Transcript by Rey Smith
Jini Palmer (00:15): Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Civic Series. On this episode, renowned political and social writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor came to our great hall stage to explore the historical and contemporary ravages of racism and the persistence of structural inequalities in America. Keeanga reflected on the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri 5 years ago, an event that sparked tremendous protest and stirred a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement and spoke about her book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (01:01): Thank you. How’s everyone doing? Okay. I would like to thank the organizers of this event tonight. Some of you may know this is the third attempt I’ve made to actually come speak here. So I’m glad to finally be here. So I thank the organizers for their persistence in making this happen. I’m going to talk for 45 or 50 minutes and I always like to say that I offer my words as a provocation, in a friendly way. Provocation to think, not for provocation’s sake. So I hope that that is the spirit within which people think about what I’m talking about and the spirit within which we can have a conversation about some of these ideas. So I will get started.
The autopsy report confirmed what her neighbor said happened in an apartment complex outside of Houston, Texas last May. Pamela Turner, a 44-year-old grandmother of 3, sat on the ground trying to locate the humanity of the police officer who stood over her by screaming that she was pregnant. Officer Juan Delacruz ignored her pleas, stepped back, unholstered his gun and squeezed the trigger five times. Three bullets from his gun ripped through the body of Pamela Turner, ending her life. One bullet entered her left cheek, shattering her face, another bullet tore through her left chest and the last shredded her abdomen. Her life cut down by the police. Manner of death: homicide.
(03:18) What happened after had been well-rehearsed many times. The police put Delacruz on a mandatory 3-day administrative paid leave. The family secured the services of civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. The Reverend Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy. And a well-organized and well-attended demonstration forced the police to extend their comments beyond the typical talking points. Five years after the streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in a spasm of black rage, rebellion, catharsis. Many thousand more have gone. Since 2014, police in the United States have killed more than 3,000 people, a quarter of them African American. Five years later, do black lives matter? Confronted by an array of internal and external obstacles, the movement has stalled even as a white supremacist rules from the perch of the White House. The murder of Mike Brown Jr. and the Ferguson uprising it inspired cracked open a period of organizing and protests that boldly aimed to end the reign of police terror in black poor and working-class communities and cities and suburbs around the country. For those who think this kind of language is hyperbolic, consider the conclusions reached by a 2016 Chicago Police Commission formed by the former mayor Rahm Emanuel after the vicious murder of black teenager, Laquan McDonald. That report read in part, ‘The outrage about the killing of Laquan McDonald expose deep and long-standing fault lines between Black and Latino communities on the one hand and the police on the other, arising from police shootings, to be sure, but also about daily pervasive transgressions that prevent people of all ages, races, ethnicities and gender across Chicago from having basic freedom of movement in their own neighborhoods; stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused and, in some instances, arrested and then detained without counsel.’ Chicago Police Department’s own data gives validity to the widely-held belief that police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color. The report itself was evidence of the tremendous pressure generated by movement activists with a democratic president in the White House on the eve of a historic election. Black voters had made Obama president, and if the party had any hopes of maintaining its grip on the presidency, they needed at least the appearance of progress for the new movement decrying police abuse. Because what had started as a local movement to secure the arrest and indictment of a local cop in Ferguson, Missouri soon erupted into a much broader national movement, accelerated by the universal experience of black people victimized by violent policing. A grand jury’s failure to indict the officer who killed Mike Brown Jr. in Ferguson was followed by the failure of a grand jury to indict a New York City police officer, Michael Pantaleo, even as millions of people had watched him choke Eric Garner to death on the streets of Staten Island.
(7:01) In a stupor of rage in disbelief, where hope shattered like glass hitting the hard ground, the experiences of police abuse and intimidation united young Black people around the country. The watersheds of Ferguson, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Staten Island and countless others fed the streams that became Black Lives Matter in the late fall and young winter of 2014 and 2015. In December of 2014, tens of thousands of people across the country participated in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience: lawyers, doctors, college students, high school students, nurses, professional athletes, and ordinary people. On December 13th, 2014, 50,000 people marched through the streets of New York with chants that connected Ferguson to New York City and then to the nation: “Hands up, don’t shoot. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.” There were protests across the nation in cities large and small, and these scattered demonstrations cohered through the chant, demand, declaration, “Black lives matter,” in ways similar to the cry of “Freedom now,” during the civil rights movement. When the professional punditry declared the movement dead after the predictable backlash of police unions and other law-and-order types, an uprising in Baltimore spilled into the streets, with Black children exhausted from the weight of institutional neglect and the raw racism that lies beneath the lead poisoning, poverty and charter schools. The movement was barely ever alive if it were only measured by the number of organizations it sprouted, but it thrived in the hearts and minds of young Black people who ached to be heard and seen. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement was critical to expanding our understanding of the deeply systemic, racist, abusive, and exploitative nature of American policing. The movement showed us the limits of reform and why we had to consider the words of Martin Luther King Jr. from 1968 when he described the necessity of a radical reconstruction of the United States, if it were ever truly to become a just, free and democratic society. In an essay written by King and published one year after his assassination, he wrote of the centrality of the Black struggle to this process of radical reconstruction. He wrote, ‘In these trying circumstances, the Black revolution is more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.’
