As the protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown, we turn now to two well-known voices who have come to Ferguson to show their support.
Talib Kweli is a world-renowned hip-hop artist and activist from New York City. He first broke out as one half of the duo Black Star, along with the rapper and actor Mos Def. Black Star helped define the underground, conscious hip-hop movement that re-emerged in the late 1990s. Since then he has released many critically acclaimed albums and used his platform to champion political causes, including police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.
Kweli traveled to Ferguson with Rosa Clemente, a longtime activist, journalist, scholar and former director of the Hip-Hop Caucus. In 2008, Clemente made history as part of the first all-women-of-color presidential ticket in U.S. history, running as the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee, along with former Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who ran for president.
Kweli and Clemente joined the protests in Ferguson just before a massive march planned for Saturday in their hometown of New York City. Thousands are expected to rally on Staten Island for justice in the case of Eric Garner, the African-American man who died in a police chokehold last month.
Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté caught up with Kweli and Clemente this week at Ferguson’s Greater St. Mark Family Church. The church has been used as a meeting point and as a safe haven for protesters hit by tear gas.
AARON MATÉ: This is Democracy Now! I’m Aaron Maté, with Hany Massoud. We’re in the St. Mark’s Church with Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente.
Talib, Rosa, welcome to Democracy Now! Talib Kweli, talk to us about why you’ve come to Ferguson.
TALIB KWELI: I’m in Ferguson because I respect life. I try to be a compassionate person. I respect people’s basic right to just exist. And even if there’s some sort of discrepancy or misunderstanding regarding the law, I respect people’s rights to due process. And this young man, Michael Brown, had all that stripped from him in an instant. And the fact that he is someone who could be my son, fact that he’s someone who could be me, fact that he’s someone who I relate to on a lot of levels, being a black man and my experience in America, it just really touched me in a way that the news stories couldn’t capture.
I saw a lot of celebrities, who could be using their voice to really help people to understand the justifiable rage going on here, really become critical of some of the other aspects of the “looters” or critical of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. But these are people who never speak out on behalf of the people. And it’s like, “You use your platform to speak out to criticize the people?” It made me want to show up myself so I could shine a light on the real protest movement that’s going on here.
A lot of people think that because they choose to ignore protests on a daily basis, they choose to ignore injustice on a daily basis, that the whole world is acting like that. And so they ask questions like, “Well, why is there no protest when a black man shoots a black man?” or “What about black-on-black crime?” And they ask these silly, irrelevant questions that distract and deflect away from these things that happened to John Crawford and Eric Garner and Renisha McBride and Mike Brown. You know, so it’s like such a ill pattern that I felt like I had to go past, beyond—go past the retweets at this point.
AARON MATÉ: Talib, this protest in Ferguson is getting so much world attention, but what can specifically we learn as a country from what’s happening here in Ferguson?
TALIB KWELI: We can learn that we shouldn’t give up our rights so quickly. You know, the fear that so-called terrorism has instilled in the country, the fear has been used to convince us to voluntarily give away our rights. You know, we’ve been talking for a long time about the—in the abstract, about the militarization of police force and the byproduct of it and the ramifications of it and what it means for the rights of citizens. And in Ferguson, it’s the first time they really get to flex that muscle in a real way.
You know, it’s striking to me how you have like an armed response from the people like at the Bundy ranch, where they were actually like, you know, talking about they’re going to use women as shields and put women in the front, because they know if women get shot, you know, those will be images that they want to put out to the world. Or they’re pointing guns at the feds, and the feds are like, “You know, we cool. Y’all got that one.” Here, you know, you have somebody who throws a water bottle, or you have somebody who is yelling at the cops because they’re rightfully agitated, and that becomes a license to brutalize and terrorize an entire community of people.
I mean, me, myself, in my own personal experience, I was out there last night. I wasn’t chanting, wasn’t talking to no cops. I wasn’t yelling at nobody. I wasn’t, you know, waving a knife. I wasn’t walking down in the middle of the street. The cops gave me all types of instructions. I followed every one of them. I still ended up on the ground with a gun pointed at me, no matter what.
