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Adolph Reed, Jr. on the Ferguson rebellion and its historical significance for the African-American community

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

As the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this year, it also continues to mourn the death of young African Americans perpetrated by whites, like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Time and time again, such cases erupt, there are protests, funerals, inquiries, court cases. Then life goes back to normal until something else tragic happens and history repeats itself. Some historians have referred to this moment as the Emmett Till moment. Emmett Till was the 14-year-old black boy brutally beaten and murdered nearly 60 years ago today on August 28, 1955, in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman. And only five days after Michael Brown was shot, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed a report on the United States and found racial disparity and discrimination spanning across U.S. society, including the criminal justice system, housing, health care, and education.

So, today, to put Michael Brown’s murder in its appropriate historical context, we are joined by Prof. Adolph Reed Jr. Prof. Reed teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in race and Americans politics.

Prof Reed, thank you so much for joining us today.

ADOLPH REED JR., PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIV. OF PENNSYLVANIA: Oh, it’s my pleasure as always. Thanks for having me.

PERIES: So can you put the murder of Michael Brown by white authorities in its historical context for us today?

REED: Well, yeah. I mean, as you mentioned the case of Emmett Till, from one perspective there’s an unbroken pattern, right, like, a history of black Americans’ lives not being valued by public authority or the police. That is, it’s not so much killing as the killing with impunity which feeds more and more killing, right? I mean, you could argue that individual acts of killing unarmed civilians are the work of rogue policeman, but there’s obviously more of a pattern here. So there’s that.

The fact that police, really, since the–through most of the postwar era, if not earlier, have operated more like an occupying army in minority impoverished communities in urban areas in America than they have operated in terms of the mandate to serve and protect. And that’s I think, the real context of this, right, this kind of stress policing and the sense that policemen, of whatever race, actually, can beat up and kill poor people of color with impunity, as I’ve said.

PERIES: Prof. Reed, Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, called this kind of violence against African Americans, mass incarceration of African Americans, another Jim Crow. Would you agree with that assessment?

REED: Well, no, I wouldn’t. And it’s kind of funny, because having read the book, she teases us with that analogy all the way through the book, and then toward the end says, well, actually, it isn’t. Because it isn’t, right? I mean, the Jim Crow order was the outgrowth of particular political and economic circumstances in the South was most immediately a product of the defeat of a populist insurgency that was also in some ways linked to a black political assertiveness that had grown ever since Emancipation. And in that sense the Jim Crow order was part of a counter-revolution against egalitarian and democratic strides that had been taken in the South since the end of the treasonous insurrection in 1865. The emergence of a mass incarceration, as Alexander herself acknowledges, arises from different circumstances and a different context that’s quite specific to the post-segregation era.

PERIES: When you look at The Real News’s coverage of Ferguson, time and time again you have young people speaking to the media, because they have an opportunity for the first time in a long time, talking about that voting, which most of the black leadership is calling for, that voting is the answer. Have a look at this clip.


UNIDENTIFIED 1: I lost two nephews in one day.

UNIDENTIFIED 2: But look what we keep allowing to happen. We’ve allowed this to happen for hundreds–.

UNIDENTIFIED 1: I know we allowed it. We need to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED 2: Voting, voting is after the fact. Who are you voting for? We have to place ourselves in a position to be voted for,–

UNIDENTIFIED 1: That’s right.

UNIDENTIFIED 2: –voting for an individual that you think is in your best interests. I’d rather vote for you. I’d rather vote for you.


UNIDENTIFIED 3: They’re going to give us justice, believe me. They’re going to give it to us. But I learned something, that justice is something you can’t ask for. Justice, you’ve got to take it.

UNIDENTIFIED 4: That’s right.

UNIDENTIFIED 3: Justice is something you can’t earn. I think we earned that.

UNIDENTIFIED 4: That’s right.

UNIDENTIFIED 3: All the [incompr.] gave up on 400 years of justice. We should earn that.


UNIDENTIFIED 3: That’s our justice.


UNIDENTIFIED 5: You [incompr.] the past all the money. You could be putting the jobs in the community so we can work, we can be taxpaying citizens. I’ve got a job, but that ain’t good enough. We all need jobs. We need ownership. We don’t need leadership. We need ownership.


