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Education

Wham BAMN

Group stirs controversy in fight for civil rights

MT photo: Jim West
A BAMN-organized protest against Ward Connerly's November speech at Lawrence Tech in Southfield.
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Published 1/11/2006

On the 29th floor of the Cadillac Tower in Detroit, a group of high school and college students sat around a conference table last December reviewing a script they would read over the phone to black voters who signed petitions to put the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on the state ballot.

“Did you understand what you signed?” the students would ask. Did the petitioner state clearly that the petition advocated banning affirmative action, or did he or she merely ask you to sign something “for civil rights”? They were looking for evidence of fraud in the signature collection process for the measure that, despite its name, seeks to abolish affirmative action programs in government employment and contracting, and university admissions.

The results of the phone survey were to be released at a public hearing of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at Cadillac Place in Detroit on Jan. 11.

But there’s more to the group conducting this survey, the Detroit-based Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). Inspired by Malcom X and Martin Luther King, BAMN’s leaders believe that radical action is needed for progress to be made.

“We push other organizations to do what they need to do,” says BAMN member Monica Smith, a senior at the University of Michigan.

Last month, at the state Board of Canvassers’ meeting in Lansing, student demonstrators organized by BAMN shouted down officials and flipped over a table before the board voted to put the affirmative action measure on the November 2006 ballot.

Members of the group had shut down a Detroit Public Schools board meeting in the same way in February 2002; a month later members were arrested for trying the same thing again, though the charges were later dropped. Before that, BAMNers had been sighted at a 1998 anti-KKK demonstration in Ann Arbor, scuffling with other demonstrators as well as their opponents. According to the Associated Press, the FBI added the group to its list of potential terrorists in 2002, a move that Shanta Driver, BAMN co-chair and national spokeswoman, calls “completely ridiculous.” The FBI declined to tell Metro Times why BAMN was put on the list originally, or if it’s still listed. Now, as Michigan’s civil rights advocates gear up to convince voters to reject the proposed ban on affirmative action, this more controversial side of BAMN is causing some to raise concerns that the group’s confrontational tactics could hurt the effort.

Driver, 51, says she and others, including the group’s full-time organizer Luke Massie, 36, formed BAMN in Berkeley, Calif., in 1995, in response to Ward Connerly’s ultimately successful drive to ban race-based admissions practices at the nine schools in the University of California school system. In 1997, when Connerly announced he was setting his sights on Michigan, Driver and Massie moved the group’s headquarters to Detroit where members also had previous ties.

Rob Goodspeed, a consultant for the liberal People for the American Way in Washington, D.C., and a longtime observer of BAMN’s tactics, says the group is linked to the Revolutionary Workers League, a Trotskyite group based in Detroit. Driver, an attorney for the civil rights and labor law firm Scheff & Washington, says BAMN is an independent organization. Its actual size is debatable. Driver says BAMN has several hundred members statewide. Goodspeed and others say membership is far lower. Whatever its numbers, BAMN has proved adept at gaining attention, sometimes in ways that alienate likely allies.

“The criticisms against BAMN have been uniform throughout,” she says. “We cannot allow our opponents to determine what our tactics should be. Our tactics win. That’s the bottom line. We think of our tactics as being inspirational.”

One of the “wins” Driver describes is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Grutter vs. Bollinger, which dealt with a white student’s claim that she was the victim of reverse discrimination after being denied admission to U-M. Driver recruited and mentored students who acted as interveners for the university in the trial, relating their personal experiences with affirmative action to the justices as a sort of supplement to the main arguments being made.

Driver’s work wasn’t limited to the courtroom, either. The day the case was argued before the court — April 1, 2003 — members of BAMN joined with other civil rights groups in a march down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. This action, Driver says, was a big part of why the justices decided to uphold affirmative action in their decision issued less than three months later. “I don’t think that [decision] would have occurred if BAMN had not been a force organizing young people,” she says.

Goodspeed, who dealt with BAMN as an undergrad at U-M, as chair of the ACLU student chapter and part of Students Supporting Affirmative Action, says BAMN’s influence on the 5-4 decision is debatable. “Nobody knows what impact popular pressure has on constitutional law decisions,” he says. “BAMN will tell you they basically won the case. However, given the predisposition of the judges involved, it seems to me the results would have been very similar with no public protests.”

Now, as the issue of affirmative action has moved from the courts to the ballot box, Goodspeed says he believes that BAMN’s confrontational tactics could end up hurting the pro-affirmative action cause more than it helps it.

“In politics, it’s not simply the views you take, it’s the methods you use,” he says. “Because of the physical and extreme tactics they use, I believe it’s counterproductive to work with them. Sometimes they’re very visible and very loud — they’re good at getting publicity and good at being in the limelight. But they don’t have many inroads” with policy makers.

“And,” he adds, “conservatives love to critique them because it casts doubt on the whole affirmative action debate.”

Indeed, the sound and fury that BAMN brought into the December state canvassers meeting turned off Chris Thomas, director of elections for the Michigan Secretary of State. After watching students organized by BAMN jumping on chairs, stomping their feet and catcalling at board members, Thomas told the Detroit Free Press, “Never before have I seen such absolutely incredible and unprofessional behavior from lawyers urging this disruption.”

Students play a big part in BAMN, and school outreach is one of the group’s most visible initiatives. Members visit high schools and middle schools throughout the region to explain the history of affirmative action. The speakers narrate a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the disparity between inner-city schools and those in the suburbs, afterward inviting interested students to join the group. Driver says many of the student members stay in contact with BAMN even after they graduate and move on to other things. Other political groups try to promote student involvement in politics, to be sure. BAMN literally puts them on the front lines.

Jackie Bray, who was co-chair of the Ann Arbor-based Student Supporting Affirmative Action during the 2003 march in Washington, D.C., says BAMN’s confrontational style turns off potential allies.

“When we talk about affirmative action, about racism, we have to realize that this country has to go through a healing process,” she says. “And that process has to include discussion and conversation. I agree that there are moments to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No more,’ but I think we really close ourselves off from changing the hearts and minds when we do that. And BAMN does that.”

But emotions are needed in activism, says Detroiter David Blair, a singer who performs under the name Blair. He says he became involved with BAMN after following members of the Revolutionary Workers League from Berekley to Detroit. He says he still considers himself part of the group, occasionally joining them in demonstrations or performing for fundraisers.

“I’ve heard a lot of those types of criticisms in the past,” he says. “Violence is never something you intend. When you fight a battle, you don’t use everything. But you don’t cut yourself off, either.”

Going back to the MCRI petitions, Driver says the student callers found evidence that many didn’t understand what they were signing. She says she’s confident that state officials will intervene and remove the MCRI from the ballot after BAMN releases its evidence of alleged petition fraud.

Whatever the outcome, Driver says the group has no plans to back off its efforts.

“We’ve seen people move forward, taken by the possibility that they can win,” she says. “You can’t possibly give it up after seeing that.”

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to blefebvre@metrotimes.com or call 313-202-8015.

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