Op-Ed: Mandela, Obama, & Our Unfinished Struggle for Justice

Violent oppression perpetrated by the United States and South Africa upon black communities stands as a crime against humanity that still requires our efforts to exact justice.

That makes America’s first black president’s tribute to South Africa’s first black president yesterday all the more meaningful. President Obama urged us all to learn from President Mandela’s legacy and uplift human rights, human dignity, and our shared, fundamental values. In honoring the centennial of Mandela’s birth, we are called to renewed hope and to renewed action.

State Sen. Jesse Hamilton

President Obama is right, there is an audacity in hope. It is a hope in defiance of injustice. Indeed, it is a hope in defiance of the most deep fault at the founding of our nation – a crime against humanity whose legacy haunts us to this very day.

And yet, why hope in the shadow of these ongoing challenges? Why audaciously hope?

Well first, it is not an idle hope. Not a hope put in a bottle and set adrift. This is an active hope. A hope with justice in its sails and a course set for the prize. Confronted with fire hoses and dogs, confronted with raw hatred, this hope managed to sing spirituals and give voice to the words, “We shall overcome.” This is a hope with steel in its spine. A hope powered by the dream of King, a hope inspired by Angelou and Dunbar’s caged bird that sings – a hope ever determined to put in the hard work.

As we mark four years of failing to hold to account those responsible for Eric Garner’s death, there can be no doubt that hard work lay ahead. We must demand the NYPD live up to the values it pledges to uphold: the pledge to “maintain a higher standard of integrity,” the pledge “to respect the dignity of each individual,” and the pledge “to value human life.” Those pledges must be given meaning in the day-to-day work of the police and in holding police accountable. The public must have transparency, so police officers who fail to live up to the values the NYPD espouses face, at the bare minimum, public accountability.

As we lay claim to the legacy of Mandela eclipsing the legacy of apartheid, the legacy of King supplanting the legacy of white supremacy, we must keep up our focus on justice reform, on combating voter suppression, on ending Broken Windows Policing, on valuing the human dignity of every member of our community.

In the spirit of that active hope, we must commit ourselves to build a better day than yesterday for our families, our communities, and our country. The memorial to the lives of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the lives of far too many others, murdered, battered, or abused, that memorial cannot be chiseled of granite or cast in bronze. We must build that memorial in the striving of communities across the country for a more peaceful, just, and humane world. As President Obama said in his Mandela Lecture, “the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished.”

Senator Jesse Hamilton is an American lawyer and politician. He represents Central Brooklyn in the New York State Senate.

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