In US, black people cast as enemies of state & criminals - BLM organizer
A black caregiver shot by police in the leg while trying to help his patient. Another black man shot and killed after officers pin him to the ground. A black school employee shot in the car, while his wife and child are forced to witness the killing. Cases like this grab attention day after day, fueling a massive uproar against police brutality and indiscriminate killings of unarmed black civilians. The Black Lives Matter movement has turned into one of the most powerful voices in America. How big is its impact on US politics and society? We ask a woman who was at the origins of the movement - Pan-African Studies Professor at the California State University, Black Lives Matter organizer in LA Dr. Melina Abdullah on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Melina Abdullah, organiser of the Black Lives Matter movement, professor at California State University, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. Dr. Abdullah, "the black community's facing war-time conditions" - now, those are your words. What makes you say that? Is it really worse now than during the times of segregation? During the Civil Rights fight?
Melina Abdullah: Well, I think that when we say "war-time conditions", we need to think about what's happening in our city communities, and black communities especially. We are referring specifically to the way that we're being policed, the way that we're being surveilled and brutalised and killed at the hands of the state. So, that's what I'm referring to. Of course, that's the most extreme form, however, there's also other forms in which we are under attack, so if we think about black Health Indexes, when we think about the black jobs crisis, if we think about the way in which black children come under attack even in their own schools. Those are all war-time conditions, those are all conditions that places us in a constant state of struggle and battle and having to fight for our freedom.
SS: According to ‘MappingPoliceViolence.org', a group that collects data on the issue, police killed over a hundred blacks last year - and that's at least two deaths a week. Most of those killed were unarmed. What do you think when you hear such a number? Why is this happening? Is there an explanation for that?
MA: We have to go back to the purpose of policing in the U.S. in the first place. The policing system here developed, evolved out of the system of slave patrols, so our current policing system was actually set up to put black people, cast black people as the enemies of the state. So that's what we see when we see kind of police treating black people as if they are criminals even when they're doing things, everyday things like walking home from the store, like playing in the park with toys in the case of Tamir Rice. I think we need to understand the political history of policing here, that although we like to lift up the model - "Protect and Serve" that has never been what the police in the U.S. have been developed to do.
SS: Coroner’s reports on fatal police shootings say that over the past 5 years, police in LA have fatally shot black people at triple the rate than other races. Do police officers target black people because it's believed that they're more likely to be criminals, or because of some kind of, I don't know, animosity towards the actual race? But, if it's racism, then why isn't the police targeting other minorities?
MA: I think that's a really complex question. I think that what we’re often kind of encouraged to do is get into the individual psychology of officers. What we want to encourage folks to do is to step back and recognise that the entire institution of policing, the entire system of police as one is built on institutional racism. So, the intent of the police officers, of the individual police officers is actually determined by the system that does, in fact, cast black people especially as enemies of the state, and so black people are never given the benefit of the doubt, black people with mental health issues for instance - you've brought up LA - one of the most recent and horrific killings was that of brother Africa Charly Keunang who was Cameroonian immigrant and lived in the homeless community in Skid Row, who was killed in broad daylight by LAPD. Rather than trying to understand it on the individual psychological basis we need to understand that it's the entire institution, and really re-imagine and re-define the way that policing works, create a new model of policing.
SS: But how do you do that? Dr. Abdullah, how do you do that?
MA: I think you have to create a model of policing that's grounded in community. You have to create a model of public safety: so, let's move back from policing, even - a model of public safety that says what conditions created Skid Row in Los Angeles in the first place. So, public safety can't be focused solely on policing, it has to say: "Well, you know, people shouldn't have to live on the streets". We have to come up with models of public safety that say: we're going to have unsafe environments as long as people are walking around the country with mental health conditions. We're going to have public safety issues as long as people don't have jobs that pay a livable wage, and so let's roll it back and look at policing as one small piece of public safety.
SS: Ferguson is one example where the police force is predominantly white despite a predominantly black community, and most officers are not even living in the area that they serve. Is there a reason locals don't join the police force? I mean, are they prevented from joining?
MA: There's a trend in American cities of having police living outside the communities. Police unions and other folks argue that it's for the police officers' safety. We know that it threatens community's safety, and so there's this whole notion that if police lved in the communities that they're supposed to be serving, that somehow they'll be more at risk. The data actually does not meet that out, however.
SS: You know, only a handful of police officers were charged with crimes after the killings of black civilians last year. I mean, 9 out of 102 cases! That's a mind-boggling number. A police officer is far less likely to be prosecuted for a crime than a civilian, and jury in court usually side with the police. Does that give a police officer a sense of impunity? I mean, can an activist movement influence this?
