Cornel West, Eddie Conway and Rev. Sekou on Building a Mass Movement
Three leaders of the struggle discuss the lessons of the 60’s and what’s needed today.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. It’s my pleasure and honor to talk to three veterans of the struggle. What struggle? Well, the struggle for rights. The struggles for justice, the struggles for a new society.
Now joining me in the studio to talk about the current awakening that’s happening in Baltimore and across the country, first of all, Real News producer Eddie Conway. Eddie was a member of the Black Panther Baltimore Chapter. He was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1970. He served 44 years in the Maryland prison system. He’s the author of The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO, and Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.
Also joining me, Reverend Sekou is an author, documentary filmmaker, public intellectual, organizer, pastor, and theologian. He’s the pastor–was the former pastor, just recently, from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He was recently dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and has been very involved in the events in Ferguson.
And finally, joining us is Cornel West. Dr. West is the best known, one of the best known public intellectuals in the United States, maybe the best known. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris.
Thanks very much for joining us.
So Welcome to The Real News. Dr. West, I’ve been talking to activists. And in the midst of this awakening in Baltimore, and I don’t think–as much as people are kind of excited about the awakening, I’m always mindful that it began with a death. And so at the same time people are excited that people are waking up, people are still grieving. And the seriousness of the situation, that Baltimore is in the midst of a wave of murders and shootings, 22 more people have been killed this year so far as compared to last year. So we’re dealing with a situation that is life and death struggle for people here. So the awakening is how to fight back against this kind of situation.
And you talk to young activists who have been involved in the movement, involved now, the question that’s kind of challenging them and in some ways even haunting them, perhaps, is they’ve seen in the history a rise of movements before. Particularly the 1960s. And they wonder what happened to all that. And how do we avoid that happening again?
CORNEL WEST, PROFESSOR, UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Well first I just want to say, I want to thank you, brother Paul, for having us here, salute Real News, and just sit beside my two fellow freedom fighters, brother Eddie–my God, brother Conway. I mean, [just] certainly write the history that’s going to be Black Panther party. Folk like brother Eddie, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and so many others who were willing to give their lives for something bigger than them, freedom. And brother Sekou, brother Sekou now. Our younger generation on fire, still willing to live and die. This is really what the black freedom struggle is all about.
I think that, always put it in context, that so many of the slave insurrections actually began when they buried the babies, when you begin to mistreat the children, people reached the edge of the tether, as it were. And they’re willing to throw down collectively, sometimes individually. Well, Baltimore is part of that long history of black resistance. You’ll go from slave patrol to the police. You’d go from the plantation to the hood. And it means self-defense, self-determination, self-respect. The problem of black people for 400 years is too many early deaths, too much poverty, not enough self-love.
You connect that self-respect to a willingness to organize and mobilize. Tell the fundamental truth about a vicious system, and that system undergoes different transformations. It could be slave-based capitalism, it could be industrial capitalism. Now it’s a financialized monopoly capitalism, with its repressive apparatus, police and so forth, with ideological apparatus of the educational system and the entertainment system. And when folk are able to see through it, keep track of the suffering, provide alternative conceptions of reality and the world. Better, more liberating conceptions of what it means to be in the world. Then I think we’re in a new day, and I think we’re approaching that new day with–I call it the Ferguson-Baltimore movement.
Now, how do you sustain it. There’s always two basic responses. Repression on the one hand, co-optation on the other. Kill them off, buy them off. That’s how ruling classes have attempted to respond to resistance. And we just have to tell our precious young folk that yes, repression is always already operating, and co-optation is always already operating. Be mindful of that to be able to sustain the movement.
JAY: Eddie, same question.
EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Yeah. I think it’s important to look at the ’60s and understand that when you had that development of black unity, people unity, alternative cultural movements, et cetera, anti-war. That momentum gained international perspective, and at that point the government and capital decided to disinvest in America. They actually off-shored–I mean, if you look back at Mexico, you look back at India, you look back at China, you’ll see that the industries left.
When the industries left, several things happened. One is the blue-collar workforce that was the basis for the furthest movements became impoverished. And they lost the little resources that they had. At the same time that was happening there was a very vicious attack, COINTELPRO, on all the movements, not just the Black Panther party. It was on the American Indian movement. It was on the students, SDS. It was on the anti-war movement. It was on the Latinos and the Puerto Ricans. Across the board, leadership and organizations were infiltrated, sabotaged, destroyed, and key members were imprisoned.
