Activist Kevin Alexander Gray talks about the need for radical structural change to address the demands of the Ferguson uprising and the killing of unarmed African Americans across the United States
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, persist after the police named police officer Darren Wilson as the shooter of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard into Ferguson hours after police cited preplanned acts of aggression by protesters. Overnight, several journalists reported being detained, threatened, or otherwise prevented from covering the unfolding story. This comes after a preliminary private autopsy of Michael Brown showed that he was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. His family’s lawyers said on Monday that the report supports eyewitness statements that he was trying to surrender.
But with continued protest, what is to come out of Ferguson? What is the community demanding, and where should they be focusing their attention if their goal is to have a more just society?
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Here to help answer some of these questions is our guest, Kevin Alexander Gray. He is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics. And he’s also the coeditor of the CounterPunch book Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.
Thanks for joining us, Kevin.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kevin, in light of these continued protests flaring up again overnight, give us an update on what the community’s demands are.
GRAY: Well, the community demands a fair examination, investigation of the killing of this young man. I hesitate to use the word murder, because murder, of course, is a legal term. But obviously there’s a young dead man, black man, who was unarmed, who witnesses say he was trying to give himself up. When you go back and look at some of the information that’s come back from Ferguson, that the police officer basically stopped him for jaywalking, one of the many pretenses that police use to harass young black kids, that there’s a lot that hasn’t been told, a lot that hasn’t been revealed to the public. Why did this cop shoot this kid six times? And the penalty for jaywalking isn’t murder, isn’t the death penalty.
And of course we all know, if you’re black, that one in every 28 hours a young black person, a person of color, is killed by police or someone under the color of law. It’s not a new thing that’s happening in American society. It’s something that’s gone on for decades, for generations. It didn’t just start with Emmett Till. It didn’t just start with Trayvon Martin. It didn’t just start with Michael Brown. And it certainly won’t end with Michael Brown. But the people deserve to know the truth of what happened to Michael Brown. They need to deserve–they need to demand that the police department have folk on the department that look like them.
And then, from a grassroots perspective, the people need to take some responsibility. If you’re living in a community that’s 66 to 70 percent black, then you should be in control of that government. You should have a say in that government. You should be serving on the juries. You should be working in that police department.
But what grassroots people can do, what we were pushing for in the ’90s and probably the late ’80s, were citizens review boards, something that’s independent of asking police organizations to investigate other police organizations, be it the Department of Justice or be it the Missouri state police. The citizens need to have some kind of fair, open, grassroots organization that looks at the increase in police violence in our communities and has the power to bring people to court, has the power to punish the folk and the perpetrators of violent crimes under the color of law against citizens and to hold public officials accountable.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kevin, you really did a good job of mapping out what the commit community should be focusing their attention on, but I really want to get to the heart of the matter here, the heart of the protests. What do you think is really the reason why we’re seeing these cases of more unarmed black men being killed by the police?
GRAY: You’re talking to a 57-year-old man who saw his first autopsy of a young man shot by the police when I was in my 20s. I did my first march against the police when I was in my early 20s. This is not new. And that’s what people need to understand.
I had a young man in my own neighborhood stopped by the police. They were looking for somebody they said committed a crime, surrounded him with seven police cars, pulled him out of his car at gunpoint, called him all kinds of names–drug-dealing scum bag–when this was a young, working man. And when they found nothing in his car that they could pin on him, they took this kid to jail for failure to use his turn signal. And if that young boy had done something to provoke the police, he would have been killed for failure to use a turn signal.
This is something that goes on in communities of color all across the country. I live close to a housing project where they go into the housing project in the middle of the night wearing black masks, wearing their black SWAT gear, doing dynamic entries, looking for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana, and most of the times not finding it.
The police have been out of hand in the community for a long, long time. But with this increased militarization of police departments all across the country, receiving all this equipment from the Defense Department, all these former soldiers coming from Afghanistan and Iraq joining police forces and believing they’re still in Falluja and believing that the people that they’re supposed to serve and protect are their enemy and treating people like animals, it doesn’t just happen in Ferguson. And that’s what America needs to know.
I had breakfast with a woman who was a sweep woman sweet woman who happens to be white, and she’s like, well, Kevin, what is going on? Is Ferguson an anomaly? I said, your own community, we’ve had 17 police shootings in this community in the last two years. It happens all the time. Everywhere I look, it keeps percolating. It’s like the Michael Brown case or the Trayvon Martin case or in the case of people shooting under the guise of law, like stand your ground and the Renisha McBride case. This happens all the time. People forget about Aiyana Jones in Detroit, that young girl that was killed when the police threw a flash grenade through the window, or Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, Georgia, that was killed by police and they tried to plant drugs on her. It doesn’t just happen to black men, although it happens to them the majority of the time. It happens all the time because police believe that they are the law and you need to fear them instead of them protecting the law and being fair.
