Hari Ziyad talks about whether voters, especially Black voters, should expect politicians to give them personal advice on how to handle institutional problems.

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Bernie Sanders and other Democratic politicians took a considerable amount of heat for how they responded to some HBCU students’ questions seeming to seek advice from them about how to respond the next time they were stopped by the police. Conversation has been centered around the validity of the answers from the candidates, based on whether Black parents have given their children the same type of advice or not. But are we having the right conversation about this issue at all? Is the issue not so much whether Black parents say the same things to their kids about interacting with the police or is the issue really about whether we should expect politicians, who we want to shape policy that affects our lives, be the ones to give us personal advice on how to handle institutional problems?

Here to talk about this with me today is Hari Ziyad. Hari is a screenwriter, the author of Black Boy Out of Time, and the Editor in Chief of RaceBaitr. Hari also penned a response to this very issue in an article called “How the myth that all Black parents give kids the talk about police is used to silence resistance” that is published on the Black Youth Project website. Hari, thank you so much for joining me today.

HARI ZIYAD: Thank you for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So this has been such a touchy subject for a long time. And it’s gained more focus recently because of a presidential forum that was held at the Historically Black College and University Benedict College a few weeks ago. The Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, which was held at Benedict College, was where the Democratic presidential candidates were asked by two students­­–one male student, one female student–the question. And the question was posed of Sanders by the male student: “If I’m your son, what advice would you give me next time I’m pulled over by the police?” And Sanders’ response is offered in this clip.

BERNIE SANDERS: I would do my best to identify who that police officer is in a polite way. Ask him or her for their name. I would respect what they are doing so that you don’t get shot in the back of the head. But I would also be very mindful of the fact that as a nation we have got to hold police officers accountable for the actions that they commit. So to answer your question, I would be very cautious if you were my son, in terms of dealing with that police officer, but I also defend my rights and know my rights and make sure if possible that police officer’s camera is on what goes on.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: In your article, you mentioned that the issue with Sanders’ comments was that the onus for not getting shot in the back of the head­–that’s literally what Sanders said–was placed on us, even as he did acknowledge systemic issues. Would you elaborate on what you meant by that?

HARI ZAYID: Yeah. So in his comments he went on and on about how to approach the police officer with respect, how to try and deescalate the situation as the person who has experienced what could escalate into violence or beyond that. And in doing so, and in putting all that focus on what this theoretical child could do, the onus and the responsibility for deescalating that situation, even though you acknowledge the systemic effects and the systemic violence that shows up on the side of the police, it’s still about what the young person who was interacting with them does or doesn’t do. And then it can become a conversation of when they don’t do that, they’re in the wrong. And so I think that that’s just starting the conversation in the wrong place. And I was interested in where that comes from and why this keeps happening in these conversations over and over, because we see this consistently. That the responsibility is placed on the person who’s interacting with the police.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now to be fair, a lot of people on social media, not everyone, but a lot of people on social media did share only that portion of Sanders comments where he said, “I would respect what the police are doing so that I don’t get shot in the back of the head.” Right. That a lot of people truncated Sanders’ comments right there as if he didn’t go on to say other things where he did acknowledge systemic issues. So I mean, wasn’t that unfair, that Sanders response was misrepresented a little bit in this conversation?

HARI ZAYID: I think what people were responding from is that even when you do acknowledge the systemic violence of policing in this country, if you continue to put the responsibility on to the Black person who is interacting with police, then that leads to the same problem. And so I don’t think that it necessarily is a question of whether it’s fair or not. I think people were responding to where this conversation leads and whether or not you acknowledge the larger issues if you continue to put the responsibility on the person who receives the violence. That becomes a form of victim blaming. And that’s where people were responding.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So, was it not so much that people were saying that Sanders didn’t address systemic issues at all. The issue was, his first response. Where his initial response was, and his initial response was to the individual in their behavior as opposed to pointing to the systemic issue first. Right?

HARI ZAYID: Right. And I think a part of that is because of how the question is framed. Putting Sanders in the shoes of this theoretical Black parent and also how we’ve been having conversations around this theoretical Black parent. And what part of what I was trying to illuminate in this piece is that this talk that all of our parents supposedly have with us doesn’t always look the same for all of us. And it shouldn’t always look the same for all of us. I don’t think that every parent… obviously they’re going to be trying to do whatever they can to keep their child safe and alive, but we also have to negotiate as Black folks with our families: How do we survive in this world without becoming a slave to it without just shrinking every time that we do interact with forces like the police in abusive situations like this? And so for us it’s a lot more complicated. And for Sanders because he hasn’t had this experience, for him to opine as if he might be this theoretical Black parent without that nuance, I think it just strips a lot from the conversation.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And you actually say in the article that you wrote that your mother told you to stand up for yourself, to fight for what you believe in no matter what it costs. And she said that even understanding that the cost may be very, very high, and even in giving that advice, there is a conflict, given the realities that sometimes that costs may be our life. But that is sometimes the outcome of the talk that is not discussed when we are talking about this issue of how do Black people individually handle police brutality, right?

