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Reverend Osagyefo Sekou says the city of Ferguson can be described in “apartheid-like statistics”, and youth have little hope, options, or opportunity

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Protesters in Ferguson are not backing down their call for justice for unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Based on a preliminary autopsy, Brown was shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson, and protesters are demanding that the police officer be arrested. Overnight on Tuesday, police arrested 47 people, but clashes were noticeably calmer. Now protesters are also calling for the county’s prosecutor to recuse himself.

Now joining us to get into some of these issues is our guest, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou. He is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and a freeman fellow at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joins us now from Ferguson, Missouri.

Thanks for being with us, Reverend.

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU, FREEMAN FELLOW, FELLOWSHIP OF RECONCILIATION: Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be with you, dear sister.

DESVARIEUX: So, Reverend, before we get into the news of the day, I think it’s really important for our viewers to understand the situation before Michael Brown’s murder. What are the issues that plague the community of Ferguson?

SEKOU: Well, I think when we look at Ferguson and this kind of small piece of land, about 21,000 citizens with a medium income of $36,000, but one in four folks living below the poverty line–. But when we look at the difference between–the $14,000 difference between the one in four who are living in poverty and the other three in four folks who are at $36,000, they’re still working poor people. And that, combined with the high levels of police repression experienced by young black folks in that city–. And then, when you look at larger St. Louis County, a few years ago Prosecutor McCulloch refused to bring an indictment for police who shot into a car some 20 times, killing two black men who were unarmed. And these kind of stories of repression and harassment and taunting for the police are legion in the experience of young black people. Combined with St. Louis County and St. Louis City proper writ large are highly segregated spaces in which the lines of demarcation are clear. And then when you look at the electoral level, some 67 percent of African-Americans in the city of Ferguson, yet little to no representation at the electoral level. And so these are apartheid-like statistics that speak to the kind of existential apartheid and existential angst and the hell that everyday people are catching, many of whom are struggling to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.

DESVARIEUX: So if I’m understanding you correctly, this is people who are basically on the brink. So we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by what we’re seeing unfold they are in Ferguson.

SEKOU: No, no, no, no, not at all. In fact, we, the nation, should be celebrating the fact that we’ve had such low levels of violence in places like Ferguson and the Fergusons throughout the country, because these young people without very much hope and without very much options and without very much opportunity–. I was speaking with a schoolteacher in the Ferguson-Florissant School District the other day, and she was saying that it amazed her that all of this money for tanks and tear gas–yet she had to write a grant to get iPads for her students and had to personally buy dictionaries for her students. And so the kind of economic, disproportionate crisis, in terms of the way in which people are experiencing deprivation, should all bring us to our knees. I think the numbers are in 2013 some $450 million have been provided to municipalities vis-à-vis in-kind contributions from the Pentagon, combined with other resources spent for the militarization of police. Yet teachers have to spend their own money to buy dictionaries. And so that is a metaphor for our situation, that the dictionary, the language, the discourse of democracy is so impoverished that perhaps the only word that we should be using in the lexicon of American democracy is shame.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s fast-forward to today, because right now protesters are still in the streets demanding justice for Michael Brown. And his mother was on ABC news on August 18 explaining what would bring about peace. Let’s take a listen.


JOURNALIST, NBC NEWS: How can peace be restored, ma’am?


JOURNALIST: And what is justice to you?

MCSPADDEN: Being fair. Arresting this man and making him accountable for his actions.


DESVARIEUX: So, Reverend, you just heard Michael Brown’s mother saying arresting the man and making him accountable for his actions. So can you just describe for us, since you’re there on the ground, what are the protesters’ short-term goals?

SEKOU: Well, let me first just acknowledge the dignity of Sister McSpadden, that in the mist–and when you think about her and the dignity of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin mother, and the dignity of Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, we ought to stand up every time we say their names, because the level of dignity that these women have displayed shames a nation and bears witness to a kind of–what Cornel West calls the eloquence of black silence, that their mere being should shift us all and ought to make us want to be better human beings. In fact, I think there should be a national requirement that every time you say Lesley McSpadden, you ought to have to stand up, you know?

And then I think the demands is her demand, right? There’s a demand that says that, first, it seems the case that neither the governor, Jay Nixon, nor prosecutor McCulloch are going to call for a local special prosecutor and that he–and McCulloch is not going to step down. So there is an indictment that a–a grand jury that [is going to (?)] assemble. And so folks, local folks, are calling for an expedited indictment that brings back an–like, an expedited grand jury that will bring an indictment to him. And then, after that indictment, so the charge, we need him to be convicted. And if that–that conviction will bring some sense of solace with his arrest and ultimate conviction. He needs to be off the street, not being paid in his flagrant violation of Michael Brown’s civil rights, as well as his abuse of his police power and his ultimately taking the life of this precious young person.

DESVARIEUX: But, Reverend, as you mentioned, there are some real systemic issues there in Ferguson and all over the country. What are some long-term goals that you think the community could really focus on? And what specific policies do you think would really help deal with these issues of poverty and racism that you mentioned earlier?

