On Contact: New black militancy
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the rise of the new black militancy with film director and producer Mobolaji Olambiwonnu.
Olambiwonnu's new documentary is called ‘Ferguson Rises’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the rise of the new black militancy with film director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu.
Mobolaji Olambiwonnu: I mean the whole idea of my intention in making this film was really to demonstrate that that the healing and the freedom comes from standing up. You know, we don't--we can't--we don't have control over the laws. We don't have controls of the people in power per se, but we do have control over ourselves and our ability to stand up, and to speak up, and then that freedom comes from that. And I saw the faces of people and I got a sense that they were really experiencing a level of freedom they had never experienced before in their lives. Despite the fear, despite the terror of tear gas, and rubber bullets, et cetera, they were experiencing freedom that needs to be recognized and acknowledged. When you stand up, you're free.
CH: The police murders of young black men and women in the United States an average of three a day, along with a constant judicial and police harassment of those living in what Malcolm X called, our internal colonies, have given birth to a new black militancy. Nowhere was this more evident than in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of the teenager Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014. His killing by police which saw his body left in the street for some four hours, sparked widespread protests that compounded recently by the police murder of George Floyd, has seen not only the abuse and indiscriminate lethal force employed by police decried. But the chronic poverty and desperation spawned by predatory corporate capitalism. This new militancy does not place its faith in electoral politics, the courts, and legislative reform. It loathes the corporate press and rejects many established black leaders from Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson. It understands that it is only in the streets through sustained acts of civil disobedience, that genuine change is possible. The new documentary film "Ferguson Rises" looks at the origins of this militancy in Ferguson and what it means for the United States. Joining me to discuss the film is its director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. So, I thought the film was wonderful on many levels, but I'm going to begin with what I thought was really unique and I thought powerful, and that was your decision to go to Ferguson and interview the white community. Talk a little bit about that. And I think what it illustrated so powerfully was that even people living within the same city, I'm talking about white, the white population, has just no idea what reality is like for black people on the streets around them.
MO: Yeah, I mean, it was a really difficult thing to actually accomplish because many people were apprehensive of a young African-American filmmaker interviewing them and they felt like it was--it was potentially going to be a hatchet job. And so it was very difficult to get a lot of white citizens to agree. But we were able to get some to agree and I think that was really crucial in terms of being able to give a balance to the documentary so we can see the humanity that exists on both sides but also the challenges that exist on both sides as well.
CH: Were you surprised at how clueless they were? And talk a little bit about how you would characterize their own understanding. They were just befuddled. They couldn't--I mean it was--I thought it was just some remarkable clips. But talk a little bit about how you would characterize their understanding of what happened and whether that surprised you.
MO: As--I mean, as an immigrant myself to this country who had to learn. I came when I was nine-years-old from Nigeria. So, I had to learn what it was like to be African-American, so I discovered many of these things by virtue of being a black person in this country. So it actually didn't come as much of a shock to me because they--I had that similar sort of cocooned experience, except, you know, by virtue of being an African person and being a Black person, I was broken out of that, but they have, you know, they have very little, if any, opportunities to really break them out of that mindset. So it wasn't as surprising. I think what was more surprising to me was that--was that they didn't really understand that those views were sort of linked or connected to some level of racism. I think there was just sort of this cocoon that felt innocent and felt un-impactful yet, that innocence and that cocoon really has a great impact on the people in the community when you don't understand where they're coming from. And I think that's the part that most people don't understand is that that sort of either willful or--well, ignorance I guess for lack of a better word on whether willful or not, is really impactful in the Black community because they're hurting. You know, their pain is not being seen. That's what I really experienced in talking to the community.
CH: Well, James Baldwin says that, you know, what Whites do is confuse ignorance for innocence. And that the longer that ignorance continues, the more people become monsters, to paraphrase Baldwin. Let's talk a little bit about what happens in a city like Ferguson, St. Louis County, because it's not just indiscriminate and often lethal police violence. But it's completely predatory. It's about--I think there's a quote in the film from someone who says if they see a cop, it's you--it's not only that their life is in jeopardy but they assume they're going to be robbed. And there is a huge economic aspect to the oppression that is visited on African-Americans not only in Ferguson but in most poor urban areas. Can you explain that?
MO: Yeah, I mean in Ferguson, clearly like many poor areas across the country, there was a heavy practice of ticketing and then those tickets would eventually turn into warrants because people were not able to pay them. And because, I mean, you know, the municipalities in St. Louis were so close together, what often happened is people would get the same ticket over and over again in different municipalities and on their way driving to work, on their way driving back, and so they would build up so many tickets and so many warrants that actually had been many times in which people actually committed suicide because they just could not get out from underneath this debt and they just could not see any other way out, unfortunately other than to commit suicide or to do something really desperate. And that's how bad it really got, was that it became a debtor's prison in many of these communities across St. Louis. And across the country I think it's still going on, it's just it got exposed in St. Louis.