(10:27) An examination of the Black Lives Matter movement allows us to do 3 things: it helps us reject the romantic delusions of the past while also exposing the interrelated flaws of racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism in the United States today. Finally, it shows us the explanatory power of social movements, but also the limits of reform in a society where oppression and exploitation are so embedded that they are constitutive of the society itself. For many white people and much of the liberal establishment, there appeared to be genuine shock at the anger and uprising as it unfolded in Ferguson. In the years just prior to it, the U.S. had been roiled by protests arising from police brutality, including the national campaign that brought people together to pursue the arrest of George Zimmerman who had murdered Trayvon Martin in 2012. The protest on behalf of Trayvon Martin had come on the heels of the FBI crackdown of the Occupy encampments. The emergence of the Occupy movement itself was evidence of the swelling disappointment with the Obama administration, but the Ferguson protest had fatally pierced the media narrative of racial progress assumed with the ascension of Barack Obama. In the weeks and months following the election of Obama in 2008, the question was whether or not the U.S. had become post-racial. It is hard to even believe such a discussion was possible given that we have a white supremacist in the White House today. But many people mistook the symbolic value of having a Black president with tangible measurable progress made by the vast majority of Black people. Residential segregation in the United States hides many of the harsh realities that working class and poor Black people contend with on a daily basis. And while disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment are always ready to be analyzed, the more pervasive reality that almost all poor and working class Black communities exist under police occupation and police-state-like conditions goes without comment.
(12:59) So while white people may have been shocked when Ferguson exploded, most African Americans knew it was just a matter of time. But especially for young Black people, for whom the enormous contradiction between having mobilized and voted like they had never done before to deliver an election to a Black president, yet Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood. Tamir Rice, a child shot down by police within a few seconds of their arrival to his location in a city park. One week earlier in Cleveland, Tanisha Anderson, unarmed and body slammed to the ground by the police, killing her. Eric Garner, choked to death. John Crawford, 22 years old, standing in a Walmart, minding his own business, shot to death by police. Even as Barack Obama pined on endlessly about the greatness and uniqueness of the United States, a country he repeatedly said was the only one on earth where his story was possible. Even as Obama embraced, almost biblically, the greatness of American freedom and democracy, Black men, women and children were being killed by those sworn to uphold the laws of the United States. And the inability of anyone to meaningfully address these contradictions—how can this be the best place on earth when 12-year-old Black boys are murdered by agents of the state?—fueled a sense of a deep sense of anger and resentment, but also perpetuated a sense of exclusion and marginality. Working class and poor African Americans lifted the cloak on police abuse and violence and exposed its connection to wider systemic flaws. Ferguson exposed how policing could be used to discipline Black people generally with the threat of physical or economic violence. We learned that the Ferguson police and police throughout Missouri saw African-American’s arrest or punishment as a source of revenue to offset having to tax white people. The protest revealed how thousands of Black people were entrapped by a system of legal fees and fines because they were seen as civically and socially disposable. In the eyes of the law, and the legislators the law was beholden to, Black lives did not matter. They treated African Americans in ways that they could not get away with treating most white people.
(15:47) The heroism of Ferguson, then, was rooted in the ways they overcame the fear that had been instilled by the ruthless and racist treatment by police for generations. And in doing so, their protest, their uprising generated an enormous sense of solidarity. The Ferguson rebellion also showed us what real democracy could look like when they refused to acquiesce to the chorus of liberal and democratic party operatives who told them to get off the streets. For them and for us, democracy would be forged in the freedom of the street, the street meetings, the night marches, the demonstrations themselves, but no movement continues because it should or even because it’s cause is righteous. The rise or fall of a movement is ultimately determined by a tricky calculus combining strategy, tactics, politics, moves, and countermoves. The Black Lives Matter movement always faced two external challenges, not including the internal struggles that every movement must contend with. Externally, the movement had to endure the way its mere existence had become a rallying point for the consolidation of the very strands of the white supremacists and white nationalists of the right. For the most visible activists, that meant dealing with credible death threats along with the more typical variety of racist, sexist, transphobic, and nationalist harassment on a daily basis. Early on, candidate Trump had made Black Lives Matter his enemy, declaring them to be terrorists and pledging his unwavering support to the police. And the FBI, true to its history, began surveilling black activists and inventing new political categories along the way to communicate what they had designated to be a hazard, what they referred to as Black identity extremist. It wasn’t surprising, but it was exhausting, and it could be scary. When Trump decided to make BLM the foil to his white supremacist candidacy by making naked appeals to law and order and aligning his campaign to the Blue Lives Matter hysteria, it put activists and organizations in the crosshairs. But what may have been even trickier to navigate was the way that the democratic political establishment sought to divide the movement between the so-called pragmatists and those who were rapidly radicalizing in the face of intransigent police brutality and misconduct. The Obama administration had a virtual open-door policy when it came to the activist. Their strategy was to paint a picture where activity in busy-ness looked like progress. This meant having regular contact and periodic meetings with activists, and paneling a national policing commission, and empowering the department of justice to initiate investigations and compile reports on egregious police departments.
