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Kali Akuno: The staggering number of black people killed by police is

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

A new report, called 36 hours—Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 120 Black People, points out how many killings of black youth and adults across the country still take place in America. Now joining us is one of the coauthors of that report. Kalli Akuno is a organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and a former codirector of U.S. Human Rights Network. He joins us from D.C. Thanks very much for joining us, Kalli.


JAY: So what did you find in the course of doing this report?

AKUNO: Well, we found, number one, that the number of killings, from the police in particular, were dramatically escalated from where they were two years ago.

Now, I have to just let all your viewers know that there is no agency that keeps an official record. So when we say there was an escalation, this is based upon our own research and that of other organizations throughout the country who’ve been monitoring police activity. And we really started to see a spike, a major spike last summer, and it just increased tremendously in January and February of this year, the number of police killings of black people. And we did our first report based on those early findings in March, which highlighted 30 people, black who had been killed, primarily youth. And then, as we kept monitoring the situation, we noticed by May already there were well over 100 black people who had been killed throughout the country. And as we kept digging deeper into local news [inaud.] that the number was just staggering and that we wanted to bring it to light, because there was no major media exposure of this escalation and killing of black people whatsoever.

JAY: And how do you account for the increase?

AKUNO: You know, Paul, I think we really are looking at a couple of different factors here. Number one, the heightened racial tension in the United States, I think, is the greatest factor. And we really look at all the different kind of police departments and law enforcement agencies that are in some cases positively trying to not comply with some of the laws around immigration, but all the different—I think, more important, relative to this, all the different police departments that have said they are not going to follow federal registrations and rules and mandates, and they were kind of very openly defying the Justice Department, and particularly Barack Obama. You know.

And that was one of the main things that really made us kind of start paying attention several years ago, when we noticed that there were a couple of egregious cases (Oscar Grant being perhaps the most noted) of these police killings, and there was very little being done and very little being said about it. You know.

But there’s other factors, I think, like the economy, the changing demographics, which I think is a very real issue throughout the country, and how that’s kind of stoking some of these fears that we talked about just, you know, I’ve seen talked about on your show and others. You know. So these are all factors, I think, that play a very critical role in this rising number of police killings.

JAY: And I’ve talked to some police about this, and off the record they say this is so much also part of this psychology of a war on drugs, and when you’re in a war, you can kill people and there’s a certain impunity about killing people in a war.

AKUNO: Right. Well, you know, there’s a couple of wars, I think, that are worth mentioning: the war on drugs, you know, the war on gangs, and then the war on terrorism. And all three of those build on the same infrastructure that was really laid down in the 1980s. And, you know, the war on drugs has produced—the flipside of the killing is the racial profiling, and then the mass incarceration.

And what it really just points to, I think, even more important than just that you can kill people, is that—the lack of value this society still has for black life, and that black life can be snuffed out so easily, not reported, not get any major news coverage, and not be many investigations of many of these murders. You know. So these are systemic things that we were really trying to highlight and point out in the report.

JAY: Now, in the report, you have a breakdown on ages. I see that 11 percent of these 120 cases you looked at were under the age of 18, and then another 18 percent were between 18 and 21. So you’ve got, like, almost 30 percent are under the age of 21. These are children.

AKUNO: These are children. And that’s the point that we really wanted to highlight, ’cause this—you know, the war on gangs and the war on drugs is very much directed at youth. But we also have to remember—kind of tying it in, we have to look at the record number of black unemployed youth throughout the country and how these policies that the police—so the stop-and-frisk, the gang injunction types of things that are going on, are directly tied to the economic crisis and the economic policies and the lack of jobs for—and the lack of infrastructure, really, that the youth can plug into. And so they’re really just kind of being hunted down in the street, when you look at the fact that every 36 hours there’s basically one black person—the majorities are youth, you know, under the age of 30—I mean, that’s a pretty significant number that society needs to start paying attention to, ’cause there’s just some very deep issues.

JAY: Now, we’ve looked into some of the cases in Baltimore. This year, there’s almost a dozen black youth have been killed. Only one, apparently, was armed. Many of them were considered to have either been intoxicated or some mental health problem, and the police say they were difficult to control but they weren’t armed. How much is that a pattern throughout this 120?

