Dehumanizing the Black Lives of America: Michael Eric Dyson on Ferguson, Police Brutality and Race

December 01, 2014
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Michael Eric Dyson

University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. His op-ed for The New York Times this weekend is "Where Do We Go After Ferguson?" He is the author of a forthcoming book on President Obama and race.

President Obama is planning a day of meetings at the White House today related to the fallout from the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests in Ferguson. Obama will first meet with his Cabinet to discuss the results of a review of federal programs that provide military-style equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. He has also invited younger civil rights leaders for a meeting to discuss what one official described as the "broader challenges we still face as a nation, including the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color." Attorney General Eric Holder is heading to Atlanta today to speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. We are joined by Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. Dyson’s op-ed for The New York Times this weekend is "Where Do We Go After Ferguson?" He is also the author of a forthcoming book on President Obama and race.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is planning a day of meetings today at the White House related to the fallout from Ferguson. He’ll first meet with his Cabinet to discuss the results of a review of federal programs that provide military-style equipment to state and local enforcement agencies. Obama has also invited younger civil rights leaders for a meeting today to discuss what one official described as, quote, "the broader challenges we still face as a nation, including the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color."

Also today, Attorney General Eric Holder is heading to Atlanta to speak at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Holder’s visit is part of the White House strategy to strengthen relationships between police and the communities they serve.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. His piece for The New York Times this weekend was titled "Where Do We Go After Ferguson?" He’s author of a forthcoming book on President Obama and race.

Professor Michael Eric Dyson, welcome back to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Always great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your response to the verdict? I call it a verdict; it’s actually a grand jury decision last week, but it seemed like a verdict. It seems that you had a grand jury that actually conducted a trial for one side of the case—the other side, Mike Brown, dead.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Absolutely. And we decry when cases of flagrant violation occur in other countries. We are upset when we think due process is not acknowledged. We are outraged when we think that people don’t have access to evidence and are able to defend themselves, or at least people who are concerned about the case defend a particular point of view.

We had a full-on trial, except we didn’t have anybody defending Mike Brown or his memory or his point of view. We had no testimony that was put forth by a defense lawyer that might have repudiated several of the things that Officer Wilson said. And then we had a prosecutor who was acting as a defense attorney for Officer Wilson. And there’s a sad, tragic predictability about what happened, because Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor, has never brought a case against a police person who has been accused of killing a black person there in the area. So, when you put all that stuff together, it was a toxic brew. It was predictably something that would end in an unsatisfying verdict, because it was a trial. And I think this underscores the inability of people of color to get our viewpoints across.

It is not simply a matter of mistrust or distrust. You know, when somebody is abusing a child, you don’t say, "Let’s develop trust between a parent and a child." You remove the abusive parent, give them some parenting skills and lessons, or, at the very least, prevent them from imposing further abuse on that child. So I think that the very metaphor that regulates and governs the kinds of meetings between the White House, which are critical and necessary, and police departments and citizens, surely, must involve developing trust, but trust only after the abuse has been removed.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention the word "child," Michael, and that’s exactly how Darren Wilson described how he felt: He felt like a five-year-old child dealing with—I think he put it—Hulk Hogan. Can you talk about the trove of papers that McChulloch released and that description that Darren Wilson gave of dealing with Mike Brown?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes, that’s an excellent point to underscore. Mike Brown was six-four-six and 292 pounds. Officer Wilson is six-four-six, 210 pounds. So, you are hardly a child against a Hulk Hogan. Look at what’s being reinforced here: the brawny, blustering, as Ann Petry put it, behemoth, this big black man, 18 years old, this big black man, who was rising up in the collective imagination of America, and in Officer Wilson’s sight, as some kind of demonic force. He literally used the word "demon." "It was a demon—it looked like a demon coming at me." He has reduced him to a thing. He has made him an animal or less. He has made him a figment of not only his imagination, but the collective imagination of America that has been fearful of the black male threat. When you put all that stuff together, from pop culture, from deep religious and scientific treatises in the early part of the 20th century that were completely and thoroughly racist, then you’ve got a tremendously difficult problem on your hand.

And that is to say, how do black people protect themselves not against simply the bullets of a police officer, but the metaphors, the stereotypes, the tropes that operate in that police officer’s imagination that are equally lethal because they lead to trigger-happy cops, or at least, you know, hair-trigger decisions, where cops end up believing that they must use lethal force to contain a threat that’s not even real, or, if there is a real threat, resort to the most lethal form of resolution of the conflict as opposed to trying other things, like driving away, like using mace, like tasing, like calling for help and the like? So, when we think about all of this, this is the dehumanization of African-American people. This is the failure to recognize our fundamental rights to exist in the state. And this is using state authority to legally execute black people on the streets of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, I wanted to go to that exclusive interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos last week that Officer Darren Wilson gave, breaking his silence about the shooting of Mike Brown.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is there anything you could have done differently that would have prevented that killing from taking place?

