The Global African: Martese Johnson and the World Social Forum

TeleSUR’s The Global African tackles the case of Martese Johnson and analysis of the recently concluded World Social Forum

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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about a case of police violence at the University of Virginia. We’ll talk to attendees of the World Social Forum.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m, of course, your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. Don’t go anywhere.

~~~

In the early hours of March 18, agents from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control arrested 20-year-old Martese Johnson, an African-American University of Virginia student, outside of the Trinity Irish Pub moments after he tried to enter. The agents claimed their reason for arresting Johnson was due to public intoxication and cursing. They also declared him to be belligerent and that he had attempted to use fake identification. These claims were later proven to be false.

Disturbing video has surfaced of Johnson covered in his own blood as ABC agents viciously beat him down. In the video, Johnson can be heard calling the agents racist after attempting to indicate that he is a UVA student.

The job of ABC is to make sure restaurants, clubs, and liquor stores do not sell alcohol to minors. Acts of arrest from ABC agents rarely occur, and when they do it is vendors that are typically charged with breaking the law.

What is it that made the ABC agents believe they needed to use excessive force? The owner of the pub would go on to say that Johnson didn’t appear drunk, and called him, quote, cordial and respectful. So why did agents view him to be such a threat?

~~~

So, joining us is Seema Sadanandan, who is the program director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of the Nation’s Capital. She joined the ACLU in 2013 and oversees non-litigation advocacy efforts in defending civil rights and liberties in the district.

Also joining us is Kymone Freeman, a poet and activist and award-winning playwright, and director of the National Black LUV Festival–largest annual AIDS mobilization. And he is also the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Arts Awards finalist for Excellence in Service to the Arts in 2006 and cofounder of Bum Rush the Boards.

Thank you both very much.

SEEMA SADANANDAN, ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, ACLU: Thank you.

KYMONE FREEMAN, WE ACT RADIO: Glad to be here.

FLETCHER: Let’s start with the University of Virginia, this incident that’s received a fair amount of attention of the arrest by the ABC of Virginia of Martese Johnson, charging that he was belligerent and originally suggesting that he was violating various laws, none of which has stood up to any investigation. Yet here we have someone who is recognized to be respectable, yet is being treated as a common criminal.

FREEMAN: When I attended the president’s 21st-century police task force hearings, I met the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, I met the president of the national police union, and I guarantee you that these are the ultimate rednecks, who see the browning of America, and they feel some kind of way about that. They want to be able to rein in or rain down terror upon the indigenous populations at any point in time to make sure that they’re kept in check and they know who’s in charge. That’s pretty much the mentality that’s still pervasive in law enforcement.

And here we are, still talking about, yeah, as you just point out, yet another case, ’cause it’s going to continue to happen. I think it has escalated under the tenure of the Obama administration and the black attorney general because they feel some kind of way about that. They want to prove who’s boss. And we see that constantly happen over and over again.

FLETCHER: Who wants to prove? You mean the police authorities who–.

FREEMAN: The police want to constantly keep those who are subjected to their–their brutality in check. That’s what this is about. That’s from Ferguson to now, because if you thought that a militarization response on a community the size of Takoma Park, Maryland, it’s ridiculous. So we see that happening over and over again. And until some sort of accountability, the rules change, we’re going to continue to see it.

FLETCHER: Seema.

SADANANDAN: So I think that this has been happening for quite a long time. And it’s only because of the Black Lives Matter movement that mass media is really beginning to cover this in a systematic way. I don’t think that we can expect an end to these sort of incidents, because they are so firmly entrenched in the system of policing that’s used as a mode of social control, and particularly in the context of antiblack bias in our society. I mean, that’s a part of the history of this country that I don’t think is going to be undone passively or with any one program or policy. It’s going to take a redirecting of our entire public safety resources and really re-imagining how we should address our community health issues.

Now, that being said, this particular incident did stand out among the recent incidents, such as the incident with Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, because, as you mentioned, in this instance it really shattered this notion of respectability politics, or at least it should have, for anybody who has been clinging to that idea that if a person is so-called respectable, if they behave well, if they speak in a certain way, if they achieve particular accolades, that they can escape the bias that, you know, people are subjected to as a product of their race, which is entirely socially constructed and based on perspective.

So I think that in this instance you had a young man who, particularly after all the evidence has come out, can by no one be characterized as a so-called criminal, which in our society is a euphemism for blackness, and yet he was still subjected to this very brutal treatment.

