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TRNN in-studio audience challenges Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, on the role of voting in transforming society

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REV. DR. HEBER BROWN III, HOST, TRNN TOWNHALL (BALTIMORE): Hi, and welcome back to The Real News Network. My name is Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III. We’re having a wonderful conversation about a tragedy in this nation–the murder of Michael Brown–and Ferguson and the ripples from Ferguson. Where do we go from here?

Our special guest today is Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.

And we’re so thankful, again, for your time today.


BROWN: The conversation has been hot. And it’s get about to get more hotter, if I can say that, because we have just a wonderful guest audience here today, and so many in this crowd, and not just audience members, but they’re activists, spoken-word artists, business leaders doing so many wonderful things as well. I want to take a moment and introduce a few of them.

Everybody in the audience is going to be now–this part of the show is going to be us engaging back and forth. There’s microphones in the audience. So let’s get at it. Okay?

We broke at the half, talking about voting. And Rev. Yearwood, you said that voting is the most radical thing we can do right now, and you said that the right wing really got upset when two mothers set up a voter registration booth. They didn’t mind the burning down of the gas station or the other things or the looting–some have called it looting; others have called it reparations. But they didn’t mind none of that. But when two mothers set up a table and did voter registration, that’s when they got upset. You saw that as a sign of that’s where the real power is. And I alluded to the fact that I believe that some in this audience would say different. And I want to give voice to that.

Karega Bailey, I think you were one who had a difference of opinion as it relates to voting. Is that right?

KAREGA BAILEY, EDUCATOR, AUTHOR, POET, MC: The idea is that if voting is the most revolutionary thing we can do, I can’t say that I’ve found the recourse. I can’t say that I’ve found exactly what would replace voting. I’m just saying, how long does it take for us to groom someone who we choose to vote for, who we know will serve the interests of the people? So that revolution is a little longer than I’d like to wait, but I do understand that my patience is something I must develop.

But I also say this. I don’t know if I really have the true hope that things will change. I just know I’m arming with a glitch, and I don’t know how to stop fighting. So I count toward the change, but I can’t say with certainty that I believe it’s coming.

BROWN: So, brother Bailey makes a great point, says if voting is the answer, Rev, it’s a long time coming. And even with the historic election of our president, President Barack Obama, many of the things that–from Michael Brown to Trayvon Martin, many of this and so many other–and Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, the list really could go on and on and on–under this president, the one who said hope and change and yes we can, things at least on the ground have not seemed to change as substantively as was initially promised, at least for some. What do you say to those who say, listen, I’m tired of waiting?

YEARWOOD: Yeah, no, I understand. I definitely understand the sentiment. And I understand being revolutionary unfortunately means you have to be patient. It is long-term. It’s one of the things that sometimes–that the battle will go on beyond you, and you have to literally prepare your children, literally, to fight the next phase of the battle. And that’s hard, because we don’t think [incompr.] we want to see it now. And some things will come now, but then some things will be done for the next generation.

The other Ferguson, actually, we should talk about, which is Plessy v. Ferguson–. Plessy v. Ferguson is Homer Plessy, who was the light-skinned young brother who boarded the train in New Orleans in 1892 and it stopped. And then that literally creates separate-but-equal laws, creates Jim Crow, creates segregation. And then from there we needed to have litigation and legislation come forth next–Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education. Those things came after that process, about 50 years later.

What’s important to know: that those communities who were against the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act of ’64 or in ’65, they didn’t stop. They were patient. And so for an example of that would be John Roberts, Chief [Justice] John Roberts now. You know, in ’83 he was a Harvard law student, and Reagan and those communities groomed him, literally from ’83. Thirty years later, he’s now the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and he’s now rolling back voting rights. So they have patience. And so they recognize that it is a systematic planning. So while we’re dealing with the other Ferguson, our Ferguson, they are still trying to create not only separate but equal, but separate but unequal. And so our only level of leveling the playing field is through voting.

Now, I would say there are other things we could do. I would say there is divestment, I mean, taking our money out of corporations, the prison-industrial complex, companies that are polluting our communities. There are other tools that we can use along with voting divestment. Clearly, I wouldn’t say–you’re right. I like how you said it wasn’t rioting. It was the Ferguson uprising and the resistance in Ferguson. We can support that in the next generation. But voting is critical. It is our most important means right now if we utilize it, in other words, to level the playing field on a political basis.