DARREN WILSON: No.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Nothing?

DARREN WILSON: No.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you’re absolutely convinced, when you look through your heart and your mind, that if Michael Brown were white, this would have gone down in exactly the same way?

DARREN WILSON: Yes.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No question?

DARREN WILSON: No question.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephanopoulos also asked Darren Wilson whether the killing of Michael Brown would always haunt him.

DARREN WILSON: I don’t think it’s a haunting. It’s always going to be something that happened.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You are—you have a very clean conscience.

DARREN WILSON: The reason I have a clean conscience is because I know I did my job right.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Michael Eric Dyson, your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, this is disturbing. First of all, even people, men of war, women of war, who feel that they are executing their duly sworn responsibilities, have a sense of shame or guilt or at least some kind of disturbing emotion that makes them regretful of having to do what they think they have to do. This man has a clear conscience because he is conscience-less when it comes to executing his responsibilities in the face of, you know, black humanity, denying black humanity, refusing to acknowledge that there were alternatives available to him, and then feeling a kind of dispassion, a kind of clinical distance from the event, as if it was somebody else doing it. And the reason he is not bothered by it, because I think that this man has been reared in a culture that has taught him the lack of respect for black lives. That’s why the "black lives matter" is important.

And let’s not forget, 30 for 30, the ESPN documentary series, did one of their documentaries on—I think it was a football team from Ferguson, and one of the young men who was on that team was driving in a car. His parents were driving behind him. On the way home, the young man was pulled over by a cop. Since the father was in the car behind him, he gets out of the car. He goes to the car to discover what’s going on. And they say this policeman treated them with profound disrespect, was extremely aggressive, hostile and nasty, was attempting, I think, to arrest the father, but ultimately did not do so, who wasn’t officer Darren Wilson.

So, we know that this man is used to being six-foot-four, big, bigger than most of his, quote, "competition," most of the people that he deals with. And when he met his match, so to speak, physically, to speak physically—let’s be real. What may have happened there is the same thing that might have happened with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, is that a white person—in this case, even worse, because he is a duly sworn officer of the state—attempting to menace and intimidate an African-American youth and may have got more than he bargained for or bitten off more than he could chew, and, as a result of that, withdraws his gun from its holster or wherever it was planted and then shot this boy mercilessly. And then, even on the streets, despite what he testified to, there are so many other witnesses that suggested Mike Brown’s hands were up. He is asking his friend, you know, who heard him—he’s asking the policeman, "Why are you shooting me, and I don’t have a weapon?"

So, the reality is that when we piece together the evidence, Darren Wilson has an extremely dangerous mindset. His resignation came too late to save Mike Brown’s life, but other policemen should be checked for similar kinds of aggression that become racialized when their targets are African-American people.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen now, Professor Dyson, and what do you think of what President Obama is doing today at the White House, having this kind of summit with young civil rights leaders, talking about the issue of the militarizing of the police, as well as how communities of color can get along with law enforcement?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, that’s all very necessary. I applaud the president for that. But again, when I made the analogy earlier about abuse in the communities that have been abused, let’s not pretend that this is an equivalence. You know, there are no instances—well, there are not instances that we have been outraged about by attempts of broad communities to target police people and to constantly murder them, assault them and the like. There are tremendous tensions that need to be discussed.

Of course the policing of communities is necessary, given the extraordinary, you know, difficulties in some communities and the crime in other communities. There’s no doubting that. But to simply say, "Let’s develop trust," the trust rests upon what? Resolution of conflict, of negotiating differences and informing the police that they cannot be occupying forces in these African-American and Latino communities and in these poor areas.

So, you know, it’s a matter of not only developing trust because we have to understand each other, we also have to tamp down on the lethal ferocity of police departments that have been overmilitarized, undertrained when it comes to dealing with people of color, refusing to acknowledge their humanity. And that thin blue line, that ostensibly separates police people from so-called civilian society, has often been blurred, and the erratic and, I think, often dangerous practices of rogue cops, or cops who don’t have enough sensitivity about the humanity of people of color and others, needs to be raised.

So, it’s a good first step, but I think, just like the Kerner Commission was convened by President Lyndon Johnson while the flames of Detroit, my home city, were yet burning, while there are embers of simmering tension in Ferguson yet, I think the president should empanel a commission to talk about police brutality in America and to understand its vicious consequences and what we can do to resolve it.

