A Telesur Production: Rev. Lennox Yearwood Talks Police Brutality with Bill Fletcher, Jr.
This week on “The Global African,” host Bill Fletcher, Jr. sits down with activist, icon and change-agent Rev. Lennox Yearwood. They discuss police brutality in the Black community, the Israel-Gaza conflict, and the Rev’s own brush with law enforcement. Telesur
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner–the list of African-American lives senselessly taken because of excessive policing is seemingly long and endless, underscoring the increasingly contentious relationship that exists between the black community and law enforcement. The tension between the African-American community and the police has reached a fever pitch this week.
CHARLIE DOOLEY, ST. LOUIS COUNTY EXECUTIVE: We are better than this. Justice is not swift. Revenge is. We are not focused on revenge; we are focused on trust, truth, and justice.
FLETCHER: Hopes of a near future where the lives of young black men would be valued and lessons would be learned by all because of the names of those I just mentioned were dashed this past weekend in a place called Ferguson, Missouri. After this interview was filmed, another life was snuffed oeut. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was more than just another name on a list of young black men gone too soon. He was an unarmed teenager who had just graduated from high school and was on his way to college.
LESLEY MCSPADDEN, MOTHER OF MICHAEL BROWN: There’s my firstborn son. Anybody that know me knew how I felt about my son. I just wish I could have been there to help him. Anything. He didn’t deserve it.
FLETCHER: While Palestinians continue to fight for their right to live and thrive, African Americans in the United States are engaged in their own battle, the battle for the life of young black men and women. Today on The Global African, we’ll discuss the role of police in the African-American community with Rev. Lennox Yearwood as this crucial question now more than ever looms large with community members and the police forces alike.
I’m Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining me on The Global African.
FLETCHER: Joining us now is Reverend Lennox Yearwood, a man who I’ve known for years but I actually did not know was considered by Ebony magazine to be one of the–what is this–hundred most powerful African Americans. This is marvelous.
REV. LENNOX YEARWOOD, MINISTER AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: It’s a nice thing.
FLETCHER: It is! It is.
So Rev. Yearwood is the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus. He’s a minister of community activists and one of the most influential people in hip-hop political life. As I mentioned, was named in 2010 one of the 100 most powerful African-Americans by Ebony magazine and one of the ten game-changers in the green movement by Huffington Post. In 2008, Rev. Yearwood created the Hip Hop Caucus’s “Respect My Vote” campaign with celebrity spokespeople, and which turned out record numbers of young people on election day. He was very active in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and became national director of the award-winning Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, where he led a coalition of national and grassroots organizations to advocate for the rights of Katrina survivors. He is regularly on the media, and I’m really glad to have this opportunity to engage in this discussion.
YEARWOOD: I am glad to be here.
FLETCHER: Alright. So, Gaza. You watched the pictures. How does it make you feel?
YEARWOOD: It’s troubling. It’s troubling. Troubling for a number of reasons. It’s troubling, one, to see the human toll of innocents. It’s also troubling to know that it seems like the public seems impotent in their ability to speak out against it without being charged anti-Israel. And they’re saying that there’s a crime or problem going on. So it’s hard. It’s hard. And it’s also, you know, for many of us who are African-American, to not see the president speak out more against that or speak a lot more forcefully and to continue to sell weapons to Israel, it’s a tough situation.What I am seeing is that particularly since President Obama has been in office, I think people were hoping for a much more peaceful society, and they’re seeing the opposite. And I think that particularly after the Arab Spring now leading into what’s going on in Gaza, people just seem to be tired or not have the ability to speak out. And that’s troubling.
But there is still–I mean, and also the media is also not showing that there are people around the globe who are speaking up. There were thousands who marched in Chicago. There were thousands who marched in London. There have been thousands around in many cities who have said that what’s going on–and both folks who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish–, around all sides, saying that what is happening–. There was a march in Israel that took place. As a matter of fact, in Israel they tried to stop the march. They said it wasn’t safe, ’cause it was during a ceasefire time. But what you’re seeing, though, that–I think you’re seeing many people coming together who are speaking out. And that has been somewhat muted, but still not enough to see, for many organizations, particularly for progressive organizations–I’m shocked, actually, at this just the silence of the progressive community on this issue.
