The Global African: Freddie Gray and The State of Black Politics
The Global African’s Bill Fletcher takes a look at the Freddie Gray protests and the state of black politics
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the state of black politics in the United States and the killing of Freddie Gray.
That’s today on The Global African. Of course, I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. Don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the Baltimore police, Gray’s hometown of Baltimore, the city that this show calls home, has rallied in a show of solidarity with Gray and his family, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Global African was in the house for some of these actions. Here is a brief look.
DAVID TIGABU, PRODUCER, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: The Global African is here in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, a day after protests took place in the city last night.
Now, the city has implemented a curfew citywide, affecting both adults and minors, as well as the calling of National Guard troops into the city.
These protests come in the aftermath of the death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray. On Saturday, April 25, demonstrations were called in the city to protest Gray’s death. We talked to some residents of Baltimore at the protest.
BALTIMORE RESIDENT: I’m out here because I’m 29 years old, I have a six-year-old daughter, and Freddie Gray is not the first instance where we’ve seen police brutality or just a situation that got out of hand with someone in the Baltimore community–who was a black male, specifically, but the black community in general is always at a loss with the rights that we have.
BALTIMORE RESIDENT: I’m supporting the whole Baltimore City with our problems with the police and things that’s happening in our communities. We’re not standing for it. We’re not going to allow it to happen anymore.
BALTIMORE RESIDENT: Yes, this is a common practice for the police department. This have been happening for a long time. And they have been getting away with it.
TIGABU: The Global African went to Annapolis, Maryland, back in January to cover a protest at the statehouse pushing for police reforms. According to Tawanda Jones, sister of Baltimore police brutality victim Tyrone West, those reforms could have saved Freddie Gray’s life.
TAWANDA JONES, SISTER OF TYRONE WEST: We were in Annapolis trying to hold police officers accountable, working on the officers bill of rights, as well as many laws, putting body cams on officers and everything. And all of our laws that we were fighting for got killed. They killed every bill. And while y’all was killing bills, y’all killed Freddie Gray.
TIGABU: The protest on Saturday came in the wake of other killings by the police, who have avoided any kind of accountability. Anger was visibly building, especially among the youth.
PROTESTER: Yeah, I’m just here to fight back. I’m tired of this [bleep] happening every day to my fellow brothers, and I’m tired of this [bleep] I’m tired of being peaceful about it, and we’re fitting to get mad about it.
PROTESTER: We lost so much friends at 21215 Park Heights, Baltimore, Maryland. So much friends, so much people I went to school with, so much people died because of police officers.
PROTESTER: It’s got to stop, ’cause of it don’t stop, it’s going to be a war, it’s going to be a war between us and the police.
TIGABU: Freddie Gray’s funeral was held on Monday, April 27. Later in the afternoon, public anger exploded in the outrage in the streets of West Baltimore. Protesters denounced police in the streets, with some destroying property and burning cop cars.
As you can see, the press has inundated the city of Baltimore in the wake of last night’s protests. But the root causes of the protest appear to be far from being resolved by city officials.
From Baltimore, with my cameraman Oscar León, I’m David Tigabu with The Global African.
FLETCHER: We’re going to take a look at the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, and the broader implications of this in terms of the larger movement against police lynchings.
To help us look at that, we have joining us Adam Jackson, the CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. He’s also engaged in community service projects around Baltimore that deal with social and economic inequality.
Joining us also is DeRay Mckesson. He is the founder and or coeditor of the Ferguson Protester Newsletter. He is also a cofounder of WeTheProtesters.org, which serves as a portal for protesters nationwide, and I believe is a Baltimore native.
Welcome to Global African.
ADAM JACKSON, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Thank you for having me.
DERAY MCKESSON, ORGANIZER AND EDUCATOR: Good to be here.
FLETCHER: I want to start with what happened. What were the facts on the ground with the murder of Freddie Gray? Adam?