(19:10) And yet throughout this flurry of busy-ness, it was hard to grasp what was changing. Where was the impact? The urgency with which the democratic party wanted to resolve these issues was so that liberals and progressives, including activists, could then turn their full attention to the 2016 election, and it meant that the liberal establishment was constantly posing questions concerning the motives, the structure and demands of the movement in hopes of moving things along. “Who are your leaders? Where are your demands? What are your demands? Give us a solution,” were some of the questions or accusations directed at the most visible leaders of the movement. Reflecting the influence of nongovernmental organizations, efficiency in measurable success, method of organizing, there was an urgency and coming up with solutions or policy initiatives conceived of as real and measurable ways to confront the issues with policing. When some activists chafed at this particular framing, they were attacked as purists. For example, when an activist—a black woman from Chicago named Aislinn Pulley—refused to go to a closed-door meeting at the White House because she doubted the sincerity of the Obama administration, President Barack Obama personally called her out. Obama said, ‘You can’t just keep on yelling at them and you can’t refuse to meet, because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.’ But for many activists, their thought process was more complicated. To be sure, the Black Lives Matter movement was not uniform in its thinking strategies or tactics. And those divergent ideas about political objectives and the process through which the movement should arrive at those decisions were deeply contested within the movement. For some, they welcomed the seat at the most powerful table in the world, that of the White House. They welcomed the access and believed it meant they were going to get a hearing at the highest level.
(21:54) Brittany Packnett, who was active in St. Louis and Ferguson in 2014, explained why she and others did participate in this meeting with Obama. She wrote an article in The Guardian saying, ‘To gain the liberation we seek, there remain many critical moments for action and we are wise not to limit the legitimate ones. Our fights will never be won at the policy table alone. Protesters assume risk, build organic democratic accountability in the streets and force organized tactics to take hold. Organizers mobilize the people with strategic and direct action to push systemic change in institutions and policies. Policymakers and institutional leaders are influenced by all manner of people continuing to mount pressure in every space possible to see lasting change. I believe this movement’s collective, varied work can and has moved mountains, but it will take every one of us and every tactic at our disposal to win the freedom we seek.’ For others there were misgivings. Aislinn Pulley, the working-class black woman from Chicago that Obama personally chastised, had a vastly different vision of change compared to the one then offered by the president or even by Brittany Packnett. She wrote in her own open letter a response to his criticism saying, quote, ‘I could not with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it. For the increasing number of families fighting for justice and dignity for their kin slain by the police, I refuse to give its perpetrators and enablers political cover by making an appearance among them. We assert the true revolutionary and systemic change will ultimately only be brought forth by ordinary working people, students and youth organizing, marching and taking power from the corrupt elites.’
(24:13) The point here is not whether one of these points of view was more correct than the other. The reality is that all social movements are expressions of the deep desire for change or reform of the current situation. For Black Lives Matter that could be expressed as the hope that the police would quote, Stop killing us.’ But ultimately it was a movement to reform the status quo of policing. But what often happens in these movements is that through the course of events, movement participants began to come to radically different conclusions about what their objectives should be. For many BLM activists, they began to reach a conclusion that the police could not actually be reformed, which then put them into conflict with the reform nature of the movement itself. What turned into a bigger problem was the inability for the tension between reform and revolution, or more crudely, between body cameras or prison abolition, to find the space to be debated or worked out within the movement. All movements are confronted with existential debates concerning their viability and longevity. There are always crucial decisions to be made concerning their direction and the best route to get there, but without the opportunity and space to collectively assess, discuss, or even think about what the movement is or what it should be, those untended debates and conversations can corrode. But beyond the questions within the movement, Obama’s intervention showed that much of the criticism was about curtailing the deepening radical conclusions many activists were reaching. This included calls for abolishing police, prisons and demands for a massive redistribution of wealth and resources from the rich to the working class. In many ways, you could see how the Black Lives Matter movement contributed to the conditions that gave rise to the viability of Bernie Sanders candidacy, and this was the real problem with the movement for the democratic party and their liberal supporters.
(26:28) In 1964 political activist and strategist Bayard Rustin argued that the civil rights movement and the new emergence of Black rebellions in that year must be prepared to shift from, what he described, protest to politics. He argued, ‘It is clear that Negro needs cannot be satisfied unless we go beyond what has so far been placed on the agenda. How are these radical objectives to be achieved? The answer is so simple, deceptively so. Through political power. We are challenged now to broaden our social vision to develop functional programs with concrete objectives.’ Rustin was suggesting that the shift into formal politics marked a sign of political maturity and offered an opportunity to deliver much more substantive change to Black communities than protest alone could deliver. In many ways, this was a very reasonable proposition. Indeed, Rustin argued for this approach in 1964 and that was very much the trajectory of black politics that it evolved along. One could say that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was the culmination of that strategy, from protest to a Black president. But Obama’s scold and Pulley’s response revealed more than just strategic loggerheads on the objectives of social movements. The Black Lives Matter movement also exposed deep and bitter divisions within Black politics. And so while it was true that some of the rancor was evident of a generational divide that had come to emphasize the role of voting over activism as the most consequential way to transform Black life in the U.S.—as Obama said last year, ‘Voting is the most important political activity you can do with your life.’—it was also evidence of a deepening class division within black communities. Some activists chafed at the paternalism that flowed through the Obama administration, such as when he would rebuke Black voters by claiming not to be Black America’s president, while simultaneously code switching into ebonics to chastise African Americans to get the vote out.
