Reclaiming the Community: A People's Project for Self-Determination


Mychal Odom I Social Movement Studies I Commentary I August 27th, 2015



San Diego, California is home to a unique grassroots project called Reclaiming the Community (RTC). This project exemplifies what was once called operational unity, comprising community activists and artists in San Diego from a variety of political positions, races and ethnicities, religious orientations, and, importantly, gang affiliations. The underlying goal of all liberation movements has been what many people call "self-determination." Self-determination in the most fundamental sense is defined as the right of members of a group to govern themselves and choose their own destiny. In the long history of liberation movements for African Americans and other people of color in the United States, this notion of self-determination has been translated to another highly important term, "community control." People from San Diego to Selma, Alabama have long understood that global change mandates robust progressive action at the local level. The Reclaiming the Community movement was founded by local Barber/Activist, Tau Baraka and a coalition of local organizations, and community members in response to the murder of Courtney Graham in 2010. Since then, the movement has continued to adapt and grow and is now made up of a larger coalition of people from a variety of different, longstanding, and well-respected organizations. The activism of the RTC movement has embodied the notion of community control by mandating that local residents be the ones who regulate the administration of education, political representation, and, importantly, criminal justice.

The Reclaiming the Community members have adopted the following declaration: "As a member of the Reclaiming the Community movement I recognize that power abuse by law enforcement and fratricide are the two most immediate issues facing our community." Herein lays the radical importance of the RTC movement to local, national, and international struggles. RTC has not separated its struggles against structural racism and economic oppression from the conversations we ourselves need to have as a community. In recent years, deeply conservative segments of American society have cynically used the waves of drug and gang violence throughout the United States as a retort to the popular statement "Black Lives Matter." "If Black Lives Matter, then why haven't you said anything about the killings in [Insert Major City with Gang/Drug Violence here]." However, these critics clearly have little to no interest in actually engaging the scourge of gang and drug violence that has assaulted Black people and communities of color consistently for four decades. Comparatively, some progressive activists shy away from internal conversations about gang and drug violence for fear that it might damage or lessen the concerns for structural inequality. RTC does not believe that conversations about police abuse and mass incarceration need to be separate from concerns over intra-community violence. Its members strive to "end mass incarceration and the targeting of Black and Brown community members by law enforcement" and to "renounce fratricide and the murder of our children, family members, and friends." The cause of these economic and social problems in places like Southeast San Diego is structural inequality. However, RTC has shown that the solution is, first and foremost, a form of empowerment that looks towards everyday people as leaders and change makers. For this reason, RTC has mixed more traditional forms of community engagement with cultural and social methods to create a strong base of grassroots activists.

In the spring and summer of 2014, the RTC movement held public marches and gatherings in a variety of Southeast San Diego neighborhoods and parks. Since the 1970s, Skyline, Encanto, Mount Hope, and Mountain View/Lincoln Park have been central to the gang and drug activity within the San Diego area. Yet reversing the tradition of urban flight, RTC did not shun these places and people; instead, RTC saw an important opportunity to organize the people where they are, gathering hundreds of residents and members to hold public marches throughout these areas. These marches were only a prologue to a longer discussion with Southeast San Diego. The goal of the marches was to introduce RTC's united front to the community. Following each march, RTC threw public barbecues with free food, drinks and music at the parks of the various districts. In doing so, RTC fostered important public conversations between community members, which eventually grew to larger community engagement with very real and important legislative changes in California. Amongst its many victories, these marches helped rally community support for the passage of California Proposition 47, which reclassified most non-serious drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The main goal of the marches and RTC movement, however, has always been about moving people, and not just changing policy. Since the marches, the RTC movement has consistently engaged a variety of public concerns, with its largest focus on policing and criminal justice.

