The Black Freedom Struggle of the 21st Century
Rev. Heber Brown III interviews Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, about Ferguson and the need for new institutions built by the young generation of black activists
REV. DR. HEBER BROWN III, PASTOR, PLEASANT HOPE BAPTIST CHURCH, BALTIMORE: Hello, and thank you for tuning in to The Real News Network. My name is Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, and we’re so glad that you could take the time to tune in to this very special town hall and discussion on the murder of Mike Brown and the unfolding events in Ferguson.
Of course you know across the nation, and in fact across the world, people are focused on what is going on in Ferguson right now, but not just Ferguson, but the ripple effect in local communities, towns, and states even beyond Ferguson. And so we’re so excited to be a part of this conversation. We really pray that this is not just a rehashing of what’s already been said. But our thrust and drive today is going to be, very much so, akin to that question that Dr. King asked in 1967, where do we go from here.
FIRE ANGELOU, SPOKEN-WORD ARTIST AND ACTIVIST: There are five boys in a cell across from me, and four out of five of them will be considered three-fifths of a man. And there are five walls, four that surround us and one that is made of our skin. See, blacks are always in a double prison. But I could smell the hope of white privilege, one Caucasian who knew that DJS was not meant for his DNA, handcuffs were allergic to his helix. So he bounced freedom off his tongue because he could taste it. I watched westward expansion walk out of a felony while every single boy of color returned for a crime less severe.
But why should we care? Why should we care about a few black boys that committed a crime, but we should care that we are criminalized before we even commit one? See, I met my public defender a few minutes before my rights were going to be surrendered. I didn’t even need a representative from the state. My face gave a testimony before I could talk. I am a black girl, which means in a courtroom my skin is shackle-lready.
But what if I made you inferior based on the color of your eye, denied your right to vote based on your body size, ’cause kinky can break combs but will not break complacency, nor white supremacy? Yet people will say, I don’t see color. Well, look in a prison if you are feeling colorblind, that out of the millions of people in prison, more than half are people of color, ’cause as a nation led by Ronald Reagan, we chose incarceration instead of rehabilitation, and health issues are never addressed in the institution, because the institution itself is a health issue. A retired police chief told The New York Times that he was offered tanks, bazookas, and anything else he wanted. The Pentagon developed monetary incentives to ensure military practices on common people, so that your mother, your brother, your sister, your cousin, your aunts, uncle are all public enemy number one.
But when was the last time a SWAT team was in a suburb, threw a grenade in a mansion without probable cause? The only difference is race, because statistically, blacks and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, and blacks just lack the private space. So the outdoor market is more accessible to arrest. Police target us because it is easy, because we are already on the corner and criminalized. What we call the hood is the aftermath of a battlefield. But I dare you to put a blue light in a white man’s house. Why don’t you Bloomberg his neighborhood, stop and frisk his sons and daughters, make them spread-eagle [until he wants to (?)] get your eagle every year? Billions of dollars sustains the prison-industrial complex. They will spend more money imprisoning us than feeding us. And it is never about the prison time. It’s about the prison label, because felon is an alternative word for slave.
In Ferguson, what has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society and more to do with the language they use to justify it.
So I refuse consent. You can bring your dog, and even your firing squad. I am tired, we are tired, Ferguson is tired of an American dream being shattered with shackles, and I will not identify how many of our young black men, how many of our people have to die before we decide that not next year, five years, a decade, or a century from now, but now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now is the only time structure we will ever believe in? We are all prisoners incarcerated in the belief that we have time to make change happen. But I will never sit and hope for change. I will spend every day and every night fighting for it, because as long as the system of white supremacy thrives, mass genocide, mass incarceration, and our slavery will never die.
BROWN: That’s Fire Angelou, ladies and gentlemen. And what a phenomenal, phenomenal activist and spoken word artist we are blessed to have right here in Baltimore City.
Well, in addition to Fire Angelou, we are so thankful as well to have our special guest today, a wonderful brother and activist who really–his work on the ground in so many communities speaks for itself. But just for the sake of those who may not know him, Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus. He’s a minister, community activist, and one of the most influential people in hip hop political life. He works tirelessly to encourage the hip hop generation to utilize its political and social voice. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rev. Yearwood became national director of the award-winning Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, where he led a coalition of national and grassroots organizations to advocate for the rights of Katrina survivors. He served as the political and grassroots director of Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network in 2003 and 2004. And in ’04 he also was a key architect and implementer of three other voter-turnout operations. P. Diddy’s Citizen Change organization, which created the “Vote or Die!” campaign, Jay-Z’s “Voice Your Choice” campaign, and Hip Hop Voices, a project at the AFL-CIO. Rev. Yearwood is a retired U.S. Air Force reserve officer, and I believe chaplin as well. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He has been seen all over the media, and right now he’s seen on The Real News Network.
Please put your hands together for Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.
REV. LENNOX YEARWOOD JR., MINISTER AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
BROWN: Well, thanks so much for being here, man. I really appreciate your time. And let’s just go ahead and jump right into it.