As this happened, the best and the brightest in a lot of those different, various communities, were then bought off with model cities programs. They were bought off with grants, and they were bought off with funding from Ford Foundation and other foundations. So they took them out of the mix. They moved them out of the communities, and made them upwardly mobile, and they locked up the most militant and the most progressive in the communities and put them away or ran them out of the country.
And then they impoverished the entire community by off-shoring industry. When they off-shored their industry, they left a community without resources, and young people and other people–I mean, there’s a connection between the drugs coming back from Vietnam, and there’s a connection between the mafia and drugs all of a sudden flooding into our community with the Superflys and The Mack and various different concepts.
All of a sudden you had drugs saturating poor communities across the country, you had weapons saturating communities that at one point did not–they had weapons, but they did not have weapons of the caliber that flooded into the community. That became the new economy for the community. That economy then was used to further destroy the community, by creating all of these different rivalries, to control the territory and control the resources. And street organizations, what most people call gangs, were made in America. And they’ve used it in various capacities throughout history. Whether it was the mafia, or whether it was against the Native Americans, et cetera. They drugged populations, they divided populations. They turned them against each other, and then they stood back and they enjoyed the benefits of the chaos and the conflict.
So I think one of the things that needs to happen–and I think right now today we are at a point where–okay. You’ve kind of hit ground floor. They’ve sabotaged everything. They’ve impoverished everything. They’ve kind of taken away all the resources, there’s nothing left there. There’s no down. Now people can organize and go up. But the only way they can organize and go up is they’ve got to go into the communities that’s been impoverished, that’s been under attack. They’ve got to [with] themselves, they’ve got to get back to the communities and rebuild those communities and build institutions that will sustain those communities. And there’s nothing that the government can do but attack those institutions and expose themselves. Not just the government, but people of economic interests.
If they do that, that will further allow people to see and understand that this doesn’t work, and this arrangement doesn’t work in their interest. But I’m going to stop right there.
JAY: Reverend Sekou, you’re the younger veteran at the table. When you hear about the history of the ’60s and you start experiencing the awakening, you’ve been in Ferguson. What do you learn from it and what do you think, in terms of how this moment gets sustained?
REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Well, I think there are a couple–you know, I’m just struck by the fact that the year I was born, you went inside. And so what does that mean for that generation of freedom fighters who found themselves behind the wall, and the high-level repression that you all experienced, and the mere fact that you’re still fighting. For me it’s something to draw inspiration from. And so I want to say thank you. Thank you.
And then secondly, I think while we articulate a deep vision of–Slavoj Žižek says it this way, that nostalgia is a form of mourning, because the present is too unbearable and the future is unforeseeable. So one of the things that we often do with young people is that we often engage in a romance about the ’60s. So 19–particularly a romance out of my particular class, the clergy class, right. That every preacher over 40 marched with Martin Luther King. 1958, 1961, Martin Luther King has to [lead] the National Baptist Convention, create the Progressive Baptist Convention with 2,000 other clergy because the black Pope, John H. Jackson, does not want civil rights to be a part of the mainstay of the National Baptist Convention.
You know, every time I go around the country, everybody I meet, they tell me they were on the bridge in Selma. And the reality is that all the people–if all the people say they were on the bridge and the bridge–were actually on the bridge, the bridge would’ve collapsed, right? So the reality is that part of it is that we don’t want to set a mythology up for young people that they can never aspire to by engaging a form of nostalgia. It’s not–that’s not to say celebration, that’s not to say honoring those who have come before us. But it is to say that there was a–while it was massed, that mass was still small in the context of this large space that we call America.
So I don’t want to–I want to tamper any romanticism and nostalgia. And then secondly, what’s unique about this particular moment is that Ferguson in particular looks–and Baltimore, and particularly those images in Baltimore, looks more like an Intifada than it does the civil rights movement. And that is part and parcel because of the collapse of the global economy, in which we see in 2008 some 40 million people go into poverty overnight. And then the high level of disrespect. So whether it be the brother in Tunisia who sets himself on fire because of the act of disrespect, characterized by two features of this particular Spring, right. Whether it be Black Spring or Arab Spring. Occupation of public space, Tahir Square, West Florissant, Penn and North. And the rejection of traditional leadership. The outright disdain for those leaders who have served to tamper social movement and placate the realities of those who live on the night side of American democracy.