HARI ZAYID: Exactly. And I think there’s a reason for that. Obviously it feeds so many ways that we can keep the status quo going is by not adding that other layer. But there is this other layer necessarily. Whether or not you personally were born into a family where there were folks resisting, throughout our history as Black people, there have been people resisting. So there had to have been a consideration of sometimes we do have to put our lives on the line and when are those cases appropriate and how do we have those conversations? When do we have those conversations? That’s just as important as talking about when safety and survival becomes an issue. And within the context of Bernie Sanders and his comments, that other layer and the other families and the other parents like my mother and those conversations are completely erased.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now to be fair, because we do try to be fair, we don’t want to make this completely about Sanders and what he said, even though that he and his comments have been the basis of this entire conversation. But there were other candidates there and the responses from those other candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the same question again, one question was posed to Harris by a female student, but it was the exact same question, were also varying degrees of problematic, right? None of them seem to get this right.

JOE BIDEN: If you were my daughter, you’d be a Caucasian girl and you wouldn’t be pulled over. No. But here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. What I tell you is that’s what’s wrong. That is what’s wrong. There is institutional racism that still exists.

KAMALA HARRIS: Talking about violence, nothing stops a bullet like a job.

HARI ZIYAD: This definitely isn’t about Sanders. I have no personal issue with Sanders as a politician. I’m not committed to any of that yet. But I think, like you said, it’s about the framing of the question. It’s about how we have this conversation. And so I think if you probably were to ask any of the candidates because of this is the way that we allowed this conversation to go on for so long, because of this is the way that we frame it, that’s probably the answer you would get from any of them. And I was just arguing for us to rethink how we frame this and how we consider other nuances to the conversation because I think it’s really important, if we want to move past this victim blaming that always seems to bubble up to the surface.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now let’s get to how we reframe this question. Because this was the crux of what I took away from your article and also from what I took away from watching the forum and the responses to those questions. What if the issue is really that voters of any age, but especially young Black voters who have so much at stake in this system, what if the issue is that maybe they should not be asking for personal advice from politicians who they’re expecting to advance public policies to address systemic issues about it? Do you think that’s a a good starting point for reframing how we ask this question of politicians in regard to this system?

HARI ZIYAD: Yeah, I mean I think we have to come into these political conversations, like you say, realizing that folks who represent these institutions aren’t going to be our parents. And I think that a lot of politicians have the impetus in trying to get empathy and try to display empathy for certain communities. They’re going to want to represent your parent or your cousin or someone you can relate to.

And the danger in that though is that–especially when you’re talking about really nuanced conversations within marginalized communities–you erase a lot of what they might not never ever be able to able to understand. And I think it’s important for folks to recognize the limits of their understanding, recognize the limits of their perspective, and acknowledge that before stepping into a conversation. Because it allows them room to be challenged on things that they might not have every answer to. And so yes, to your point, it’s really important for us to realize that our personal relationships that we have within our community won’t always translate to our relationships to politicians.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And understanding that, does that mean that we’re going to have to have… or voters. I have to always try to take myself personally out of these conversations. Does that mean that voters–voters of color, particularly young Black voters–are going to have to have separate conversations with the elders in their community and explain to them why they’re taking an approach in addressing these issues with politicians that maybe their elders and their parents might not approve of? Is this a dual conversation that needs to be had in communities of color, especially around this issue?

HARI ZIYAD: Yeah. I’ve 100% believe that this is a conversation that we need to have on multiple levels. This is part of the work that I do at RaceBaitr and at Black Youth Project is to create spaces where we can have these conversations before we’re forced to consider that there are other perspectives and other positions that we have to cater to. And I think we can have this conversation in a much different way when we’re not always responsive to outside cases. We’re not always trying to make sure that our words are taken out of context for people who might not understand certain contexts. So it’s really important right now, especially across generational gaps, to be having these conversations within the community before, or least at the same time that we’re having these conversations outside it.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Hari Ziyad, thank you so much for writing this article, which I think was incredibly, incredibly important as a response to not just these comments, but an important perspective in this conversation. And thank you so much for coming and speaking with me today about it. I really appreciate your insight and your work.

HARI ZIYAD: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

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Jacqueline Luqman

Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.