Critical to self-determination and community control is another term, "self-definition." Before a people can decide where they want to go, they must first decide who they are. Culture is vastly important to the self-definition of a people and it is therefore logical that cultural workers such as musicians, poets, visual artists, and other creatively minded people have always played a prominent role in movements for liberation. Cultural and social events prove just as important, if not more, as canvassing neighborhoods, polling, and holding public rallies. In 2014, while RTC was organizing the community marches, one of its founding members Khalid Alexander of Pillars of the Community, proposed the composition of a hip hop soundtrack. RTC organizers had utilized music as a tool during their community marches, and local artists such as Big June and Wilnisha Sutton, in addition to other musicians, had played an important role as community organizers. RTC members believed that a soundtrack would help further unite San Diego and carry RTC's message to the masses. Further, a major component of this message was criticisms of recent unjust and racist criminal conspiracy charges against a variety of young men and women from the Lincoln Park section of San Diego.

Among this group of men and women were two young men, Aaron Harvey and rapper Brandon "Tiny Doo" Duncan, who were arrested in June 2014 and charged with murder under the extremely controversial Proposition 21. Passed in 2000, Proposition 21 allows for the prosecution of anyone determined to benefit from or promote crimes committed by gang members. Actually admitting that Harvey and Duncan had no involvement in a series of killings that took place in 2012 and 2013, San Diego District Attorney charged that Facebook postings and music of the respective defendants allowed them to profit from the series of killings. Members of the RTC movement and other parts of San Diego rallied against these unjust charges against Harvey, Duncan and other defendants. In addition to presenting a clear violation of the First Amendment, these charges were grounded in the logic and working of a long history of racism and anti-blackness embedded in our criminal justice system. The charges against Harvey and Duncan are only comprehensible to people who are unable to separate Black people from their art or, even worse, the deviant images conjured in the popular imagination. In the spring of 2015, the charges against Harvey and Duncan were proven to be unfounded and they were released. But the charges against Duncan substantiated the power of Black and minority cultural production in San Diego. If rap lyrics could be used by Bonnie Dumanis to try to take away the lives of people, then why couldn't rap music be used as a tool of unity and to give life? As a counterpoint to the oppression and misappropriation of justice waged by Dumanis and her office, collective mobilization against these charges served to energize the RTC album project. Rappers and musicians have therefore played a critical role in RTC from the beginning. As the album's producer Parker Edison has noted, "The street rappers and hip hop artists are the voice [of the people maligned by throughout the US]. This CD is the natural outcome of the larger push for positivity and desire for self-determination that we see throughout South East San Diego."

The RTC album is an important tool in community organizing, as it brings together a group of local artists, many whom have intimate ties to the hard streets of Southeast but have also dedicated their life's work to trying to find an alternate and more positive way forward for all of San Diego. A reflection of RTC's overall political beliefs, the album project lets the community speak for itself, as opposed to just being spoken to. Parker notes, "It is meant to encourage all of those who are struggling for positivity and to overcome the many obstacles that society has place in their way, but most of all, it is a reflection of the realities we live with here on a daily basis; the good and the bad." The RTC album challenges the dominant narratives about life in South East San Diego, especially the ones that promote cultural links of Blacks and poor people to criminality. The album stands in direct opposition to the images that Dumanis, in her attempts to prosecute Harvey and Duncan, sought to exploit. In an interview, one of the album's artists Ecay Uno pronounced his appreciation for being a part of the RTC project because, despite his history of gangs and drugs, ever since his youth, he has wanted "to be a part of what gets people out of the mindset that we are in which causes us to make the choices that we make…a lot of the negative activity in the streets."

It is phenomenal and a testament to the artists themselves that this album was able to be completed. The album brings together artists such as Tiny Doo and C-Hecc, whose Blood and Crip neighborhoods have been in longstanding feuds with each other. Despite this, both artists recognize in their songs on the album that the decades-long genocide that Southeast has endured is a result of limited public and economic resources, and the destruction of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Tiny Doo's track is entitled "Deserve This" and C-Hecc's track is entitled "True Story." Both songs do what all great art is supposed to do and ask the people to imagine a new Southeast, a new San Diego, a new world beyond the one given to us. C-Hecc states, "Picture the progress, transforming the new day/not only money, our people living a new way/all that malice in their hear and they tears gone/no more mamas going broke over headstones/understanding is key to this transition/now these kids ain't got they brothers and they dads missing." In his song, Tiny Doo demands a return of the leadership of people like Huey P. Newton as a possible solution to the current state in which the Black community finds itself. In fact, the RTC movement and album have already engaged the tradition and ideals passed down by the Black Panthers-which they inherited from Malcolm X.