And so the uniqueness of this moment in that sense offers a possibility for young people to assess themselves in light of these historical truths and in light of this contemporary moment. In terms of sustaining the moment, I think that sustenance is three-fold. I think it’s that, in Ferguson, what we called the turn-up. In the street. Everyday people, primarily black, lumpenproletariat but dignified, saying no. You’re not going to do this. So if it’s really–if it’s high schoolers in Baltimore saying, I’m going home. I don’t care how many riot police are out here. Or if it’s young people constantly in front of the police station in Ferguson.
So that level of the turn-up in the street, creating the political space. Because social movements are thermometers. Are thermostats, right? They set political climates. Young people in the street, day in and day out, opening up the political space. And then elections, public policy and legislation are the thermometers. They measure the political climate predicated on what kind of turn-up’s been in the street. So I think the turn-up is essential.
Two I think is going to be around the question of what internal work that we are doing in terms of what brother Conway meant. What are the ways in which black communities are going to self-organize themselves outside of the specter of the state. So whether through co-operatives, through feeding programs, through building upon the work of the Black Panther party and others in terms of feeding folks and that kind of thing. Self-organizations, Copwatch patrols. Those kinds of things in terms of their–and kind of internal work, where folks feel that they have a buy-in in this space, the geographies that they occupy.
And then the third one is a spiritual question, and I don’t mean it necessarily connected to a holy other. I’m not trying to recruit anybody, although brother Conway could be my pastor any day. But it is to say that, what are the ways in which we look at these material conditions and be able to pull upon non-material forces. So when you look at Albert Camus’s meditation on suicide, when you look at the material conditions you understand how he arrives at the conclusion that it is an ethical possibility. Just rationally, we can’t win. But through our music, our dance, our culture, our art, the best of our preaching, that we are able to grab on some kind of–we’re able to grab a kind of, a non-material force.
My grandmama sang a song. There’s joy that I have. The world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away. It’s this ability to be able to look at the material conditions and call them a lie. And so I think part of it is, what are the ways in which we can love each other through this work? How can we care for each other, right? How can we not reproduce the imperial capacity to shame, to discipline, to punish? So how in our social movements can we love each other in such a way?
And that’s in part because when our elders come and see about us, so Cornel coming to see about us in Ferguson, coming to see about us in Baltimore, is what you’re doing with these young folks here. The Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and the Algebra Project, right. That when our elders come to see about us and say, we may not understand it all, it don’t really make sense, you know. Y’all are a little profane, and you sag your pants. And we–gender nonconforming. We don’t really understand any of that. But you’re ours. And we’re going to love you through it.
And so I think that that spiritual quality, not necessarily again connected to a holy other, but a spiritual quality that allows us to be able to sustain our [incompr.] over time and space. Because the grant’s going to dry up. They call it funding fatigue. So the grant’s going to dry up in about three months. And the cameras are going to go home soon, right? The politicians are going to–.
JAY: Not these.
SEKOU: Right, right.
JAY: These cameras are here.
SEKOU: Not these cameras. But you understand what I’m saying.
JAY: Yeah I do, of course.
SEKOU: In that context, though, how are we going to love each other through it? And I think our culture, our art, and our capacity to have decency in the face of all of this indignity are going to be the–going to be the main way we’ll be able to kind of keep on truckin’.
JAY: It seems to me, both in terms of the lesson of the 1960s and since–and of course I agree, you know, state repression, buying people off, were critical factors. But I think another factor, which is the–you need a second act, you need a vision to fight for. And you can’t have that vision to fight for without some kind of electoral strategy. And I say some kind, because certainly what happened in the 1960s and to a large extent still happens, is the Democratic party just sucks up whatever the movement brings forward. And when you move towards and electoral strategy it winds up kind of being co-opted into the Democratic party.
On the other hand, if you don’t think about moving from protest to power, if you’re not thinking about governing–why? Because governing is where the guns are. And Mao may have been wrong about some things, but he sure wasn’t wrong about where political power comes from. And if you don’t have the state, if you don’t use laws actually to enforce equality instead of now the way laws enforce inequality, and that’s what the police are the agents of.