DESVARIEUX: Kevin, I want to stop you there, because, like you said, it happens all the time. So it makes you think that there has to be something systemic here. What role does the war on drugs, for example, play in this?
GRAY: Well, I mean, the war on drugs is the latest mechanism for racially profiling black males or black people. You say “drugs” and everybody turns a blind eye to what happens to people. And we know all the kids that are in jail because of the drug war and we know all of this equipment from the drug dogs and the increase in the number of cops riding around in SUVs with canines. I mean, that’s the latest manifestation. And within the black community, with the war on drugs being the mechanism for racially profiling all of us, we haven’t even gotten serious on the idea of legalization and decriminalization and going back and looking at the disparity in drug sentencing, which is where we need to be when we talk about racial profiling and doing something concrete instead of being in the streets. What is it that we can do to change policy and take away that mechanism and take away that tool that police use to oppress people? If you just want to talk about the structure of white supremacy and racism and all the tools that I’ve been–the criminal and justice complex, which is all part and parcel to everything, and the lack of economic development in communities, the gentrification in communities, and just at the jail. And the jail-industrial complex is an economic mechanism in and of itself. Those are the things we need to talk about. But it’s going to take some sacrifice on a whole lot of people’s parts.
DESVARIEUX: I live down the street. I keep mentioning where I’m at. I live in Columbia, South Carolina, in a state that’s one-third black. I live a half a mile from a black college that 60 percent of its graduates go to work in the criminal justice system as guards, as police officers. So we fall into this. And the idea like they bring Captain Ron Johnson in like he’s going to be the super black man to save everybody, like a black police won’t knock you upside the head and the black police is more loyal to his community than he is to that badge, which we know is not the case.
If you want to talk about structural, systemic white supremacy, then the war on drugs, racial profiling is the mechanism that they use. But before that it was something else. It could be, you know, after the end of the Civil War, it was steal a pig, go to jail. That’s how the whole chain gang system got started. They’ll find a way to abuse you.
But we’re at the time now–and I’m so proud of those kids and those folks for standing up to the police and–yes, I’ll say it publicly–for tossing those teargas canisters right back at them, to let them know, if this is how you’re going to police our communities, if you think we’re going to live under fear, then you’d better be driving around all the time in armored vehicles and be wearing Kevlar uniforms, because the police need to know that you’re not just going to take our lives and we’re going to roll over. The old civil rights songs said, before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free, and either you mean it or you don’t.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kevin, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about the role of some civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, who has been really centerstage speaking about the death of Michael Brown. On Saturday, Sharpton implored protesters to stop the violence and looting, saying such actions strengthened a smear campaign against Michael Brown. Let’s take a listen to what he had to say.
REV. AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: No one has the right to take their child’s name and drag it through the mud because you’re angry. To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was. Don’t be so angry.
DESVARIEUX: “Don’t be so angry.” What do you make of that, Kevin?
GRAY: . Well, anger, as opposed to being mad, being mad like a dog, anger is a rational response. And people need to be angered. Their children are losing their lives, their uncles, their fathers, their mothers, their sisters are losing their lives because some people want them to believe that they live in a police state and they have no power and that there’s a gun at their head and they’ll use it to keep them in control. You need to be angry. Everybody needs to be angry about what’s going on in America right now with police departments and the militarization of the police departments.
What communities don’t need is paratroop leadership that drop in every time a camera is on and pretends to speak to people when they’re really detached from people, that really come in and speak to the power, for the powers to calm and chill people out. That seems to be what Rev. Al seemed to be doing.
The violence that’s being perpetrated is not by the protesters but is by the police and is by the very system that insists that people bow down to the police and that system where police think that they can take people’s lives without consequence.
DESVARIEUX: And this tone of wanting to sort of keep calm and keep everything chill, as you say, President Obama has taken up that same tune. What do you make of the president’s role through all of this? And if you were advising him, what would you be telling him?
GRAY: Well, the president would not be asking me for any advice, and I would not be advising the leader of the Empire who has no moral authority to talk about stop the violence when he’s–has these, what is it, terror Tuesday meetings where he decides who lives and dies or who conducts, who hasn’t been able to close Guantanamo Bay, who does, like every other leader of the empire, use violence as a tool to keep people in control and to take people’s resources. He has no moral authority to say anything.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kevin Alexander Gray, thank you so much for joining us.
GRAY: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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