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

December 6, 2014

Attorney Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad, Youth Organizer for Baltimore AFSC, talk about strategies for combating police brutality in the United States

Attorney Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad, Youth Organizer for Baltimore AFSC, talk about strategies for combating police brutality in the United States



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Story Transcript

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

This is the second segment with our conversation with Kamau K. Franklin and Faraji Muhammad. Thanks to you for joining us again.

And thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

KAMAU K. FRANKLIN, ATTORNEY AND ACTIVIST: Thank you.

FARAJI MUHAMMAD, YOUTH ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE AFSC: Thank you so much.

PERIES: So, in our earlier segment, Faraji, Kamau, we were talking about a national day of action that you’re organizing on January 15 that’s going to bring together the community, and also some action on Martin Luther King’s birthday. However, you guys have been organizers for quite a long time. You since you were 16, perhaps before that. I have a feeling that you have some ideas in your head in terms of the kinds of things that the community should be supporting in this day of action. So let’s talk about what some of those strategies are.

FRANKLIN: I think what we want to do is to set the basis to really work on not only short-term strategies, but medium-term and long-term strategies. So short-term there are some things that are out there that are low-hanging fruit, because everybody’s been talking about them. And we need to know that these things aren’t panaceas. They’re not going to solve the problem completely. But there are tools that we need to have in terms of our day-to-day actions with the police. So strengthening civilian complaint review boards is something that’s been talked about. The body cams issue something that’s been talked about. I think those things in particular, as well as the Justice Department looking into more investigations into police departments, I think those particular items–and we can throw in there bringing federal charges, civil rights charges, against the officers who have beat two grand juries now, both in Ferguson and in New York. Those things are there, those things are attainable things, and those are the things that I think that if we put some power behind in the short-term, as communities, we can achieve and we can win.

But we all know that those are not sort of long-term things that are going to bring power to our communities, right? And one of the things that we’ve been talking about in general, not just within AFSC, but in general conversations, is the continued lack of power of our community. We’re at the same place where we were 20 years ago, the same place we were at potentially 40 years ago in terms of the power that we have to either stand up against or create new institutions in our community.

And we were talking during the break a little bit about Venezuela. And it’s example for a lot of us that I don’t think we consider a lot. Like things in Venezuela, how communities, poor communities, working-class communities came together to form a political basis for change, not only in day-to-day activities, but changes in how resources are used and how resources come into different communities and who has a say in how those resources come into communities.

So we want to use this day as a startoff, but it’s definitely a way in which we want to move forward into how do we begin to create institutions that again really delve into economic issues within our community, institution building within our community. We’ve given up that fight. We’ve been so focused in on the day-to-day issues of policing, the day-to-date issues of post the recession, important issues. But we have no vision anymore for what should happen in our communities and who should be the folks really in charge of making those decisions. We have some tired civil rights organizations–I don’t need to be disparaging, but some organizations that are just tired, and they have no new vision, they have no new ideas, but they take up resources and they take up space.

So we have to challenge those folks, as well as challenging our youth to know that being out there in the front lines is important work, but you have to have a strategy behind it, because those mobilizations, they burn out. And after they burn out, if you don’t have coherent strategies around next steps, then you are leading yourself down a rabbit hole. You’re going out there, you’re building yourself up for something. These things are not going to change. And then you’re going to be pointing fingers at each other, which is something that, unfortunately, has happened generation after generation. So we really need to look closely at what not only this particular day can do, but what we want to see happen longer-term in this movement moment that we’re all experiencing.

PERIES: Okay. Kamau, one would think that you’ve had that political moment and political opportunity to make the kinds of changes that is necessary, at least as far as the legal structure and framework is concerned. You had Eric Holder as your attorney general. You’ve had President Obama, an African-American who’s had experiences and has been a organizer in the community himself. They were not able to shake the system. Why?

FRANKLIN: I think because, one, they didn’t try. Two, it wasn’t what they felt they were elected to do. So, again, this goes back to the power within the community to put pressure on elected officials, black, white, Latino, whatever, to do things in response to community needs. I don’t think Obama has felt, and Holder to the same extent has felt, that they have needed in the past to answer or be responsive to the black community in particular and other communities that are experiencing this kind of police violence. Instead they felt that they can go to these communities and in most part chastise communities for their individual behavior and for things that we have to do, and actually try to get us to get on board to their program around what change means. Right? So a moderate Democratic platform about what change means. And they’ve not been put in a position where they’ve felt that they needed to listen and respond to the real demands of working-class and poor folks, because there’s not a movement to push them to do so. No elected official, at least, to my knowledge, not many of them, will get out front of issues and stand strong with them when those folks are not necessarily in a position to either pay their bills or in a position to threaten to kick them out of office. We have to be in a position not only to do that, but, and again, to build other resources within the community, other institutions in the community, that whether or not some of the system is working or not for the community, there’s some the self-sustaining aspect of how we do our business within the general black community, I would say.

PERIES: Faraji, talk to the kind of sustainable community organizing that needs to take place and what are some of the longer-term strategies that you think needs to be put into place now.