So this issue of a movement with an electoral strategy. How do we get–first of all, what do you think of that? And how do you get there?
WEST: Well, I think one is that we live in the most commodified, commercialized and marketized culture in the history of the world. Wu-Tang Clan say CREAM. Cash rules everything around me. ’68, the market was strong, but the level of intensity of the market in 2015 is so far beyond 1968. Which means, then, that when you talk about electoral strategies, we’ve got a political class, black and white, that’s basically bought off. Legalized bribery, normalized corruption, that’s Congress. And the same is true for much of the state House and local House.
So you’ve got this big money that’s just flowing exponentially from oligarchs at the top. They’re not just buying out the politicians, but they shape the whole framework in which the political conversation takes place. So while McGovern, for example, in 2015 looked like a Communist, even though in ’72 he was a liberal and we had a left. So things have gone so far to the right with big money pushing it, and now with of course the Supreme Court behind it, the marketization and the corporatization of politics makes it difficult to tell the people the truth, and with respect for the people in regard to intellectual strategy.
Now, I like brother Bernie Sanders. He’s a good brother, there’s no doubt about that. Elizabeth Warren is decent about three days a week with her populist rhetoric. But she’d sell Palestinians down the river in a second. She’ll promote imperial policy in a second. But she’s a good populist at home. So I do think the electoral political strategy is going to be a very difficult thing to defend.
Now, there’s other ways of getting at the state though, as opposed to just electoral political strategy. You could have economic co-operatives. We spoke 3:00 last–or 2:00 last night about food justice. We spoke about food co-operatives. 2015, you got the problem of, I call it a planetary Selma, but it’s basically just a catastrophe for the globe. That was not the case in ’68. As a result of corporate greed now, you got [incompr.] brothers, that’s white middle-class brothers, that’s deeply upset that there might not be a planet. That’s true. Thank God they are. Thank God for Bill McKibben and the others leading that movement.
The question becomes, how through social movements, struggles against white supremacy, struggles against capitalism, struggles against drones, thank God for Medea Benjamin and the others. Struggles against massive surveillance. There you got some libertarian support. Rights and liberties. The state controlling, keeping track of everybody. Now, of course, COINTELPRO goes all the way back to the Palmer Raids and everything else in terms of the state keeping track of dissidents. But now you’ve got these new technologies. The Internet, more inequality, more surveillance, and massive unemployment, as a result. And yet we can communicate. So those are factors that make this particular moment very different.
And therefore the electoral political strategy–we talked about Harrah, Washington and some other progressives, back then. It’s very difficult, I think, at this point it’s really trying to sustain the spirit. And I do want to accent spirit to brother Sekou. See, in the end it’s everyday people willing to fight, live, and die against organized money, mendacity, and criminality. Because that’s what we’re up against.
Big money, lies, and crimes. New Jim Crow. It’s a crime against humanity. Educational systems in the city. Crimes against humanity. Massive unemployment. Crimes against–drones. Crimes against humanity. How do we get their spirit buoyed up in such a way that we can contest the state? But I don’t think it’s going to be just about voting. You know, Emma Goldman used to say, if by voting we could create fundamental transformation the ruling class would make voting illegal. I think she’s right about that.
JAY: Yeah, I’m sure not suggesting it’s just about voting.
WEST: No, no. I’m not saying you are, but I’m just saying oftentimes in the mainstream, people think of electoral political strategy as somehow at the core of it.
JAY: I guess what I’m wondering–what you think, Eddie. Is something like what’s happening in Latin America possible to envision here? Maybe even starting at a local level, where you have mass movements that give rise to candidates? And I’m not saying anything’s perfect about what’s going on. All this stuff is raw and still evolving, and going to have lots of defects. But seems to me you start to envision this relationship between movements and a new kind of governing. So that’s not just about electing some people.
CONWAY: It’s, you could look at Spain, or you could even look at the miners in South Africa. I think the, I think the electoral strategy has a possibility–and of course, Harrah, Washington. We did that. In Oakland we started that, that was part of our policies, too. We were looking into the future in terms of a socialist arrangement of some sort for the population. But the step between there was that electoral strategy.