AKUNO: It’s a very consistent pattern. You know. And one of the things that we saw is that a lot of the killings—I would say roughly about 20 percent are the result of family members calling for help, calling 911, saying that someone is having some type of health episode, or someone is going through a major mental breakdown, behavioral breakdown, and they call for help, and instead of help, you know, in terms of social services being called out, they send out the police, many of whom are not trained and have very little regard, as I was mentioning, for black life. And instead of trying to react to the situation in terms of finding out what’s wrong and how to calm the situation down, the first thing they do is reach for their guns and use violence as the only means of controlling the situation. And this is a very prevalent piece that we’ve been really trying to focus on.

JAY: Yeah. I think in the report you say that only actually 30 percent of the people that have been killed were actually involved in what could be called criminal activity with some kind of arms involved.

AKUNO: That’s right. And even that, Paul, we have to mention, is speculative, you know, ’cause these are reports. You know, so folks are clear on how we gathered our information, most of this was from local police reports and from local media, most of which is very favorable to the police. And so even that number we have to really kind of call into question. You know, until there’s some serious investigation by neutral forces and by prosecutors and folks on our side, what I would consider our side, the lawyers kind of bringing this evidence to light, you really can’t trust a lot of that information, as we see what took place in Arkansas, where they claim this young man who was handcuffed in the backseat of a car shot himself in the head, and they’ve gone through great lengths to try and prove or demonstrate that not only was it physically possible, but that he did it, which is—it’s just outrageous. But, you know, we have to kind of take a lot of that information with a grain of salt until we can actually do the type of investigation that’s needed to demonstrate where these folks—what type of activities were—.

JAY: So what conclusions do you draw from this? What do you want to see done?

AKUNO: Well, we’re asking for, number one, that the federal government has to look in and address this as a human rights crisis, and it has to come to some level of control over the various law enforcement agencies throughout the country. And we have to kind of go beyond this federalism argument that is often used that the states make up their own rules and regulations when we know very well that the—particularly if you look at immigration, the federal government issues all types of mandates all the time that it’s expecting local law enforcements to comply with. So what we’re calling for is a national plan of action on racial justice to look at this issue systematically and to address it.

And on the immediate level, we’re asking for a database to keep this information. We’re asking for federal injunctions on several of the cities, like Baltimore, where there have been multiple cases throughout this year, and to, you know, take this seriously. That’s what we’re definitely asking for from the federal government.

JAY: Now, some of this has to do with the whole underlying issue of the war on drugs and the whole policy towards drugs. Certainly, most of the cases in Baltimore, supposedly, were connected to drugs in one way or the other. I mean, how much is reform or a complete change of American drug laws necessary to change this whole culture?

AKUNO: Absolutely necessary. The decriminalization component is something that we’re fundamentally for. But we have to, I think, also refrain some of that, Paul, which is some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. And just the decriminalization alone won’t necessarily deal with the deeper economic, structural crisis that confronts the black community and many other oppressed communities in this country. And we have to recognize that the drug economy or the underground economy is a major component of the international economy. It ties the black community wherever. If you’re in Baltimore or if you’re here in Atlanta like I am or Los Angeles or New York, you’re very much tied into channels and circuits of production and distribution and exchange, very much rooted in Andean region or Afghanistan with the production of poppy. So it’s an international question that we really have to look at that focuses on, you know, how are these communities going to live when there basically are no jobs and the folks have to resort to the underground economy to basically survive.

So criminalization or decriminalization in and of itself won’t solve some of these problems. It’ll be a first step in taking these police, you know, off of our streets, hunting our youth. But we have to kind of deal with the economic issues that underlie it, I think, in a much more deeper, fundamental, and transformative way.

JAY: Yeah, this is what the kids here in Baltimore are calling the school-to-prison pipeline.

AKUNO: That’s right. That’s right. So, you know, we have some major challenges and some major restructuring of this economy and the policies that structure it that we’re really calling for, and that’s one of the pieces that we are definitely pushing for in a comprehensive sense by asking for this national plan of action on racial justice. It’s not just focused on racial profiling or police brutality or extrajudicial killings; it has to be something that deals with the economic foundations of the society and really deals with some redistributive policies and practices that impact the black community and other communities.

JAY: Alright. Well, we’re going to have a link to your report down below the video player. Thanks very much for joining us.

AKUNO: Thank you.

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


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Kali Akuno was the Coordinator of Special Projects and External Funding for the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS. He is the author of the organizing handbook Let Your Motto Be Resistance and wrote the preface to the report Operation Ghetto Storm. He is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) (, former co-director of the US Human Rights Network, and served as executive director of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund based in New Orleans, LA. Kali currently resides in Jackson, MS.