CH: Well, we should be clear that these are--people are being pulled over for a burned-out taillight. We're not talking about crimes and many, you know cases, invented crimes, because 30% of the revenue in St. Louis County, they'll write it in to the budget every year, comes from revenues. So you can get arrested for mowing your lawn, not mowing your lawn, obstructing pedestrian traffic which means standing on a sidewalk. It's just an endless litany…
MO: Yeah, men who's walking in the road.
CH: Yeah. Well, this is--let's talk about the killing of Michael Brown because that began with that particular issue.
MO: So as I understand it, I mean he and his friend were walking down the middle of the street. If you've ever been to Canfield Green Apartments, you know that the sidewalks are so tiny and that the road is blocked on one end. And it's pretty much--it's not a major road by any stretch of the imagination, so there's no real danger in the sense that there's no one really driving on that street for the most part during the daytime. And again, the sidewalks are really tiny so they're walking in the middle of the street so they can actually talk side by side as men do. Usually they're walking talking to each other. But that's impossible if you walk on the sidewalk so you have to walk in the street. So, they were sort of forced by the structure of the environment to walk in the middle of the street, and then the police officer came by and told them to get out of the street is what--is how they describe it, but in less nice terms than that. And then that's when the altercation began that led to Michael Brown's death. Of course, none of us was really there to witness exactly what happened so we can't say for sure. But the assumption is that basically there was a confrontation between the two of them and ironically enough, in talking to the parents, Michael Brown had been harassed by Darren Wilson before on many occasions so I think there were some sort of animosity there already that he generally had for either Michael Brown or the Black citizens of Ferguson in general who had also been harassed by him as well. So there was something that took place that eventually led to--led to his death but it's--in talking to all the police officers and other folks who are in that area, that is not standard practice to get out of your car and pursue a suspect and shoot them--shoot them down. If the issue is really that serious you back away and they fall a--they fall away from the car, you back away and then you call for backup. And you get out of there, so the idea that it escalated to that extent, even police officers were baffled that I talked to as well.
CH: And that was it. That kind of set this kindling which had long been building in Ferguson as it has in other cities afire. And how did the community respond? Which you spend a lot of time in the film documenting.
MO: How did the community respond? I mean, I--it's--it varied. I think many people were shocked, even though, you know, many of the White citizens were shocked because I mean, Ferguson is a small enough town that it's rare when that someone actually gets killed with any high level of frequency. So for this to happen I think was really shocking for many of the town members and many of the community members. And even some of the folks that lived in Canfield Green because they had to see the body on the ground for four and a half hours uncovered for the vast majority of that time, walking home with their children. So it was very traumatizing for their children, very traumatizing for them to see this and to--and to have it handled in the way it was handled without covering the body, without taking the body away, I think really built up tensions and animosity in the community, that with the heavy ticketing practices, with the harassment, and the things that were going on, it was sort of this powder keg waiting to--waiting to erupt. And this really sort of pushes everybody over the edge.
CH: Did you ever find out why? Did the police ever explain why they left the body unattended, uncovered for that length of time in the street?
MO: Some of the police officers that I spoke to were from St. Louis in general. They weren't from the Ferguson area because the Ferguson Police Department was not allowed to speak to me at that time. But they were just estimating that they just hadn't really encountered this problem before and they were trying to figure out the best way to deal with the crime scene. I find that a little hard to believe that even if you hadn't encountered before that you couldn't cover the body, that somehow that that would tamper with the--with the crime scene I'm not sure, but that's what they said that they were--they probably were just confused and didn't really know how to--how to handle the scene. You know, it's--you know, it's not for me to say that whether or not that was true or not but it just doesn't--it doesn't seem realistic to me. But, you know, that--that's what they told me.
CH: And then you have the buildup towards the verdict on the police officer. I found that moment really quite amazing in the film because number one they choose to announce at night when potentially you're going to have far more problems. But also this long, I think it was 40 minutes. But just explain that process and then what happened.
MO: I mean it just--I guess for many people they wanted to hear the verdict and they didn't want to hear sort of the complaints about the media, the bloggers, all those other things. But he had this walk--well for one I think McCullough who was--who was prosecuting Darren Wilson had this long history and connection to the police department himself, with his father being a former police officer killed by an African-American. You know, so there was a lot of sort of connection that he had to it, which is why people wanted him to recuse himself from the--from the case because of his connections to the police department, his also supporting and funding, helping fund the police department as well with their union. And so his then going on and speaking for 45 minutes making the announcement at night seemed like it was a perfect sort of setup to bring in and marshall the forces, and have--and have everything turn into something that then would make the community itself look like they were the real enemy of the state. And I think in in that way, we…
CH: Okay. We're going to--we're going to take a break.
