Jay-Z’s Black Lives Matter Philanthropy

Taureen “Tory” Russell, co-founder and director of the Hands Up United Coalition, discusses his group’s inclusion in Jay-Z’s funding, the work of their coalition, and his thoughts on the 2016 presidential elections and Baltimore mayoral candidacy of Deray McKesson.

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, TRNN: What’s up, world, and welcome back to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball in Baltimore.

It was reported this week that the iconic hip-hop and business megastar Jay-Z will through his webstreaming service Tidal be giving $1.5 million to ten or so Black Lives Matter-related organizations. One of those named was the seminal Hands Up United coalition formed in Ferguson, Missouri shortly after the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014.

Joining us now to discuss what this may mean is co-founder and director of Hands Up United, Taurean Tory Russell. Welcome to I Mix What I Like and the Real News, Tory.

TAUREAN RUSSELL: Sure, thanks for having me.

BALL: So, before we go any further, are there any misconceptions about this announcement you would like to address from the jump? What does this mean that Jay-Z has made this announcement about the $1.5 million?

RUSSELL: I think it means that he’s actually supporting and putting his money where his heart and where his raps have always lied, in the communities of black and brown people who’s doing a little something different. And so even though Black Lives Matter the organization did not get money out of the $1.5 million, he was in talks with [inaud.] workers and others about what is the specific work, what is the program, programmatic responses, and what are the services. There’s some cultural organizing things that people on the ground are actually doing. The people that’s not doing hashtags or doing a lot of social media, that’s really driven by community-oriented solutions. They’re really connecting with the people. So I’m kind of happy about it.

BALL: Good, that’s good to hear. So tell us a little bit about the work that his money will be helping fund with your organization, Hands Up United Coalition.

RUSSELL: So Hands Up United started, you know, shortly after the killing of Mike Brown. A couple months after that we had to really think, what are we going to do in the community? And so kind of in the tradition of the Black Panther Party, we revamped and brought back the breakfast program. So we do books and breakfast. We do it over 30-plus cities across the country, also in Sierra Leone. And so that’s our first tool.

And then we went to the 21st century with our programs and services. That’s really a tech program. It’s the Roy Clay Sr. Tech Institute. And we take young people, 13-30, teach them how to web design, code, graphic design, all of that in this institution to really engage young people and put them in the tech jobs and put them in the tech sector, or make them revolutionary tech activists.

And so these two programs have led to others, men and women’s circle, basic community organizing stuff. We have a food pantry, clothes pantry. We do a lot. I’m currently in Salinas, California working with homeless people and immigrant workers, because we’re a black and brown organization. And so this funding really extends to how we’re going to pay organizers across the country, and support books and breakfast in chapters, you know, going across the country and across the world.

BALL: That definitely sounds good. But just to also clarify, you have, yourself, not received $1 million, and you, yourself, are not in regular contact with Jay-Z, right? So–.

RUSSELL: Yeah. [Inaud.] So we’re going to be clear about it. We ain’t getting $1.5 million. I think it was, like, ten organizations that were named. So you know, from what I’m hearing, you may get 100, 150. So it depends on how big the project is and how far-reaching your organization is. And also I want to tell the people that, not only in Ferguson but across America, I ain’t got Jay-Z’s number. So don’t hit me up trying to get Jay-Z’s number. I ain’t talked to the dude either. So I ain’t got his info, so I can’t slide it to you.

BALL: So you know, one of the things I definitely wanted to ask you all about is, is trying to, best as I can to follow the work that you all have been doing, and we greatly appreciate that work. As I said in the intro it’s been seminal in, in helping launch a new movement, here, a new wave of a movement of a protracted struggle. But there’s a lot of focus going on right now with the 2016 presidential elections, and I would definitely be interested in hearing what your thoughts are as an individual, and perhaps if there’s an organizational approach to those elections, what, what that is, we’d love to hear about that.

RUSSELL: Yeah. I mean, so you know, I look at the 2016 election on the Democratic side and the Republican side. So you have Trump and everybody who’s behind Trump. And then you have, you know, basically Hillary versus Bernie on the Democratic side. And so we as organizers, me as myself and organizers across the country, must have a deep political analysis around the 2016 election. It would be irresponsible for any organization, any group, to not have some kind of critique, some kind of deep analysis around election and election cycle, and electoral colleges, period.

So what we’re working on now is really deep, deeply looking at how we really engage and look for civic engagement. So all of that, we’re looking for funding around actually Democrat or Republican, do you really want black and brown votes? So when you see the Fight for $15, saying come get my vote, that’s really what they’re saying there. So we’re really trying to put this, you know, this concept of putting freedom on the ballot for 2016, not only for the presidential–but your mayor and your city alderman, your council member, all these people need to understand that, you know, there’s no permanent candidates, just permanent issues. And so it might be a Republican, Democrat, it might be a new person in Ferguson there’s running, it might be a new person in Baltimore that’s running.

But we have to have some kind of deep political analysis around that. And I think poor working class people, white, black, or brown, need to have a political platform going into the 2016 election. And some, that’s some of the stuff that we’re working on, not only here but across the country.