JACKSON: So, by all accounts, Freddie had had an interaction with the police, and apparently at some point he looked at the police, he ran from the police, and then that was enough to chase them down. And so the police caught him at some point and he was subdued. And what we got on cell phone footage, from what we’ve seen so far, is that it appeared his legs were injured at some point. They said that they were self-inflicted wounds from him from the earlier interactions with the police. But they–you know, he had run from the police, he had been subdued by the police, and on the camera footage we have, he was, like, writhing in pain, crying in pain. And so, as they took him to the police van, you know, you can obviously see something’s wrong with his leg. It either looks broken or severely injured. And they put him in the back of the police van.
And so at some point between his transport from the scene to the police precinct, his neck, the vertebrae in his neck were severed 80 percent, and he was in the hospital I believe for about a week, maybe less than that. And then he died because of his injuries.
And so people are saying that he was beaten in the back of the van, or maybe there were some earlier injuries by the police when he interacted with them. And so that’s what folks are trying to figure out right now is what exactly happened based on the camera footage, based on the testimony of the officers, and things like that.
FLETCHER: What are the police saying that would explain this?
JACKSON: I mean, from what they, from what the police have said so far, they are implying that all of his injuries were self-inflicted. So he could have been banging his head against the wall in the van. But the way that the injury is described, where you talk about the injuries to his neck, 80 percent of his spine was severed, so he would have had to–like, you could not have induced that kind of injury without some kind of external blunt force. And so people are saying that the police just making up this story to protect the officers, to say that he didn’t actually–they said that he self-inflicted all these injuries. But in actuality, when you look at–just the look at the injuries themselves, something happened before or inside the van.
FLETCHER: DeRay, link this with the larger movement against police lynchings, they Black Lives Matter movement. I mean, how do you see this?
MCKESSON: So this is a reminder that there’s a Mike Brown in every town, right, that police violence and police brutality is actually closer to people’s doorstep than they want to believe, until they’re forced to believe it. And it also shows that corruption is actually embedded into the culture of American policing in a way that makes us uncomfortable because we are raised to believe in systems and structures until they kill us, which is what is happening across the country and which has happened here with Freddie Gray.
It’s also interesting because Baltimore is a city that didn’t learn much from what happened in Ferguson, right? They are, like, over-policing really intensely right now the protesters. The mayor’s statements have, if anything, raised more questions than answered anything. So it’s interesting to see people not learn how to deal with this trauma, I mean, also, like, not put in things to make sure this trauma never happens, because a part of justice, right, is, like, never experiencing the trauma in the first place. And that is what we’ve never known justice in blackness.
FLETCHER: Adam, the response by the mayor. I mean, this is a largely black city, isn’t it?
JACKSON: Yes, sir. I mean, one thing that we have to understand about Baltimore’s political infrastructure that differs if in a place like Ferguson or other places is that there is a high concentration, first off, of just churches and clergy here. And so what you have is a lot of folks who are focusing on, like, how the churches and the clergy are leaders in the community. And so a lot of times in Baltimore what happens when events like this happen: the clergy and other pastors are put in front of the black people, and like they do in other places. But in Baltimore we’re so saturated with that in particular that, you know, that’s a problem on its own.
But the Mayor in general, she has not, at least in her tenure as mayor, she has not attempted to enact policies that have dramatically improved the quality of life for black people here in Baltimore. And you kind of see that extend from the O’Malley administration when he was governor, and even when he was mayor of Baltimore. All of these policing strategies, I mean, the genealogy of them go back to Martin O’Malley, if you start in 1999 when he was mayor. I mean, between 1999 and 2006 he illegally arrested over 750,000 black people, and they had to settle the lawsuits for all of these illegal arrests out of court for, I think, at least $800,000. And so all these black people–.
FLETCHER: There were 750,000 people?