But I think the only way that we–because of the money that he talks about, the Koch brothers, et cetera, et cetera, the massive funding that goes into Wisconsin and other elections, I think we have to build the building blocks down on the ground in the community. You have to stand up, community co-ops, community organizations, community apparatus, and you have to network them. And then have them back somebody, like Chuy in Chicago, say for instance. You have to build on the ground and control the populations down there with those apparatus, and then put their representative in there, as opposed to that strategy of the Democratic primaries and the Republican primaries and even the independents.
I mean, if you look at, if you go back to the 1880s, the populist movements. The farm alliances, et cetera. You’ll see grassroots building and mobilization. Now, of course they were crushed because of money and violence. But at some point you build that kind of a ground network, and you push forward. Take one city at a time. One municipality.
JAY: Because what is the money? The money’s just buying TV advertising. And some ground game. So if you build your own in the community, and then start building our own independent media at a local level–.
WEST: Thank God for Real News.
SEKOU: I think also, I want to, I want to interrogate the very notion of the role of electoral politics, given the fact that electoral politics in the context used in the United States is a bourgeois reform. The nation was just so recalcitrant that it didn’t even want black people, women, to participate in the system predicated on this patriarchal and white supremacism, and more emergent homophobic sensibilities. So elections themselves are bourgeois reforms, and people had to literally–the history of black people in America, queer folk, women, is they literally had to shed their blood to fight on behalf of the empire. And so that, so that’s the nature of the way in which the nation was so recalcitrant with its bourgeois reforms.
And then also in the context of the black freedom movement. Voting has blood on it. And so even though it’s a bourgeois reform, it has blood on it. Because it has blood on it, given the [general] Christian experience in America, there’s something almost sacred and holy about casting a ballot. And so people are–so you hear young folks always told, well, somebody died for you to vote. And so it carries a certain kind of moral and sacred, civic ritual to it that ultimately does not allow us to bring a critique on it. And given the fact that the last 50 years, the vast majority of political capital among black people has gone to an electoral strategy, and what has it gotten us? Particularly for young people.
So for many young folks, the emperor has no clothes. We got a black president, black attorney general, we got black elected officials in most major cities, and they’re still killing us. We still go to decrepit schools here in Baltimore. Young people got greater access to guns than they do clean drinking water in their schools.
JAY: But if it’s, if a movement only has demands and doesn’t have an electoral strategy–.
SEKOU: No, what I’m saying is that–what I’m saying is that the electoral strategy which has been primary has to become secondary if not tertiary to these other questions and these other possibilities of protest. So I want to reject a dichotomy between kind of protest and power. Protest and election. I’m saying that you can’t get it, right, if you can’t get a decent political discourse in the United States without continued and sustained forms of protest.
What we’ve seen in the last 50 years is that we’ve, every four years, we’ve seen a dumping of a ton of money inside of black communities, preachers being bought off telling people who to vote for. All our electoral energy and electoral energy, political energy, is going toward that. And then we sit back.
So what we’ve seen, particularly in Ferguson, right. We get the DOJ report because Holder had to say–folks in the street. Municipal court reform because folks in the street. New folks on the Ferguson City Council because folks on the street.
JAY: But why did the cops get charged in Baltimore?
SEKOU: Well, because folks are in the street.
JAY: Folks are in the street.
SEKOU: And so the, so the reality is that that creates the context. And so I want to reject the dichotomy of either-or, but to say that the beginning, the front if you will, that emerges has to do with–not professional organizers. I want to be clear about this. Not a nonprofit-industrial complex. It’s some young folks who took to the street and said, we ain’t going home. We don’t care what you say. We don’t care what preacher has to say, we don’t care what the NAACP has to say. We’re going in the street and we’re going to consistently be in the street.
And then that has, that is what’s opened up the space. And so I think that we want to caution against a language that tells young people that they need to go in the house. We need more of them out. Now–you know what I’m saying. I want them to go home because I’m tired, and I got to chase after them. You know what I’m saying? I’m not a leader in this movement. I’m not a spokesperson for this movement. I’m a follower.
JAY: Okay. But the question still–in terms of getting–. Go ahead.
CONWAY: If you will. Because I want to–and what you’re saying is absolutely correct, in protests should play that role. But the way you sustain–.
CONWAY: The way you sustain it is to go in the community and start building.
SEKOU: That’s right. Yes, sir.