MO: Oh, sure. Sure.
CH: We're going to take a break. When we come back we'll continue our discussion with Director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion with the director of Ferguson Rises, Mobo--Molobaji Olambiwonnu.
CH: There, you got it. Thanks. So let's talk a little bit about the reaction, you know, what happened afterwards, and not just the eruption, but what it spawned, which you document in your film.
MO: You mean in terms of what happened--the ripple effects that happened in the community? I mean certainly…
CH: Once the police officer was--the prosecutor decide not to charge the police officer, Darren Wilson?
MO: Yeah. I mean, we know from what we saw on the news that obviously that there were outbreaks of violence and a reaction to, you know, protests and things of that sort, in reaction to the verdict, and to Darren Wilson not being convicted, so we do know that part from the news. I think what we don't know is that the vast majority of the protests were actually non-violent, the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, and that they went on for more than a year after the verdict happened, and that the community really rallied together to make sure that their voices were heard and they made sure they were out in the street consistently for at least a year. And that was a huge record for [INDISTINCT] in terms of civil rights protests, that was something that really hadn't happened in a large sense until Selma--I mean since Selma. And so this was huge for the United States, before even George Floyd, before everything that's going on now, this was the--was the earlier onset of sort of protests that really led to that level of militancy and that level of commitment to justice that we now see with George Floyd. So this is the [INDISTINCT] and the birth of that sort of…
CH: Well, it became--it became the template, didn't it? For the Floyd protests, Breonna Taylor, and others?
MO: It did. And most importantly, it gave life to the Black Lives Matter movement which began after Trayvon Martin, but really didn't pick up steam until Ferguson, until everything that happened, that hashtag started trending and became sort of Twitter's number one ever used hashtag. So clearly, that was really the birthplace, in a way, of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now has gotten a stronghold in the movement in general against police brutality and for justice for Black people across America. So it was--it was really--Ferguson was really the birthplace, the Selma of our times, and the birthplace of so many things including the use of also body cams for police officers came right after on the heels of that, and so we see many things that happened on the heels of that that led us to our current point with George Floyd, where we actually saw the body cam footage with George Floyd. Had it not been for what happened in Ferguson and the use of body cams, the implementation of body cams, we wouldn't have been able to see some of that footage that we saw today with regards to George Floyd, so a lot happened and jumped off in Ferguson that led to where we are today.
CH: There were two points in the film that interested me quite a bit. One is you focused on clergy, religious leaders, Sekou, there was a White woman minister whose name I forgot, of course, Cornel West makes a brief appearance in the film. You push that kind of religious underpinning. And the second thing that I thought was interesting was what I found to be the political sophistication that these protesters in the streets were not going to be gaslighted with a Kamala Harris, that they had a real understanding that these were systemic problems that wouldn't be changed with, you know, diversity within the political structure. Can you talk about those two points?
MO: Well, in terms of the use of the clergy that participated in it, I saw on the streets that the people who were really doing the work were the clergy. I mean, not to say that the locals who were not clergy were not doing the work as well, but I was really actually surprised and stunned at the involvement of clergy because I'm used to seeing protesters, but I'm not used to seeing as much clergy as I did in Ferguson. And the clergy that I saw were really radical, were really pushing for justice in a way that I really--that we really don't see or clergy do. Or we don't really understand clergy to be participating in the--in the struggle for justice in that way. And so I wanted to highlight the fact that clergy does play or clergy do play a role in justice movements all across the world, and in particular, in Ferguson, and they had a tremendous impact on the ground there as well. So I wanted to make sure I highlighted that fact.
CH: Just talk a little bit about, you know, what their understanding of power was and how to respond to it.
MO: I mean, what I found most interesting, and you tell me if I'm answering your question, is I found most interesting that they were utilizing the Bible and they were utilizing the verses from scripture in a much more radical way than we're used to being utilized on the right. We think of clergy as being conservative and these folks were far from that, they were utilizing the Bible and the scripture as a political--as a political text and a spiritual text to really push forth an agenda that was much more egalitarian, and that much more resembles, I think, what the Bible--what I believe the Bible is trying to say and so I love that about them, is they really sort of, for me, redefined the clergy as much more relevant in a political, and a cultural, and a social movement context than I had really thought of them prior.
CH: I want to talk a little bit about the response to the elites the--including the traditional Black leadership that Jesse Jackson who was booed in Ferguson, Al Sharpton was booed in Ferguson. I believe Michael Eric Dyson was booed in Ferguson. Explain what's happening there.