MA: Absolutely. Just about every case, police officers are not convicted or even tried for the killings of residents. So, we can think about the case of Tamir Rice, we can think about the case of Ezell Ford. Even when the officers are found out of policy in those killings, usually criminals charges don't follow, and so it sends a message to police officers that especially when they kill black people, they don't have to be worried about either disciplinary action or so, and in a very few cases they're even fired from their jobs and even rarer there's a criminal prosecution of police officers.
SS: You know, mayors of Chicago and Baltimore have actually fired their police chiefs after the BLM protest, which shows that the movement does have influence - but what's the guarantee that the new police chiefs will crack down on this abuse?
MA: Well, here, in Los Angeles we're trying to follow suit, we are trying to get our police chief Charlie Beck, fired. We think that by doing that, when we can create the pressure that creates the firing of the police chief, it sends a message to the next chief that at least they have to kind of be on notice. So, while we're not under any illusions that new police chiefs are going to be head and shoulders above previous police chiefs, we do think that it puts them on notice that they have to at least pay attention to the community and pay attention to those of us who're demanding justice for our communities.
SS: You often hear that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and the black population incarceration rate is 6 times higher than that of white people. Is there an explanation for this? Why is this system skewed towards jailing black people?
MA: The data shows us that this kind of ramping up, this prison boom came right after the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. So you see a prison boom happen in the 1970s after political candidates start pushing this "Law and Order" sentiment. So, what's interesting is not a correlation between increasing crime and increasing imprisonment: rather, it's a shift in kind of the politics, and so, there's a political motivation behind imprisonment of black people that can be linked back to the push of black folks for civil rights and for political and human rights. we need to understand that there's a political motivation to jail in black folks. We also need to understand that black people have always been much higher than their population share, in prisons , and that has to do with what we talked about earlier - this undergirding kind of institutional racism that underlies every system within the U.S.. So, the U.S. was founded upon the genocide of indigenous people and enslavement of black people and nothing has been done to undo that institutional racism. It's most extreme in prisons, where we see these numbers of black people - really kind of ridiculous in comparison with our population share.
SS: You've said: "this system is set up to keep us oppressed" - that's your quote, meaning today as well. Do you mean to say it's deliberately aimed against black people?
MA: Yes. It is built to keep us oppressed. So, that's why it takes much more than reform to undo this oppressive system. We have to have a complete reimagining, we have to be willing to say - why are these systems built that way and how can we rebuild something that’s new, not simply reform what it is. So, we can talk about the Criminal Justice system, we can talk about, you know, Angela Davis’ rights, about why prisons are obsolete -and we have to be willing to really go with those arguments, and say - maybe it's not just having a kinder, gentler way of putting people in cages, maybe we need to really step back, reimagine, and say: "Perhaps, there's something wrong with the model that puts people in cages in the first place".
SS: Dr. Abdullah, you were saying before the break that the "system is deliberately oppressing black community", but who needs to target the black community? Who benefits from keeping the black community down? Who is waging war, as you say, on the African-Americans?
MA: The folks at the very top, rich white men, and when we understand that, when we understand that the super-exploitation of black people really allows them to profit as heads of corporations, as ones who’re invested in the system of capitalism, as those who benefit from the system of white supremacy and patriarchy. It allows them to capitalise off of our oppression. So, there's profit that's derived from the ways in which we work disproportionately at low-wage jobs, from our high unemployment rate, which creates this super-competition for jobs. There's benefit that comes… We’ve talked about the prison-industrial complex, we need to understand that prisoners actually serve as commodities, as super-exploited labor and as super-exploited consumers, so when we think about people who are running for president, people like, you known, Donald Trump or Drumpf, or, when we think about how he derives profit and people like him... of course, it's not just him, what we would call in America, there's not a single boogeyman, there's lots of boogeymen, who are deriving profit from this system.
SS: Now, the movement has decided against endorsing any candidate in the presidential race. Does that mean you're not hopeful anything will change in the coming years?
MA: Oh, no, we're extremely hopeful. We just recognised that the kind of change, the kind of transformative change that we need won't come because Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump are elected. We understand that the change that we seek will come because the people demand it.
SS: There’s a two-term black president in the White House, and the African-American community is still reeling from police shooting, injustice, inequality. Does this mean elections are useless for the community, that they change nothing when it comes to racism?
MA: It doesn't really matter that Barack Obama happens to be black, right, because he is in the presidency which really kind of just keeps this existing structure, keeps these institutions and keeps the system moving along, and even if he had the political will, which he has not demonstrated having - let me be very clear that he could have done more, but he hasn't had the political will. Had he had the political will to do more, had he had the political will to kind of really undo or push substantive change into systems like our policing system and really end the system of mass incarceration - we probably could have seen more change happen, but we would not have seen the kind of change that we need, because this system is already in place. I don't think that voting is completely useless. I vote. That said, I think that the two-party system that we have in the U.S. is hugely problematic, because both the Democratic party and the Republican party are completely reliant on capitalism and capitalist corporations, corporate support for their candidacies. For a presidential candidate to be viable, they basically have to be endorsed by big business, which means that big business wants something, including the continued exploitation of working class and the black working class, especially.
