What does it mean for the people living under systemic oppression when society frames their rebellion as a riot?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
The systematic repression of black or African descended people is a common theme in many countries around the world, from the US, to the UK, to the Caribbean, to South America, and beyond. It’s everywhere. It is constant, and as constant as that repression has been and is, the acts of resistance of black and African descended people to that oppression are just as constant. But too often, these acts of resistance are not framed as such. What does it mean for the people affected when society frames their acts of rebellion and resistance as a riot?
Here to talk about this today are Joao Costa Vargas. Professor Vargas is a teacher, a professor, at the University of California at Riverside. Welcome Professor Vargas.
JOAO COSTA VARGAS Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And here in the studio with me is Eddie Conway. Eddie is a producer here at The Real News Network and a former Black Panther. Eddie, thank you for joining me today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: All right. I want to start with you because you have a particularly interesting story, I think, that ties into this history of uprisings among poor and black communities in the United States. What was it about what happened in New Jersey a few decades ago that changed the course of your life a little bit?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I actually had signed up to re-enlist to go to Vietnam. I was in the army at the time in Germany. I was a sergeant, I had been in the army for about three years, and I was going to go to Vietnam to fight to make the world safe for democracy. I woke up one morning and I looked at the Stars and Stripes, and I seen on the front page 30 or 40 black women in the streets of Newark, New Jersey, protesting, and you could see they were angry. And in the center of that street was an armored personnel carrier with a 50 caliber machine gun on it with a belt of ammo running through it pointed at these women. And behind that 50 caliber machine gun was a soldier. And I looked at my uniform and I asked myself like, “What in the world is armored personnel carriers with machine guns doing in the heart of the black community in America?”
And so as I read the story, I found out that they had locked up all the black men in the community and put them in stadiums and holding places and so on. They had went through the black community and they had ransacked the houses, kicked the doors in, tore stuff up, and the women were out there protesting about the treatment that they and their children had received after the men had been locked up, and wanted to know who was going to make it right. It was that act, Newark, New Jersey ’67, that made me decide not to go to Vietnam and to come back to America and see what the problem was. Because obviously there were riots going on all across America in the black community and people were resisting the kind of oppression that existed, and it wasn’t getting publicized that much. In local areas it was publicized, but nationally and internationally it wasn’t receiving that publicity. And so we were over in Vietnam dying and didn’t know that this was happening to our community.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Wow. You were in another country allegedly fighting for freedom and did not know that on the streets of the United States of America, our people were fighting for–well, American people were fighting for freedom against the same military apparatus that you were using to fight for freedom in another country. So the imagery of a tank, a military tank, on an American street was present in 1967.
Professor Vargas, that brings us to the recent imagery of military hardware on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, on the streets of Baltimore, on the streets of Detroit during the 60s, and New York City and Watts. You know, when the media has covered these events–and usually it’s an excessive police presence is brought in to quell the so-called violence–we see the military apparatus being brought in to bring peace and to bring things under control. What is it about these incidents that we are not told about, the narrative that we don’t get, when the media comes in?
JOAO COSTA VARGAS One of the narratives that we don’t get is the experience of black folk both in US and in Brazil–and I would say in the diaspora–is very much related to the hatred that exists in society against black people. And this hatred is manifested in many different ways. So it’s residential segregation, it’s police brutality, it’s incarceration, it’s low education facilities, and this narrative is not part of how black resistance in these places is covered. The example that I’m familiar with is the Brazilian example and is very similar to what you just described. Black neighborhoods, black historical areas, known as favelas, have always resisted. They have invented ways of keeping their safety, they have many times isolated themselves from a society that frankly hates them, and these acts of resistance are often interpreted by the media and by those in power as riot, as irrational, as actions that need to be quelled often by the military. As is the case as we speak right now in Rio and other cities in Brazil.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So right now the military is active in favelas in these predominantly black, predominantly poor, neighborhoods in Rio, in Brazil, under the so-called auspices of bringing peace or confronting crime. But really what you’re saying is it’s another manifestation of society’s response to quelling uprisings and rebellions of black people against the conditions they’re living in. Is that what you’re saying?
