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Activist Kali Akuno and historian Paul Le Blanc link judicial injustice to economic inequality

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

Protests have swept the country over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was placed in an unauthorized chokehold by an NYPD police officer. The whole incident was caught on tape, and the grand jury decided not to indict the police officer involved. The mainstream media has pointed to race as the main culprit and has been debating whether the situation would have been any different if Garner was a white man.

But the color the media doesn’t want to talk about is green–money. So how does class factor into this equation of judicial injustice, as many are calling it?

Now joining us to talk about these hot-button issues, race and class, are our two guests.

Joining us from Jackson, Mississippi, is Kali Akuno. Kali was the coordinator of special projects and external funding for the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. Currently Kali is devoting his time to Cooperation Jackson, building a solidarity economy.

Also joining us from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Paul LeBlanc. Paul is a professor of history at LaRoche College. He has written and edited more than 20 books, mostly dealing with labor and socialist movements in which he has been active.

Thank you both for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: So, Kali, you heard a bit of my introduction. We’re basically not hearing a lot of reporting talking about how class factors into this Eric Garner decision. How do you make the link between class and judicial injustice?

AKUNO: Well, I mean, I think if we take Eric’s case, race did play a factor. But there are so-called quality-of-life kind of crimes, particularly, that they’re focusing on with the kind of [blinded (?)] doors and windows, a policing strategy which is at the root of the stop-and-frisk policies that they have in New York City, which have been exported all over the country. And if we would just look at what he was stopped for, which was supposedly having looseys, having an individual cigarette, and selling it on the street, that is just one of those kind of egregious quality-of-life crimes, so-called crimes, that are set up to minimize certain working-class kind of economic exchange and activity, which has a long record in New York City and other kind of metropolitan areas. But it totally ignores other types of activity of much more of a major scale, say, if you were to compare the type of activity Eric Garner was involved in, say, if he was doing that, what he was accused of, if he was doing that, let’s compare that to the different types of trade that happened not too far from where he was killed on Wall Street and how all of those crimes, which are, I mean, on a scale much larger than anything that the citizens of New York City as individuals can pull off. We’re talking about robbing entire countries and bankrupting entire economies, bankrupting generations with student loans and student debt, onerous student debt. If we were to make that comparison, it doesn’t compare. But there is no policing in effect, there is no monitoring, there is no accountability within the media, within the criminal system itself, and definitely within the broader aspect of society and how we’ve all kind of been trained in what to gaze on as criminal activity, as illicit activity.

DESVARIEUX: So, Kali, wait. Let me stop you there. So let me see if I’m understanding you correctly. Is what you’re saying is that essentially as a society we’re not able to admit to ourselves that we look at black people as being poor and poor people as being more prone to be criminal, and we don’t look at those on Wall Street who might be flashing, you know, beautiful briefcases and suits and things of that nature as being potential criminals–but at the end of the day, is there a little bit of truth to that, and the truth being that black people are actually doing worse than their white counterparts, and that–I’m going to point to specific statistic. In 2010, the median net worth of all assets, including homes, minus all debts of black households, was $4,900. For white households it was $97,000.

Paul, you studied this income disparity. Give us a sense of how the majority of black families are doing now in this economy.

FRANKLIN: Well, there’s a couple of aspects of this. One is there is the larger pattern, which has existed for over 50 years and longer. If you look back at the ’60s, twice as many blacks as whites were unemployed. Twice as many blacks as whites were in poverty. That remains true today. Now, with the Great Recession, it’s worsened, but this is a long-standing and deep pattern, and it has all kinds of ramifications, as Kali was saying, in quality of life and how people are attempting to get by. Things are worse now. Things are worse for everyone, but especially for African Americans. That’s true.

DESVARIEUX: Can you point to some statistics? What specifically?

LEBLANC: Well, I don’t have the details, I’m sorry, at my fingertips, except that twice as many blacks as whites continue to live in poverty. Twice as many blacks as whites continue to be unemployed. This plays out in all kinds of aspects of life. But I don’t have the exact statistics. It could be easily be found, though, on the internet.

DESVARIEUX: I hear you. I hear you. And I’m sure I can hear people saying, but wait a minute, you know, it sounds like things are getting worse for black people, but then you have a black president, we have a black attorney general. There is some progress. Shouldn’t we be taking note that? What’s your response to that, Kali?

AKUNO: There’s been surface progress that has happened over the past 50+ years. We’ve had elected officials, a good number of them throughout the country in that time. We’ve had the development, extended development, of certain sectors of the black middle class.