CONWAY: You’ve got to build, because the protest is fury. We’re mad, we’re pissed off. This is not working. But the practice is what you do about it. Okay, build those alternatives, and then, then the electoral strategy can be used. And it is tertiary. But you have to have a–the building blocks for it.
WEST: That building is crucial.
CONWAY: That’s important. That’s how you sustain it. You don’t sustain it just by having the fury, and you don’t sustain it by having the vision. You sustain it by building the structure.
SEKOU: By instituting–.
WEST: But then there’s the response of the state. I mean, you think, for example, the Black Panther party. Courage, vision, breakfast programs. Within five years, 22 states have breakfast programs. Black Panther party didn’t run any candidates. They built in the community. They contested the state by putting pressure on the state, and showing not just inadequacies but the contempt the state had for the people. And the state had to make a concession. Same politicians were still running things. But they were responding to the people’s power that was manifesting. That’s just one example of it.
And so in that sense, when we think of–you can have demands. You must have an agenda. We talked about that last night for three hours. You got to have an agenda rooted in the people’s sacred needs. But then you build in the community responding to those needs. And as that community gets stronger the state will respond. Repression on the one hand, try to buy off some other leaders on the other, but also have to deal with some of those needs as the people become more awake, more self-respecting, more self-determining, and ready to fight.
So you see, I think in a way when we say electoral strategy, in America it tends to be these petty bourgeois politicians of various colors.
JAY: Well, what did you think of what–the attempt at Jackson, Mississippi?
WEST: But see, that was a result of responding to the people’s sacred needs. Building over a period of time. And then spilling over into the state operation, which happened to be Mayor, in that sense. But that was a community building activity over time that then resulted in that. And that’s a very different process than just supporting a politician with no building in the community, no momentum, and so on. So in that sense we’re agreeing. We all are agreeing.
JAY: Yeah, I think we’re all saying the same–we’re all agreeing.
SEKOU: And I just wanted to say this, and what is happening now among young organizers, right, so if you look at what the look of Hands Up United in Ferguson, the work that they’re doing. They run a Books and Breakfast program. They give books, we just talked to brother [Tory] yesterday. They give books to kids, and they feed them. They do political education. They’re doing independent work around technology, young folks getting skills in technology, and that kind of thing.
So if you look at that work. If you look at Operation Help or Hush, where they’re bringing in students from around the country and they’re helping clean up communities, doing housing, and organizing students that way. If you look at Baltimore United here. Metropolitan United Methodist Church has fed over 2,000 in the last week, right?
WEST: Brother Eric Wellington King.
SEKOU: And Heber Brown has probably had 3,000 pounds of food come through his house. I personally delivered groceries with our staff at the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Gilmor Homes. When you look at the work of Copwatch. So there’s a new Copwatch chapter that has been started in Gilmor Homes. Folks are getting cameras to be able to pay attention and keep track of the police in black communities while they’re being surveilled by the state, but evidently the state can’t see when its agents are killing black people.
So what I’m saying is–.
WEST: They see it, all right.
SEKOU: Yeah, right, right.
WEST: They see it, all right.
SEKOU: So the reality is that all over the country you see this. If you look at particularly stuff that’s happening in Oakland with Just Roots, and folks growing food out there. There’s some farmers here in Maryland who are farming on Harriett Tubman’s land.
So what we’re seeing is that young people, because their suspicion of the state, in part because there’s a black face on it, their suspicion of the state has at one level forced them to go internal and be able to build out the capacity of these communities loving each other, meeting each other’s needs, and then eventually I think we’re going to get this kind of political calculus whereby the state’s going to have to respond. Like, even though these–you’re right. The same bourgeois in power, the same bourgeois politicians in power. But eventually they’re going to have to provide–they’re going to have to at least, they might not take the foot off the neck, but at least take some time to tie their shoe. You know what I’m saying, right?
And so I think that part of what we’re seeing among a young generation of activists and organizers, and you know–actually, I feel my health coming on. This new, these generation of organizers is that they’ve borne that analysis and they’re engaging it. And are doing so with limited resources. Ain’t no real money coming to Ferguson. Ain’t no real money for organizing has come to Ferguson. So with little to no resources, very limited access to the best of the black prophetic tradition, because many of the folks you’ve talked about have been bought off. But somehow something’s come out of it. It might be that human in them. Might be that African in them, right. Something has consistently come out.