ROSA CLEMENTE: As soon as I backed up from them, I saw the police getting ready to go in formation. And as Talib mentioned, it was before that water bottle was thrown. And as soon as I saw them go in formation, I said, “Yo, the cops are about to vamp on us.” And we kind of started moving away. The water bottle gets thrown. There’s a moment of silence and quietness, and then they just came out of nowhere. And me and Talib and Jessica grabbed hands. We got to a part where there was a concrete barrier. And we figured, well, let’s not run in the streets. The cops are coming this way. Let’s just get to the sidewalk and just keep going. Well, we were surrounded immediately, and where we were surrounded was a bush. And immediately, “Put your hands up! Lay down! We will shoot! Put your hands up! Lay down! We will shoot!” We completely complied. There were maybe about—I now count about 12 people with us on one side of the barricade or the other side of the barricade.
And then this young man from the community was laying at my feet, and he was choking and breathing hard, hard. And the cop came up to him, was like, “Stop moving, or I’ll shoot you.” And I was like, he’s—like, and I told the—I was telling the young kid, his name is Devin, I said, “Just, honey, try to stay still. Try to stay still. Try to stay still.” And he did. You know, and I have to say, as much as I’ve done this work for 20 years, that is the most terrifying moment of my life. All I could think about was, what happens if one of these cops—one of them—shoots? That means they’re all going to shoot. What if they kill this kid in front of us? And if it wasn’t for that black cop—and I’m not a cop person, by any means—if that black cop didn’t say, “Put down your weapons. We got who we wanted. Let them go,” we definitely would have been arrested. That was not—we thought that was going to happen anyway. But that guy could have got trigger happy. I saw the look in his eye. He was waiting to shoot that kid.
AARON MATÉ: Talib, you came from New York. There’s a big protest this weekend over the death of Eric Garner, killed by a police chokehold. Can you connect what’s happening in your hometown to what’s happening here in Ferguson?
TALIB KWELI: Yeah, well, you know, New York has a long, storied history with the police brutality, just like any community of color. And, you know, but it’s not just New York. That connection of all these people who are murdered, unarmed, by the police is what makes the rage justifiable. How do people dare to fix their mouths to criticize protesters, to be like, “Oh, well, they shouldn’t be looting”? With all due respect, you know, shut up with that. Like, what are you talking about? Like, the issue is the violation of our rights that happen when people loot pales in comparison to the violation of rights. Why are you outraged about the reaction to this? Like, it’s the fact that these things are connected. It’s the fact that this connects back to Trayvon Martin, connects all the way back to things in New York like Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, connects back to Tawana Brawley and Michael Stewart, connects back to the New York 21—the fact that these things are all connected. If you don’t acknowledge the connection, that’s what allows people to say that the rage is not justified, when they’re able to look at things as if they exist in a vacuum and as if they’re isolated incidents that are not connected. These are patterns that show that—you know, like Mos said on our first album, “The length of black life is treated with short worth.”
AARON MATÉ: And, Talib, you mentioned before the limitations of Twitter, of social media. Can you talk more about that?
TALIB KWELI: I got a lot of flak from younger people, the new generation, who really—they wrap themselves up in their social media like a warm blanket. You know, it makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside to support causes on Twitter. And I understand that. I relate to that, because I feel the same way. When I’m at my home or I’m in some hotel room or I’m enjoying my privileged life, and I’m able to just support a cause with a tweet, that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I feel really good, able to do that. So I get what feels good about Twitter. I get that I wouldn’t have the information I have without Twitter. Look, I’m on Twitter all the time. I love Twitter. I’m like the Twitter king. I love it. You know what I’m saying?
However, I remember a world before the Internet. And I remember what it really takes to have movement on the ground. Someone tweeted me back and said, “Well, you know, back in the day they didn’t have Twitter, but they had letters, and they wrote letters to each other, so…” I said, “Yeah, but ain’t nobody saying that the letters started the revolution.” It’s not—people not saying the letters; they’re saying it was Malcolm being there. They’re saying it was Stokely Carmichael being there. When I look at the Green Revolution, when I look what happened to Egypt, when I look at what happened to Occupy Wall Street, yeah, the tweets helped—they helped a lot—but without those bodies in the street, without the people actually being there, ain’t nothing to tweet about.