FLETCHER: This past week on my website, I had this exchange, this weird exchange with this person who I’m pretty much assuming to have been white. And it was around the Michael Brown situation in Ferguson, his death. And it was interesting, because this guy jumps to Michael Brown was a “thug”, right–that was the word–and that if he had known how to deal with the police and hadn’t been thuggish, he’d still be alive.

And I was thinking about this in connection with this case at the University of Virginia, that in part it wouldn’t really matter. But the second is that there’s always an effort when these things go down to demonize the victim.

FREEMAN: Well, we’re dealing with white supremacy. That’s the common thread in all of this. And there’s a great article by a sister by the name of Stacey Patton, who authored “Loving White [People] Won’t Fix Racism”. And it was in response to Common’s notion, when he was on The Daily Show, I believe, that just, you know, loving white people, extending a hand in friendship, would solve some of our problems.

And that goes back to this respectability notion. Martin Luther King wore suits, spoke the Queen’s English, was highly educated, was obviously the most respectable man you probably could imagine in terms of a role model, and that did not spare him from the wrath of white supremacy. So the notion of that, well, if he was just more well behaved, more well dressed, that if he was better educated, basically, if you was the most docile Uncle Tom, submissive, yes, sir [ball (?)] sir, that would save you in dealing with the police.

FLETCHER: Always reminds me of the opening scene of A Soldier’s Play, when the sergeant who gets killed is drunk and he is talking about how the game’s rigged, you know, and that essentially no matter what you do, the game is rigged. And it’s a very, very powerful, powerful scene in that play and in that film. You were going to say something.

SADANANDAN: Well, what I was going to say is that, you know, the founding of this country, the Constitution of this country institutionalized various forms of discrimination against black people overtly, and other forms of discrimination as well. Now, with the removal of some of those provisions that were overtly race-based, we also had the emergence of this respectability politics and this idea that people, if they behaved well, would be protected somehow from institutional bias or discrimination.

What remained in the Constitution, in various parts of the Constitution, are provisions which allow for legalized discrimination against people who have been deemed criminals. And that’s with respect to equal protection. That’s with respect to the right to vote. And in various capacities, the designation of criminality–and, again, thug is a euphemism for that criminal designation–allows for legalized discrimination. And that has sunk deep into the psyche of the American populace, so that even when they don’t realize that they’re talking about something that’s highly racially charged, notions that are highly racially charged, that is the history of this country and of these notions.

FLETCHER: And we’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

~~~

And we’re back. to our panel with Seema Sadanandan and Kymone Freeman.

So what do we do? Where do we go? Where do we go with the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts in response to lynchings?

FREEMAN: So, having said that, we need to have community control over the police. The grand jury system is dysfunctional. We need to make sure that a significant number of police officers that work in our community actually live in our community. They always want to throw that out with the–baby with the bathwater on that issue. But it should reflect congressional districts. It should reflect the mayor having had residency and where the city representing the councilmembers have residency in the area that they represent. Why not the police? We need to have a legitimate citizen review board with power to fire and indict officers. We need to make sure that given the fact that millions of dollars are paid out every year in every city for misconduct cases in every city in this country, for police misconduct cases–millions of dollars are paid out, but that money does not affect the police department’s budget, nor that police [incompr.] defending police officers’ salary. Changing that alone would change the behavior of rogue cops and put a leash on this problem.

FLETCHER: And, Seema, what are–standing where you do with the ACLU, what are the obstacles to the success of that approach?

SADANANDAN: We have fundamentally shifted away from all of the logical commonsense approaches to dealing with various community health issues. With respect to drug addiction, we arrest people. With respect to education and the quality of education our children need, we’re sending police into schools. With respect to a whole range of issues that relate to economic justice, we are sending police in to control communities rather than head-on attacking the issues at hand.

When you look at–D.C. is a great example. We have more than 45,000 arrests in the district every single year, and 96 percent are for nonviolent offenses. And the range of offenses that people are getting arrested for–and I wouldn’t surprise you to say, overwhelmingly, black people, despite black people being about 50 percent of the adult population in D.C., they are drug-possession charges, they are traffic offenses related to not being able to pay one’s fines, similar to the situation that we saw in Ferguson. That’s about 20 percent of the overall arrests, disorderly conduct.

So I think there are places in the country in small pockets where we’re really starting to explore these alternatives. But that needs to take hold in a much larger sense. And, you know, there are jurisdictions in the United States where not even just with respect to nonviolent crime, even with respect to violent crime, we’re seeing that for–you know, murder, for example, most people do not commit numerous murders in their lifetime. And there are ways in which people can be rehabilitated and returned to our society. And so, when we can approach our criminal justice system with a fundamental value placed on dignity, then we can start to explore all of the different ways in which we might be able to address some of our community health issues.

FLETCHER: So let me push the envelope on this a minute. Within the black community, there is a lot of fear of crime. I’m not talking about this thing that happened with Martese Johnson. I’m going way beyond that. There is a lot of fear. People live in fear. They live in fear of being ripped off when they are on their way home, assaulted, etc. And there is, in my experience, this ambivalence within the community about how to interact with the police.

FREEMAN: Well, let’s start with fact that it’s about conflict over resources–or, should I say, the limitations of availability of resources, ’cause poverty does create petty crimes. You know, a lot of people are in jail for stealing Pampers. You know. We need to be real about that. And the majority of people in prison are not violent offenders, as Seema so eloquently pointed out. So when we say crime, we have to look at the fact that we’re really talking about violent crime in terms of hurting people.

FLETCHER: Correct.

FREEMAN: Alright? And there needs to be a difference made in between the two.

So when we have a situation where people have a ridiculous unemployment rate, they have limited upper mobility, they have limited access to resources, limited education, limited everything, of course these things are going to occur. So if you approach those problems from a societal standpoint, thereby leveling the playing field, you will see a similar crime rate in our area as you see in white areas–or more affluent areas, as I should say.

FLETCHER: Alright. Thank you very much.

SADANANDAN: Thank you.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment.