JACKSON: Seven hundred and fifty thousand black people were–in mass arrests. And it was a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland and, I believe, by the NAACP. But they filed the lawsuit [incompr.] and it was discovered by delegate Jill P. Carter. So she was the biggest advocate for this lawsuit. And so what you saw between his tenure as mayor: he enacted the broken window policies of Rudy Giuliani. And so several thousand black people around Baltimore are arrested. And so it had the illusion of crime decreasing, but that’s because he was just arresting people all around Baltimore. And so he–and that becomes his–that’s his, like, campaign stump. You know, it’s like, yeah, I decreased crime, violent crime in Baltimore. But moreover, it’s public knowledge that he arrested black people in mass.
And so Freddie Gray is really just an extension of that policing strategy.
FLETCHER: DeRay, what do you see as the lessons that would be–that we should learn in terms of how to respond to this here in Baltimore? When you look at Ferguson, when you look at New York, when you look at wherever, and in terms of police killings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, what should organizers on the ground be thinking about now?
MCKESSON: You know, I think the protesters’ disruption, protesters’ confrontation, and, at the heart of it, protesters’ community building, right, it’s exactly what Adam talked about is, like, people are coming out and finding their voice and their ability to confront a system that is killing people in a way that is new.
I think what’s interesting about Baltimore is that it’s the only city currently in protest where black elite have, like, allowed the corruption to fester, right? Like, it’s a city where, like, there are, like, many black people in this city who have incredible influence and power, and they’ve, like, sat around, and now Freddie got killed, and now everybody’s in an uproar, right? But black people in communities have not forgotten that they set idly by while, like, black lives were stolen.
It’s an interesting moment for the mayor, right, because she now is coming out saying that what happened to the police is unacceptable. And it’s a point where, like, the words are not enough, because Freddie’s still gone, right, and Tyrone West and all these other people. So I think that’ll be interesting.
Again, Baltimore has not learned much from the protests. So there is this idea that the four investigations will actually, like, help people. But when I hear “four investigations”, it’s four opportunities for people to be disappointed in the system, right? So it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.
You know, this is a corridor city. This is, like, a gateway city. So, like, in terms of it being a Ground Zero for other people to come and disrupt, this is a really interesting place.
And like Adam’s saying, Gilmor Homes is in and of itself a place to–right? Like, if the Gilmor Homes alone just came out into the streets, like, that is enough to protest. So this will be an interesting thing to watch and see.
It is–what is different, too, is that the media is demonizing the protesters really quickly here in a way that has not happened in other places.
FLETCHER: How are they doing that, and what’s their angle?
JACKSON: So it’s this violence narrative, right? Like, when people want to talk to me about the violence in protests, I’m ready to talk all the time, you know, ’cause the people that have been violent are the police. So you’re right. Violence all day long. The police have been killing us and they’ve been fighting us for a long time.
And protesters have been upset, right, as you should be, ’cause if somebody killed your child, he would also be upset. So we are in this space where we say, like, you know, I don’t police the way that you mourn, right? I won’t condemn the way that you manifest pain, even if I don’t condone it.
And what the media are sort of doing is saying that, like, there’s a way that black people need to mourn, that there’s, like, a good way that our pain comes out. And what black people are saying is that, like, you killed us, right, and, like, we will continue to confront and disrupt in whatever way that means until we get to live. And I think that that is only fair.
FLETCHER: One final question. What are the demands on the city at this point?
JACKSON: One is that there are indictments for all six police officers and that they’re fired and put in jail. That’s what people want, and that’s justifiable. Two is that there is some kind of a mandated conversation or dialog between the city residents, the FOP, and the department, because people want to know why these policing strategies have been used. And the last one was to reform the law enforcement bill of rights.
FLETCHER: Gentlemen, thank you both. We appreciate you joining us on The Global African.
JACKSON: Appreciate it. Thank you.
MCKESSON: Good to be here.
FLETCHER: Thank you.