If Twitter worked like that, Joseph Kony would be locked down in a jail right now. You know what I’m saying? That was the most tweeted movement in the history, but there was no actual movement connected to it. There was no actual bodies on the ground. There was no actual flesh involved in all those billions of tweets that almost broke the Internet over the Stop Kony thing, you know? And so, it was a false movement. And so, tweets that are not connected to action are false. We could tweet, we could—it doesn’t change the fact that tweeting makes you feel good. Great, tweet more, tweet as much as you possibly can. But don’t get it confused and think it’s something it’s not.
ROSA CLEMENTE: Yeah, and, I mean, I think part of building the movement is also changing the narrative. It’s not just African-American men being killed—disproportionately, of course, we know that—but there are women being terrorized by police, or sexually assaulted, murdered by police, by vigilantes. What is happening on the border to Latino brothers and sisters? You want to talk about a real militarized space in the United States of America, let’s look at how militarized the border is, right? And then when we look at the history in New York City, right, as they killed Yusuf Hawkins, they put Anthony Baez in a chokehold. As they killed an African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, you know, there are other—there’s so many cases.
And really, the bigger thing is right now, how are we dealing with the system of white supremacy? How are we dealing with a system that not only views us as inhuman, both as black and brown bodies, as men and women, as children to 85-year-olds? But particularly, how are we understanding the systematic attack against us as a people? If we begin to really look, as Kimberlé Crenshaw talks about, the intersection of violence, you know, there’s no way we can’t build a movement based off of what is happening right now.
Now, these young people here in Ferguson are showing also something very different in a movement. And I think one of the things that I don’t like that I’m seeing is how particularly the young people that don’t fall under what we call the “respectable politics” are being talked about. This is their community. They are just as articulate. They might now say it in a language that academics like or journalists and all that. But this is their hood. We just came from where Michael Brown was slain and laid. These young men were showing us stab wounds from the police. “Oh, this happened to me when I was 10. Oh, and then 12. And then then cop did this. And look at what they did. And they did this to my wife. And then they grabbed…”
Our communities are being terrorized by law enforcement. As Talib said, we live in that post-9/11 world, where it’s not only law enforcement, it’s now a militarized police apparatus that is literally trying to contain us. So, yesterday, when that cop tells that young kid, basically, “Stop breathing,” so anything being black or brown is subject to you being executed at any given moment in this country.
AARON MATÉ: Rosa, you have a lot of experience with activist struggles. What’s your assessment of what we’re seeing here in Ferguson, both in terms of the obstacles these protesters are facing and how they’re responding?
ROSA CLEMENTE: Well, I mean, I think some people may disagree with my hardcore critique on what Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon at Black Agenda Report have called the black misleadership class in a predominantly older black male misleadership class that I think, when these moments happen, for the most part, the energy gravitates towards that one or two male leader that has been deemed acceptable to lead the people. Now, what we’re seeing in Ferguson is that young people are rejecting that. We haven’t seen that in a while. Like, “We got you, Jesse. We respect the—it’s time for you to—no, we’re not trying to hear you.” Or, “Al Sharpton, we ain’t trying to hear you.” Or, “We respect people with collars, but we ain’t trying to hear you, but we respect you.” And that’s how they’re kind of doing it, right? So when I look at this, I also have to see it in the context, right, of working-class people, the bourgeois elite—are they now the people that are the buffers to what we want—freedom and revolution? I mean, we could kind of clear see that with the president, right? And we could kind of see that in this country. We have an abundance of African-American and Latino elected officials, and I don’t see the situation changing much before the time in 1964 when we didn’t have almost any African-American or Latino elected officials. I think Ferguson is—like Occupy changed the narrative on how we view capitalism, I think Ferguson is going to change the narrative of what a police brutality movement looks like and who’s going to end up leading this movement.
AARON MATÉ: And, Talib Kweli, you’re a very popular hip-hop musician. Can you talk about the response and the responsibility of artists in times like these?