REED: I understand very well the way young people perceive that at this point. And I think the way that they perceive it has a lot to do with the ways that older people perceive the stakes of politics and what politics is all about and the sort of cliches, like turning out to vote and other obligation to vote, people died for you to have the right to vote. I mean, on one level, I mean, they’re absolutely correct, of course, that it’s not really a matter of voting; it’s what you have to vote for.

At the same time, I think the debate about voting kind of misses the point, right? I mean, it’s much more a matter of the stakes of public policy and how parties, political activists, those who put themselves forward as political spokespersons construe the stakes of politics, right? I mean, I mentioned in my initial comment that part of the context of this crazy pattern of killings that we’ve just seen–and I’ve seen two or three more since we talked last–is most profoundly a function of the militarization of police departments and governing strategies in cities that increasingly have focused over the last three decades on suppressing the impoverished indigenous populations to present something like Club Med tourist experiences–it’s not true in Ferguson so much as St. Louis, but Club Med kind of tourist experiences for a relatively leisure class. And in this case, I mean, to the extent that public officials, whatever their color, or aspirants to public office, Democrat or Republican, share in this understanding that the purpose of politics, of public policy, is to protect the wealthy, basically, then styles of policing like this, right, that draw so much from the occupation of Iraq and elsewhere, are going to be the problem in American cities. And I think I mentioned [maybe once (?)] before that when I was a youngster, the first time I saw The Battle of Algiers, I was kind of struck at the movie, because I realized that–or it seemed to me that I lived much of that same experience as having largely grown up in big cities in black areas in the 1960s. I mean, we understood that the police were like an occupying army. I mean, the Black Panthers slogan to that effect at the time was highly resonant, and that’s still the case.

PERIES: Prof. Reed, in another clip we have a young man talking about it’s not about leadership–I think here he’s referring to President Obama and Eric Holder–it’s not about leadership, but it is about ownership. You know, there is this–almost a myth among African-American youngsters that if you would only own your business, if you’d be an entrepreneur, somehow your problems, these societal problems, are going to be resolved. While that is true to some extent, because African-Americans don’t own the commanding heights of the economy and they don’t make these kinds of decisions about the economy, they do see ownership as a liberating, emancipating moment. What do you think of that?

REED: Well, I think it’s a tragic expression of the triumph of neoliberalism and the lack of real options that people have. I would also indict, frankly, that prosperity is my birthright kind of [Protestantism (?)], too, as being very insidious in this regard. I mean, it’s really tragic and sad. I mean, and I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but how frequently one encounters that posture, right, the tendency to identify oneself as owning one’s own business or wanting to own one’s own business, which easily leads into fantasies about owning one’s own business. And I think it speaks to the extent to which the ability to–or that it’s no longer realistic for many people, of whatever age, frankly, but certainly people under 40, to aspire to a reasonable, stable job, like in the public sector, that does good for the society, or in the private sector, for that matter, to make something with a promise of economic security at a reasonable level and decent benefits, so that everything else is like fantasy life, frankly. And yeah, I mean, look, owning one’s own business might do something for one person, if it even were possible, like, whatever owning the business is. But as an aspiration, I think that that really–and especially as an aspiration, that comes as a punchline behind a militant posture. I think that really is a testament to how badly progressive political vision has been defeated in America, and in minority inner cities in particular.

PERIES: Professor, as someone who’s studied the issue of racial discrimination and African-American history, if you had the year of this African-American president today, given the moment we are in, with the murder of a young African-American man in Ferguson, what would you be saying to him?

REED: I think I would say to him that the most important thing is not to make these empty gestures like the Brother’s Keeper program or comparatively genteel or oblique comments that are really, I mean, directed to shoring up the black bourgeois base, that the more important thing would be for him to stake out social democratic positions, to retract from his expansion of our regime of, our global regime of military interventionism and to draw a line in the dirt and to fight against the right, right, and to stop the attack on public schools and other public institutions. Right? I mean, that’s what’s causing or intensifying problems in minority communities. And, yes, of course, I mean, in the very short term, terminate the 1033 program and stop the militarization [incompr.] go farther than he’s gone, frankly, on ending the drug war and the sentencing disparities. And, you know, I mean, that’d be a start, right? Oh, pardon me–and to terminate his final attack, right, on public housing, which I think Baltimore is a case where they’ve drawn the line in the dirt, where his administration has drawn the line in the dirt to wipe out the last bits of affordable, of low-income housing that’s provided by the federal government.

PERIES: Hopefully someone in his administration is listening to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

REED: My pleasure as always.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Adolph Reed, Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in race and American politics.