(28:49) But it wasn’t just Obama. His race antics were a bitter reminder of the ways that Black elected officials often fattened themselves up, munching at the trough of Black votes only to deliver very little other than themselves alone as tokens of alleged racial progress. But the reality was that in many cities, Black mayors, Black city council people, Black police chiefs, and Black police officers manage the inequality and oppressive conditions that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement locally. The brutal racism of Donald Trump’s description of Baltimore as a rat-infested den where, ‘No human being wants to live,’ helped to obscure the ways that local and national Black elected officials have betrayed many of their Black constituents by way of institutional neglect and then relying on utterly brutal and sadistic police to manage the ensuing crisis. The young rebels in Baltimore did all they could to expose the brutal conditions that they lived under, but that was not enough. Indeed the focus on electoral politics, especially coming out of Black Lives Matter, missed the way that social movement, the social movement itself, along with protests and demonstrations, have been fundamental to achieving what we consider to be progress in this country. In the 1960’s when African Americans were almost completely locked out of positions of power, it could make sense that the next step was electoral politics, but then and now the pivot to elections has distracted in some ways from the important task of building the biggest, broadest, and most effective movement possible. The social movement is the mechanism that preserves the interest of those outside of the corrupting and tranquilizing influence of electoral politics. The transformative power of the social movement is not just about its coercive influence and policymaking, or the governing institutions of our country, generally speaking, but we must also consider the power of collective organizing and movements on ourselves.
(31:15) The radical artist and critic John Berger in 1968 wrote of mass demonstrations, ‘Theoretically, demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling. Theoretically, they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the state. In this sense,’ Berger wrote, ‘the numbers present at a protest are significant, not because of their impact on the state, but on those who participate. The importance of the numbers involved is to be found in the direct experience of those taking part in or sympathetically witnessing the demonstration. For them, the numbers cease to be numbers and become the evidence of their senses, their conclusions of their imagination. The larger the demonstration, the more powerful and immediate, visible, audible, tangible a metaphor it becomes for their total collective strength.’ The point is that movements not only create the possibility of changing our material conditions, but by exerting the force of many upon the intransigence of the few, social movements can create arenas where we ourselves can be transformed. The mass movement breaks us from the isolation of everyday life. In this society that deifies the lie of rugged individualism—an idea wrongly attributes our successes to our personal ingenuity and blames our failures on personal weaknesses and defects—the mass movement, that arena of struggle, brings us together to share in our failure and show our connection and relationship to each other. The prevailing ideas in our society reinforce the sense of fragmentation and disconnection, but struggle shows what we have in common and it pierces the prevailing common sense about our society. What you see is not what you get, and we have to challenge the simple narratives fed to us that are intended to make sense and in some ways simplify the world that we live in. The Black radical feminist and organizer Ella Baker understood this. She wrote that if we are serious about transforming society, then we must understand society, and if we are to understand society, we must look more deeply and not accept at face value what we are told to be true. She said in 1969, ‘In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning, getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.’
(34:22) Black Lives Matter has opened this possibility but raised more questions. What does the shattered face of Pamela Turner—exploded by a policeman’s bullet—tell us about the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement? It tells us how absolutely central policing is to maintaining the racist, sexist, unequal status quo. Police unions and elected officials like to portray policing as dangerous, as some kind of bizarre last line of defense between us and a murky, menacing, criminal element or simple disorder out there. In reality, most policing involves surveilling and harassing poor and working class people. When Black and Brown people are overrepresented among the ranks of the poor and working class, these people bear the brunt of encounters with police. Being killed by the police is a leading cause of death for young Black men. Sociologist Frank Edwards has said that young Black men have, ‘better odds of being killed by police than winning a lot of scratch off lottery games.’ Pamela Turner, who suffered from schizophrenia, was in the crosshairs of the local police because of several minor infractions that brought them together. Last April, when she was served with an eviction notice, that resulted in a charge of criminal mischief and an encounter with the same cop who would eventually kill her weeks later. Policing is the last public sector service that our government employs as it defunds and neglects all other aspects of the civic infrastructure. As public institutions across the country are denuded, hundreds of millions of dollars are unearthed almost miraculously to pay off claims of police brutality and police murder lawsuits. The city of Chicago alone has spent over $800 million since 2004 to settle lawsuits for police brutality in wrongful death cases. The NYPD has average $100 million settlements for police brutality in wrongful death lawsuits a year over the last decade, adding up to a billion dollars. Last year New York City paid $232 million to settle claims, and in 2017 they paid $302 million. From 2010 to 2016 in the 10 largest American cities, there was a 48% increase in the dollar amount, up to $248 million, to settle lawsuits or satisfy court judgment in police misconduct cases. If any other public institution incurred that kind of expense or debt, its budget and service would be shrunk and it would be shut down. In 2012 when the Chicago Board of Education claimed it was running a $1 billion deficit, its solution was to close 52 public schools. It was the largest school closure in American history.
