Police Brutality Towards Black People Has Historically Gone Unchecked
Professor Gerald Horne and civil rights organizer Kevin Alexander Gray say the Ferguson grand jury decision is in line with U.S. history, and discuss whether a Department of Justice investigation would yield different results
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, has decided Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted after killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown. In reaction to the decision, protests have swept the nation in cities like New York all the way to the Golden Coast of Oakland, California.
Here to help put this decision into historical context and analyze the grand jury’s decision are our two guests.
Dr. Gerald Horne joins us from Houston, Texas. He’s a history and African American studies professor at the University of Houston.
Also joining us, from Columbia, South Carolina, is Kevin Alexander Gray. Kevin is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and coeditor of the book Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.
Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY, COEDITOR, KILLING TRAYVONS: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Gerald, let’s start off with you. It’s fair to say that many in the black community were not surprised by this decision. What does this moment mean in the history of police brutality towards black people?
GERALD HORNE, CHAIR, HIST. AND AFR. AMER. STUDIES, UNIV. OF HOUSTON: I think there was a lack of surprise because I think many black people, unlike many others, recognize that this nation started as a so-called slaveholding republic and that abuse and killing of black people was nothing new.
We also know that St. Louis, Missouri, was the city where the Dred Scott case was litigated in 1857. That case, you may recall, the United States Supreme Court suggested that black people had no rights that white people were bound to respect, and certainly was the verdict, if you like, coming out of this grand jury.
We also know that Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in this case, pursued unorthodox tactics in terms of doing an evidence dump on these 12 grand jurors, which was totally unlike previous cases that he has handled. We know that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, as was once said, if he is so inclined. And certainly he was not inclined in this case.
We also know that this is not new, that there has been an epidemic of police killings in one city, Dallas, Texas–in the last four years, there have been 81, with only one police officer prosecuted. That is not unusual.
We also know at the end of the day, if this epidemic is to be brought to its knees, that we organizers, we people of concern, are going to have to appeal to the international community. That is to say that it’s no accident that RT in Moscow, CCTV in China, teleSUR in Venezuela, Prensa Latina of Cuba, and Press TV of Iran have been much more incisive and much sharper on this case than many of our local and domestic news outlets. I think that we all need to take heed of that message.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And you mentioned having the ability to organize and the importance of organizing.
I’m going to turn to you, Kevin. What significance does this decision, this entire movement, really, have for black youth in particular coming of age right now?
GRAY: Well, I’m glad black youth are out there in the streets and understanding the context of their struggle and the context of their lives in relationship to the history that we’ve gone through from slavery, enslavement, to Jim Crow. And now, of course, what we’re seeing now is the manifestation of the war on drugs, for the most part, that gives the police so much additional power, 9/11 and the antiterrorism laws. If we look at who’s in jail, it’s mostly black and nonviolent drug offenders. So we’re seeing people understand the context of their struggle.
Now, whether or not we organize those entities in our community that are really going to be effective in fighting racism and white supremacy–’cause at the heart of it, that’s what we’re talking about fighting. It just isn’t about police abuse. It is about white supremacy. It is about racism. And when you talk about all these media outlets, outlets that maintain the status quo, who are built on racism and white supremacy, of course they’re going to present the status quo message. That’s what they’re there for.
But these kids have to understand that we have to build something long-lasting. We have to have the discipline of movement. We have to combat some really structural, pointed things. We have to deal with the idea of shoot to kill.
Everybody’s on TV talking about, well, we need to change the law. What needs to change is the police having the ability to invoke the death penalty on the street without due process. Darren Wilson got a lot of due process. Michael Brown got none. He was tried and executed. And if he had been charged with stealing cigarillos or whatever, the penalty certainly wouldn’t have been the death penalty. So we’ve got to talk about the police having the power to kill and using that power to kill mostly black people and people of color, one every 28 hours. And it’s just not black males. It’s black women. It’s black children. And it’s out of hand.