SEKOU: So I think it seems the case that the people of Ferguson in their right to self-determination have been quickened by all of this. And that quickening will, I think, lead to a greater engagement with electoral politics. I mean, part and parcel of–you know, many have trotted out–I think it’s some 12 to 15 percent of Fergusonians voted in the last election. And the challenge with that is that low voter turnout is not the problem. It is a symptom of a broader sense of disenfranchisement, when there is 67 percent African Americans in the city and some 53 police officers, and, like, three of them are African-American, right, that that’s a broader, systematic form ofdisenfranchisement. And this systematic disenfranchisement means that the people don’t have a vested interest in the system which is supposed to represent them. And so I do believe that we’ll see an emerging slate of African-Americans who are going to be greater engaged into the political process. And so that is at one level.

I think at a broader level, right, in terms of federally, unemployment in Ferguson has doubled between 2000 and 2012, right? And so real challenges of economic opportunity and economic deprivation is what we’re facing in Ferguson, but also all over the United States. And so what can do is that at the federal level there needs to be–and this is me not speaking for the people of Ferguson or me speaking for the local organizers, such as the Organization of Black Struggle and other folks on the ground here, but it is to say that there needs to be a federal work program at the level of the WPA in doing the New Deal that creates economic opportunity and folks having access to jobs and decent and living wages. There needs to be a greater investment in education, as I mentioned earlier, whereby teachers do not have the opportunity. Somebody should do the math, right? If you look at the $450 million that has been spent on the militarization of municipal policing forces, how much would that take to–how many books you buy with $450 million, right? And so I think these broader systematic issues–. I know there is some conversation among the National Action Network, as well as John Conyers is calling for a hearing to do some form of what the great Anna Julia Cooper talked about, of anti-lynching, anti-police brutality legislation that never took hold in the United States. And so I believe those might be ways in which at the federal level, as well as the local engagement with electoral politics, that it might be able to stem the tide and put out the raging fires that are at work in Ferguson, which is a microcosm of the greater United States.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mentioned the federal government, because Attorney General Eric holder is supposed to be in Ferguson on Wednesday evening. Do you think Attorney General Holder could actually do something positive? Can he do anything to really benefit the community?

SEKOU: Well, there is some 40 FBI agents on the ground engaging in interviewing people around the case. It is reminiscent of the Freedom Summer, with the murder of the three civil rights workers and that project there. And so federal agents are on the ground. At the federal level, it seems the case that this needs to be–the prosecutor just simply cannot be trusted, and the police simply cannot be trusted, based on their behavior, which I have not read about–not simply what I’ve read about; what I’ve experienced. I’ve been here for five days. I came in Friday night, and I have been here for five days. Every night I’ve been on the street I’ve been tear gassed with others, right, standing in solidarity with these young people who are engaging in a rich tradition of civil disobedience and noncompliance. In fact, black youth, these black working-class and black poor youth have seeded a revolution in America. We are having this conversation because of these young people, and they should be celebrated, not called agitators and looters and rioters. But these are young people who are sowing the seeds of a new revolution in America, and we should be thanking them and not demonizing them.

And so Holder could provide at some level–somebody needs to check the Ferguson police and the St. Louis County police. My experience on the street: the majority of the arrests have been unnecessary. And in instances where young people are throwing water bottles, plastic water bottles that are being thrown at the police, and the instances in which people have set things on fire and have looted, two things have happened. When you’ve trapped them, police on one end of the street and blocking them in, they can’t go anywhere, right? When you’ve trapped them, you have not given them any other options when you refuse to allow them to engage in their First Amendment rights. So you’ve created the context. The second piece is that in many of these instances when there have been looting, mostly young black men have gone and stood in front of the stores and refused to allow people to loot those stores. That story has not been told. I saw it for myself. It has been these young people who have often protected journalists from the police and provided milk for their eyes, like when the McDonald’s was broken into. It wasn’t just broken into and looting. It wasn’t like people were going in to cook burgers and to drop fries. They went in to get milk to give to people who had been tear gassed. And that story has not been told. And so Holder could play a role in ensuring the rights of these young people to engage in assembly, to bear witness to, and to stop–. In fact, the existence of Holder and the existence of Barack Obama is predicated on the activities of these young black people engaging in civil disobedience and holding this space for a black president or a black attorney general.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Reverend Sekou, we want to hear more of those stories in the future, so I hope you’ll join us in the future. Thank you so much for being with us.

SEKOU: Thank you so much, dear sister. And blessings to all of you all.

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


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Osagyefo Sekou

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Freeman Fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. A St Louis, MO, native, the Rev attended high school there and has strong family ties to the area. He is the Pastor for Formation and Justice at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA, and is spending the summer as a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute at Stanford University. Rev Sekou was born in St Louis, MO and graduated from Soldan High School, where many of his family remain. He is in Ferguson organizing on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the largest, oldest interfaith peace organization in the United States). Rev. Sekou served as youth pastor at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Saint Louis, taught alternatives to gang violence at Stevens Middle School, and directed the Fellowship Center in the Cochran Housing Project in the city. He is the author of collection of essays, Urban Souls, which is a meditation on working with at-risk youth in Saint Louis, hip hop and religion. He is also the author of the forthcoming Riot Music: British Hip Hop, Race, and the Politics of Meaning.