JOAO COSTA VARGAS This is what I’m saying, and I’m saying that in places like Brazil, it’s in society’s DNA, this fear and the hatred of black people that we can trace back to the days of slavery. So there’s this idea that slavery was an event that didn’t generate tension, and this is very common in Brazil. We tend to think of slavery as this institution that benefited black people when in fact black people resisted slavery at all times. There are several historical documents, there are several books, there are several works of fiction that show how black folks in Brazil were constantly rebelling. They were constantly finding ways to push back on the system that dehumanized them.
They sabotaged the plantations, they killed white folks, as many as they could, they set plantations on fire, they did everything that was within their reach. And this fear, the fear of black insurgency, is very much what responds, what explains, these police actions in black neighborhoods today. It’s the fear that black folks will leave their segregated areas and will be part of Brazilian society. Brazilian society has no tolerance for black people, so these operations that we hear about constantly, this is a constant of Brazilian history, is very much a response to this hatred and to this fear.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now Eddie, Professor Vargas brought up history and the history of rebellion against slavery, not just in Brazil, but around the world where slavery existed. This brings to mind the Haitian Revolution, obviously. Can you draw a connection between the way the Haitian Revolution was responded to in the colonies in regard to slavery, and the way rebellion and uprising by black people in the diaspora is responded to today? Is there a connection that we can draw?
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, and historically there’s always been a connection when in order to oppress people, you have to justify that oppression to your population. That’s where the very first concept of white supremacy and racism comes from. The justification that those people are different, those people need to be controlled, those people need to be brought into civilization. The same kind of justification that they use for their population to accept the fact that a small minority of people, mercantile capitalists and venture capitalists, et cetera, were getting wealthy from exploiting people of color around the world. To justify that, they had to justify to their population also and their population had to deem those people worthy of being put under those oppressive conditions.
So it was necessary to show that there’s not rebellion, but there’s actual criminal activity. There’s actual activity that we need to collectively suppress. That was an important thing. So even in Haiti, after the rebellion, after the liberation, it was still an agreement that you need to pay for yourself. You stole yourself from your masters and that was their property, and so you are thieves, and so now you have to pay until 1945, reparation to those owners and the owners’ families.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Wait, wait, hold on. Let’s make this clear now, what you’re just saying. Haiti has been paying for its own uprising for its freedom up until 1945.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. And what’s really ironic about it is that Haiti was probably the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere and now it’s almost the poorest land because it paid all those billions of dollars for that freedom, for people stealing their own lives, stealing their own freedom, stealing their liberation from oppressors.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So how does that translate to, let’s say, the way people are responded to when they participate in uprising in Ferguson, in Baltimore? How are people made to pay?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, you have to justify the fact that these people were being, as the professor said, exploited and militarily exploited through housing segregation, exploited through dumping drugs in the community. You have to justify this kind of level of exploitation because it’s the rent and the interest that’s being paid. You never own anything, you’re always renting from us, you are always putting your money in the taxes, but you’re never getting any benefits out of it, it’s going to a particular segment of society. And so in order to justify that, when there is a rebellion, when there is resistance, it has to be labeled as criminal activity. It has to be labeled as someone that’s not recognizing the benefits they’re getting from society, and they’re jeopardizing the way in which we have the social arrangement and the protection of property, which never will stay in the black and poor communities very long. Even if we do acquire property, it eventually is taken back. To justify that rebellion, to justify suppressing that rebellion, all of these things have to be labeled as criminal activities.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Professor Vargas, it almost seems like it’s an ecosystem of oppression all by itself, where you have a system of oppression that creates the conditions and justifies them with repression and criminalizing people. And then when people under the oppression rise up, then they are punished for rising up against the oppressive conditions. So when we look at world leaders like President Obama and other leaders who take to mainstream or corporate media and demonize people who rise up in these uprisings, and say things like, “They’re destroying their own communities, this is not the way to protest, this is not a legitimate protest, it’s a riot so it’s illegitimate,” what does that do in regard to addressing the conditions that people are rising up against?
