Police Violence and Militarization Town Hall (2/4)

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In Part Two of the Police Violence and Militarization Town Hall discussion hosted by South Organizing Against Racism (SOAR), participants discuss whether the #Blacklivesmatter movement can pick up where the civil rights movement and black power movements left off

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Town Hall. I’m Jessica Desvarieux, coming to you from our Baltimore studio.

The saying Black Lives Matter has not only swept social media, but young activists from Baltimore to Oakland have taken that message to the streets. They’ve staged die-ins, in where they are trying to wake up the consciousness of the nation about the injustices that continue to disproportionately affect black and brown communities.

So we have a statistic for you. About 50 percent of all prisoners are black, despite only making up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. That’s a staggering statistic.

But instead of looking simply at what this moment or movement holds in the future, we’re going to look at the past and ask what unfinished business did the civil rights and black power movements behind, and how can young activists today better prepare themselves for the roadblocks that will certainly be ahead for them.

So, as you can see, we have a lovely panelist and a audience that is quite dynamic and ready to engage.

But before we open it up to the audience, I want to turn to Eddie Conway. You’re a Real News producer, but before that, you were a member of the Black Panther Party and spent 44 years in prison as a political prisoner. What mistakes do you think the black power movement in the city rights era made, and what unfinished business did they really leave behind?

EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Okay. first I would look at the civil rights movement and I would say that the civil rights bill and the civil rights laws that were passed made people in the civil rights movement think that they had achieved success. It didn’t change the economic conditions in the community. It didn’t change the institution of white racism. It didn’t change the inability of us to control the means of production in our community. So we were always in a position where we had to kind of, like, allow our community to be used for the profit of other people. That translated itself into those riots and into that activity that eventually became known as black power movement or the black liberation movement, and that movement in itself tried to build institutions in the community.

And one of the great mistakes of that community, of that movement, was that it expanded too fast, and the government attacked it with various programs, COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, being one of them. And it turned people in the community, in the movement, against each other. That’s still a problem today; 40-some years later, people are still at odds with each other in the black community and in the white community and other communities over the issue of trust, over the issue of organizing, over the issue of whether or not somebody is the police or whether or not somebody is a agent provocateur. Those things still have an impact on us.

And I think today it’s important, ’cause [when] I look at the young people today across the country, I think it’s important for them to focus on building something. It’s easy, and I love the fact that they’re protesting and they need to continue to protest. But you have to organize to build. It’s a very important thing to build something in the community, because no matter how many times you protest in the community, the community won’t remember the results of it if you don’t leave any institutions, if you don’t leave anything for the community to say, this is my health plan,–

DESVARIEUX: I understand.

CONWAY: –or this is my food co-op, or this is my ability to control the police, etc. So those things have to be built. And the only way we can build them is not to be sidetracked by the disputes in the community, because we can be marginalized and we can be diverted and we won’t achieve our goal, and the same people that’s making their wealth, that have always made their wealth for the last 500 years, will continue to make that wealth, and we’ll be continuing to fight against ourself.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s unpack some of these disputes that you mention, Eddie.

I know, Kamau Franklin, you are a student of history and have done quite a bit of research on this topic as well. What were these disputes that Eddie’s alluding to here?

KAMAU FRANKLIN, ATTORNEY AND ACTIVIST: Well, I think some of the disputes that he talked about were disputes around which way forward. Was it civil rights? Or was it self-determination? And even within those blocs, there were disputes around what civil rights meant. Was it integration? Was it desegregation? For black power side, the disputes ranged around what is it? What does self-determination mean? What does black power mean? There were so many different ways in which people interpreted it that it became to mean everything and nothing at the same time. So you had some people who thought of black power as black capitalism, and they took it and they went under a Republican banner and they said, black power is about individuals making money. And as long as there was black businesses, that resolves issues in the communities.