MUHAMMAD: Well, I think right now we need to figure out what’s going to be the infrastructure in terms of how we organize. I know that the work that we’re doing, of course, with AFSC is coalition building. So we come to the table with the idea in mind that it’s not one organization that’s going to save all of the black community, or it’s not one black organization that’s going to save all of the young people. So our model is based upon coalition-building, and let’s look at what strengths you bring, what resources you bring, both individually and organizationally, and see how we can kind of create this larger skills bank, where we know exactly who is responsible and who is able to do what.

I think that that’s [what] Kamau mentioned is that we have to not just have that infrastructure, but a lot of times when we organize with young people, you’ve got to break through a couple of mentalities, one being that we don’t know it all. And so we need to be surrounded by individuals or elders who are going to–or even not just elders, but individuals who are going to just give us right guidance. They’re not going to be weak in their guidance, but at the same time, they can give us right guidance to kind of channel the direction. So I think we’ve got to break down that you know, just because I’m young, I got it. I don’t want to move forward that way, and I think that shooting ourselves in the foot when we’re considering we’re dealing with some very, very long-term issues and challenges and we need to be surrounded by people that know what they’re doing or how to get through all of that. That’s one. So I think that needs to be a part of that infrastructure.

The other part of it is that we have to look at, okay, as Kamau mentioned, institutional building. Well, what role would the next generation play into that? And we have to figure out–and, again, that goes back to the skills. But we have to be ensured that we’re part of those conversations [if] there’s going to be new think tank, if there going to be a new school. Young people need to be at the table.

Young people should be involved in that. So what we’re hoping, for example, from the day of action, if you’re talking about doing any type of civilian review board, there should be a young person who is qualified that is able to be a part of the board. So that way, when issues dealing with young people come up, that there’s–that voice is needed right there at the civilian review board. If you’re talking about body cams, to make sure that the body cam legislation includes–suppose police are attacking little children and young people. So we need to make sure that the interests of young people is protected.

But you’re talking about long-term sustainability, then we need to take make sure that, one, that young people and the next generation, the interests–and I’m speaking of high school college students, young professionals–they need to be intimately involved in this whole process. And so it cannot just be this windowdressing that we often see. There has to be some very, very direct action, and there has to be some intimate involvement, and we have to make sure that the next generation is reconnected with those who have gone before them to ensure that this whole path that we’re on is a very victorious path.

And as Kamau mentioned, low-hanging fruit, very, very important. We’re going to–I know that for us is that we’re going to focus on the low-hanging fruit stuff. And then, as we get to the bigger stuff, then we’re going to bring out the big dogs and ask for that assistance. But we need to start small, because you’re dealing with a generation that have the smarts, the intelligence, the fearlessness, but they don’t always–they need to know where to go and how to start off. And I think that’s the process we’re taking.

PERIES: I was recently in Brazil at a huge youth conference that culminated in São Paulo. Here we are dealing now with a youth that is highly preoccupied with popular culture, that are individualized through various commercial activities in our culture. And the desire to really socially organize and build institutions, creating that desire is a huge challenge.

So tell me the kinds of strategies you are engaged in that are not only providing people with the historical context–I mean, one of the great challenges for us is that in the current youth, that historical memory of what brought us here has been lost. You know, why do we find ourselves in this situation is completely lost. So you have to remap that history to build a sense of urgency, to be able to build a movement that could sustain itself. Tell me about the kind of training, workshops, engagement you are involved in.

MUHAMMAD: Whenever I get a chance to talk to young people, I always tell them, get off of Facebook, get off of Instagram, get off of Twitter. And it’s funny, because I read an article where they say that young people between, like, the ages, I think, of 18 to 30 get 50 percent of their news from Facebook. And a lot of [incompr.] information that we get on Facebook is just half-truths or just straight out lies, they’re not fully researched information, and it’s like, you know, everything that you can think of.

So the fact is is that if we’re going to have this kind of movement, we have to stop from being distracted. And I think that the way we can do that is by first putting it out there that just because you post a hashtag–#Mike Brown, #Eric Garner–that doesn’t change the situation. Social media can be a tool to organize if used productively. Social media could be a tool for awareness. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have to get off of the phone and go down to City Hall or go out into the streets are go into that school or go into that neighborhood, and you’re going to have to put in that work. So it’s not just enough to just do it on social media, because that’s so easy and that doesn’t take any sacrifice.

The fact is that this type of moment that we’re in, this time period that we’re in, requires sacrifice. So that means that it requires more of what you’re willing to give. It takes you into that uncomfortable zone for organizing. And I think that’s where we are right now. We’ve got to get out of our comfort zone and say, well, I just want to do it like this. We have to get off of that and not allow those things to distract us from the very, very critical moment. And I think that if we allow those things to be removed, then we can come to the table.

But I want to definitely point out that for, like, our national day of action, that of course we’re going to use social media, of course we’re going to let folks know. But it’s really about what is it that you can bring to the table and how we can turn this movement that may have started off with even Trayvon Martin, that continues with Mike Brown and Eric Garner–but how can we make this movement relevant and realistic for us right here in Baltimore? And I think that’s the piece that’s missing.

