Why the American Justice System Is Failing Us (1/2)

December 4, 2014

Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad in a conversation on their plans for a national day of action to address police brutality on Martin Luther King's birthday

Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad in a conversation on their plans for a national day of action to address police brutality on Martin Luther King's birthday



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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The American justice system appears to be falling apart at the seams. With the recent decisions on Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Tyrone West right here in Baltimore, the nation is rapidly losing confidence in their justice system, a constitutional pillar of American democracy.

The African-American community in particular is the target of racism, police brutality, and unjust and disproportionate incarceration. They are all at the center of the lack of confidence in our justice system.

To address these issues and what can be done about it are our two guests in our Baltimore studio, Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad. Kamau is an attorney who also organizes around issues of youth development, police misconduct, and creating sustainable urban communities.

Farajii Muhammad is the lead youth organizer for the Baltimore’s American Friends Services Committee.

KAMAU K. FRANKLIN, ATTORNEY AND ACTIVIST: Thank you for joining us.

FARAJI MUHAMMAD, YOUTH ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE AFSC: Thank you for having us.

PERIES: Kamau, let me start with you. You have been an organizer for many years in the community around these issues. What is your takeaway of what’s going on in this country?

FRANKLIN: I mean, I’ve talked to folks, and I’m not surprised. I think many folks are not surprised by the outcome. And recently I’ve been saying to folks clearly that we should stop saying that the American criminal justice system is broken, because it’s not broken. It’s working the way it was intended to work. It was up to us in the organizing community and other communities to make changes to that system.

But that system is working the way it was built to work. And like you said, I have been around, unfortunately, for these decisions in terms of my activist life since the Rodney King fiasco back in the early ’90s and that was caught on videotape. And so for now to come this far and this to also be caught on videotape and to see that these same indictments don’t happen, that these police are let off, that our community is basically treated, the black community is treated as a community that is armed like the people at war with that community and can get away with doing anything that they think they need to or want to do at the time without any consequences, it’s a sad state of affairs, not only for the community, the larger nation, but it’s a sad state of affairs for young people who have to continually grow up in this kind of violent atmosphere. And they still have to put their lives on the line to defend their civil and human rights.

And I just think that the good thing about this is that people are springing into action. They’re trying to do things. They’re trying to mobilize. And I just want to do all I can to support young folks and other people who are still trying to organize against these horrendous actions that are taking place in our community.

PERIES: Feraji, what are your thoughts?

MUHAMMAD: Wow. You know, it’s unfortunate, but I agree with Kamau mentioning that the system is working the way it’s supposed to. But I think that the big thing is that–the great thing that comes out of a situation like this is that you’ve got young people who are now becoming activated. And I heard Roland Martin would say that it’s not a bad thing to let it be painful and [that (?)] to hurt, but he said because this generation, my generation, we have to go through the same–these type of incidences as our parents went through, dealing with Medgar Evers and so many others who have lost their lives unjustly. So we have to go through that. And then our hope is that we can use this momentum, the anger, the pain, the frustration, to use this momentum to spot a movement that picks up where our ancestors left off and those 50 years ago left off for real justice.

And what that movement looks like is going to have to have new energy. It’s going to have to have ideas from the next generation, young people. But most importantly it’s going to have to have a fearlessness, like we can’t be compromised. And so when I see with Eric Garner, we saw with Mike Brown, and when we see these demonstrations all across the country, the thing that I think that puts those who are enemies of our community, whether in the police department or city hall, wherever they may be, is that they’re starting to see that you’re dealing with a generation that’s not afraid, that’s not going to allow things to continue to happen and go unnoticed.

Accountability is going to be necessary. That’s part of the effort for us to get justice. There’s going to have to be some real changes, not just this very sugar-coated little reforms here, little reforms there. There’s a lot of conversation about body cams and that whole [nine (?)].

PERIES: Feraji, you’re an organizer here in Baltimore, and you’ve been doing this for a while.

MUHAMMAD: Right.

PERIES: You have a city council that’s largely black in Baltimore.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah.

PERIES: What are you saying to them? This is their community, that they’re supposed to be the people overseeing police activity in this city. What are you saying to them?

MUHAMMAD: Well, I mean, for those who are the decision-makers, we’re saying, look, can we have a list of demands? You know, AFSC, we have here in Baltimore we’re asking questions about the gag order for the city law, so that way that victims who, even though they may have been compensated, they should be allowed to speak and share their experience and their stories. We’re talking about changing some laws on the ground level.

But I think that most importantly the conversation is either [you’re going to (?)] speak about this or we’re going to have to remove you from power. And we have to look at that. I mean, it can’t be this very weak conversation.

And I think that particularly for Baltimore, when you have over 60 percent of the population is black, you have a black mayor, black city council president, black police commissioner, this cannot be a very, you know, pull-your-pants-up, distraction type of conversation. It has to be a conversation about what’s really going on. And we even have some black politicians that allow, that have voted on pieces of legislation that have allowed militarization of police officers, that have allowed greater powerful police. That has to be dealt with. And we need to call them out. We need to bring them to the account and to the table and say, well, look, why would you do this if you’re talking about working in the interests of our people and our community?

What we’re striving to do is that we want to have a very strategic movement. It needs to be a very disciplined movement. But at the same time, it needs to be a movement that shows that there’s real the power behind the demand. And if we don’t have any power which is based upon unity of our community, we can’t muddle the conversation with other things, like black-on-black crime and all of those things that kind of gets in the way. The fact is that there is a threat to the sustainability of our community, and we need to make sure that as a community we have to decide what road we’re going to take; whether it’s community policing, whether it’s us having a very clear relationship with the police department, we have to have that conversation. We have to let go all of the other egos and whatnot get down to the root of what’s really going on.