YEARWOOD: Most definitely.
BROWN: Can you give us first your general reactions to the murder of Mike Brown and the unfolding events in Ferguson?
YEARWOOD: Oh, well, thank you. I mean, I think the first thing is that it was a murder. I’m glad you said that. It was a murder of Michael Brown.
And I think the first thing–well, for me, Hip Hop Caucus has been dealing with police brutality on a number of issues. So this wasn’t new to us. I can’t tell you how many times we had been engaged with police brutality, from Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, so many issues, even going back to Amadou Diallo. I mean, there’s just a long list, not including the stand-your-ground list of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, and then Eric Garner and so forth recently in New York.
So I’ve been able to see the pattern of what happens for our community, particularly when they begin to take ground. And instantly the one thing about Michael Brown’s case which was different was that the community seemed to have more resolve. They were more open to speak out on camera and say what they saw. You know, a lot of times people don’t want to speak out. They’re afraid of the repercussions. So, instantly you saw this community, even before any of us got behind it, you saw the stepfather–you know, my son was executed–you know, very harsh language from the very beginning. And then clearly with Twitter and social media things begin to pick up steam from there. And I think that with Michael Brown the key thing is that this issue of, in essence, the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and how he could be killed with impunity, on essence young black men and young black women are living in, in essence, Constitution-free zones in America, was brought to light.
BROWN: And it seemed like, though, that the people were waiting for the leaders to get to the stage and say, here is the marching orders, here is what we do. Ferguson feels and has to this point been quite different, in that folks in Ferguson, and even beyond Ferguson, those who gave it support, aren’t waiting for the, quote-unquote, leaders to give the okay or green light on anything. They’re moving forward. And it seems as if leaders are trying to catch up to where the people are. Can you speak to that?
What are your thoughts?
YEARWOOD: Well, I mean, that’s how it should be, actually. You know, there go the people, and the leaders should follow. I mean, that’s how movements really should be, that people should be leading, and the leaders should be coming behind to give that movement direction or some actual structure, so to speak.
You know, let me take it back one step, actually. The difference for our generation, particularly the [incompr.] now operating in the 21st century, is that for a very long time we have been compared to the 20th century. So, instantly something happened to Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin is our Emmett Till. Ferguson is our Birmingham. And so you instantly have this–quickly this kind of measuring up to the 20th century.
What’s different about Ferguson, I think, is this. I think for our generation, we had been told about the leaders of the 20th century and the movements, how great the Urban League was, how great NAACP was, Dr. King, Malcolm X, so forth, Ella Baker, this long list, right? Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, the artists of the time. But what we failed, I think, was that we ourselves were ourselves going through our own crisis, the issues of–that we were in essence being lynched in the 21st century, that we were still dealing with segregation in our communities. All these things, in essence a new kind of Jim Crow, had emerged in the 21st century. And the Jim Crow was much more sophisticated. So, in essence, where our parents dealt with Jim Crow–straw hat, kind of not to couth and savvy–we were dealing with, I would say, James Crow Jr., Esq., a much more sophisticated element of this aspect. So when you fast-forward, we were then also using the techniques of the 20th century to mobilize, organize, and energize, almost going back, simply just marching, simply just thinking that we were only outside the aspect, looking for a particular kind of leader, I mean, looking for a male or a preacher. So our sisters who had done so much in the 20th century were still shut out in the 21st century. Those aspects in the 20th century were hindering.
And I think that what Trayvon Martin did was that when we saw George Zimmerman walk, that I think that something kind of snapped. We had gone through Katrina, we had seen the war in Iraq, we had seen people under the world of color being persecuted. We had seen in our own communities, in our own schools, young brother after young brother after young sister after young sister being abused. And I think that something in us moved.
Ferguson did that. Ferguson to me was a paradigm shift in which the movement recognized that we have our own battles, in the words of Coretta Scott King, that each generation much fight their own battles. And so I think that what Ferguson represents for us is almost a–not only a breaking away of fighting for freedom and equality and justice, but also a breaking away of the huge shadow of the 20th century. And I think that for a new generation, they begin to emerge and move things forward in a way that they were now fighting for justice and freedom.
BROWN: Wow. Yeah. So you’re aligning 20th and 21st century mindsets and tactics on how to deal with these issues. There’s also some people who were groomed and developed in 20th century movement of black folk who seem to be losing, seem to be losing some currency in 21st century activism. So let’s just talk. It’s just us. So I watched the video, right,–
YEARWOOD: Yeah. Okay.
BROWN: –of Rev. Jesse Jackson at McDonald’s, and somebody posted it up, and the response to the reverend was something that I’m sure has happened before. And it’s not even the first time. Dr. King, through the latter part of his life–you’re a historian; you know–through the latter part of his life, when he’s talking more about Vietnam and that type of stuff, he’s not as popular even in the black community no more, either. You know, they were derided him as well. But somebody came up on Rev. Jackson and said, we don’t want you here, go home, you ain’t helping, you’re not supporting the effort. And Rev. Al Sharpton the same way, getting that criticism. What do you make of the seeming intergenerational schisms that are now–seem to be on big stage for all of us to bear witness to? How do we repair that? Should it be repaired? In what ways should we move forward even in the intergenerational effort, as you align 20th and 21st century movement-building?
