Black Activists Want Fuller Political Effort & Engagement

A group of Ontario-based activists intend to marshal considerable political muscle in the 2018 election throughout the Inland Empire by making sure significant numbers of African-American voters go to the polls.
Aaron Bratton, one of the volunteer leaders of the Ontario chapter of the Color of Change organization, told a crowd gathered in Ontario Monday night that the African American community has been given short shrift because the last two generations have not followed up on the positive gains achieved through hard work and activism elements of the community engaged in during the 1960s and 1970s.
Bratton is the son of Walter Bratton, the first black firefighter employed by the Ontario Fire Department. Aaron Bratton said a major push for fair play in Ontario originated with his grandparents, Elvenia and James Lawrence Bratton, who moved to Ontario from South Carolina in 1956 with their still growing family. Eight years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Eleven years later, the Ontario Fire Department remained as a bastion of white men, and Elvenia and James Lawrence, or J.L. as he was known, confronted Ontario officials.
“They went to the city and asked ‘Why is your fire department all white?’” Aaron Bratton said. “The result was they hired my father. That was in 1975. He retired in 2006, after 31 years on the department. That was a breakthrough. He was the first black firefighter in Ontario. In 1986, the department hired Floyd Clark, another African-American, who eventually promoted to fire chief. He was fired as chief two years ago. To this day, the department has only had two African American firemen. I feel like things have gone backwards.”
Aaron Bratton continued, “My grandmother came here with my grandfather back in 1956 to escape Jim Crow, because California seemed like a better place than the South. It is a better place, but there is still racism. It is more subtle and behind the scenes. The negative attitudes toward black folks still persist. My grandmother went right up to the civil authorities and embarrassed them, really, that their fire department was lily white. That brought about change and the change continued, at least somewhat, because in 1986 they hired another black man who would go on to become the fire chief. But since 1986, what happened to the legacy of my grandmother and grandfather? That legacy is deteriorating. We’ve gone back to zero [black] firemen. The situation has regressed. It seems like we got comfortable and we fell asleep.”
Aaron Bratton graduated from Ontario High School and went to Cal State University San Bernardino where he obtained a degree in political science. He then went to Pepperdine University Law School, graduating last year. During his last semester in law school his aunt, Barbara Bratton, became entangled in a criminal case in which she was charged with real estate fraud after she contested the efforts by a predatory loan operator who initiated foreclosure proceedings against her and had the property fraudulently and erroneously deeded to a couple who at first laid claim to the home in question and then denied participating in the scheme.
“I was there in the courtroom every day and I witnessed firsthand how flawed the system is and the injustice of that trial,” Aaron Bratton said. “The action of overzealous prosecutors maliciously offering misrepresentations as facts and the harsh sentencing had a really big impact on me.”
Bratton said his law studies drove home to him the point that the law has not been fairly applied and that “over and over again in civil law, criminal law, corporate law, trademark law, black people have been screwed over time after time. Again and again cases would come up that involved a black man raping a white woman. I would be the only black guy in the whole classroom. Those were important cases in criminal law, with black men being scapegoated. That fired me up. I didn’t have patience for it anymore. My cowardice left me and I had to speak out. It didn’t matter that the professor went to Harvard Law School. I would tell them they had it wrong. So much of what is in the law is based on these fallacies, these stereotypes. We see black people being railroaded.”
But social justice is not just going to simply materialize or evolve organically, Bratton said. The black community is responsible, he said, for allowing the injustice to perpetuate itself. “There is too much apathy,” he said “Black folks have to learn. They have to educate themselves on how to navigate the legal system.”
Simultaneously, he said, African-American voters have to participate in the electoral process, and turn out in percentages greater than that of the general population.
“What we’ve done is taken our foot off the gas,” he said. “Forty years after my father was the first fireman in Ontario there are zero black firefighters with the department. If you ask why, you will be given all sorts of nondiscriminatory reasons and explanations. That is all a charade. It is a rigged system. We have poor voter turnout. That is not a coincidence. We have to be involved to hold our leaders accountable. I don’t have time or patience for cowardice. I’m not asking for people to lead the way. I just want people to help me get the job done.”
Bratton suggested that the most logical pathway to change was for the African-American community to assert itself politically and then capitalize on whatever influence it is able to bring to bear in that way to effectuate reforms legally and within the justice system and the courts.
Themes sounded during the meeting pertained to the court system being an unfair and uneven playing field.
Lionel Walker said, “We have to break down these walls that don’t allow us to be fairly tried [in courts of law].”
An issue raised repeatedly was the seeming impunity with which law enforcement officers utilize deadly force in dealing with African-American men.
One woman referenced the shooting of Stephon Clark in Oakland last month.
“If someone shot my son 20 times, I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “What are we going to do about it? It is time for us to take care of us.”
La’Nae Norwood, a consultant to Color of Change, characterized the use of deadly force against black men by police and the disparity of incarceration of African Americans vis-à-vis the white population as “the new lynchings.” Norwood said that lynchings in America had essentially ended in the 1960s but that at present, black men are being incarcerated, statistically in terms of their percentage of the population, at three times the rate they were in 1968.
In 2014, Norwood said, African-Americans, who constitute less than 11 percent of the population in the United States, constituted 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total 6.8 million who were in prison or jail. Moreover, she said, African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and the imprisonment rate for African-American women is twice that of white women. She said that nationwide, African-American children represent 32 percent of children who are arrested.
Norwood said the aim of Color of Change is to “engage the black community in political affairs and make its members aware of the existing political climate.”
Those seeking to involve themselves in the Color of Change effort can contact Norwood at
Monday night’s forum took place at the Stephanie Wiltz Events Forum on Laurel Avenue in Ontario.
Mark Gutglueck

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