PERIES: So you have this enormous responsibility and you need the community behind you in force, in large numbers, to make and support the demands you’re making. And you have this responsibility to take it to a national level. Tell me the efforts you’re working on to build that community.

Kamau, let me start with you first.

FRANKLIN: Well, one of the things that we’re doing, particularly within the AFSC community, American Friends Service Committee, is that we have youth programs across the country, and particularly the ones located in the South. Those ones are gathering together for a special day on January 15, the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, which is a day against police violence and militarization. And so those community organizations which work under the auspices, again, of AFSC, are getting together to have a day of action in which sometime during the day they go out and express some either anger or some expression of what’s wrong with the community in terms of how policing is done. And in the evening, we’re going to–with the support, I hope, of Real News, of course, do some evening conversations about long-term solutions and short-term strategies for how do we combat the police misconduct happening in our communities. So we’re doing that on January 15.

We’re having more organizations outside of AFSC participate. But our base was to say, we work in this very large organization; what is it that we can do internally to start with to be a fountainhead, where young people have been involved, where young people are telling us the stories about how they’ve constantly been stopped, harassed, abused by the police? What can we do to pull them together to help them be the ones that are on the front line? And it’s extremely important that this battle is something that–it’s something that I have been involved in and will continue to be involved in.

But this is really an issue for teenagers and 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds who are the real targets at this stage of police violence in our community. And so we want to do all we can to support that work that’s happening and, again, just to spread the word that there are longer-term solutions that we have to come around to think about. Otherwise, in 20 years, we’re going to be back having some of these very similar conversations around why certain folks weren’t indicted. And people are talking about, like he said, mismatching issues around community violence versus police violence. And we know that that gets us nowhere. So we have to think about long-term strategies as we plan for some short-term victories that I think are there for us. But we have to be present and take those victories and move on to longer-term strategies.

PERIES: Right. Faraji, and what about you in terms of building that community of support you need? Tell me the kind of organizing that’s going on.

MUHAMMAD: Right now we’re organizing on the college campuses. Right now we’ve started the process at Morgan State University. And I’m happy to say those students are activated. We visited Mount St. Mary’s in Frederick. Those students are activated. We have some work on student leaders and young activists at Towson and other local colleges here, Coppin as well. Hopkins we’re reaching out to. So we’re working on that front.

But then you also have to get those young people who may not be in those institutions. And so we’re going to be talking to various community organizations and really reaching out to them to get them engaged, because each group–and we–you know, a lot of times people tend to think that working with young people is just monolithic thing, and it’s not. It’s you have to get people where they are in terms of organizing.

And so the beautiful thing about what AFSC is doing for our national day of action: it allows us to have a platform. But most importantly, AFSC is supporting–and under Kamau and the work that we’re doing for the southern region, we have a platform, we have resources behind it, and then, at the same time, we have the creative space to have this conversation, to do these type of demonstrations, to really challenge people’s perceptions. So we’re working on both the college and the community level. So [what here we’re (?)] in Baltimore, we’re looking at going down to–right downtown to the homeland security, because we want to go right where they are and make that statement and say to them that enough is enough. Then we’re going to–when we come back here into the community, we want to have a conversation, a tribunal, and then bring it up as to why it’s important for us to be united and have the experiences shared from those who have been violated by the police. But also we want to have those strategy sessions so we can look at breaking that. We have the list of demands, but there are some other demands that need to be included and should be on the table. So we need to have to figure those things out.

So on that day of action, it’s not going to just be a protest, a demonstration. And my hope is is that we can continue to contribute to the larger movement that young people can be a part of. But young people are so fired up right now, so activated, and I think we just need to continue to work off of that spirit and that inspiration. And so Kamau will often talk about the value of institutional power. If young people are guided properly, if they’re given the necessary resources, we can change the things that need to be changed. You just need to get all of them [up and scared (?)] people out of the way. But most importantly, you’ve got to get them, allow them, because right now it’s just raw energy. But that raw energy has to be channeled in a very strategic and disciplined manner to be get some things done.

PERIES: Right. And so what are you hoping will come out of January 15?

MUHAMMAD: Oh my gosh. See, that’s the beginning of the year, so that whole movement should be up and running. You know, the program that I’m coordinating for American Friends Services Committee is the Young Leaders for Peace. So my hope is is that YLP can be a part of the larger conversations that are happening, you know, locally, whether we’re dealing with Tyrone West, getting his family getting justice, or whether we’re dealing with other issues.

Our hope is is that you have a critical mass of folks that are going to be intimately involved in social justice work. So my hope is is that, yeah, we’ll still have work on police brutality. But then we have to look at, okay, we’ve got economic injustice, we’ve got educational disparity. We need to start figuring out. And there are people–and I’m not just saying older individuals, but there are young professionals who are involved in these type of things already. It’s just a matter of us coming together to activate them so that way they can be a part of this movement.

PERIES: Right.

I want to thank you both for joining us today, and we will certainly be following this story at The Real News. And we are hoping to also be very much a part of your January 15 organizing effort here at The Real News.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

PERIES: And in our next segment, I would like to discuss those long-term strategies that both of you had referred to. So thank you.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

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

End

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