AMY GOODMAN: You really got into it with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Meet the Press last week when he talked about the problem of police violence, he said, was a distraction from the real problem of black-on-black crime. It starts with Giuliani.

RUDY GIULIANI: I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, look, first of all—

CHUCK TODD: Go ahead, Michael.

RUDY GIULIANI: The significant—let me just finish—

CHUCK TODD: This is about a trust issue.

RUDY GIULIANI: We are talking—we are talking about the significant exception: 93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Let me tell you—let me respond to that.

RUDY GIULIANI: I would like to see—

CHUCK TODD: OK, I’m going to let him finish his sentence, then I’ll let you respond.

RUDY GIULIANI: I would like to see the attention—I’d like to see the attention paid to that, that you are paying to this, and the solutions to that.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: He’s taking up the time. Can I say this? First of all, most black people who commit crimes against other black people go to jail. Number two, they are not sworn by the police department as an agent of the state to uphold the law. So, in both cases, that’s a false equivalency that the mayor has drawn.

AMY GOODMAN: Giuliani appeared later on Fox News and defended his argument. This is a part of what he said.

RUDY GIULIANI: The danger to a black child in America is not a white police officer. That’s going happen less than 1 percent of the time. The danger to a black child—if it was my child, the danger is another black. Ninety-three percent of the times, they’re going to be killed by another black. And the idea that whites do not go to jail for killing blacks? First of all, only about 3 percent of whites kill blacks. They go to jail in approximately the same percentage as blacks go to jail. The conviction rate is almost exactly the same. The difference is, it’s a very rare exception when a white kills a black.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Your response, Michael Eric Dyson?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, first of all, as Disraeli said, they’re "lies, damned lies, and statistics," and we end up having statistical myopia. What I didn’t get a chance to say, because I’ve got a host there, understandably, who’s concerned about keeping the peace on the panel, so I’m being waved down by the host and hollered at, so to speak, by my opponent, and you don’t get a chance, under those conditions, unlike right here, to say what you have to say.

One of the things that is necessary to say is that 84 percent of white people who are killed are murdered by other white people. Why aren’t we outraged by white-on-white crime? Why aren’t we talking about the vicious and insidious decline of moral stature in white America? Why aren’t we talking about pathologies of white culture that lead to meth labs being generated on campuses or the decline in moral imagination as exhibited in pop stars who are decried from pulpits across America in white culture? So, we could develop a kind of, you know, tablet of demonology against white America, which would be ridiculous, because the problem is deeper and more profound than that. Intraracial violence in groups is endemic in America. So, people kill where they live. They commit crime where they live. If you want integrated killing, you have to have integrated communities—now, tongue in cheek there. The irony is the fact that Mr. Giuliani is unconscious of that, will not speak directly to that, because it would throw him off the scent of the trail of demonizing African-American people.

Now, black people, themselves, are quite concerned about death in their own communities—in our own communities. Just yesterday here in D.C., a woman was on television, a black woman, asking for help in solving the murder of her son. And they had a videotape of or a recording of a man going into a building and then rushing out who is thought to be the murderer of her son. And I think it’s an African-American man. And there’s no, like, "Oh, no, let’s exempt him from moral critique because he’s a black person." We are as outraged as anybody else by so-called black-on-black crime. We are enraged when black people kill black people. But let’s not divorce the killing of black people by black people from broader cultural imaginations that have demonized black people. Black people watch a lot of television and consume a lot of pop culture. And the suspicion and skepticism of black identity pervades black culture, as well. So, in one sense—

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Eric Dyson, we just have—

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Mm-hmm, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute on the satellite, and you raised in your column the issue of Bill Cosby. And I was wondering if you could just end on your concern about what has come out about him, the raping and mugging of a series of women over 40 years?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: It’s evil. It’s horrible. It should be talked about. It should be dealt with. I was demonized when I dealt with it 10 years ago in my book. Many black people waved me down and sent me away, saying that "You’re wrong by attacking a great figure like this." But what’s hurtful to me is that while he’s been accused of this raping and mugging, which is absolutely untoward—

AMY GOODMAN: And then drugging.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: —and evil, at the same time, African-American women were demonized by him in his own language before, and they were not protected. So, both/and, not either/or.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Eric Dyson, I thank you very much for being with us, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. We’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, "Where Do We Go After Ferguson?" When we come back, we go to Cairo, Egypt, to talk about the dropping of charges against former President Mubarak. Stay with us.


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