MO: There's a deep irreverence, you know, for the old guard, which, in some ways, I would say--and for people that they don't know, that they haven't seen actively on the ground participating in the movement, they feel like people come in, they speak, they fly in, they fly out, they make a press conference, and they don't really--they're not really doing the work on the ground is the sense I got from people. So they were very apprehensive about my being there, they're apprehensive about anybody being there that hadn't had a history of being on the ground in Ferguson and hadn't had the--hadn't shown that they were really connected to the movement on the ground, so--and I understand that and I appreciate that because I felt like what we saw there was an authentic grassroots movement that wasn't really top-down but was really bottom-up. So we saw kids who were discovering the political process, one of the guys in the film is--was an ex-football coach, part-time football coach. So this was the birthing of this sort of political awareness and for many people, that's what made this movement so powerful, is that they didn't have the sort of entanglements of the past that really held them into a--into a strict way of acting, and a strict way of responding to police. They were rediscovering things and discovering new things that I think past movements had not discovered, particularly with the aid of technology, Twitter, Facebook, and those other things, they were really utilizing things in a--in a much more powerful--a much more--much more successful way than I think previous civil rights leaders would've done anyway.
CH: I remember speaking to one of the activists, T-Dubb-O, and he was invited to The White House by Obama after Michael Brown's killing, and he told me that Obama asked him if he had voted for Obama and he said, "No, I haven't voted for you because you haven't done anything for Black people." And I got a sense from your film that the old kind of way that in systemic racism has been dealt with, and Biden just illustrated this, are just not working among--especially these young new militants. Would you agree?
MO: Yeah. No doubt. I mean, I think, again, that irreverence goes across the board so it's not--it's not only particular to Obama, it's--to me, it's to anybody who comes from the outside. So you have to build that trust, and you have to build those relationships, and it's not just a given that you're going to get those votes, you're going to get those relationships, you're going to have to earn those. And I think that's the new, young Black America which I appreciate, is that these folks really want to see some change and they want to see people actually doing the work before they just automatically give them their respect and their vote. And that goes for everybody, I don't--and I think that's great, it's an even way of dealing with folks that really ask for you to do the work on the ground first.
CH: You spend, at the end of the film, quite a bit of time focusing on, I guess, for lack of a better phrase, personal transformation among those who carry out these protests. Speak about that what. What you were trying to say, what you saw happening within them?
MO: I think what was great about what I saw in Ferguson was that--was that people were developing a greater sense of purpose through being involved in the movement. They were getting a sense of their personal power, they were getting a sense of purpose, and they were--and they were getting a greater sense of being able to shape their future and their reality. Even people who had been involved in protests before were finding a new sense of freedom, like Reverend Sekou, we talked about as well, finding a new sense of freedom that, you know, in the church, he felt restrained, whereas on the streets, he felt like he was able to fully enact what he believed to be the biblical principles which is fighting for those who are the least among us. And so we saw that with him, and we saw that with Torrey Russell, for example, who was a part-time football coach who became an activist and then now all of a sudden, he was this sort of national figure, that became that national figure as a result of being--participating on the ground and developing and finding his own voice, making those mistakes. So what we saw was-- we saw quite a--quite a few mistakes being made in terms of how things were handled, but that's all part of sort of the growing process that occurred on the ground. So we saw a lot of organic organizing and a lot of organic community building that to me was just very inspiring, despite all the challenges since then and during that time, it was very inspiring for me to see these people develop their voices and [INDISTINCT] focus of what just the negativity of what was happening with the police to the positivity that was happening within their communities. People were, you know, developing new communal ways of handling problems and dealing with one another that didn't exist prior. So we saw a lot of growth in those communities despite the lack of change on the judicial side of things.
CH: Well, I don't think it would be pushing too far to say, at least I got this from the film, that that solidarity, that organizing, that act of resistance itself was a form of healing. I--that was the message I took away.
MO: Yeah. Yes. Indeed. I mean, I think the whole idea is that--I mean, the whole idea of my intention in making this film was really to demonstrate that the healing and the freedom comes from standing up, you know. We don't--we can't--we don't have control over the laws, we don't have controls of the people in power per se, but we do have control over ourselves and our ability to stand up, and to speak up, and that that freedom comes from that. And I saw the faces of people, and I got a sense that they were really experiencing a level of freedom they had never experienced before in their lives, despite the fear, despite the terror of tear gas and rubber bullets, et cetera, they were experiencing freedom that needs to be recognized and acknowledged, when you stand up, you're free.
CH: Great. Thank you. That was the director of Ferguson Rises, Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, speaking to me from California. Thank you.
MO: Thank you very much.