And for me and Hip Hop–you know, I work with a lot of artists, and I saw a couple of artists who Tweeted out. Rihanna Tweeted out “#FreePalestine” and got such a push back that she had to say it was a mistake, it wasn’t on purpose. But even if she could even want to say that, there was just people who were giving her pushback and understanding the pop culture as well.
FLETCHER: Did people respond to that and support her?
YEARWOOD: I mean, yeah. I mean, there were thousands of re-Tweets. I mean, she has now since deleted it from her account, but it was amazing, because you see, I mean, if artists want to get political, it’s very hard sometimes for them to get political. And so after she did that, many people were–she got a lot of pushback. Everyone goes, how could she do that? How could you not allow for Israel to have the right to defend themselves? Which is–I think there is an important part to that argument as well. I mean, there is an important part for people to live together in peace. But it’s also important to state the whole facts and the whole situation so people know what’s going on and the history of what’s going on with Palestine and where it’s in essence become, in some cases, the largest open-air prison in the world.
FLETCHER: Now, you were in the Air Force.
YEARWOOD: I was. I was a Air Force officer.
FLETCHER: An officer.
YEARWOOD: I was officer, yes indeed.
FLETCHER: So what happened?
YEARWOOD: I mean, I think that like many I used the program that you use to get money for education. And let me say this: and I am a person who am clearly not anti-American. I mean, I think that our job is to make this country to be the best country that it can be. I loved my country then. I love my country now. I am an American. I’m also a person who came here whose parents came here as an immigrant. My parents were both from Trinidad. I was the first person in my family to be born in this country. So that has a whole part of the process as well.
And so, being an officer, I understand the importance to have defense if that’s what is needed in some cases. But I also understood the importance of the power this country has. And if used wrongly, it could have devastating impacts. And so, as an officer I began to speak out against the war in Iraq. This was in 2002. And so if you don’t want the best sometimes career move, don’t speak out against the war while you’re in the Air Force.
But at that time, the President Bush administration and others decided to really make an example, and they began to even move forth to prosecute me and have me imprisoned. And what was what’s amazing about that was that during the time I was waiting for that process to take place, I didn’t stop speaking out. I said, well, I’m going to speak out now. But there were some other amazing brothers and sisters who were also at the time–Damu Smith, who I was around, and others who were, like, just good brothers and sisters who can give counsel and just say, hey, you know, if you’re doing the right thing, keep speaking out for justice. And so I did.
I mean, long story short, I mean, it was very difficult. I was it was hard. I was arrested protesting against the war. And was beaten. As a matter of fact, I was on Capitol Hill and was beaten, in Capitol Hill, in which my leg was broken, because officers came to Capitol Hill to speak out against the war, and I was the only African-American, and so I guess I was easy to kind of point out in the crowd. And so that’s what took place.
FLETCHER: Let’s talk about–use that as a segue to talk about violence at home. You’re wearing a cap with the name Eric Garner.
FLETCHER: Tell us about Eric Garner.
YEARWOOD: Eric Garner now is dead, and he was murdered. He was a father, I believe, of six children in New York City. And Eric Garner had just got finished breaking up a fight. And then the police officers came, and in the process began to antagonize him. And they put on an illegal chokehold and literally choked him to death.
FLETCHER: Why did they go after him if he had just broken up a fight?
YEARWOOD: A lot of times–and this is the thing that we are dealing with in our community–many African Americans are induced and are paralyzed by fear because of police brutality, because of the possibility of a public execution or assault, because you have–not all, but you do have some officers who become, in essence, thugs with badges.
FLETCHER: That said, there’s crime in our communities. Just a few months ago, a relative of mine was held up at gunpoint by another African American. She was walking with some friends. These three guys apparently were watching her or watching them. They figured out the right place and they held them up at gunpoint.