Students of the teachings of Malcolm X, the Panthers and other radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s understood that all successful liberation movements must organize what Huey Newton called "the brothers and sisters on the corner" and other people have referred to as the lumpenproletariat. Huey understood this personally because, like Malcolm, he too had spent a wealth of his childhood incarcerated. Malcolm once stated that to be born in America is to be born Black in America is to be born a prisoner. For this reason, the problem of mass incarceration in the RTC project is understood as one that impacts all of us and not just the formerly incarcerated. What's more, it is the formerly incarcerated who are best prepared to lead the movement because as one historian asked, "Who better to define freedom than the slave?" The victims of "neoslavery" are the ones leading this fight for freedom.

The RTC album released July 28, 2015 amidst a well historic moment for the history of American liberation movements. This date marks the 150th year anniversary of the end of the American Civil War and the passing of the 13th amendment. In an alternate universe, this would be a year in which we celebrate how far our nation has come. However, just as the great writer and critic James Baldwin noted in his famed letter to his nephew, "My Dungeon Shook," we are not truly free until the legacy and the structures of white supremacy have been defeated. The RTC album project was released on the 28th of July because that is the same day in 1868 that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the Secretary of State William Seward and the Congress. The 14th Amendment was supposed to bestow citizenship, equal rights, and due process to the formerly enslaved and ensure that no one is denied their inalienable rights regardless of race, creed or color, but the continued struggles over the past 150 years underscore that this has yet to come. In this light, the RTC album is more than your average hip hop compilation-it is a political manifesto, a treatise. The RTC album is not the first San Diego album to bring together such a diverse grouping of artists across gang and racial boundaries. A dozen years ago, many of these same artists came together to create the now legendary compilation Str8 Off the Streets of Southeast. A couple of years later, the New West compilation album released. What makes this album different is the explicit political purpose amidst a larger political moment. RTC artists such as Black Mikey, Ecay Uno, and Odessa Kane have a longstanding tradition of progressive and radical lyrical content. Wilnisha Sutton is a local artist and a budding activist. Following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for his killing of Mike Brown last fall, she was among the first to take to the streets in the mass actions in Southern California. However connected to the larger local, national, and international movement, the RTC album carries historic significance as it extends their activism to new height.

The RTC album was composed, produced, and released in lockstep with the RTC movement and within the spirit of the age. The album gives voice to the disposed and forgotten. It has transformed the "brothers and sisters of the corner" into agents for change. Be it about Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, or Tiny Doo, everyday people are discussing the long history of injustice. They are reading, studying, and preparing for a new day. They are demanding that that change come now and that we no longer be asked to wait patiently. As the RTC artist letter notes, it "is the sound track to that feeling. It is a voice for those who society would leave voiceless. This album is a call to action, a call to solidarity, and a collective effort to haul up a new day. We believe a new day is dawning in America and you are the artists that are making it happen."

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The RTC album project is available for download at https://rtcproject.bandcamp.com/. As an extra treat, the album has a second part-a mixtape. The album hosts the local artists Hotta (aka Silhouette), Tiny Doo, Big June, Ecay Uno, Odessa Kane, Black Mikey, Jaz Williams, Wilnisha A. Sutton, Looselyric, Aye Hitt, Licwit Loco, C-Hecc, Dave Moss, and Bossman Hogg. The mixtape contains music from Real J Wallace, Aki Kharmicel, Piff PCH, Ric Scales, Pedalay the Boss, Leon Saint Heron, GMG and Von Dream. For people who are less tech-savvy or are old school and like to purchase albums themselves, the artists will be selling copies; as well local barbershops such as Imperial Barbershop have copies for sale. The prices of both discs have been set at $10 each. The proceeds from the album will go to support this completely grassroots and remarkable movement.