(37:42) But in the midst of a scandal involving the Chicago Mayor’s Office, Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to cover up the details that pointed to police misconduct in the murder of Laquan McDonald, he received the blessing of most of the Chicago City Council to break ground on a new $95 million police academy. No matter how corrupt, violent or racist police are, their budgets will never shrink. Elected officials and the rich and powerful whose interest they often represent know that as public expenditures get cut—as good jobs with benefit get further out of reach—police abuse and violence brings order to what could become an untenable situation. The pain and suffering of Pamela Turner’s grandchildren or Laquan McDonald’s mother or Mike Brown Jr.’s mother and father are collateral damage in this war to maintain the status quo. It is literally the price of doing business. It means that 5 years later, much of the institutional discussion about police reform then remains focused on bad apples, implicit bias and better training. As a result, the main policy shift has been the widespread use of body cameras. Since 2014, police forces around the country have spent upwards of $192 million on body cameras. In Ferguson, where the movement found its heart and soul, there are now more Black police officers than white. Ferguson finally caught up with the rest of the United States. Today, Black people are stopped 5% more and white people are stopped 11% less than they were in 2013. Recognizing the determined duration of police abuse and violence is less about pessimism than it is about sobriety. There is no quick fix to police brutality. It is so difficult to fight because the bipartisan political establishment needs it, especially when the political establishment decides it has nothing left to give the public.
(40:11) It took 5 long and deadly years for the officials who allegedly managed the New York City Police Department to fire the cop who choked the life out of a man who plainly said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ 11 times on camera. It took 5 years for the Department of Justice to decide that it would not bring federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, as if his illegal choke-hold that took Eric Garner’s life, was not the textbook definition of a civil rights violation. In the wake of such obvious and willful flouting of one’s individual right to life, to live freely in the name of protecting the quote ‘rule of law’, the ways in which the law itself reflect what is valued by the elite while ignoring what is valued by most of us, is exposed. In other words, the inherent malleability of the law recognized and saw Pantaleo, while it simultaneously obliterated Eric Garner. That neither the law nor law enforcement is on our side ultimately makes the movement to reform either extremely difficult. It is usually the case, then, that we get the kind of change we desire when we pressure, coerce the political class, their establishment, their laws to see and hear us. And to do that, it matters how we organize, what we think, what we demand, what we imagine and hope for. In some ways these are key values for any social movement. Democracy, where we all see our aspirations, our failures and endeavors as entwined, connected, means trying to bring in as many as possible and figuring out how to make it work. Black lives can matter, but it will demand a struggle not only to change the police, but to change the world that relies on police to manage the unequal distribution of the things that we need to survive. Black Lives Matter as a movement has exposed police brutality as something deeper and more pernicious in American society, but it has also emboldened a generation of young people to want and demand more. And we have to use it as an opportunity to see how the racism that allows the existence of violent and abusive policing also allows for the subjugation of undocumented immigrants who in turn are subjected to a kind of violent and abusive policing at the border and throughout this country. The billions of dollars dedicated to policing social crises should compel us to ask whether this money could be spent creating a more equitable society.
(43:06) The best of the Black radical tradition has always understood that Black liberation—the notion that Black people can live free of physical, economic, and social coercion—cannot be achieved within capitalism. The dialectic of reform and revolution cannot be unleashed by privileging one above the other, however. Instead, the fight for our daily lives as a precondition for imagining a different world altogether. Black Lives Matter as a belief, an utterance, a collective chant, and a possibility, is an example of this. From Ferguson to the Baltimore rebellion, the commitment, solidarity, and struggles of young Black people provided a glimpse of freedom to those living under the policemen’s boot for their entire lives. But those struggles are only the beginning. The Black Women’s Manifesto, published in 1970 by the Third World Women’s Alliance, described how we can go from the struggle of one to the struggles of many: ‘The new world that we are struggling to create must destroy oppression of any type. The value of this new system will be determined by the status of those persons who are presently most depressed. Unless women in any enslaved nation are completely liberated, the change can not really be called a revolution.’ A people’s revolution that engages the participation of every member of the community, including men and women, brings about a certain transformation in the participants as a result of this participation. Once you have caught a glimpse of freedom or tasted a bit of self determination, you can’t go back to old routines that were established under a racist, capitalist regime. Another world is possible, but we are the only ones who can create it. No one is coming to save us. We must join together to save ourselves. Thank you.
(45:39) Thank you guys very much. And now we’re going to have a discussion.
Audience Member 1 (45:46): Thank you very much. BLM is the strongest and most honorable movement of my adult lifetime. How has it inspired similar movements around the world? For instance, the movement in Hong Kong right now? You have to get thousands of people together on the street for people for people on our planet to take notice. So how has BLM inspired similar movements in other countries?
K-YT (46:18): That’s such a weirdly American question. I mean, in some ways the U.S. is the center of the universe for all of the most heinous and terrible reasons. But I think that there are very specific situations, examples you can look to where Black Lives Matter has been a touchstone for other oppressed Black people in other places, whether it’s Canada, in Brazil. I was in Spain last summer and the Senegalese refugees—who are a big group of the migrants who take dangerous means through the Mediterranean to get to Spain—are terribly oppressed because they can’t get proper documentation and have to resort to all kinds of makeshift employment. I was in Pamplona and a Senegalese merchant street merchant had been killed by police and they were trying to—among that immigrant community—were trying to organize a protest and then the Spanish activists there weren’t really sure how they could connect both communities and they connected around a banner that said ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the central square of the old city in Pamplona. And so there are examples you can point to where the movement here—because the U.S. absorbs so much space—that things that happen here get a much further reach. But I was also sure to tell people when I was giving talks around Spain—I gave I think 7 or 8 talks—and it was like Americans have a lot to learn from the struggles that go on outside of this country. I think instead of thinking of the ways that what happens here may have inspired people elsewhere—I mean sometimes that that fits—but I think we should also pay attention to what is happening, what this country does to other places and other people and what we can learn from the struggles that happen around the world.