There’s other folks who took a more radical approach and said that black power really was about self-determination and liberation and nationalism. And Malcolm became the figurehead for that movement when people said that we need control of our resources, our land, our economic, our political, our educational resources, we need all of that. There were even people in the middle. Right? There were people who said, we just need some community control, but we still want to be part of America, ’cause anything else is just too big, too daunting, and not something that we can resolve right now.

So I think even as the movement progressed and you had a whole bunch of lines of ideological struggles and different ways in which people approached work, central questions were never resolved. And I’m not even saying that we’re in a time period where we’re going to resolve all those questions either, but I think having a path forward, particularly for the young movement, is something that we, they have to start figuring out. Right? And even having movements that are forming now get siloed, right? There’s several different coalitions that have been formed. I’m not sure if they even work with each other a lot of times. Right? There’s different small organizations sprouting out, five here or ten there, 15 members here. They don’t work together in any kind of collective effort. So we’re good at talking about what our problems are, right, as a people. I think we are okay at resolving some of our problems, ’cause I do think there are victories that our folks have built on with allies and other things. We cannot ignore those victories. That is the struggle in which we come from which has changed our conditions in some way. We’re no longer enslaved, we’re no longer facing lynching, we’re no longer facing Jim Crow; we are facing different types and forms of mutilation and control over our bodies. But some things have changed because people have organized to make those changes. And I think we cannot act like those folks do not put a valuable contribution to where we’re all in our lives.

But I do think that as we begin to think about how to resolve our problems, resolve our problems today, we’re so focused on creating my group, my group, my group, my group, that we’ve lost the ability because of what small differences that we may have in terms of the longer issues, we’ve seemed to have lost our ability to sort of coalesce and to work together and to work stronger and to work in better units.

DESVARIEUX: But that “my group, my group” sort of mentality, I mean, I could hear the opposition saying, but that’s grassroots, you know, if things are going to sprout up here and there and it’s going to be very organic. But then at the same time, people criticize it and they say these movements are leaderless. And I know people are probably like, oh, no, no, no, they’re not. But there are plenty of leaders that are on the ground.

So what do you say to that? Is that just the nature of the beast, grassroots movements are going to have this sort of disjointed nature?

FRANKLIN: I think somewhat yes. And I’m going to talk briefly and let other people respond to it. But somewhat yes.

But I also think that we sort of emulate the same posture and personality that we accuse our oppressors of a lot of times. We want to be the big person on campus, and we want to be able to make that speech, and we want to be able to get that funding. Various things that people do, I think, keep them apart, as opposed to thinking about if we work together, we worked in better units, not everybody–this is not a kumbaya movement where I think everybody’s going to just stop everything they’re doing and work together. But for people who are serious about changing conditions, then they find ways to work together, as opposed to not working together.

DESVARIEUX: Sounds like less egocentric type of mentalities.

Okay. Anyone else want to weigh in?

NELINI STAMP, CODIRECTOR, RISE UP: In the words of Harry Belafonte, they integrated into a burning house of capitalism during that period. And I think–and I agree that we need to look at all–like, the different [incompr.] history and reconstruction. But I also would love to look at the culture of and business of community organizing and how that’s changed, how paid organizers became a thing in our communities. And people are fighting over these jobs. And we’re fighting for foundation money of foundations that are have the names of the very people who have oppressed us. And so I think when we’re talking about that stuff, we really, really, really have to take that–.

DESVARIEUX: Can you be specific? Can you name names? ‘Cause we like to name names here at The Real News.

STAMP: I’m not going to ruin anybody’s [crosstalk]

DESVARIEUX: No, no, no. But what organizations?

STAMP: When you think about Rockefeller and you think about–right? Like, that’s–I’ll say one. But you think about these–like, the history, right, it’s–like, those are the very people who–and we’re looking to the very people to say, oh, give us money to do work in the community, when in reality they’re not going to give us the work to do, the things that we need to do to get them out of their positions. And so I think we really need to look at that and really examine that.

I also think to examine–when we’re talking about history, to also see what the civil rights, the black power movement did to other movements as well and what it did for–like, the Young Lords were able to exist because of the Black Panthers and the different liberation movements. So not just the black liberation movement, but the ripple effect, ’cause that’s very important.