And what’s going to happen now is people are going to have to start realizing that they may have to rethink what self-defense means in this country in light of giving the police such unfettered power to invoke the death penalty whenever they want and claim that it’s justified, claim that their lives are being threatened, when really the evidence has shown there was–in most cases, there was no threat.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s turn and talk about President Obama, because last night he’s weighed in on this decision. Let’s play a clip of what the president had to say.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: [T]o those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively. Michael Brown’s parents understand what it means to be constructive. The vast majority of peaceful protesters, they understand it as well.
Those of you who are watching tonight understand that there’s never an excuse for violence, particularly when there are a lot of people in goodwill out there who are willing to work on these issues.
DESVARIEUX: So we just heard the president’s comments. He mentioned that protesters should be peaceful and constructive, this sort of call for calm.
Gerald, what do you make of the president’s comments, specifically around this issue of remaining calm?
HORNE: Well, it does not surprise me. We know that in these recent elections that took place a few weeks ago, that the right wing in a low-turnout election did quite well. They are feeling their oats, they’re flexing their muscles on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. And indeed, I don’t think you can separate that grand jury decision and the intemperate remarks of the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCullough, from the political climate that’s obtaining as a result of that low-turnout election. It seems to me that President Obama, too, is affected and influenced by that low-turnout election and the hawkish message that it sent.
But I don’t think that we the organizers, we, those who are most influenced by this turn, need to be influenced by this. We need to step up our energy. I was very heartened to see that the parents of Michael Brown, the slain teenager, the day after the election, were in Geneva, Switzerland, testifying before a human rights body of the United Nations. I was heartened to see as well that a high-level official of the United Nations human rights body made a statement just today castigating the United States for its abuse of African Americans in particular, for its high incarceration rate, for the fact that we’re disproportionately represented on death row. It seems to me that that kind of international pressure ultimately is going to force even President Obama to change his tune.
DESVARIEUX: What about you, Kevin? What do you make of the president’s comments? Do you feel like there’s a message behind what he’s saying in terms of we have to remain calm? Isn’t that anger justified?
GRAY: The president is the president of the empire. The president, not Holder, is the chief law enforcement officer of this country. He’s going to say what he has to say to defend and uphold the structures that exist, the structure of white supremacy, the structures of police power. He has to yield to the fraternal order of police and those types of organizations.
He has no moral authority. He decides every Tuesday who’s going to die by drones. He’s expanded an assassination program. He has no moral authority to talk about the pains that people of color have gone through, although he may be a person of color himself. Ask the people of Iraq how fair the United States is, how just the United States is.
What we have to talk about is the police use of power, of shoot to kill, of giving people on the street the right to take someone’s life without due process of law. It was an incredible decision.
The president has been a lame-duck president since his second term began. He’s catered and bent over backward to people who would deny the humanity of people of color, of people that deny his humanity, although he’s the president of their corporation. He ought to stand up and be about something before he leaves office, instead of trying to defend the indefensible.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Some folks in Ferguson are calling for justice, and that justice they want to see actually handled through the Justice Department, and they want them to step in. We should note that the Justice Department’s investigation is still ongoing. But do you feel–I’m going to turn to you, Gerald–that the federal government stepping in is actually the real solution here?
HORNE: It is part of the solution. Certainly there is a high bar, legally, for the Justice Department to bring a criminal indictment. My understanding is is that it will have to find in–in violation of civil rights, which involves a certain kind of intentionality that may be difficult to prove.
On the other hand, Robert McCulloch, the county prosecutor, does not necessarily have to except what the grand jury he impaneled said. That is to say that I think pressure should be placed upon the St. Louis County authorities and the Democratic governor of the state of Missouri, Jay Nixon, to perhaps impanel a special prosecutor to look into this case, not least since Robert McCulloch himself has what one might consider a conflict of interest, since, as you know, his father was killed by a black person. And he, of course, is viewed is no friend of the black community. I don’t think that we should abandon the field with regard to Missouri law and the St. Louis County prosecutor.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. What but you, Kevin? ‘Cause some folks are going to say–.
GRAY: I think there’s probably need for a special prosecutor. I don’t see how McCulloch, who basically put on a defense for Darren Wilson, can be impartial in this.
You know, most black defendants, when they’re charged with a crime, they don’t get what Darren Wilson just got. What they get generally is overcharged and forced to plead down before they even face trial. They don’t get what Darren Wilson got.