JOAO COSTA VARGAS Yes. What Mr. Conway just mentioned, I completely agree, is that it does not address any of the underlying issues. And what it does is, in my mind, it restates the fear of the Haitian Revolution. I would say that among many other examples that we could think of, the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil was very much a reaction against the fear of black uprising. So for those of you who followed his presidential campaign, he always appeared like this, as the tough guy, as the one who would bring the country back to order. And everyone in Brazil understood that when he did the sign of the gun or the sign of the rifle, what he was really saying is that, “Unlike the previous Workers’ Party administration, I will have no tolerance for black folks and I will shoot to kill,” and that’s exactly what he has been doing since taking office.
One of the people that he supported is now the current State of Rio governor, a person that goes by the name of Witzel, a white governor, one more white governor, and he gave an example of that approach less than a week ago. As it happens frequently in Brazil among black folks, because of their desperation, because of all the factors that we’ve been talking about, these economic crimes often are the only solution for folks to make it to the next day. So what happens frequently when you go to a Brazilian city is that you take the bus and somebody will take the money forcibly, often with a fake gun. Less than a week ago, a young black person–I think he was in his twenties–did exactly that: Got into the bus, if I’m not mistaken on the bridge that connects Rio to a city next to it, Niteroi, and because of the new police orientation, because of the governor who’s supported by the president, as soon as a sniper got a clear view of this young man, they shot him in the head and that was it.
So this no nonsense shoot to kill public security approach–because of what Mr. Conway said and because of what characterizes the diaspora, which is not only the hatred of the black, but it’s the fear of the Haitian Revolution–the shoot to kill public security policy is, again, one way to signal to the Brazilian white society, and of course a few blacks, that the country will remain dominated by whites and by white identified people. And that’s the message that they are given. So to answer to your question, what does this do? It doesn’t do anything. It naturalizes black death, it naturalizes the conditions that define black people’s experiences, which is low life expectancy, poor health, and vulnerability to violence, specifically vulnerability to violence perpetrated by the state.
The Brazilian state has this distinction of being the state that kills the most, and the United Nations tried to intervene a few times. And what I think this reveals is the utter fear that Brazil will become Haiti. It’s as simple as that. So when the president now campaigned like this, he was saying, “Haiti will not be here. I’ll assure you of that. Vote for me and this will be a white country again.”
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Eddie, I’ll leave you with the last word. What are your thoughts on what Professor Vargas just said? Do you think that is true of the atmosphere we have here in the United States?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, it’s necessary for the ruling class to continue to divide and conquer people and to make it clear that there are differences between the different people so that there’ll never be a united front. There’ll never be an effort to take control of the resources of the planet, save the planet, save humanity itself, so they continue with these scenarios about, “But we are protecting society, we are protecting your place, and we’re giving you creature comforts,” when in reality the white community is being exploited as well as all other communities. They just manage to receive a little more creature comforts and they also manage to receive a certain privileged status of not being snatched out of their car and murdered for running a stop sign. But that’s what the ruling class do and that’s how they maintain their status, and it will continue until people break down those barriers and start uniting and organizing together.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, surely we have to begin to reframe the way we look at social uprisings, especially involving the struggles against oppression that are rooted in racial animus as well as economic issues. We have to begin to look at these incidents as what they are. They are rebellions against the status quo that does exactly as our guests have said, to keep people separated by oppressing one group and pitting them against the other. People have to rise up against both the narratives of oppressed people and against the oppression, and I want to thank Eddie Conway for being in the studio here to talk with me about this today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you so much, Professor Vargas, for joining us from California.
JOAO COSTA VARGAS Thank you for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for joining us. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.