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. Don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: Recently, famed Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson penned a 10,000 word piece in The New Republic magazine entitled “The Ghost of Cornel West”, causing all the rage in black political circles. In the article, Dyson launched a series of personal and professional attacks, calling into question West’s motives, as well as his recent scholarly contributions. The editorial is a response to heavy criticism West has made in the past about black thought leaders like Dyson and their cozy relationship with President Obama. During a Democracy Now! appearance, West declared that Dyson had sold his soul for a mess of Obama pottage, claiming that he wasn’t doing enough to challenge the president’s policies on Wall Street and drones.
While the piece could be characterized as excessively personal, the editorial did raise some fascinating issues about black politics, particularly in the age of Obama. Is Cornel West writing this criticism? Has black politics experienced a decline in the midst of our first black president?
On our panel today we’re joined first by Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead. She is an assistant professor in the Communications and African American Studies Department for Loyola University Maryland. She is the founding executive director of the Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture.
We’re also joined by Dr. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He is a former Benjamin Hooks Professor of Social Justice at Fisk University and director of the university’s Race Relations Institute.
Welcome to The Global African.
DR. RAY WINBUSH: Hey, Bill.
DR. KAYE WISE WHITEHEAD: Thank you very much.
FLETCHER: Can we in black America have real differences publicly around President Obama? And the second is how to criticize the Obama administration. Those two issues.
WINBUSH: Well, I think, to answer your first question: of course, and we should. Even before Obama took office, I remember–in fact, he hadn’t even won the nomination yet, and I had–we were sitting around, saying, well, what if he does win? This is back, like, ’08, early ’08 or something. What if he does win? How do we criticize him? Do we critique him?
And a friend of mine said something that I shared with you earlier. He said, what we’re going to do: black folk are going to feel that their criticism is being watched by white America within the system of white supremacy. So he said that our critique has to be different from those, let’s say, of a Rush Limbaugh or a Hannity or something, a Sean Hannity. And I think that’s what it should be, that Michael Eric has been very critical of Obama. So has Cornel. But there’s a qualitative difference in how they’ve done that. And I prefer, if you please, the way Michael Eric has done it, as opposed to the way Cornel has done it. So I think that we’ve got to do it, but we don’t come from the same place that white America or some whites in America come from. And I think that it has to be–I think we’ve always got to talk about our motive in doing it, too. And so I just–again, I think that Obama has to be–all of our–you know, he’s the president of the United States. Right?
FLETCHER: Dr. Whitehead.
WHITEHEAD: Although I agree that Obama, the president, has to be criticized, I don’t think he is being criticized by a number of people of color, because when he was elected, there was so much hope that was riding on his shoulders. I mean, I think of people like my grandmother who thought that she would never see a black man ascend to the highest seat in the land. So there were years, there are early years when he was untouchable, when they actually thought, I think, that he walked on water and that he helped to raise the dead. Like, he was the savior who had come along to lift black people up from their current situation and change things for us.
Well, that has not happened, because we know in this society of ours, change does not happen with one person, that we have this democratic system, flawed though it may be, that kind of prevents one person from taking charge in making these type of changes.
So as we’ve gone along and we’ve kind of matured with his presidency, I think that there is a circle of people who are critiquing him. It happens to be mostly academics, black academics, who are talking about his policies, moving away from the allure of there’s this beautiful black man and his beautiful wife and the beautiful daughters to talk about the policies that are in place that will dictate what happens once he leaves. I think that that type of debate is difficult to have within the greater black community, because there’s still this sense that he is the answer to all of our problems, and people aren’t critiquing his policies. They think a critique of the policies is a critique of the man, and that’s not one and the same.
FLETCHER: So it would be tactically suicidal–I think it is tactically suicidal when black progressives engage in personal attacks on Obama, you know, criticizing him, suggesting that he’s not really black, things like that.