BALL: You know, there’s, there’s–I definitely do want to ask you about the mayoral election here in Baltimore in just a moment. But there is this, there’s also a question of to what extent will you all, or are you all engaged with so-called alternative political parties? Is there any engagement with the, for instance, the Party for Socialism and Liberation or the Green Party? And we would definitely hope to see some engagement, if not now down the line, with the burgeoning Ujima People’s Progress Party here in Maryland, the black worker-led political party that’s emerging, as well. But do you all have any current or planned relationships with any of those so-called alternatives?

RUSSELL: We’re building bridges with all of them. Right now, and being honest, probably as we look at candidates–we’re really not concerned with candidates or endorsing candidates in the 2016 election cycle. We’re really looking at, really platforms and policies, and not neoliberal, you know, reformist policies that you see in the movement. Even like Campaign Zero. We’re talking about harsh, deep, radical revolutionary thought around why there are homeless people. Why do you call somebody illegal when their family’s been here for hundreds of years? What is the analysis around why does the teachers union get disrespected with school choice, which are not having the same deep political analysis around policing. And we’re not having a [safety] choice.

And so how can we actually have a platform and policies that really speak to the minds and the hearts of the people? And so a candidate or not being endorsed, I don’t see that happening. But we’re starting to go across the country, right here in Salinas, to even start with how do we build those bridges with elected officials, but more importantly, what do the people want on the street? What do people want on the ground? And are they going to put that kind of freedom on the ballot? If not, people may or may not vote. And this may be the ballot or the bullet moment.

BALL: So you mentioned Campaign Zero, and, and Baltimore mayoral campaigns, or mayoral election cycle, that’s about to start. And obviously we wanted to ask you about DeRay Mckesson, your thoughts about his planned run for mayor here in Baltimore. You have some experience working with him, or seeing him do his thing in Ferguson, and his rise to fame is, is certainly coming off the back of, of your movement there in Ferguson and the broader Black Lives Matter movement. And he is reportedly representing Black Lives Matter as a mayoral candidate, that we know he has broken off to create Campaign Zero. What are your thoughts for the people here in Baltimore who might be looking at this campaign and considering it for their vote, at the time for the mayor’s election?

RUSSELL: I’ll start with the movement. You know, in Ferguson–you know, you said it, I’ve never worked with DeRay. I’m really hard pressed to find any local people who have worked with DeRay. All the local people that I know worked with DeRay really either worked with the establishment, so they either worked with the 21st century, [white house] 21st century task force, they’re either working on the Ferguson commission, they either worked with Teach for America. And we know all those things are establishment-based. And so when I hear him going on Colbert, and Colbert saying he organized protests in Ferguson and Baltimore–I can’t speak to Baltimore.

And I know in Ferguson, I don’t know an action, a protest that he was in, even part of, even when he got locked up on the anniversary of [inaud.] Monday in Ferguson. He was not a part of that action. He was just, he was taking pictures, documenting, doing what he does. And he could not get, escape the police. So the police that surrounded, he tried to escape, he could not, and so he accidentally went to jail. And so I just want to clear some of that organizing, protest kind of rhetoric, or even conversation that he won’t clear up on his own. So people in Ferguson are really like, I don’t know. And so that kind of leaves, towards Campaign Zero and to the people of Baltimore.

I can’t speak to Baltimore. But I can say as a person that’s in Ferguson, that organized August 9 after the killing of Mike Brown, and organized eight people to 250 people to thousands of people in Ferguson in October, you have to ask yourself, is a political candidate running for mayor of your city, and I’m telling you these whole truths, and you’d be hard pressed to find certain people that was organizing at the time in August of 2014 to really say that he was organizing here, what is his integrity looking like?

Or either, go beyond that, what is the policy looking like? You’re talking about a person who works for Teach for America, that’s really circumventing teachers unions, and really he’s a fan, he’s a proponent for charter schools. And so you know he’s not typically a fan of public schools. And so you know those, the educational issue comes up. His policy, to be honest, most people in the movement see it as a neoliberal kind of policy. We know that the policy comes from his ties with Teach for America, and the people he worked with with Teach for America are on the 21st century task force. And so a lot of the policy in the movement we honestly believe have had, have been handpicked and given to him through the White House.

And so [inaud.] it’s the radical people, or the people who marched in the street, the people who have lead poisoning in Baltimore, the people who have failing schools, the people whose unemployment rate is continuously going high, the homeless people, the immigrants that are living in the shadows, what is his political platform around these things? I’m eager to see what his widespread platform is. I hear some, you know, some very reformist things around police accountability. But in a big city like Baltimore you’re going to need a big solution, and I’m just waiting to see.

You know, I’m really happy that he’s taking that to the political sector, because of his organizing and somebody that’s actually in the movement doing community-based work, that kind of alleviates the questions around what is he doing, is he organizing. It kind of makes my job a little easier, and I don’t really have to confront the question of DeRay Mckesson or the [inaud.] that fly across the country who, you know, really–I can’t point to a community or a place on the map that I know that they’re in the, in the communities, really working with the people who’s actually working and marching in the streets, and actually doing something for change.

BALL: Well, Tory Russell, Hands Up United Coalition, we thank you for both encouraging that we develop an analysis of our actions and voting policies, and we appreciate you sharing some of yours here with I Mix What I Like and the Real News Network.

RUSSELL: [Inaud.]

BALL: And thank you all for joining us, as well. And as always, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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