America is experiencing the largest civil unrest in decades as countless people protest the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. Peaceful demonstrations have spread across dozens of cities, and especially in upscale white neighborhoods. In some cases, looting and property destruction have followed, with mixed responses from law enforcement. What does this all say about confronting racism in America?
Warren Olney talks with:
- Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, and author of “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr”
- Melina Abdullah, professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and an organizer of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles
- Norm Ornstein, Congressional scholar
- Connie Rice, longtime civil rights lawyer and former member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Warren Olney: Talk about the looting and violence that took place at the protests in LA over the weekend.
Melina Abdullah: “We were very deliberate in deciding to disrupt spaces of white affluence. We want to make sure that it's not just black people who are suffering at the hands of white supremacy, that if we can bring a little bit of the pain that we feel to white communities, then maybe they'll have a vested interest in ... and disrupting these systems that kill our people. They can't simply turn their heads and retreat from what we're experiencing.
I think it's a huge mistake for people to be equating what happens to property with what happens to the lives of black people. We need to shift that. We also need to remember that in these demonstrations, the first acts of violence are the police assaulting protesters. And it's important that the media examines that.”
How does this unrest fit into what both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said and wanted to see happen?
Peniel Joseph: “Dr. King, very clearly from ‘65 to ‘68, says that we should be thinking about and investigating the reason behind racial violence and rebellions that are happening all across America.
What we're seeing in the mass protests is really not just about the criminal justice system. This has occurred over decades and is a gateway to panoramic systems of economic, political and gendered oppression in the United States. It’s connected to homelessness and housing affordability, to the public schools and to the prison pipeline, the lack of health care and mental health care in our communities.
Black Lives Matter is building on the legacy of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and focusing on both non-violent civil disobedience and political protest, and also on a structural critique of white supremacy of racial capitalism.
All white Americans in this racial caste system have privilege, not just those in Beverly Hills, but those who are poor and opioid-addicted … who have their addiction medicalized instead of being incarcerated punished and brutalized … and murdered like their African American counterparts who are [sic] addicted to crack cocaine in the 1980s and 90s.
We have a deep, deep problem here connected to both policy but also empathy. We lack empathy for black human beings in the United States of America. And the election of Barack Obama does not make up for that collective lack of empathy. And that's what Malcolm X meant when he talked about black dignity. He meant that we had to defeat and eradicate white supremacy. He used the words “by any means necessary” because he felt that black people needed to defend themselves against racial terror that was exploding across the United States.
This is the deep, rough history that we have. This moment of national racial and economic crisis can be turned into a generational opportunity, but only if we acknowledge the depth and breadth of racism and white supremacy, and we commit ourselves to transforming racist policies with anti-racist policies at the local and regional, the national, the global level.”
The mayor of Minneapolis apparently wanted to eliminate what he referred to as “warrior training.” What is that?
Connie Rice: “The culture of warrior policing [is] policing that enforces containment and suppression … [that] descends from plantation policing and slavery. I dragged former LA Police Chief [William] Bratten to a slavery artifact store on Crenshaw. It's no longer there, but when I took him into the store, he stopped right before a cabinet full of police badges from plantation police forces. And you cannot tell the difference between those badges and the LAPD badge or the Boston badge or the New York NYPD. They are exact replicas. Only around the edges, instead of plantations of green acres, it's [the] city of Boston.
So this descends from slavery. We send the police out to enforce a racist, segregationist, suppression strategy that benefits the rest of us. Black politicians enforce it just the same way.
And black cops can't survive inside police departments unless they follow the culture. I know the valor and the integrity of many, many police officers because I've been riding shotgun with them for 17 years. I know what good human beings they are, but they carry out a mission that is toxic, and they have a culture that is absolutely deadly.
They are looking for a way to change this culture, but it hasn't been fast enough. It isn't felt at all in the communities of a George Floyd or an Eric Garner. But today on the front page of the L.A. Times, eight gang intervention workers who used to be Grape Street Crips and Bloods ... they're [now] with ministers and Commander [Gerald] Woodyard and other CSP [Community Safety Partnership] cops.
Commander Woodyard is the commander of the unit that I created with Chief [Charlie] Beck, where the cops get promoted for doing a wraparound safety plan with residents. And residents actually say whether they’ve created trust. Those are to me the bookends from the last riots to these riots.”