This idea of having all that time to construct that story, where Darren Wilson is saving a baby, and all of a sudden he gets a call as he’s leaving from saving a baby to someone stealing, and he sees someone jaywalking, not knowing that that was a person on his radio call, and jaywalking results in the death penalty–. We have to have focus on this idea that police have a right to shoot to kill and get away with it. We’ve got the state to stay focused on this idea of the government, via the police, denying people their due process, often for crimes that if they weren’t adjudicated they would be–if they were adjudicated, the person wouldn’t face the death penalty.
DESVARIEUX: But I’m going to push back a little bit and kind of present the counterargument, Kevin, that people would say that this is exactly how the system was meant to function. It’s meant to protect property, and this is sort of–laws were constructed in this manner to do so. And what we’re seeing manifest in this case in Ferguson and things like that–.
GRAY: Well, you’re talking to a person, though, that–. Let me stop you right now. The law–you’re right: the laws were designed to protect property. But we are from a heritage of people who were designated property. And to that extent, we were designated property that was expendable when our use was over. Right now, for the most part, for a lot of young black males, they’re only use to the system is to feed money into the system, to feed money for the private prison systems, to feed money into the court systems, if you look at the rate of fines that people in Ferguson have to pay disproportionate to their population. And that goes on all across the country.
This idea that we put property rights before people’s rights has to be challenged. It should be challenged in the history books, with the genocide of the natives. This whole idea of adopting a settlers mentality, that everybody else is savages and for the use of a white social structure, a white patriarchal social structure, we’ve got to push back on that.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Great. I’m going to turn the page, and let’s turn the corner a little bit, because there are some folks that are seeing this movement as being very reactionary and asking, how can we keep the flame going? What should communities be looking to demand beyond just justice for Michael Brown? I’ll turn to you first, Gerald. What would you recommend that people start really fighting for?
HORNE: We may need a special prosecutor who investigates police killings nationally, certainly statewide in Missouri.
It seems to me that, number two, I think, our organizers really need to pay more attention, as I’ve been beating the drum about for these last few minutes, in mobilizing the international community. You may know that polls suggest that a unhealthy majority of Euro Americans don’t see what the big deal is with regard to Michael Brown and his slaying. They don’t necessarily see what the big deal is with regard to the August 15, 2014, story in USA TODAY that suggested, after surveying 750 out of 17,000 law enforcement agencies, including police departments (so this is probably in an undercount), that every week a white police officer kills perhaps two black people. They don’t necessarily see the big deal in us being overrepresented on death row.
And so I think that when we have our manifestations, our demonstrations, our picket lines, our petition campaigns, we have to rope in RT in Moscow, CCTV in China, Prensa Latina in Cuba, Press TV in Iran, teleSUR in Venezuela. Those are outlets that we need to rope in because historically that is the way we have been able to make this torturous journey from slavery to freedom. That is to say, it was an international movement that led to the destruction of slavery. It was an international movement that led to the erosion of Jim Crow as symbolized by the petition campaign led by Paul Robeson, “We Charge Genocide”, filed at the United Nations circa 1950. I think that after Brown v. Board of Education and the slight retreat on Jim Crow that it portended, we lost sight of that message. And that helps to explain and shed light on why we’re in the pickle we’re in now.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. I’ll let you get the last word, Kevin. What do you think we should be fighting for?
GRAY: Well, I think I agree with most of that, although I agree with it with the understanding that this country has been at war every 20 years since its existence. And since World War II, this country’s probably responsible for the deaths of 30 million people worldwide. So this country has no problem with killing people inside and out of this country, and those people inside and out of this country that want to see freedom and justice need to form alliances and coalitions.
That being said, on the grassroots level, we ought to demand that we have independent citizens’ review boards to look at police violence in local communities. And perhaps even I would go along with the Michael Brown law that people are talking about, requiring police to wear body cameras. Those are two things that folk can do and then start new organizations that are egalitarian, that are fair, that are based on democracy, that take on the challenges of what’s going on in local communities, what’s going on in our country, what’s going on with the police, and start a movement against the death penalty in the streets.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kevin Alexander Gray as well as Gerald Horne, thank you both for joining us.
HORNE: Thank you.
GRAY: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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