And the other deep piece about these organizers that I’ve been blessed to chase behind for the past eight months is that the vast majority of their leadership are artists. Tef Poe is a poet. Patrisse Cullors is a playwright, from Black Life Matters. The two sisters, Synead and Umara, in New York who organized the big march. Poets.
JAY: We’re talking people in Ferguson, right?
SEKOU: Right. I’m talking about also around the country. I’m saying all over the country. New York City, Black Life Matters. These–.
WEST: A sister yesterday from Baltimore, from the beautiful–Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. She was extraordinary.
SEKOU: So the issue is that there’s a different kind of, there’s something different that these artists, who are our last truth-tellers. Because the preachers, we lie. And the politicians, we lie. Most of the intellectuals, we’re trying to write interesting books and novel ideas, but we ain’t really interested in the suffering of black people. But something has happened that has this artistic quality to it. Because the people in leadership feeding people are artists themselves.
WEST: But then you got women’s voices–.
SEKOU: Yes, sir.
WEST: And you’ve got queer voices. Now, that’s different from the ’60s. Now of course, brother Huey wrote that powerful piece defending gay brothers and lesbian sisters way back in the ’60s. But that was rare. But you basically had a patriarchal leadership, and you had a homophobic leadership in the churches and on the streets. Now, both of those, patriarchy and homophobia, contested in a powerful way. That’s a beautiful thing.
JAY: When we started the conversation, you all talked about monopoly capitalism. You talked about financialization. When you talked about systemic issues, you talked about capitalism. When I talk to many activists in Baltimore, they talk about white supremacy. And they only talk about white supremacy, on the whole. What do you think is the relationship between the ideology of white supremacy and this whole issue of monopoly capitalism? And what the movement needs to envision as the next step?
SEKOU: You know, I think [Doc] just pointed out something very essential. With the queer women in leadership, if you look at Black Life Matters, founded by sister Alicia, sister Patrisse and sister Opal, I like to call them the holy trinity. Here we have black women, one leading an organization around police brutality in LA and caring for trans bodies. Another leading one around the black immigrant diaspora and immigration challenges, and the other one supporting the work of domestic workers.
So right in the context of the Black Life Matters, and then when I was on the street, for the first hour I was on the street in Ferguson I hear cats with tattoos sagging their pants talking about Palestine. So what has emerged actually at this particular moment is a kind of transnational, queer, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist discourse that’s at work. And so intersectionality, which has been all the buzzword in the academy among cultural studies elites for the past ten years, is actually being embodied on the street. And so if Black Life Matters is the word, Ferguson and Baltimore are the word made flesh.
And so in that reality, at least what I’m seeing among activists is not only a sustained critique of white supremacy, but also a sustained critique of capitalism, and a sustained critique of the various forms of queer phobia at work in our country. So among young activists in our–when we came in the building today one of our activists, Lizzie, the first question she asked. Is there elevators here. Is the building handicapped-accessible. Right? That’s about a generation of activists who look and say, all right, who’s taking care of the differently-abled folks, and do they have–what are the ways in which we’re facilitating architecturally for them to participate in the movement?
And so I think the level of intersectionality and analysis that is at work is quite powerful. And it is able in a real interesting way to get their arms around all of this, and be able to say that it is the entire American empire that has no clothes on. And we’re going to bear a critique on it at every level.
JAY: Same question.
CONWAY: Well, I think it’s important for people to change the narrative. I mean just putting, and Obama obviously is a good example, just putting a black face in charge of the political apparatus doesn’t solve our problem. So the problem is not solved when you have the ANC in South Africa take over and run South Africa. And the people down in the communities are still impoverished. The problem is a real serious problem about where do we go in the future in terms of economic arrangement?
One of the things that we have to face is that automation, cybernation technology is making the capitalist system obsolete to the broad masses. I mean, you have robotics, you have computers, et cetera. There’s no longer space here in America for the worker other than in service industries and so on. So the amount of money going to workers around the world in Bangladesh or wherever, the Chinese workers are making our phones, whatnot, is being diminished. And so that capital flow is being diminished around the world through the capitalist system.