Audience Member 2 (49:35): Clearly there is a lot of work that we have to do that’s ahead of us. What do you think that the white people could or should do, both at an individual level, and what is it we should push for in terms of policy? And more specifically, what do you think about restitution?
K-YT (49:52): What do I think about, what’s the—
Audience Member 2 (49:53): Restitution.
K-YT (49:54): Restitution?
Audience Member 2 (49:55): Oh, what is it called? Sorry.
K-YT (49:56): Reparations?
Audience Member 2 (49:57): Reparations, sorry. Okay, awesome.
K-YT (49:59): I guess it is restitution. I’m for reparations. I think that there’s so much historical and contemporary evidence, paper trails of the ways that Black communities have been plundered, of the ways that Black people have been exploited and that exploitation has been to the benefit of others. This is a country that gives almost a trillion dollars a year to the department of defense. I think the U.S. has the money to try to repair some of the damage that it’s government and private institutions—with the backing of this government—have enacted on African Americans. Some people make that really complicated and to me reparations is very straightforward. I don’t know what white people should do. I think we need people in general who are aware that there is a problem, that something has to happen, to then do something. I think often there’s a recognition that there’s something wrong and then a lack of action taken. And so I think that if there was less angst about what we should do and that and that people act and get together with other people to act, that it would have an enormous impact on what happens in this country. And I do think that it’s important not to see this—the ability to act—as an act of altruism, that somehow, for most white people in this country, everything’s fine and it’s only if I have some kind of weird pang of consciousness, should I do something. I think that that’s not an accurate picture of what is happening for most people. And so in my book, I write that racism is Black people’s burden, and it really is, but it’s also white people’s problem, for most white people. The fact that this government spends $80 billion a year to maintain a criminal justice system—that it uses racism to do that—that is not great even if you’re not a direct target of that, you know. I mean, Black people are a quarter of the people that the police kill; I mean, most of the people that police are killing are white people, that’s by far the majority of people who are killed by the police. But beyond that, there’s the issue of the lifespan, for working class white people has gone into reverse. This is not happening in the developed world, where your lifespan goes into reverse. And that reversal is driven by drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism.
(54:10) And so yes, I think that there is a need to act, but that acting is not selflessness. And it’s different if we want to go through who is on the top and who is on the bottom, you can do that, but there is a reality that we have a Congress that—in the Senate the average wealth is $3 million. In the House it’s $990,000. And there’s a billionaire as a president. And so elsewhere, the median income for Black families is like $47,000, which is hard to get your head around, that people are living on that in the United States, and for white people at $60,000, you know, don’t spend it all at once. And so not everyone by any means is suffering in the same way, but I think that we all have an interest in doing something about the plutocracy that is strangling most everyone else in this country. So to me it’s a question of what do we do to deal with this problem? How do we fight racism? How do we fight xenophobia and Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism and all of this, to actually be in a position to create a society where all of our lives have meaning? And, you know, that doesn’t really exist right now.
Audience Member 3 (56:15): Hey. I’m just looking to pick your brain a little bit about the notion of a vanguard party on the left. And I’m wondering what you would imagine is your—
K-YT (56:24): And so, thus, I do think we need a party of socialists we need—and there is a large one, right? The Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown to something like 60,000 people since the election of the white supremacist. And so that’s one expression of that. And so I think that that is important. A vanguard party? I think I’m at the point where I’m interested in mass movements and mass struggles. I’m not interested in what a group of dozens, handfuls of people who have figured it all out but can’t seem to convince anyone, what they wanna do. I’m interested in building a mass movement.
Audience Member 4 (57:29): Hi. We were wondering, what’s your advice for students of color trying to make change in a predominantly white school, specifically with administration that’s resistant to change?
K-YT (57:40): Occupy. I think that it is important to—that’s a great question—I think that you have to find other students who have the same kinds of concerns about similar issues on campus and meet and talk about what your experiences are and then what you want to do about it, what you can do about it. So that means figuring out a time that makes sense, putting flyers up—do people do that anymore? I still like to put flyers up—put flyers up, do electronic announcements—I sound like I’m 64—so do that and get the word out and have a meeting. I think the main thing is not to just complain. Complaining is good but it’s more effective to find other people who are upset and angry about the same kinds of issues and organize yourselves to be in a position to try to change that.
Audience Member 5 (59:12): Thank you. What kind of changes would you like to see public school teachers make in their curriculum to be able to teach young about the history behind what is happening today?
K-YT (59:27): I mean, that’s a hard question because city councils, state legislatures have made it very difficult for public school professionals, educators to be able to teach beyond the testing and that sort of thing. You could talk about, in a perfect world, what should people teach? People should teach Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the U.S. and then there’s all sorts of stuff being produced, the 1619 series in the New York Times. I mean, that’s great stuff. But I think we have to also deal with the conditions in public schools that have made it difficult for teachers to be able to teach. We have to deal with the war on public education and the pilfering of public dollars to pay for charter schools and privatization. And so we’re at the point where we’re trying to deal with the survival of public schools, which, we should talk about the curriculum stuff is part of that, is part of the demands for—as they say in Chicago—the schools our students deserve, but I think that we have to find a way to be able to deal with both of those issues.