YEARWOOD: Well, first I’ll say this. Let me say that I know both Rev. Jackson and Rev. Sharpton very well and I’m around them and a lot of other black leaders in that discussion. And personally being around them, they are people who I believe are concerned about our community.
But with that being said, I think, though, that there is a need that our institutions are not engaging themselves with our community the way they need to. And people are seeing the leadership in ways where it appears to be very superficial. And they’re seeing more of our leaders more excited to be commentators, be in this kind of setting, to be able to be on TV, running before a camera, than they are running, doing the today-to-day hard work in that community. And that becomes frustrating, because when you see somebody running toward the media and not running toward the masses, there’s a problem. And so I think our community is almost hurt by that, because they almost feel used. And they feel used because there are times when a young brother or young sister is killed, the camera is there, people will show up, and then, very shortly thereafter, people will disappear.
You mentioned for me Katrina, for instance. Coming up will be the nine-year anniversary of the Katrina hurricane and disaster and the failed response by our government. I can–we’re still engaged as an organization, the Hip Hop Caucus, but I can tell you that the numbers that were here at the beginning, including progressive white organizations, has dwindled down to its just now back to the people. And the people know that. They can feel abandoned. They now feel with a new hurricane, now Sandy or whatever else might–the new disaster, so to speak, or the new victim. And that hurts, because we are not–it becomes a responsive agenda, not a preventive agenda. And so people are hurt by that. They feel that. So when anybody–if it’s Rev. Jackson, Rev. Sharpton, or I think any quote-unquote, leader who people see in that position and they don’t see them actively working or they don’t understand how it’s working, there’s frustration. And there should be.
I mean, let’s be honest. Our institutions–a lot of our institutions have become institutionalized. They are more concerned about protecting the institution then the mission of the institution was supposed to be doing. They’re more concerned about the brick and mortar and paying for, in essence, the salaries of the people working there than worrying about those resources going to the community. And this happens over time. When you have issues that have been around for a bit of time, that’ll happen.
So, in Ferguson, what you see: you see in essence new institutions, so to speak, emerging out of that, people who say, we’ve got to get something done, we’ve got to do something. And so, what you see them doing: they’re trying to do something. But then the problem, though–it could be one young lady or one young brother, and they’re out there organizing. What’s unfair about that is that then the institutions kind of sit back. These young folks go out, they do all this work, get arrested, get burnt out, get kicked out of school, and then the institutions, knowing how they can approach the foundations, knowing how they can use that process, will then go use those same pictures, those same things, go to those foundations to fund their work, and that money never gets to those young activists and those communities. That brings frustration, because then those young activists are saying, but what about me? I’m out here on the ground and want to make change, and we don’t see it.
BROWN: [snip] because you’re so involved in electoral politics and helping get people registered to vote and getting them active and the like. But there always have been voices that say, you know what? I ain’t voting, man. That stuff ain’t real, it ain’t true, it’s not going to bring about the changes on the ground. Can you help speak to that person? I’m curious as well. How would you draw the line of prevention–you talked about a proactive response–to this Mike Brown or the next to Mike Brown or the next Renisha McBride who’s coming? How would voting or how would increased voter registration rolls help prevent or decrease the number of murders that we see, serial executions in our community? How does voting help do anything about that?
YEARWOOD: Voting is the most radical thing that we can do. When there was a picture of two mothers during the protests in Ferguson and they put a voting booth out there, that was the one thing that got the right-wing bloggers the maddest. It wasn’t the looting, it wasn’t the rioting. The one thing that they went berserk about was the fact that these two mothers were linking what was going on in Ferguson directly to voting, which [it is (?)]. People will come back and say, well, Ferguson is a town that is mostly black. It has almost an all-white city council and a white mayor and in all-white police department. And they say, well, how can that happen? It happens because in 2013 only 6 percent of the black people in that community voted. That means 94 percent stayed home. That’s giving away your power.
BROWN: Well, the wonderful thing is–and we have to wrap for this first half. But the wonderful thing is that there are members of the local hip hop community right here in the audience today.
YEARWOOD: That’s for sure.
BROWN: So I want to continue this. I want to hear from some other voices, because I don’t know if you heard it, but I felt it in my spirit that when you said voting is the most radical think that we could do, I felt in my spirit that some of the people in the crowd said, oh, no, I don’t agree with that. So I want to hear some of that analysis, some of those voices.
But right now we’re going to go to our break, and we’ll be right back after this. Stay tuned right here. I’m Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. having an exciting conversation, and an important one, about Mike Brown, the murder of Mike Brown, and Ferguson. Stay tuned.
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