So what happens is that there’s a fight at the top for the profits, and there’s an impoverishment across the world. And that’s what the Arab Spring actually said. It didn’t say, we are tired of Mubarak, or we’re tired of Assad, or we’re tired of anybody else. What it said was, we don’t have any jobs. We are out on the street in Tunis with carts selling sodas and cigarettes because we’re impoverished. And we’re impoverished–that same thing says we’re impoverished in Brazil. We’re impoverished in Spain. We’re impov–people around the world now realize that this system is not working for them in terms of an economic arrangement that will take care of their needs. And so without–and social media is playing a big role in it.
Without any ideological struggle, or promotion, what’s really happening is people on the ground saying, just don’t work. Not only is it killing us, it’s killing the planet. And it’s killing the future generations. And we need to address it, and they’re doing all sorts of things to address it. Whether it’s challenging the fracking, which doesn’t seem to be economically political, but it really has an anti-capitalist kind of basis. Monopoly capitalism is destroying the future, and people can see that. And so they are, without defining it as socialism, they are moving toward a socialist paradigm for the future.
JAY: I know you have to leave, Dr. West, so I’m going to give you the last word. But I think you’re all promising to do this again, are we?
WEST: Oh, absolutely. Time’s gone by that fast already, huh?
JAY: Yeah. Same question. The relationship of the critique, the attack on white supremacy, the ideology of white supremacy, is the way I frame it. But you may frame it differently. And the whole issue of capitalism, and what the vision is for what comes next.
WEST: Well one, I think that the profit-driven logic of a capitalist civilization leads toward the demolition of the planet. White supremacy is the barbaric manifestation of the profit-driven logic of capitalist civilization that has lost sight of the humanity of peoples of color, so that our lived experience in capitalist civilization is one of dealing with white supremacy. If you go walk the streets of Baltimore, you’re worried about arbitrary police power. Worried about arbitrary corporate power. Worried about arbitrary, a whole host of other powers. The one that will have most gravity to us is going to be one that’s linked to the logic of white supremacy.
But once you analyze that white supremacy–going back to the plantations, profit-driven. Going back to Jim Crow Sr., profit-driven. Now Jim Crow Jr., residential segregation, educational segregation, prison-industrial complex. So we’ve still got Jim Crow. In that sense, we never really crossed the Selma bridge.
SEKOU: Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.
WEST: The politicians might cross it. But the people ain’t crossed. Because they ain’t free, you see. So that–you had to come to terms with capitalism, but they had to come to terms with capitalism in relation to these other forms of barbarism. Male supremacy. And homophobia. And anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Arab hatred, anti-Muslim hatred. The imperial tentacles of the profit-driven capitalism looking for the cheapest markets, anywhere they can go. Look at what brother Obama’s trying to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Re-shape the whole planet in the interest of multinational corporations and big banks, so they don’t have to go through the courts anymore. Nation-states become even weaker than they already are, vis-a-vis transnational corporations and transnational banks.
So at that point you got just a kind of a worldwide subsumption of people. And see, when it comes to white supremacy, we black folk have been the leaven in the democratic loaf. We’ve been the major catalyst for change in the American empire. And it’s partly because it–we experienced the police state and the fascist practices within a democracy. Now, when that goes to other people’s houses, when it gets on the vanilla side of town, people say, oh my God. This is not even democracy anymore. This is autocratic, this is authoritarian. We say, well, welcome to America. Have you been to Mississippi? Have you been to the chocolate side of Baltimore? We’ve been dealing with it all this time. Y’all been living in a bubble. Get out of your silo.
And the wonderful thing is that black folk have always embraced white, brown, red, yellow, [for] Frederick Douglass, to the Black Panther party. And that’s crucial, because we didn’t have to. We could have opted for black al-Qaedas. Y’all terrorize us, we terrorize you. You all put us down, we put [us] down. You kill our children, we’re going to kill your children. You kill our children randomly, we’re going to kill your children randomly. No. We had spirit. That’s John Coltrane, Love Supreme. That’s Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going on, you see. That’s Donny Hathaway.
We had the spirit to say, we want a humanistic response to this thing. We don’t care what you call it, we know it ain’t going to be capitalist. You can call it socialist, you can call it whatever you want. But we want a humanistic response. And that, to me, is one of the great legacies of black people living in a profit-driven capitalist civilization for 400 years.
JAY: Thank you very much.
SEKOU: Thank you.
JAY: And we will do this again.
Thank you very much for joining us on a very special edition of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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