Audience Member 6 (01:01:19): Hi, I’m wondering your thoughts about the role of trauma treatment and healing racialized trauma in this country. So, one of my teachers is Resmaa Menakem and he wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, on healing racialized trauma. I’m curious if you feel like that plays a role.
K-YT (1:01:42): I mean, for me, I think that struggle and winning and struggle for me is the most effective way to combat what is obviously crimes committed against African Americans and other racially and ethnically oppressed people in this country. I worry about a hyper focus on oneself, as an individual and how they experienced these things is impossible, for me can become impossible to change in ways that collective engagement struggle politics, engaging with other people as a way of externalizing that and actually creating the means by which to do something about it. So I probably have a very different view of how one responds to that sort of thing, that is not particularly therapeutic or internal but sees the way to challenge that is through trying to collectively experience it with other people in the same way that I was talking to the students about how to deal with racism on their campus.
Audience Member 7 (01:03:51): Hi. Given what you’ve said so far in your talk about electoral politics and social movements and mass movements and that form of political activism, what do you see as people’s involvement in electoral politics—especially in the coming elections in 2020—and particularly, what do you think it’s going to take to get young people of color, and just young people in general, to be motivated to get involved in electoral politics as a short-term solution to this country’s challenges and problems?
K-YT (01:04:22): Well, I think the main thing is that you actually have to have something to say, and if it’s America’s already great or whatever stupidity Joe Biden is talking about—I mean, do you want to vote for that? Can you believe they really want to put this fool up. So I think electoral politics is complicated. I’m a Sanders supporter. And I think the democratic party is a death spiral hell hole, but that’s the race he’s running in. And so I think that, to me, part of what is attractive about Sanders aside from his political platform is his understanding that that’s not enough. Right? And that this is what he means by the political revolution, is that there has to be a mass movement that accompanies his electoral project in a way that I don’t think—you know, Elizabeth Warren tells everyone she has a plan—but your ability to have a plan is not really the issue; getting something through the Senate and the House. It’s having a political movement that has the ability to put an enormous amount of pressure on these millionaires who are most interested in their own wealth and power and have no interest in—I mean, it’s crazy. When you listen to elected officials, Congress people talk about healthcare, you would think that there’s some really heated debate in the United States about whether or not there should be universal healthcare. But then when you look at the actual polls, it’s like 84% of people think there should be universal healthcare. But then you have this Congress who is bankrolled by insurance, pharmaceutical lobbyists, and so it distorts the entire discussion. It distorts the entire debate. So I think electoral politics is not enough: I said before, the problems that we face in this country are problems of the market. You know, there’s no candidate to vote for to get rid of police brutality because police brutality is necessary in our society that is based on inequality. And you can go down the list of things that shouldn’t exist because this is the richest country in the history of humanity and it exists because it is to the benefit of one of the small parasites that have a disproportionate amount of control over the resources. And so I think, what does that mean? I think that people have to do both. I think Sanders’ platform would fundamentally transform life for people in this country if there was a movement on the ground to help force that kind of reform to be implemented. And I think that most of the problems that we face can ultimately only be solved outside of the market. So it’s not all of one thing. It’s a combination of things that I think reflects the complexity and the complicatedness of the society that we live in.
Audience Member 8 (01:08:48): Thanks for coming over today. Our system is designed to fail and suppress Black people from K-12 pipeline into incarceration and death. So what do you think that we can do to make incremental change so that we can collectively see some light in the end of the tunnel?
K-YT (01:09:14): Well, I think that the Black Lives Matter, for me at least—and I tried to convey some of this—shows the way that the social movement, in that mass collective political engagement, can transform people. It can help provide a source of hope that we collectively have the capability of changing the circumstances around us, where I think, in most cases, people feel utterly overwhelmed and hopeless about our ability to do anything because it feels like the other side has so many more resources at its fingertips, that its influence is pervasive, it’s everywhere and that this is overwhelming, too overwhelming to deal with. And so I think that’s probably how most people feel most of the time. It’s not that people don’t necessarily know that they’re being oppressed or they’re being exploited, they don’t know what to do about it. And they don’t know if they can do anything about it because it feels like—you know, if it was the experience of your parents and your neighbors and everyone in your family—it feels like it’s permanent and unchanging. And so a movement has a way of changing that and changing people’s perception of what they have the ability to do. But movements don’t exist just because they should and they don’t continue just because they have the right idea of how things should be organized. And so if we don’t attend, at some point, to how we organize and the manner in which we engage in politics then that adds another dimension of despair over whether or not we can actually change our circumstances. And so I think that, in some ways, that means more political engagement: that we need more opportunities for people to be able to talk to each other about ideas, to exchange ideas, to think about the type of society that we want to live in and to think through what needs to happen to entail that. And then to come together in organizing efforts to try to act on that. And, you know, it can be very difficult, but yeah, we can’t outspend them. We can’t out-military them. For the majority, the resources don’t work that way, so we have to rely on our collective ability to overwhelm them. Similar [to] what happened in Puerto Rico and the overthrow of the governor there, what has been happening in Hong Kong—really what happens in any mass movement and social uprising. The challenge is always: how do you transform that from a very targeted and specific action into a generalized revolt against the status quo? It’s very difficult, but what else are we going to do?
