Grassroots: SURJ Columbus Uses “People Power” to Work Against Racial Injustice
Getting involved in the fight for racial justice can be intimidating for the average white progressive. Where do you fit? How do you let your voice be heard without drowning out the black and brown voices of the movement? How do you contribute without coming off as a “white savior?”
Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) has some ideas. The national group, formed in the aftermath and racial backlash to Barack Obama’s election in 2008, initially brought white people together to get other whites involved in what is now the Movement for Black Lives.
Seven years after the group got its start, local minister Lane Campbell launched the multi-racial Columbus chapter, welcoming people of all shades to call white people into the fight for equality.
With around 10 in leadership and 300 registered members, SURJ Columbus uses “people power” to work against racial injustice, a multi-faceted concept touching every sector of life — education, wealth, employment, community safety, healthcare, etc.
“Really our focus is bringing the racial analysis to these issues that might be clashing otherwise, getting people to see those connections,” said Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer for SURJ.
“Intersectionality,” a term coined by civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, has been largely applied to feminism and recently used to critique the Women’s March on Washington. Those who believe in a post-racial society, where racial conflict, preference and discrimination no longer exist, need only look at that march to see the privilege of being a white activist. The march, an event coded as white, resulted in zero arrests. In spite of being considered a successful march from the dominant perspective, it’s also been criticized for its exclusion of non-cisgendered individuals.
“The women’s march was for cisgender white women in ways that it was harmful and hurtful to folks that don’t hold those two identities,” Campbell said.
The first step for the pussy hat-wearing white progressive is to recognize privilege, which can mean enough financial security to make the drive to Washington D.C. or acquire childcare in order to be able to protest. SURJ uses this privilege to combat white supremacy.
“I understand that we are well-resourced as an organization because of the privilege that many of our members hold,” Campbell said.
The solution isn’t white guilt, said Krakoff. It’s leveraging that privilege to ultimately combat it.
“So if you have money, divest from your privilege by donating that money or using it,” Krakoff said. “If you work in a senator’s office and have connections to that senator, it doesn’t mean you need to quit your job; it means you use the power that you have against white supremacy.”
But, rather than sitting down in private meetings with senators and representatives, SURJ uses “working groups” to carry out its actions, aimed at holding elected officials accountable in a more public light.
“I also think the power and balance with our elected officials is such that we’re asked to go to their offices and beg for some little smidgen of justice there, and that just doesn’t seem like a good system to play into, to be honest,” Campbell said. “So we’ve been doing a lot more public actions and protests and taking it to the folks, still taking it to the powers that be, but not going into their office with a couple of us behind closed doors.”
In late September, SURJ led a protest in response to the death of Tyre King. The demonstration was a mock funeral procession leading to Mayor Andrew Ginther’s house. Apparently away from home, Ginther missed the rally and the mock casket placed on his lawn.
Whether someone’s skill set lies in such protest and public action, or in research and education, art, outreach, or training, there’s a role to fill. Their actions are largely connected to local instances of police brutality. Along with other groups, like People’s Justice Project, 614 Unity and Columbus People’s Partnership, they campaigned for justice for Henry Green and Tyre King. This Saturday is another “rally for justice” for Jaron Thomas, who was killed by Columbus police last month when officers were responding to a mental health crisis.
Currently, SURJ is researching politicians’ campaign donations. Along with Dayton’s own SURJ chapter, this “power mapping” will become a website database looking at who, locally, is supporting national campaigns.
“The overall goal is to see who these folks are and start taking actions to where they are,” Campbell said.
Campbell describes SURJ as “100 percent grassroots, volunteer organized,” with no funding and no budget. Getting involved only takes showing up to their meetings on the first Thursday of every month or joining one of the working groups.
For more information, visit http://surjcolumbus.org.