We’ve got a lot of social justice issues, a lot of young people. I went to high school a couple of weeks ago. They told me about some of the issues that–I mean high school students getting beat up by the police and their families and seeing that. There’s a lot of issues here in Baltimore. We should have a movement of young people that’s involved in that, making sure that these things change. And we can. We really can. We’ve just got to remove all the other distractions at this point.

PERIES: Faraji, you are a unique asset to the community. But, Kamau, we need so many more Farajis who are conscious, who are engaged, who really wants to change the world by thinking about it, not just, you know, doing it because somebody’s telling you to, but the strategies come from–if when it originates inside you and you put it out there and the community accepts it, you know, it gives you the incentive, motivation to keep going. And I can see that Faraji is a product of that. What do you have to say to Faraji to build more Farajis?

FRANKLIN: I think that the things that I’ve seen that really work and what was good for me was that when I got involved in organizing–and I went through several organizations. At one point, in terms of my young organizing life, I probably joined every organization that was political that I could find. In fact, I was so desperate to join an organization, I actually researched the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which was Malcolm’s last organization he created, just to see if it was still around, if I could join that. So I found a place that I thought had a good mentor-mentee relationship for what I needed at the time with elder activists and organizers who some of which provided some guidance for how to move forward, how to organize, what were their experiences, but allowed enough room for me to go out and make my mistakes. Right? And I think that’s extremely important for young organizers. I think having folks that you have seen go through it before, who can tell you certain things about what–some things that could be traps in their way, it’s very important, I think, making sure that people get as much political education and training and workshops. And people actually build skills through movement organizing. It’s amazing the skill-building that happens in terms of writing skills and speaking skills, things that people don’t imagine that they do get out of this work, and then providing a lot of folks in our community who are interested in cultural issues, they’re interested in economic issues, providing the space too to explore those channels.

So there’s been a time where sometimes if we did things–and there’s a group [we’ve] been working with now, and they want to do community gardens, and we’ve done those in the past. I don’t think those are sort of revolutionary things that will change the way we sort of–our community feeds ourselves, but I think they’re good starting points for learning how to get involved with sustainable food growth, learning how to get involved with some forms of economics, in terms of how do you grow the food, how do you pay for seeds to get the food, distribution channels, and that kind of thing. I think there are entrepreneurial skills that we need to teach the community.

And there’s things like that that I think that’s how you build young Farajis. Like, I don’t know if you’re going to quite get another one like this brother, but that’s how you try to build young Fridays is that you give them sort of the benefit of whatever it is that you may have. But ultimately you also let them make their mistakes. You help guide them such as possible. But folks are going to make mistakes, right? And that’s a great thing. I’ve probably learned more from my errors than I ever have from any success I’ve had. And I think that’s true for most of us.

So I think there’s, again, a moment here in what’s happening in the United States where more young people are coming out participating in civil disobedience, direct action, mobilizations, and we want to make sure, as folks who’ve sort of somewhat been through some of this before and those who are older than me who’ve been through a lot more than I have, that we can be there to help support those young folks, to help say, well, I might not do it that way, but in the end, you try it and let’s see what happens kind of thing, as opposed to potentially the sort of co-opting or taking over of young folks and them never having the ability to sort of make a move without checking in.

So I think we have to be careful about that. We have to help guide those folks. We have to remember there is a place for older folks in terms of movement organizing. But we also have to remember that this struggle now, particularly around the issue of police violence, is something that’s been experienced by teenagers, by 20-year-olds, and by some 30-year-olds. Those are the folks who most need to be out there and the folks who need to change the system and make things different than what they are right now.

MUHAMMAD: I mean, and who knows how far or how much impact that if we activate a group of young people today, not ten years down the road, but even two or three years down the road, how that will play out for them in their personal lives? And they’re going to grow up and they’re going to be influence and impact [sic]. And so their view of the community is going to change. So they’re going to be the next ones in City Hall, they’re going to be the next ones in the police department and in the school system, and in all of these institutions that serve as support for the community. That’s really what it is. This is all about planting a seed of a new idea. That’s what it is. It’s not about–we’re going to work on issues. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about really planting a seed of a new idea of freedom, justice, and inequality in a generation that has what it takes. You’ve got people around it.

This is really our time. I can feel it. I wake up with a passion like, man, you can feel it in the air that something major is happening. I get it on Facebook, get it on Twitter. Everybody is, like, talking about, yo, what do we do? Can we get involved? People are being activated, and I think the consciousness of this particular time is what’s going to just–is so big and overwhelming that change has got to happen. I was always taught 100 percent dissatisfaction brings about 100 percent change. And that’s what we’re seeing today, and that’s why I’m very happy that even though these are unfortunate incidents, I truly believe that these are the incidents that we need to wake up and these are the incidents that’s going to cause our generation, my generation, to take its rightful role as being fulfillers of the prayers and the hopes of the community.

PERIES: Faraji, Kamau, thank you both for joining us. And please feel free to use The Real News as a tool to do the work that you’re doing.

FRANKLIN: Thank you so much.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget to Tweet us at The Real News.

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