~~~

Since 2001, the World Social Forum has been bringing multiple countries and organizations together to actively pursue a solution to social and economic injustice. The 14th annual event was held in Tunis, Tunisia, for the second time, from March 24 to 28.

Just a week before the forum took place, however, there was a terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum, tragically killing 20 people. Four thousand organizations, representing 120 countries, came together on this year’s theme: climate justice and global feminism. What does this mean in a global context? And how do activists plan on engaging their respective governments on these crucial issues? How did activists address the recent terrorist attack?

And joining us for our panel discussion is Janet Redman, who is the director of the climate policy program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions’ energy investment and carbon finance activities.

Also joining us is James Early. He’s a scholar and member of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for joining us.

JAMES EARLY, DIR. CULTURAL STUDIES, SMITHSONIAN CENTER FOR FOLKLIFE AND CULTURAL HERITAGE: Great.

FLETCHER: So the World Social Forum–actually, my question is–my first question, at least, is less about the content and more about this took place right after a terrorist attack. And did that have any impact on the event itself?

JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR, IPS CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM: I mean, my sense, coming from the U.S., was that folks were–folks from Tunisia, both folks that were in the Social Forum, Tunisians that were at the Social Forum, and really people that we met around Tunis, were really grateful that the Social Forum went on. There was some question there of whether or not it would happen, because of the attacks.

But, really, they called for solidarity. They called for folks to reject terrorism and to still come together. In fact, this is the project of the World Social Forum is to think about what’s the alternative world we’re creating together. So I think that actually galvanized a lot of hope and a lot of really thinking hard about what is the world we want to build in the face of today’s threats. It’s not just neocolonialism anymore; it’s a new threat set of threats that people are building in opposition to and creating new opportunities.

FLETCHER: I mean, it actually felt like in Tunis we had a representation of two polar approaches to neoliberal globalization, one being reactionary terrorism and the other being what’s represented by the World Social Forum.

EARLY: Right. And I would agree with Janet that I think it incentivized people to come together in unity.

Of course, it also increased security, which was very obvious. I was downtown, Tunis, in the main area. But young people were out every day and every evening, and old people, walking with spouses and children. And so people seemed relaxed. But this was a clear attempt to impact tourism, which is the main income in the economy. And it is yet to be seen how this will play out. But it was really a good sign, particularly with large representation from Arab countries, more so than the Sub-Saharan, which had a lot to do with travel issues and resources.

FLETCHER: So the conference itself, climate change and global feminism, what did that mean concretely?

EARLY: Well, overall, prosperity and equity was the sort of bigger framework, but huge numbers of women’s organizations really foregrounding the agency of women, not only for themselves but within society, and this, the global network. I was invited by the Brazilian committee of the World Social Forum. Nilza Iraci from Geledés, which is a Uruguay term for strong black religious woman, the strongest, the largest black women’s organization in Brazil, is on the international committee, along with some other feminist representatives, gay, lesbian, transgendered representation heavy. So this was a big move on the part of foregrounding women, I think, both as a central agent within progressive change.

