Generational Tension on Display at Recent Congressional Black Caucus Conference

Recent high-profile police killings of unarmed black men have highlighted a generational rift in the progressive black community. Overnight, young activists have emerged through protests and organizing online. They, despite charges of collective apathy, have even taken to the streets in New York, Ohio, Florida, Missouri and elsewhere. Unfortunately, it appears that old guard black leadership isn’t ready to give them a seat at the table in this next phase of the movement.

In 1971, the 13 black members of Congress formed the Congressional Black Caucus with a goal of joining forces to address black legislative concerns. Just five years later, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation -- the nonprofit arm of the CBC -- was founded. One of the CBCF’s signature programs is its annual legislative conference -- which, according to the organization, is “the premier gathering of African Americans, cultivating engaging policy discussions on issues that impact black communities around the world.”

Almost nowhere was the tension between old guard black leadership and their younger counterparts more on display, however, than at the 2014 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Conference held in Washington D.C. 

A tweet sent from the Dream Defenders' account during the CBCF Conference explaining that their executive director, Phillip Agnew, had been kicked off a panel.

“The youth are here are to be seen and not heard,” said Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, during the September conference. “The kids sit in the audience and listen to a whole bunch of panel speakers just talk at them the whole time. The youth presence here is negligible.”

The conference’s official schedule of events did feature a number programs targeted at young attendees but very few included young, progressive figures like Agnew as speakers. In fact, the Dream Defenders were invited to the CBCF to speak on two panels and hold a workshop to train attendees in protest and community organizing. Agnew and Ciara Taylor, political director for the Dream Defenders, were both bumped from their panels, though, for other guests. And minutes before their workshop, the Dream Defenders were informed that the room where they planned to hold their event was double booked. They were forced to cancel.

“What’s going to happen is we’re going to have our alternative track,” said Agnew said in exasperation, ”I came here in a sweater vest and I’m not doing all of that.”

And the generational tension isn’t confined the CBCF conference. The crisis of police brutality and black America’s response to it in recent months have exposed fault lines between young black activists and older leadership.

Jesse Jackson, Sr. was confronted by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri when he arrived weeks after the killing of Michael Brown. The incident was caught on video.

“Are you marching today with us, or are you just going to sit in the car?” a man can be heard saying to Jackson, who was being driven out of a McDonald’s parking lot. “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse?” another man said. “We don’t want you here in St. Louis! When you gonna stop selling us out, Jesse?”

Aside from hostility toward the role played by people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in Ferguson, another major cause for the generational division is around the notion of respectable protest.

Protesters were, throughout early demonstrations, criticized by the old guard for the tone of their messaging and for the incidents of looting and violence that occurred during youth-led protests that followed Brown’s killing. Sharpton admonished young protesters in a speech that made headlines.

“To our young folk, we understand the anger. We are angry, but you are not more angry than the parents,” he said at an August rally. “This is not about generation. There are young people who want justice who protest peacefully. Some are angry and out of control, others are taking advantage of it...But let me tell you, there is a difference between an activist and a thug.”

The tension, perhaps, came to a head at a public town hall meeting held last week at St Louis University. Scholar and activist Cornel West was highlighted as a guest speaker but much of the event featured addresses from religious leaders who encouraged peaceful protest and togetherness. The event took a turn, however, when the audience demanded that protesters from among their ranks be allowed on stage to speak as well.

“I’ve been out there since motherfucking August 9,” one man said, according to various reports. “If you don’t turn up at the protest get the fuck out of here.”

West echoed the sentiment.

“The older generation has been too well adjusted to injustice to listen to the younger generation. The older generation has been too obsessed with being successful rather than being faithful to a cause that was zeroing in on the plight of the poor and working people,” he said. “Thank God the awakening is setting in. And any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy.”

Whether they have the support and guidance of old guard black leadership, it’s clear organizations like the Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100, and Million Hoodies Movement for Justice are moving ahead in planning direct action.

This fall, the Dream Defenders launched their Vest or Vote campaign to encourage voter turnout in the upcoming midterm elections. Million Hoodies is campaigning to demilitarize local and campus police departments across the United States, calling on student activists to lead the charge. And, in Ferguson, protesters on the ground have shown no signs of slowing down in demanding justice for Michael Brown and other victims of police shootings.

Donovan X. Ramsey