But I think what was being kind of stated was that we then have politicians who get into positions of authority who look like us, who come from our community, they get into those positions, and then they don’t do what they’re called upon doing. And that is frustrating. So I actually agree wholeheartedly. We do need to groom out of the resistance a new set of leaders to be in those positions of authority.

BROWN: Can I do a quick poll, in fact, of that, based on that statement that the reverend said, so I can see beyond our brother, Brother Bailey, who shared, [incompr.] quick poll of those who disagree with the statement that voting is the most revolutionary or radical think we can do? Can I see the hands of those who disagree? “I disagree with that statement. I disagree with it. I disagree.” Alright.

Civ, can we hear from you on why you disagree with that statement?

CIV JONES, ON-AIR PERSONALITY, HIP HOP ACTIVIST: I don’t think it’s the most radical. For me, I come from the thought of economics withhold [sic]. I believe America is a capitalistic country. I think if we as a community, especially black folks who spend a lot of money–we’re one of the biggest consumers in America–I think if we starve America’s capitalistic hunger, that is the most radical thing that we can do. I think that we’ll start to see some really big change. And that is something that we can do immediately.

With the voting, it’s still needed. It’s definitely still needed. I don’t count that out. But if you think about voting, you said in 2013 it was only 6 percent. It’s going to take four more years before you can see some type of political change in that city of Ferguson because of the way the laws are written. And I agree. Like, people say vote, vote, vote. But who are we voting for? What are we voting for? The Hip Hop Caucus, I understand that you guys are based out in D.C., but are you touring these little towns? Are you seeing the political structure of these towns like of Ferguson? Why did it take Mike Brown’s killing for us to realize that this is a place that is 60 percent black but their leadership does not represent that? Where are these caucuses and these political organizations looking at the structure of these cities and saying, hold on, there is something going on right here, we need to go to these cities and get the people and these cities educated and really for them to understand what is going on, how we are throwing our political powers away? So I don’t think that voting is–the most radical thing for me is withholding our finances, not purchasing or patronizing those places that don’t patronize us.

BROWN: Interesting. Rev, Sister Civ makes a great–my sister makes a great point. You’ve been working on a national level. Can you point to any small town like a Ferguson or a Sandford where on the ground voter registration and the like has worked to redistribute political power in a small town and really change on-the-ground reality for people?

YEARWOOD: Oh, most definitely. I mean, there’s Newark, New Jersey currently. I mean, there is a litany of cities that I can–we you can say Oakland. But I think the point with–I’m not against divestment or withholding our money. I think, though, there–again, there is an institutional-educational component around that that is much–that is not as easily done as said. And I do think we do need to begin educating our community not only to withhold that money, in other words divest, but then to invest their money into our community, our organizations, and also invest their money into organizations or institutions that are supporting them.

Listen, I have nothing against the church or the mosque, but a lot of times we put a lot of money into our churches, and they’re not doing what needs to be done for our community. But we are constantly investing in that. So we need to withhold our money even from those within our own community who aren’t putting forth a plan that needs to create change.

But I still think that voting is the one thing that we can quickly–it’s something that you can do [incompr.] to do. In other words, it’s a broad-based process. If we were voting, in essence, at 96 percent–let’s flip the coin–and we were not seeing the results, then I would rather–I would probably even [have] more of an inkling to say, okay, I can understand that this might not be the top priority. But because it’s the lower number, using Ferguson, Ferguson is a great example that they had–and again, I don’t want to make this strictly because you can vote for who you want to. In other words, I’m not saying vote for a black person because they’re black, because we recognize there are a lot of black people who are not for black people. And so I’m saying vote for good people who are for your community. So if they want to vote for some all-white city council [incompr.] city council’s all for the people of Ferguson. But clearly [incompr.] what they’re saying, that is not the case. So what I’m saying here in regards to Ferguson: if you’re voting at 6 percent in 2013–actually, they vote every two years–literally, still two years is still time to create that kind of change.

The thing, though, for Ferguson is that if you’re–you’re in essence giving away your right, your power. Looking at the other side, in other words the other side who wants to take away your power–in other words, there are two sides to this. There is in essence those who want to organize money, and there are those who want to organize people. The good news is that organized people beats organized money when organized people are organized. And so the key thing here is that with organized people, the Koch brothers, they are funding every level. In other words, they are now funding people to be dog catchers, not just senators or governors or presidents of the country. But they want to make sure that every level of our policymaking is shaped. And that’s the key thing why it’s the most radical aspect, because either you shape policy or policy will shape you.

