As a Landmark Civil Rights Trial Unfolds, A Passover Call to Action

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March 19, 2013

Marjorie Dove Kent Hopes to Pack the Courts before a Seder in the Streets This Week

“East Flatbush is calling for calm,” said Marjorie Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), on Sunday.

Kent was referring to the aftershocks of the March 9th death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, shot to death in Brooklyn by plainclothes New York Police Department officers who say Gray was acting “suspiciously.” Last week, there were several impassioned evenings in Flatbush, from vigils to police in riot gear facing off against demonstrators linking Gray’s murder to NYPD stop-and-frisk policies.

When Kent says calm, she means that those from further afield shouldn’t flood into the neighborhood to show their concern. Or outrage. Instead, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice is working with Communities United for Police Reform – which includes Make the Road-NY, New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Urban Justice Center — to end stop and frisk, mobilizing the Jewish community to play an active role in both legislative and judiciary strategies to change the practices of the NYPD.

“The Bloomberg administration has made stop-and-frisk, in which officers pat down passersby suspected of criminal activity, a centerpiece of urban police work. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, officers are conducting about seven hundred thousand stop-and-frisks a year,” Rob Fischer writes on the New Yorker blog. “About eighty-five per cent of stop-and-frisks involve blacks and Latinos, and about half of them are men under the age of twenty-five. In January, the federal district-court judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled the practice unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, but the city has appealed, which allows it to continue the practice undeterred for now.”

But that may change. The killing of Kimani Gray coincides with Floyd v. City of New York, a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights against the NYPD, challenging its practice of “suspicionless and race-based stops” against “hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.” Opening arguments for the trial were heard on Monday.

This Wednesday, March 20th, Kent hopes the Jewish community will join JFREJ and the Arab American Association of New York to pack the courtroom in downtown Manhattan for the trial, then celebrate with Seder in the Streets, the latest installment of JFREJ’s trademark boldness. The mobilization aims to connect Passover with the campaign for police accountability via a ritual hand-washing of the injustice of stop and frisk on the steps of the Federal Courthouse, followed by a processional to Foley Square. The rest of the day will include Haggadah making, live music with and a look at the “10 Plagues of Discriminatory Policing.”

Seder in the Streets “is about taking traditions and using them in a powerful way. It’s a call for presence, attention,” Kent said.

“When rabbis come out and speak on police reform, it matters,” said Kent. “It’s not what the police, or the mayor, or the City Council are expecting. JFREJ has a long history of working in coalition against police violence, racial profiling, Islamophobic surveillance, and utilizing a variety of strategies, such as legislative, judicial and direct action. We get to think creatively about these issues, we get to be our boldest selves. Sometimes we need the masses, sometimes we need a poignant few.”

The recent killing of Kimani Gray has made national headlines, much like the 1999 killing of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, a notable moment in the movement against NYPD policies like stop and frisk, one that spurred many Jewish New Yorkers to act. Like then, quickly mobilized campaigns around the policy have, according to Kent, “been an opportunity for folks to plug in and live their politics.”

For Kent, 32, merging her Jewish identity and organizing is more than just a job, it’s the continuation of a trajectory. “I’m part of the current generation, but Jews have been organizing for thousands of years, it just wasn’t called that. We had to. Our survival depended on it.”

Organizing is about building power. “Organizing is inherently about a collective vision,” she told me when we spoke Sunday at her new apartment in Ditmas Park. Kent’s activism has been informed by both her progressive politics (“I was raised to have strong convictions, in a feminist house,”) and her “liberation and lox” Jewish identity, and she feels that her organizing is strongest when these two parts are working in tandem.

Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Marjorie Dove Kent speaks to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun at the 2012 Rabbi Marshall T Meyer Risk Taker Awards Credit: Shulamit Seidler-Feller

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002, Kent did a yearlong fellowship in community organizing with the Jewish Organizing Initiative — now JOIN for Justice — a Boston-based organization dedicated to training, supporting, and connecting Jewish organizers and the organizations they serve. She’s worked as a community organizer at the Boston Workmen’s Circle, the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, and the Dutchtown South Community Corporation.

“In my work, I always wanted to feel like we were building something, like there would be something new tomorrow. I wanted a job I could sink my teeth into. When people used to ask me what I thought that job would be, I’d say, ‘I don’t know, like the director of JFREJ!”

Today, Kent seems perfectly suited to this role, and is committed to raising the visibility of JFREJ campaigns and community, including 1,200 active members; of these, 750 are dues-paying members. While Kent leads the organization, she’s adamant that she doesn’t lead alone — and likes it that way, stressing that members are “engaged at every level of decision making, from choosing campaigns and setting our goals to determining our strategies and executing and evaluating our work.”

“It’s completely inspiring how constituent-led it is. That’s a key part of a successful campaign — knowing that anyone can be a leader. Organizing for me is about hope and about staying hopeful and optimistic and believing in a future that is better than the one we’ve got now.” This week’s Seder in the Streets is typical, “coordinated almost entirely by a group of committed campaign members who have been meeting for many weeks to vision, plan, and execute this political spectacle in coordination with members of the Arab American Association of New York.”

“Over time,” she added, “we hope that New York Jews will no longer be the unlikely ally in this work; they’ll be the likely ally. The leaders in the campaign should always be the people who are the most affected by the issue, but we need other resources in the fight…. It’s about us being able to say, as Jews — many of whom have race and class privilege, but who are not just white and upper middle class — how do we follow the leaders, those most affected by abusive policing?”

It’s important to Kent that folks know that while street action is the most visible kind of organizing, organizing itself does not exclusively happen there. “For every hour in the streets, there are 300 online, forming personal relationships,” she says. “Rallies are a blip on the screen. [In the case of the Floyd trial] we want to ensure that the community is watching the outcome. We want to put it on people’s radar, pressure, community responsiveness. People see rallies and think, what’s that going to do? There’s not an understanding that things are part of each other.”

This Wednesday, JFREJ will try to make that connection, as it moves from the courtroom to Seder in the Streets. “Putting yourself in that place, Mitzrayim, where is it? For a 22-year-old man of color walking home from work, the street is the narrow place,’ said Kent. “We’re hearing from our allies that people are excited for this. It’s about countering isolation, putting this on the radar of Jews in New York. This does have to do with you.”

This is the first article in Zeek’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Organizing, a new series showcasing people and efforts that are helping bring Jews together as part of a growing social justice movement.

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