TALIB KWELI: Well, you know, I personally feel that artists have responsibilities to the communities that support their careers. But, you know, you can’t blame a baby for what he doesn’t know. And a lot of artists don’t have the political education to know when it’s time to step up. And so, you know, it’s normal to get upset. I’ve seen artists that I know and respect, like, you know, T.I., like Tyrese, you know what I’m saying, like that speak on real issues that our community is facing. But, for me, it’s about a timing thing, you know what I’m saying? Now, with all due respect to T.I. and Tyrese, those are artists that—dudes I know that speak. I follow these dudes on Twitter. I follow them. These are not dudes that don’t say nothing. They speak about our community, whether it’s in the national news or not. But to speak—you know, to speak about, to focus—make your focus on the looters and the reaction, to me, it deflects and distracts from what we, as a community, should be focused on. That’s the language of our oppressor. The oppressor doesn’t want us thinking about the horrible circumstance, so the oppressor wants us to focus on, “Well, look how you’re all acting now.” You know what I’m saying? And if we start using the oppressor’s language, we have no chance to have any semblance of justice for Mike Brown.
You know, look, there’s already no justice for the family. You know, let’s say the cop is arrested and sentenced to death. Does that bring Mike Brown back? No, it doesn’t. So that family will never have justice. We have to be satisfied with waiting for a verdict from a system that clearly is stacked against us. You know, that’s what we should be talking about as a community. We shouldn’t be talking about any time we see looters. You know, it’s like Malcolm said about airing your dirty laundry. We could talk about that amongst ourselves, but when we get out in the press, we do these interviews, when we on our Twitter feeds and all that, we need to be bigging up the people like Dream Defenders, we need to be talking about these clergy here, we need to be talking about these people who are organized to protest peacefully, before we do any criticism of people who are out there with justifiable rage and anger. So, you know, I’ve tweeted, and I’ve talked about it, and I challenged my other artists to and people out there to put the focus on that. But I can’t just say that—I can’t just say that from a protracted, abstract place. I’ve got to put myself here, in order for people to really hear me and say that. And I’ve got to be able to speak on it from a firsthand experience, or else I could be considered guilty of the same thing.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Talib, as we wrap up here and return back to the streets for another night of protest, your final thoughts?
TALIB KWELI: You know, it’s hard for me to quantify, because I’m only here for two days. I don’t have to be here, you know. And a lot of people have to remain here. I was very hesitant to do interviews. You know, I like what Democracy Now! does, so I’m here for this, but—and I did another interview on another network, but I don’t want this to be about me. I’m not here to make a spectacle. I’m not here as a rapper or a celebrity. I’m here as a member of my community. I’m here to be—to be a leader, but also to be a follower, to find leaders in the community and ask them what it is that I can assist with, you know. And I think that’s the best that we can do as people who are not living here, not forced to deal with this. We’re forced to deal with it, because we’re forced to deal with the overarching ramifications of what this means. But there are people in this community that, for as much positive or great things we could say to you in this interview, it’s not going to help them on a real level after we leave. So, I’m just trying to do things I can do that will have an impact beyond just this moment down here.
AARON MATÉ: And Rosa Clemente?
ROSA CLEMENTE: I mean, my final thoughts is like, let’s remember that a young 18-year-old boy two days from college was chased, gunned down, shot through the head, executed, left for four hours, traumatized an entire community, and that’s what we should focus on at this moment. But then the larger picture is, if there’s not an indictment, right, if there’s not justice from injustice system, it doesn’t mean we don’t struggle every day to stop this. We have to find new ways. And I think part of finding new ways is doing new things. And, you know, or as Pete Seeger once said, maybe doing something little all the time as much as you can.
You know, as a mother, until I saw where he laid for four hours, it really didn’t hit me until this moment. And I’m sick and tired of this. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, I am sick and tired of this. We have so much life to live and a limited time amount to do it. And every day, the older my daughter gets, or any of my friends, all I can think about is, is this world better? Because it’s just really not. And what is going to happen to our children? What does this do to other people in the community? How does this affect white people that are antiracism, working against racism? All of this has been so lost in this. So we always have to remember that.
And we also always have to remember that what happens in Ferguson, this has become bigger than Michael Brown’s death and the family’s pain. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect that and support that. It means, again, that this might be the catalyst, wherever that next Ferguson may be, to not have ever another Ferguson.
AARON MATÉ: Rosa Clemente, Talib Kweli, thank you so much for joining us.