SS: The White House invited several civil rights leaders including some Black Lives matter supporters for a meeting . One of the movement’s leaders snubbed the President’s invitation as a ‘photo-op’. Do you think authorities are genuinely interested in working with the movement? Taking it seriously?
MA: No, and I think that Aislinn, who was our member, who was invited, took a very principal position and said that we're not here for a photo-op. What we want is substance.
SS: BLM has been criticised for some of it's methods, like disrupting presidential candidates’ rallies, shutting down road access, etc. Now you’ve said that polite conversation doesn’t work, do you see these other methods working?
MA: Yeah. Polite conversation absolutely does not work. There's no group on Earth who is expected to politely sit down with a group of folks who are murdering us, at the rates that police murders us, and not just... you know, they're murdering our children, our grandfathers, our mothers. We can't simply sit down and have polite conversation. We have to disrupt that system.
SS: Right, but since the movement is horizontal in organisation, leaderless, collective - does it take responsibility for radical actions of some of its chapters?
MA: We are by definition a... if you think about radicalism, you used that term - as being the disruption of what is, as being a kind of a seeking out for transformation - we are a radical organisation. We seek transformative change. We're not violent, we're a non-violent movement, but we believe in transformative change and we don't believe that that change comes from sitting down and negotiating policy reforms. We need policy change - but not reform, we need policy transformation.
SS: Activists are taking advantage of the media attention focusing on elections - protesting at events. This has worked - candidates like Clinton are meeting with protesters, issues are raised, campaign promises uttered. How can the movement keep pressure on whoever’s elected after the vote? Do BLM activists risk just being used for good press?
MA: We think that when we disrupt candidates, the press is already there, and really what we're doing is challenging the candidates to think more deeply about the issues that affect the black community. What's happening in the U.S. is not just disruptions of candidates but of sitting elected officials, and so our mayors, our governors have all been disrupted and challenged to consider what it is we're putting forth and that has had policy outcomes.
SS: You’ve also, met with the LA mayor Eric Garcetti along with other movement organisers some time ago. Later he appointed a black man - Matt Johnson as police commissioner, which is a good thing. He was tasked with monitoring police violence and other issues. Is this a direct result of your actions? Are you being heard in your local community?
MA: No, unfortunately, mayor Garcetti - so, you've mentioned that he appointed a black man to the police commission - we really are not simply about symbolic gestures. It doesn't matter to us if somebody happens to be black if they don't move on behalf of the black community. Matt Johnson is not rooted in the black community, Eric Garcetti has chosen to run from the black community rather than engage it. So, these kinds of things we don't see as real victories. We want substantive change. So, we have pushed the Police Commission, despite Matt Johnson, to move towards changes, and they implemented a small set of reforms, we know that has to do with our pressure, but it's not enough. We do feel like pressure works, we just recognise that these kind of symbolic gestures are attempts to pacify us and placate us, but don't really get to the substance of what we want. We're not fooled by neoliberals. Eric Garcetti is an example of a neoliberal, who will still ignore the black community but smile as he's doing that.
SS: But you guys - the BLM is happy to be working outside the system, as I assume? Why aren’t the existing institutions - black church networks, black lawmakers - talking of black community, by the way - working closely with the movement?
MA: It's important to recognize that just because a lawmaker happens to be black doesn't mean that they have the interests of the black community at heart. Many lawmakers, many politicians are in it for themselves, for their own individual advancement. So, it's always been the position of blacks outside organizations. If we think about the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party - the role of our organisations is to push these folks to do what's in the interests of the whole, not act in their own self-interest.
SS: I remember the Occupy Movement caused a political storm but then it quickly faded away - what needs to be done to ensure the same fate doesn’t await the Black Lives Matter?
MA: BLM is on a growth trajectory. We started 2.5 years ago with about 30 folks. We have now tens of thousands of active members, and we're global, we have 39 Chapters around the world. We're growing and I think as long as we continue to be imaginative in what we're pushing for, as long as we're rooted in the actual needs of the Black Community, as long as the masses of black folks continue to be targeted by the system and need to seek change outside of that system, because that system itself is not serving us - we'll continue to grow. We've learned lessons from the Occupy Movement, right. So, I think that we're continuing to move forward, I think that we're moving in ways that are actually changing things substantively and I think that you'll continue to see it. If you think about what's happening in Toronto, Canada, with black folks in Canada, black Canadians, rising up and saying that they recognise that they're under similar conditions to what we experience here, and that Chapter really being willing to challenge things fundamentally - I think that you see something happening that indicates of global growing movement.
SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. Dr. Melina Abdullah pan-African studies professor at the California State University, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter LA Chapter, talking about what is pushing black people in America to the streets in protests and what can this new nationwide movement accomplish. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.