FLETCHER: Why should I care if a cop puts a bullet in that guy’s head?It frequently feels that many progressives refuse to talk about crime, refuse to talk about it; we’ll talk about police brutality but will not talk about crime. Doesn’t that lose us credibility?
YEARWOOD: No, it doesn’t lose credibility. I think there are some layers to that process. One, they’re different–if you talk about progressives, I think you’re right. There are many–there is silence sometimes from–particularly, white progressives at times do become silent on the issues of police brutality.
FLETCHER: Oh, I’m thinking about black progressives.
YEARWOOD: Well, I’m going to get to that too.
YEARWOOD: I’m going to just start with the first layer. And as you have said, one of your great quotes is that race is the tripwire for the progressive movement. And so many times when we hit that tripwire, we fall over. When I mean silent, I mean that they don’t sometimes incorporate all of their energies and the movement can be siloed. So when you go to the police brutality rally, it’s not as blended and diverse as it should be.
Going further, there is something. Then you go to black progressives, or, i.e., blacks rights organizations. There is something there. Unfortunately, in the 21st century too many civil rights organizations have now moved from a spirit of solidarity to charity, where they then don’t see the community in the same light, where they begin to see their brothers and sisters as a case and a cause, and not as their brother or their sister. And so they sometimes pull back, saying–almost where they come out for these rallies saying that it was wrong when you see what happened to Eric Garner, it was wrong what happened to Trayvon Martin, it was wrong, Oscar Grant and Sean Bell.
But there’s also something–you can hear it–there isn’t the kind of–that there isn’t something there where they are saying that there isn’t total innocence. And so I think that there is still–there has been–something has happened with the civil rights movement that does not quietly align with the community as it should. And the community feels this. And I think that when you have a community that is so disenfranchised, so oppressed, so pushed down, and even their own brothers and sisters turn their back on them, not when they’re so public as Eric Garner’s death, who was choked to death on YouTube, but this is across the board when you see the injustice around and people just drive past that and keep moving or leave the community completely to defend for themselves. I think that’s where the problem comes in at, and I think that’s where we have to fix that. And I think that you’re right.
So I think it’s important for us and incumbent upon us to recognize that we cannot give up on our people, no matter what the situation may be. We must always recognize that it is a layered approach and that the policies have been put in place to have taken away jobs, opportunity, and education, have now led to what you see today, are just the symptoms of the true cancer of poverty and injustice in our communities.
FLETCHER: You know, I’ve been active at different points around issues of police brutality. And what I have found in virtually every case is that the movement or effort could not be sustained. It was sort of what you were saying earlier: there’d be a demonstration; people would be really angry. In some cases there would be suggestions of legislation, and at that point it was almost like watching a balloon deflate. The energy just seems to leave us. And then that’s it until the next brother or sister gets killed. What’s your analysis? What do you think is at the root of this sort of deflation? And what do we need to do differently?
YEARWOOD: That’s very hard to see. And it’s hard to see so many mothers and fathers who you know are sometimes being used twice. They have been victimized. They have lost their child. And then, later on, organizations come in, put them up, stand next to them. And then, as soon as the camera leaves, they leave as well.
And, unfortunately, from labor, civil rights, progressive, we’re not seeing the long-term strategy that needs to be put in place so that, yes, there might be [police brutalities (?)] now in 2014, but if you put things in place, by 2020 you will see a decrease because the policies will be in place and we will do the things that need to be done to change that process.
FLETCHER: Are there any parallels with the anti-lynching campaigns of the 20th century, that began in the earlier 20th century, the whole idea of passing federal legislation to address lynching? I mean, is that sort of along the lines of what you’re describing?
YEARWOOD: Most definitely. I mean, I think there’s a disconnect. I think that this is where we have to empower at the very least our Congressional Black Caucus and our progressive caucus members. I think you start it there on the federal side. I think that–you know, President Obama has said repeatedly, if we like it or don’t like it, he has said, make me do it, as has been his approach to policy. So I think we should make them do certain things. I think that’s how he has said that. And I think we’ve seen that from “my brother’s keeper” and other elements, I think, that have come out, that he can be made to do things once the political pressure is put upon.