And one of the things that actually affected me was my mother and watching what would happen when I would criticize Obama. And there was two very different responses. If I criticize his policies, which goes to both of your points, then she’d listen. If I got close to criticizing him or suggesting there was an issue with his integrity, she would close down, the lights would go out, out for business sign would come up. Right? And that would be it. There was no further discussion. And I have found that with a lot of our folks, that if you appear to be engaging in something that comes close to being personal, people shut off.
WINBUSH: I think you’re right on point. And I think within the–I was thinking about how we are used to seeing our public figures that are black being moral leaders, ministers–Dr. King, Malcolm X. And in truth, that has been what many of them have been. I think sometimes our people confuse the moral leadership of a Dr. King with the political leadership that Obama represents. We’re not used to criticizing public black political figures on a national level. We may say something about Maxine Waters or John Conyers, but that’s kind of a limited thing. But when we talk about a president, it’s different. And as you just said, I think–you know, I’ve been critical of Obama, but it’s always been at the issue of policy.
WHITEHEAD: I think it’s a training that has to take place if we go beyond just intellectuals. And I use that word very loosely, because just because someone’s not an academic does not mean they’re not intellectual. I’m saying within what we call the public intellectual space, where you’re openly debating these ideas, either through op-eds or through television shows or radio shows, but that there is a training that needs to take place for young people, because they don’t seem to have the language to talk about our political figures without making it personal, that it seems like they begin and end with the personal, because if they are watching Rush, if they are watching Fox, I mean, they’re starting with the personal. It becomes about the person and about his family or about her family rather than about the policies.
And I think it’s going to be very interesting as we go forward with what’s happened with Hillary Clinton to see whether the language changes. I mean, we saw some very disturbing language, gender language, when Clinton was running against Obama. Like, it was extremely disturbing. And when I would try to talk to black women about that, it was, no, let’s not focus on gender, let’s focus on the fact of getting a black man into the White House, which reminded me, of course, of what happened during enslavement when you had a break between black and white feminists: let’s not focus on getting women the right to vote; let’s just focus on getting people free–which I agree with, in a bigger sense–as if the two can’t happen at the same time.
FLETCHER: Dr. Whitehead, Dr. Winbush, thank you both very much for joining us on The Global African.
WINBUSH: Thank you.
WHITEHEAD: Thank you very much.
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.
FLETCHER: Upon Obama’s election, black America went through a new stage in its relationship to the president. There was exuberance and pride in connection with his election. There was also–and this was not limited to African-Americans–a tendency by many to turn Obama into whatever we happened to hope that he would be or become. This almost magical tendency resulted in the eternal search for clues as to what Obama really meant by various statements and actions.
Very quickly within black America there emerged a resistance, if not a hostility, to any criticisms being raised of the president. This was quite understandable, in that the racist right-wing began its assaults on Obama almost immediately, and it was more than clear that rather than being in a post-racial environment, the election of Barack Obama brought with it the emergence of just about every fear that right-wing whites had about the danger of a Black planet.
Yet this resistance to criticisms of the president meant that black America placed almost no pressure on the Obama administration, fearing that any criticism of Barack Obama would lend support to the political right. There was largely silence. And when the silence was broken, as in the criticisms offered to the president by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, the critics, regardless of the relative merit of the criticisms, were and are frequently attacked for breaking ranks.
While you may disagree with the rhetoric and tactics of West and Smiley, that must be separated from the fundamental content of the criticisms. West and Smiley were looking for Obama to be a strong advocate for the poor, against racial injustice, and a less belligerent foreign policy.
I agree with their sentiments. The problem is that without the pressure of mass movements, Obama was going to do little more than he has, in part because he tends in a direction of premature compromises with the political right. Getting Obama to do otherwise necessitates more than the criticism–frequently sharp and all too personal–meted out by advocates such as West and Smiley, but instead–but instead must involve masses of people communicating their discontent and demands through various forms of action, including electronic mobilizations and in-the-streets activity.
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