BROWN: Let me just throw another thing in the pot as we’re talking, because speaking about responding to the movement, a lot of artists, a lot of hip hop artists and mainstream artists, have also been responding to what’s been going on in Ferguson, right? And so we’ve had–and let me make sure I get all my names right, because I know they watch The Real News Network–Talib Kweli, J. Cole, Rosa Clemente, Lauryn Hill, David Banner, Common, John Legend, Jasiri X, Nelly, T.I., so many others in different ways have been engaging this issue through their music, through interviews, through T-shirts, like John Legend [when he’s–did his (?)] concert the other night, and that kind of thing. But you said recently there was a conference call with a lot of these artists, and I’m just curious for you to share what was on the minds of mainstream artists, quote-unquote, mainstream–we can debate that term, too–but what was on their minds in light of Ferguson.

YEARWOOD: No, definitely. Let me just quickly address what was said there. A movement isn’t necessary, but a strategic movement is what’s needed. It isn’t just a movement, ’cause movements can be iced out. We saw that from Occupy Wall Street. We’ve seen it from definite movements that grow quickly and then don’t sustain themselves.

And also what I’m saying is that legislation–you mentioned, you know, speaking of Missouri, Dred Scott decision in Missouri, which then–it litigates and legislates the value of a black life and a black man. And so what I’m saying to you is that, no, we definitely need organization, we definitely need demonstration, but organization and demonstration without litigation and legislation leads to frustration. And so what I’m saying is that if we’re just talking about just movement-building without an idea of shaping policy or changing policy, then we’re going to have some bad repercussions on our part, long-term.

But definitely a movement is critical, which is part of the call which we have with the artists. I think my job with Hip Hop Caucus is that I’m in a great position ’cause I get to work with all types of artists. You know, I’ve got a dear friend Immortal Technique on one side, and I work with T.I. and 2 Chainz, ’cause it’s the Hip Hop Caucus and they all come together and they have these discussions. So we had a call about Ferguson. And it was actually a great call. I won’t say who talked about what, ’cause it was–we have our calls that are–but they were–most of the artists you named were on that call. And so, in that, the discussion came up in regards to the issue of black-on-black crime. And I can understand, because they say, why wouldn’t–this is part of the leadership question, when there is–when people say they don’t see the issue around that or they don’t think they see, ’cause there are things that are being done, which–I think that’s the other part. Things are clearly being done.

The bottom line to that issue, which [incompr.] hear them discussing amongst themselves and the difference around this is that all of them, when they kind of–one of the artist asked the other artists, well, who on this call has not been profiled? Nobody said anything. And then the aspect that it’s different because one of the artists–and I think it might have been Common or Malik Yusef might have said this. And I’ll say they said this. This was the difference between the black-on-black aspect is this. If somebody here killed–because one of our brothers just lost [incompr.] one of the brothers, one artist, had just lost their cousin to gun violence, and he was–that artist was very touchy about that situation. And so [whether it’s this or that, (?)] the person who killed your cousin, if caught, will go to jail. If a law enforcement officer who killed Michael Brown–there’s no guarantee that he will go to jail. And as a matter of fact, the fact that you can have a public execution, in essence, and killing a young person of color with impunity and there’s no regard for that, then that’s the problem, because the law in essence has to police the law.

And there was [incompr.] great. I mean, I was amazed. A lot of artists [incompr.] talking about they wish the discussion in the movement–and I think we are hearing that. Some of the artists were talking about that it wasn’t so much focused on Michael Brown, but they actually wanted to know not only what’s in the system Michael Brown, but they ask a question like what’s in the system of Darren Wilson. Like, you know, and this would be great for the major to kind of answer this is that a lot of artists were feeling that they feel a lot of policemen have ADHD. And a lot of policemen, they come across–are drunk when they come across them. Or they–what’s in their system when they’re on the job? And then we’ll actually know, what are we doing to train police officers? ‘Cause it’s always about what do we got to do to train our community. But how are they being trained? How are they being held accountable? How are they being held [incompr.]

So I think those are some of the things that came up on that call.

BROWN: On the call.

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Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, III is a clergy-activist and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.