I definitely think that we should look at the local levels, our black mayors and governors–and black governors–and local and state officials to also be a part of the solution on that aspect.
And then I think that for me in the 21st century, we have much more expertise than they had in the 20th century. So we should definitely empower our think tanks, our academies, our institutions, our HBCUs.
FLETCHER: So then what do we say? I mean, when you have a black political leadership that should know better and most of them probably also live in a certain level of fear of what could happen to them if they get stopped, what is stopping them from taking action? Why are they not as responsive as they should be?
YEARWOOD: Courage. Courage. They are–a fear of being considered and called radical. That’s the easy answer. I mean, clearly there’s much more than just that. But a lot of them, from what I have seen, even on the federal level and on a local level, particularly like in an area like Prince George’s County, where it should be a no-brainer–you have everything in place to make this in place. And I think that they lack the courage.
And I think, on the other hand, we are not holding the–we are putting people in positions of power sometimes just based upon their skin color, on their color or their hue, who do not have the true interests of the people, and they talk the talk and look the part, but clearly also have learned how to play two sides of the coin. And so when they go out to a certain community, they talk and rap like they are from the streets. But once they get to the suites, there’s a different dialog in that aspect. And so I think that–you know, I am hopeful that my generation is much more in tune to putting in new leadership in that aspect that can deal with those who really have their political interests in hand.
FLETCHER: Do you see evidence of it?
YEARWOOD: I think there needs to be–I think this is where political education takes place. This is where, I mean, groups like the Hip Hop Caucus have to do their job and their due diligence to educate. I think we certainly have to even look beyond the traditional kind of political parties and partisanship that people have just kind of take and where we can no longer just say it’s about Democrat or Republican, but it has to be about humanity and about fighting for our community. I think we need to hold those accountable who get into office, and we need to, when they do what’s wrong, they need to be punished politically so they can be removed quickly, they can’t just come around the next term, have done nothing for the community, and then remain, come to some nice church or mosque or somebody’s community day event and just dance around and then we reelect them. I think we need to hold them accountable.
I think also this is where the institutions have to do a better job. I think that–see, the problem also here is this. Too many leaders are kind of in cahoots together. And so you have leadership in which they kind of–I mean, I’ve seen this, and you’ve seen this as well–on kind of the toothpick, cheese-on-a-stick circuit, so to speak, in which they come together and all network in their own little world. And they then–they kind of support one another to the end. And then they kind of then will then put the resources behind them, even though we know they’re not doing what they need to be doing for their own community and are going against the interests of the people in their community.
FLETCHER: Let me go full circle. What about the violence within our respective communities, within the African-American community, within the Latino communities? People often don’t seem as outraged.
YEARWOOD: You know, it grieves me. You know something, Bill, it grieves me now that I am, I guess, a black leader, I’m around other black leaders, and we have this conversation,iIt grieves me how quick we don’t hurt and cry anymore for those of us who are laying in their blood in the streets. It grieves me when [something (?)] special has to be about a young child before we even care, which is similar to what’s going on in Gaza or what’s going on down at the border. Something is happening when there are certain communities, certain people are being relegated in this country to second-class citizenship. And I think that we as a people, we need to know step up and say, no, everybody who died in Chicago is a life, everyone who died in Baltimore or in D.C. We need to take a different approach and be as concerned if it was a gang banger or if it was the valedictorian and speak up more about that. But we’re not doing that. So for a number of reasons we’re not doing that.
FLETCHER: Reverend Yearwood, thank you very much for that,–
YEARWOOD: Thank you.
FLETCHER: –for this discussion, this much-needed, very timely, very emotional discussion. And I’m hoping that it’s replicated around the country.
YEARWOOD: Thank you.
FLETCHER: Our pleasure. Thanks for joining us.
YEARWOOD: No, thank you, brother.
And thank you very much for joining us on this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher.
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