Jesse Jackson is not a man who needs much of an introduction and anyone who has heard him speak knows that it is quite an experience. He walked in shaking hands with everyone within reach and it seemed as if the chair, Ruth Wishart, couldn’t quite believe she was actually on stage with him.
He spoke of the fact that with the digital age we are no longer foreigners or migrants but neighbours. We have learnt to survive apart but now comes the task of learning to live together. There must be a sense that no king or queen can be above the law. He then pauses to add that he means natural law, as normal law may not be just or fair. We’re currently losing jobs, education, and infrastructure to pay the bill for a war fought by men who were above the law and who have yet to take responsibility. The issue of migrants is one of a gap between those who have far more than they need and those who do not have enough. People are always going to head for the riverbank with the greener grass and we must learn to live together rather than die apart.
Wishart mentions that some had hoped for more change under Obama. Jackson explains that while in track and field you are measured only against yourself and your ability to run, in politics you must be measured against the strength of the resistance. The right wing met as Obama was inaugurated and decided that their one goal would be to defeat him. Despite that opposition Obama has created the highest rate of health insurance ever, withdrawn from Iraq, reconnected with Cuba and started a deal with Iran.
Progress is always met with resistance. Abolition was followed with lynchings, voting change followed with violence. Jackson explained that at every advance freedom, but not equality, has been achieved. They are now free to starve, to be ill housed, to be targeted by banks, to be poorly educated. Those who had the advantage before the abolition of slavery still have it. Talent and hard work goes a long way but inheritance and privilege goes further and the Voting Rights Act is still under attack. However, progress has been made. Jackson was once jailed for trying to use a public library; he can now walk into any library whenever he wants to.
Wishart explains that in the UK the debate over the confederate flag is baffling and Jackson pauses for a moment.
“Can you imagine a German state having the right to fly the Nazi flag?”
Applause follows this question and Jackson continues. Robert E Lee surrendered the Confederate flag when they lost and said that they should try to heal the wounds of war. The flag was then a non-issue until lynching became a federal crime. Then the flag was flying once more. Even when the flag is taken down the agenda it insinuates is still flying high.
When Wishart mentioned British disbelief over the lack of gun laws Jackson responds by stating that you can’t explain the irrational rationally. As it stands members of the public are allowed to buy weapons far more powerful than the police are allowed to carry. Some of them are capable of bringing down planes. The lack of laws essentially permits domestic terrorism to go unchecked. 6,000 Americans were killed in the Iraq War but 30,000 are killed by guns every single year. Usually by friends or relatives rather than the unknown criminals most people buy guns to protect against. In addition to those deaths the medical bill for those who survive a shooting is catastrophic.
When the session opens for questions unsurprisingly #blacklivesmatter and the upcoming elections are the main topics. Jackson says he hasn’t yet made a decision about whether he prefers Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton. He knows their previous track records but he’s also interested in urban reconstruction policy. Urban divides and disparities need focused attention and work so he is looking for substance first. The activists of #blacklivesmatter are doing the same and challenging all the candidates. They are essentially forcing the candidates to consciously acknowledge their presence and then asking them about their position on criminal justice.
“We deserve equal and adequate protection,” Jackson says, “And we’re not getting it.”
He provides the analogy of a ham and egg sandwich. When it’s all put together it looks neat and equal but it’s not. The chicken only had to lay an egg. The pig had to lose a leg. He feels that it is only when everyone is playing for both teams (both in the US and here) that we will really be able to vote for ideas and policies over people. However he knows that his failure in 1988 sowed the seeds that helped Obama to win in 2008 and he feels as good as he would have done if he had won. He knows that progress takes time and struggle but we don’t know how good it can possibly be until the playing field is level and everyone can walk equal as well as free.
Much of the discussion focused on depressing topics but even when talking about institutional racism and violence Jackson is a wonderfully inspiring figure and I walked home feeling ten feet tall and filled with hope.