Richie Perez

“There are those who fight for a day,
and are good.
There are those who fight for many years, and are very good.
But there are those who fight for a lifetime- those are the indispensable ones.”
Bertolt Brecht

A great man, a great revolutionary, is lying very sick in the hospital as I write this column. About a week ago the word went out publicly that Richie Perez had taken a turn for the worse following a three month battle with serious illness. Two days ago hundreds of people packed a large room at 1199/SEIU in Manhattan in a prayer vigil and evening of spiritual solidarity with this man who has touched and inspired so many lives.

Richie has been active politically since the 1960s in a mix of organizations and coalitions dealing with issues of concern to Latino and other communities of color in New York City and the nation. For many years he has been a leader of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, and he is currently co-chair of its Justice Committee.

Richie knows about and has worked hard against the reality of a racially and economically unjust society. About six years ago, at hearings on police brutality and misconduct held by Congressman John Conyers in Brooklyn, N.Y., he spoke about how, “recently, I appeared on a segment of ’60 Minutes,’ dealing with the question of whether or not NYC was enjoying a ‘renaissance’ under Mayor Giuliani. At a meeting in preparation for the show, it became apparent to me that indeed, we are still living in ‘two societies,’ as the Kerner Commission noted in the late ’60s. The producers of my ’60 Minutes’ segment came from the Midwest, were new to New York, and enjoyed an upscale life in the city. They and their friends, they told me, thought NYC was enjoying an economic boom and had become a much safer and nicer place to live.

“I told them that where you stood on the socio-economic ladder and racial hierarchy determines how you feel about conditions in the city. At the beginning, they didn’t believe me when I told them that in the city I live in, the city my community lives in, police routinely roll up on people and demand identification, often at gunpoint. They didn’t believe the stories of the hundreds of young people of color who are stopped everyday and ILLEGALLY searched. They didn’t believe the accounts of the dozens of people who have been killed by racist cops because they were Latino, Black or Asian. This is a reality in my city, my society.”

Far too many white people, just like the 60 Minutes producers, don’t understand this reality, because they don’t live it. And this is true for white people of all classes, even though low-income whites, relative to those from the middle and upper classes, do have more incidents of police harassment and abuse.

“The wall between”-that’s what Anne Braden called it in her excellent book of the same name on the racial divide.

I was reminded of the institutional ways this wall is maintained yesterday, the day after the event for Richie, when I attended a court hearing in Newark. At the hearing, lawyers for four Bloomfield, N.J. police officers indicted last year for second degree manslaughter in the killing in 2002 of a black Dominican factory worker, Santiago Villanueva, argued that the indictments should be dropped and that there should be no trial. Present in the courtroom were about 50 police officers in civilian clothes, all but one white, as well as about 20 mainly Latin family members and supporters of Villanueva. Less than 3% of the police force in Bloomfield is of color even though the town itself is 30% of color, and even though a consent agreement with the NAACP to change that reality was signed by the town government years ago.

Bear in mind: this is not Mississippi, but “up-south” New Jersey I’m talking about, the state where, according to the 1/18/04 Newark Star Ledger, “Blacks are 13 times as likely as whites to be behind bars. It is the largest racial disparity in rates of incarceration of any state.”

Richie Perez’s primary commitment has been to his people and other people of color, to organizing against police violence and abuse, to leadership development and training in community organizing strategy and tactics for the economically and racially oppressed. But he has welcomed the support and participation of white allies who have taken the time to learn about racism and who know how to be respectful.

I was deeply moved the other evening by the spirit of love and comradeship that emanated from the stage as one person after another spoke of how, whatever happened with Richie, he would continue in our midst, how his time and our time on earth in our physical body was just one phase of a life, a spiritual life, that can go on for centuries.

People spoke of the need to overcome ego, to put the needs of the people first, to be humble, just as Richie has done.

This is unusual for gatherings of the mix of political activists present in that room. But it was good to hear, and it is right. As we struggle for justice and peace, as we struggle to get George Bush out of office, as we struggle for a truly multi-cultural, broadly-based and effective political alternative to both corporate-dominated parties, we must draw strength and wisdom from the lives of people like Richie Perez.