Black people in the United States have this worldwide effect and culture that people love, that people–regardless of the bad things that happen to us, we have something that people love. We are powerful people and beings. And I think that–and when we are able to put something forward, when we’re able to show, people follow and people emulate what we do. And so I think that’s really important when we’re looking back–also looking forward and seeing, okay, well, what are the things that work that we want people to emulate as well? Right? ‘Cause if we have to have liberation–but I also want–I mean, again, I said I’m black and Latina, and I want liberation for both of my people, right? And so I think that when we’re looking at it, those are important conversations that we need to have that are uncomfortable.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. This is a good question, though, the war on drugs, because there were a lot of black politicians when this war on drugs was happening that were in favor of–you know, because people saw drugs as the cause of tearing up their communities. I think a large part of it was that reaction. But what happened there? What happened to the black community in terms of the war on drugs because there were people who were advocating for these types of policies back then? I mean, and a lot of people can say that’s what’s ravaged our communities.

YUSEF BUNCHY SHAKUR, AUTHOR, COMMUNITY ORGANIZE: I mean, first, when we talk about war on drugs, we have to acknowledge, as we talked about in another panel, the drugs that was brought in our community. So the topic of looking at the civil rights movement, looking at the black liberation movement, that was a form of handicapping and destroying the black liberation movement, that type organizing within our community. Heroin put us to sleep and crack cocaine came and knocked us out. And you’ve kind of seen the emergence, 30, 40 years later, from that. So when we talk about war on drugs, we have to put it in the context of chemical warfare. That’s what a war is, plain and simple.

But also, switching back gears to looking at the black struggle and learning from it, we have to go back to Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser. You know, why wasn’t they successful?It was individuals that look like us that betrayed them. And you fast-forward, that’s still happening within our community. You look at Nat Turner, even though he was a successful in his plot, however, he didn’t have the cadre, the training, the disciplined individual within the community help sustain that insurrection.

You move forward, before there was NAACP, there was a Niagara movement. Why we don’t talk about the Niagara movement? How did it dissolve? Because of the fact that we wanted white people to control our organization, which gave birth to NAACP and, as the sisters talked about, funding. And that’s another reason with the NAACP: white people funded our organization, white people funded that organization, which controlled our community, even if you move to the present day; when you look at SNCC and the organizing they did in the early ’60s, in the early ’60s within the community, and looking at the conditions and how they moved forward.

And within the black community, we would always come to the point of either Malcolm or Elijah, either Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey. You know, why we can’t do both? And we’re still arguing now, either Malcolm or [Martin (?)]. Why we can’t set both within that framework, but also within the black community?

And learning is how we prepare. You know, for myself, I learnt the things that I know in prison. And coming home, when Bunchy Carter came home, there a the Black Panther Party, when Eldridge Cleaver came home, there was a Black Panther Party that allowed them to grow and develop–whether what they turned out years later is–you know, we can discuss later. But as far as coming home, I just–you know, you’re thrust in a position. And as we fast-forward, there’s folks now saying they’re activists, haven’t been prepared, haven’t been trained, haven’t been developed, ’cause they helped somebody, and the media is now picking our leadership. We have to develop our leadership.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Here at The Real News, we discuss this issue often about the Democratic Party and whose interests they really serve. And people can show you campaign contributions coming from the elite and how they sort of placate to brown and black communities.

And I was talking to Paul yesterday. Paul, you were mentioning this rift that happened–could have potentially happened, Democratic Party. And speaking in that time period, do you want speak to that issue?

PAUL JAY, CEO, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Well, first of all I just want to agree with what Jared said in his opening comment. Mistakes are inherent in doing something new. And, I mean, how many mistakes have we made in building The Real News, trying to build a new kind of news platform out of nothing? We’ve made way more mistakes than we’ve done things right.