REDMAN: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think the kind of the real explosion of workshops and conversations happening around climate, around the environment, really matches up with that. So as those of us who look at climate, environmental, deeply understand women are the most impacted by the negative environmental impacts of climate change. And so it really makes a close link around who are bringing the solutions to climate change to the table. Oftentimes it’s women, it’s women in grassroots local solutions. So a lot of the conversation at the social forum–there were, I think, 85 different workshops on climate, land, water, the role of campesinos, peasant farmers–really focused on how women are at the center of making solutions.

I think what was really interesting for me in that space was looking at the energy discussion.

In Tunisia right now, there are some interesting laws of the books around putting a cap on corporate power, which is another conversation that was happening in the social forum space is how do we rein in corporate power and lift up democracy, and what does democracy even mean, but kind of looking at the environment-climate lens.

There were a lot of conversations about energy can either be part of lifting up democracy, distributing power, both electric power and people power, building alternatives from the ground up and how that’s financed, what that means for governance.

EARLY: And kicked off what is going to be, in 2016 in Paris, paralleling the UN focus on land, a major gathering on the privatization of water and land and really putting a focus that these should, society should have access to these, they should not be corporatized. So there was a–it was not just analysis; it was also an organizing moment.

The other issue of race, they transversal issue of race, was also quite prominent, quite distinctive in the other two social forums I’ve been in. A large delegation, again, from Brazil, the Afro-Brazilian delegation, catalyzed that. My invitation, for example, was one reflection of an internationalization of the question. And in the final accords of the international committee, reparations is noted against colonialism, so the issue of reparations, not only with regard to Afro descendents, but colonized people, indigenous people, and you tie those two factors of women and race as central agents.

But there were outstanding questions as to, you know, what extent does the forum actually measure up against realpolitik. So heretofore the forum has been paralleled to Davos, where you’ve got the giants of neoliberalism meeting, put forth their plan in a quasi-public, highly secured platform, and the World Social Forum has paralleled that. It’s out of sync now. So there are debates.

FLETCHER: I wanted to return for a second to this issue of climate change and the environmental crisis. Were there strategies that were being advanced? Were they, were people projecting alternatives? Or was it more about exposing the reality of it?

REDMAN: I think, actually, we’ve kind of turned the corner on the idea of exposing the reality. What I saw there was that a lot of people–there’s a lot of cohesion around identifying what the problems are, identifying what the threats are, that it’s about overuse of resources, that it’s about corporate capture of resources, it’s about corporate capture of the state. And so we’re not able to govern ourselves in a way that recognizes, matches our need with the resources we have. So there was certainly a lot of conversation about resistance–resistance to corporate capture, resistance to the fossil fuel industry, resistance to land takeover. And I think that’s been a thread in social forms and in grassroots movements across the world in the conversation about climate.

And there is a call. This is, I think, one of the–I don’t know. It’s a struggle within the social forum. The answer to this, of course, is systems change, which is great–wonderful revolution. But then what does that actually mean? What does that mean on Tuesday when you go home?

EARLY: What I think, though, is missing–and this is not an arena that I follow as closely as I should–is a realpolitik, a more pragmatic approach. So we have Venezuela with the world’s largest oil resource.

FLETCHER: Oil reserves. Right.

EARLY: We’ve got Brazil with the third-largest oil resource.

REDMAN: Yeah.

EARLY: The surplus on this has really reduced poverty throughout Latin America. It has funded the social programs, the Bolivarian Revolution. I don’t know–and, please, you might help us here–whether there is a strategic, consistent conversation going on between civil society and ideal system changes and the pragmatics of having to still rely on oil to a certain degree, saying, well, let’s put large reserves into solar panels and alternative energy, even as we recognize the pragmatics of having to deal with this.

REDMAN: The same thing is true in Kentucky in the United States or western Germany. What built our countries? What made us who we are? There is a huge cultural project that has to happen that’s happening, I think, a lot in young people, because I think the young people all over the world are really concerned about what we’re going to inherit if we don’t solve climate change and what that means for our future–what that means for our present, actually. And so I think that cultural project was a lot of what was getting talked about there.

FLETCHER: Janet Redman, James Early, thank you both very much.

EARLY: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll look for you next time. Thanks for joining us.

End

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