But when you really look at it on a whole, there was a period, starting in the late 1960s, where we had a good number of black mayors and black elected officials throughout this country, where there were a lot of hopes and aspirations put into them around potentially being able to change and transform not only the legal and civil rights kind of status of the black community, but to address the economic aspects of the suffering that we have been afflicted upon since we’ve been here in this country. And that really did not play itself out, for a number of different reasons, some of which are too long to recount here.

But one of the things we really have to look at in regards to–people are now asking this question, since we have a black president and a black head of the Department of Justice, how come we aren’t seeking or seeing so much improvement? We have to look back at this history in particular of black mayors and that really since around 1970, a lot of the major cities throughout the United States had black mayors, and those black mayors had to preside over deindustrialization of their cities, more often than not divestment from their cities, a weakening economy, both nationally and globally. And that led many of them to kind of take on some of the most vicious aspects of the neoliberal agenda and the neoliberal order over that time period. And so in order to balance budgets, many of them started to take on a lot of the federal funding to increase the police presence, to militarize the police, to gauge more deeply in the war on drugs and many of those types of programs. And that just wound up facilitating the mass incarceration of tens of thousands, if not millions, of black people in this country in the 1980s, ’90s, well on into the 2000s. So this was a critical thing that we have to look at, that understanding the systemic dynamics of racism, white supremacy, class, you have to look at that in just kind of its totality and not just look at one individual or several individuals who happen to be black can change that on a deep structural level just because of who they are or what necessarily represent. The system is far more complicated, far more entrenched than that, and it’s far more based on protecting ruling class interests in this country than it is in dealing with issues of race and racial inequality.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s look at that history. And I want to turn to more economic policies. Paul, what’s behind this? Why are black families doing so poorly economically?

LEBLANC: Well, I think we have to take a look, again, at the larger pattern. Let me give you–you were asking for statistics before. Let me give you some statistics that burned into my mind in the 1990s. I never forgot them when I saw them. The wealth of this country–take the wealth of this country. The top 1 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. The next 19 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. This is in the late 1990s. The rest of us, the bottom 80 percent, own 20 percent of the wealth. That’s in the late 1990s.

Now, the inequality has grown dramatically since the late 1990s. African-Americans who, as we were talking about before, were at the bottom of the pile there, they are driven down further by the Great Recession, by the growing inequality. But then there are many whites who were also driven down, and you have people competing for scarce resources. Tensions rise in all kinds of ways. That’s what’s at the bottom of that.

Now, if Obama or others want to solve the problem, then they’ve got to address those systemic issues, including economic issues. The problem with President Obama is he’s not been willing to do that, he’s not been prepared to do that, so he’s presiding over a very difficult situation–unfortunately, without the solutions that are needed.

DESVARIEUX: And it seems like the American public as well, at least the media, at least, is very uncomfortable, people can say maybe strategic about not addressing these issues. Kali, for you, though, what’s at the heart of that fear?

AKUNO: The heart of that fear–we have to go back, I think, very deep within the origins of this country. The origins were very much–we have to remember, the United States first and foremost, its history, was an economic enterprise. Whether it was Dutch or French or English and/or Spanish, they were all set up, all the initial colonies were set up as charter companies for the most part for different parties to engage in economic activity, in part, in some places, to alleviate population pressures and economic pressures that were taking place in Europe. But at the heart there’s always been a very vicious program of exploitation within the United States economy, be it expropriating indigenous land, also expropriating indigenous labor, which doesn’t get talked about as much. And then we all know some aspects of the story of how African labor so brutally exploited in this country.

Those economic foundations have somewhat adjusted and changed over time from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, to a postindustrial economy. But the social relations that were laid at their foundation haven’t fundamentally altered in those 400 plus years. So we have to really look at that route, I think, to understand what types of policies and what type of practices that have to go with it, that have to accompany it, ’cause certain policies within themself or not going to change people’s views, they’re not going to change people’s behavior, as it regards to race and as it regards to class.

So there has to be kind of a joint mix of, really, four hard-hitting policies that have to be put forward if we’re going to get at the root issue that deals with this inequality, you know, why this 1 percent–now I think the figure’s even greater from something I remember looking at not too long ago, Paul, you know, 1 percent now on, I think, close to 40 percent of all of the wealth in the country, and that 19 or other 20 percent pretty much owns as the bottom, and the rest of us, the 80 percent that’s scraping out somewhere, I think I saw somewhere about 20 percent of the wealth. And this is driven by a very hard political agenda of austerity driven by neoliberal political views and policies that are set up, and it’s going to take a mass movement and it’s going to take policies that aim toward economic democracy in a very broad sense to radically transform what’s going on, to create more equity in this country.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s at the pause button here, and in our next part we’ll unpack some of those issues, some things that it’s going to take to really address these economic problems. We’ll discuss what do we need to do, what role does the government and, more importantly, the communities play in changing these dire statistics.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me.

AKUNO: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: 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.