But the point of it is: how do you learn from it? And I think one of the problems–and they–again, if you’re grappling with this problem, how do you get the right to vote–I don’t know how we people here have seen the film Selma. And that’s another panel which we want to do. In the whole movie, there is one moment where they have Martin say, what if we get the right to vote and there’s no one worth voting for? That doesn’t mean it’s not worth have the right to vote. It means we need to address that issue.

At its very best, a protest movement can probably do what the civil rights movement did: wring some concessions out of an elite that is terrified of the revolutionary potential of black America. And in order not to have that potential realized, they will give up some concessions, ’cause they know–and I think you said this sooner–if that happens, the rest of the people are going to join in. They’re afraid of that.

So why does the Department of Justice come into certain police forces and order review boards and actually have sanctions? They are terrified that if the cops go too far, they need to mitigate some, or you’ll have another Rodney King event across the country. So they’re there in order to kind of manage that don’t let this–yes, your job, police department, is to maintain the existing power relationships; yes, we want you to use hammers to keep the lid on things; but don’t do it in a way that so enrages people that they say it’s enough, and then that potential starts to become realized.

So you do need electoral strategy, though, because at the best, this protest movement will wring some concessions, and that will be it. And it’s not that it’s bad. The concessions are good. The littlest concession is better than no concession.

But that’s not having power. And if there isn’t this united front–. I saw a clip of Malcolm talking about we need a broad front against the Western power structure. Well, it’s that broad front we’ve got to be talking about. And it has to have an electoral strategy. There’s no governing power’s–not happening in the United States outside of elections, at least in this kind of historical phase. Who knows what happens in the future. But learning from this period, the civil rights movement had to make this kind of deal with the Democratic Party–at least they thought they had to. Then they didn’t have a second act. Now, maybe if the leadership hadn’t been killed, maybe they would have arrived at that second act and challenged who led the Democratic Party. It’s every bit as much the issue today as it was then.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Tef, I saw you raise your hand.

TEF POE, RAPPER, ACTIVIST: You know, I’m just listening to everybody’s comments, and a few things started coming into my mind. I think about the current movement–and people call it a protest movement. And for me personally, I hate that term, because I believe we can’t gain anything until we start modeling and thinking in terms of actual resistance. And that looks different for different people. For some people that’s economically. For some people that’s die-ins. For some people that’s you work for a newspaper that you traditionally shouldn’t speak out about certain things, but you write that article anyway. I think that’s what we probably have learned best from the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, people like that weren’t murdered because they were outstanding humanitarians; they were murdered because they were moving us as a people into a culture of resistance. And once that culture picked up, that became the problem.

And I think that when you look back at some of the questions we talked about earlier in the first segment, I think about what–for me, it all depends on what frame of reference you look at it from, because this isn’t a new struggle. So white people want you to look at it from right now. Everybody’s mad right now. But we had Rodney King in the ’90s. Like, that wasn’t that long ago. You know, people act as if that was in 1965. That was in the ’90s. So it never stopped. Even we have moments where–and you always have people who came out, people likely Khalid Mohamed. You know, he was a radical voice in the ’90s, and he died.

So that to me personally, as a student of the movement, studying and reading about it, that energy never died; it just transformed into different forms of fascism. And I believe moving forward–. You know, legislation is good. I believe that. But I don’t think it’s my job to tell people to go vote for people who send drones to kill black folks, who support international countries that kill 50 Africans a day. So, I mean, the Democratic Party is in the same exact boat. If you’re black, gay, and Democratic, tell me how getting married works out for you. So it’s the same thing.

So, I mean, I understand we need that, and I don’t shoot that down, and I think the civil rights movement didn’t have the privilege we have to see, like, you know what? These people don’t really have no compassion for us nowhere. And, you know, they were moving on a moral compass and a compassionate trip. And we just have to move on a more tactical trip.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. We’re going to talk about some more of these strategies and how to organize. Is electoral strategy the way to go? There seems to be a bit of debate about this. So we’re going to hit the pause button. In part two, as I said, we’re going to discuss how we can better organize. So thank you very much for watching, and I hope you stay tuned for our next part.

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