Audience Member 9 (01:13:43): Good evening. I was pleased to hear that you referenced Bayard Rustin’s leadership and recommendations to action after the 1963 March on Washington. I mean, many would argue that that was, by far, one of the most effective movements in the world, certainly in this country. What is your thoughts relative to—there appears to be a disconnect or some kind of conflict between the Black Lives Matters leadership intergenerationally with the old civil rights guard, people like Jesse Jackson, Bobby Rush. From your perspective, how can those individual views be reconciled and shared visions for action be undertaken intergenerationally? Because I recall in Chicago there was a movement to conduct an economic boycott of the Magnificent Mile. And yet it was just very ugly to see that there was conflict, disagreement and outright disrespect from some of the Black Lives Matter leadership relative to the old guard that there was in fact no place for them necessarily, at least for that specific instance. So what are your thoughts in that regard?
K-YT (01:15:22): Thank you for that question. That’s a very good thought and question. I think that—and I actually write quite a bit about this in the Black Lives Matter book—I think that, in some sense, it’s a generational divide, in that I think every time there is a new movement, you have people—and to me it’s not really an age thing, it’s more about what you’ve experienced—and so when you have activists, of varying experience, but if you have activists who have been through some things over a period of time it’s almost inevitable that because they’ve been through some things, they may draw more conservative conclusions about how to go about doing something, in a way that people who are in a movement for the first time have almost a reckless abandon, which is a good thing. I mean, this was why the students in 1960—Black students—went on a suicide mission of sit-ins.This is what their parents reaction to, you know, Black students sitting in and resisting white authority, this was their reaction to that. But you have young people who don’t feel constrained by the past, don’t feel constrained by previous mistakes. And so you end up with a conflict about, should we take it slow? Should we kind of, you know—’I’ve been through this, I know what I’m doing here’—or should we have more of the kind of youthful, reckless abandon? So in that sense, there was a generational divide, but I think the more substantive division was around politics and ‘what is the most effective way for us to achieve this?’ So for someone like Bobby Rush, who used to be—a million years ago or in 1968—was a high-ranking member of the Chicago black Panther party and—so you’ve got Bobby Rush, you’ve got Jesse Jackson. These are people who, in Ferguson, would go and tell these young people to get off the streets and to register to vote and to calm down. And that was the nature of the conflict; it wasn’t you’re old, you’re young. We just are missing each other because there were local people who were as old as Jesse Jackson who were opening their church to help people dealing with tear gas inhalation and who are kind of getting out of the way of the young people. And so I think that Jesse Jackson in particular—just since you bring him up—I think that whole group of people from the Congressional Black Caucus, this whole group of elected officials just have a completely different approach to politics where their main emphasis is on voting and who do you know, and how do you network and do a back room deal? And Al Sharpton, you can throw him in into the mix. And this is not what these young people were interested in, you know. They’re interested in one, how are we going to stop the police from killing us? And you guys have been doing your little protest for the last 40 years and you haven’t stopped the police. So what exactly is it that you’re here to tell us? So there’s that element. And then there’s just the insider political game that some of the activists who, as I described, were coming to much more radical conclusions about the police and the criminal justice system that weren’t interested in voter registration. They were interested in much more radical politics. And so that doesn’t mean that people can’t work together because there are all sorts of political coalitions that bring people together from different points of view and different perspectives to fight around a single law or a particular issue and then everyone goes back and does their own thing. But I think ultimately the movement suffered from a lack of political engagement to be able to collectively decide what those issues were, what the plan would be, and then come back and determine whether or not we’ve been successful with any of that. If not, how do we recalibrate? If so, how do we generalize the lessons from that? So I think that there was a more systemic issue with the way that the movement was organized that is ultimately at the heart of the conflict and not just what has been described as a generational divide. That’s what I would say. Last one.
Audience Member 10 (01:21:50): So we have a collective question. What is your advice to the Black community on how to take care of our mental health, dealing with anxiety around law enforcement and everything else that’s going on?
K-YT (1:22:03): With law enforcement, is that—?
Audience Member 10 (1:22:07): There’s other things that are going on, like racism and things like that, especially with this.
K-YT (01:22:15): I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I really do think that it’s very difficult for people to try to figure these things out individually. So of course there are individual things that people can do, but I think that having a dedicated space that is routine to talk about those kinds of experiences with the police, with activists, with all sorts of encounters that provoke anxiety and depression, fear—I think that the way that I deal with that sort of thing is to not try to deal with it on my own. And so that just means being in community with other people to talk about what that experience is like. And that doesn’t always end with an action plan to do something. But I think that probably a lot of what happens is that the inability to discuss these things—even if you’re willing to—but the lack of opportunity to be able to engage with people means that it becomes corrosive. It becomes internalized. It becomes something that seems insurmountable and it drives people out of politics. It makes people not want to engage in what is happening in the world. And it makes our potential for building the type of movements that are necessary to combat that on a systemic level impossible to organize because the people who were suffering most can’t engage because they haven’t been afforded the space and opportunity to try to talk about these issues, to engage with them so that they aren’t internalized and corrode the individual who is subjected to this. I don’t know if that’s—is that of any use?
Audience Member 10 (01:25:11): Yes.
K-YT (01:25:13): Thank you. Thank you guys.
JP (01:25:22): Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle civic series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle artist David Bazan and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer, Moe Provencher. Check out our new season of Townhall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews someone coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind-the-scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our civic series, listen to our arts and culture and science series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall go to our website at townhallseattle.org.