From Mike Brown to Atatiana Jefferson, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Examines 5+ Years of #BlackLivesMatter

Web ExclusiveOctober 23, 2019
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More than five years after African-American teenager Michael Brown Jr. was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reflects on the movement’s progress and ongoing struggles for justice.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re bringing you Part 2 of our conversation with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She has a new book out this week. It’s called Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership.

Keeanga, I want to ask you about the recent piece you wrote for Jacobin which is headlined “Five Years Later, Do Black Lives Matter?” You write, quote, “In the five years since Mike Brown Jr was murdered and the streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted, police across the United States have killed more than four thousand people, a quarter of them African American. Five years later, do Black Lives Matter? Confronted by an array of internal and external obstacles, 'the movement' has stalled even as a white supremacist rules from the White House.” If you can, Keeanga, lay out what you think has happened in this five years and if this movement has made a difference in where you feel it needs to go?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: I should start by saying that, yes, Black Lives Matter, the social movement, has made a tremendous difference. I think that all of the stories that we hear about criminal justice reform, as limited as they are, but the attacks on bail, the attention drawn to the ways that people are wrongfully incarcerated or overly incarcerated, have come to light, I think, precisely because the movement helped to open up the space for this. I think the public discussion of abolition, abolition of policing, abolition of prisons, a complete and utter rejection of the idea that people should be caged in the first place, has come from the space. I mean, those discussions existed earlier, but the space created by the movement has opened that discussion to much broader layers of the population. And so, I think that the impact of the movement is clear.

But I also think that the way that the police have continued to kill people unabated, I think the continuing scandals involving police departments, the continued attacks within African-American communities, civil liberties attacks by police, point to the fact that, you know, the original reasons for the movement erupting in the first place are still with us. And I think the kind of diminishing response from organized movements raises the question of what happened to the momentum that was generated by the Ferguson rebellion.

And so, in some ways, my article is an attempt to grapple with some of the core issues that I think confronted Black Lives Matter. And I think the main one that I’m really focused on in that article is the divergence, the strategic divergence, within different sections of the movement, meaning: What do we need to do to actually win our objective of ending police violence and abuse in black communities? And this question produced different kinds of answers and responses. And the movement was not really set up in such a way to engage with those different responses, meaning that there were literally very few places where people who considered themselves to be a part of Black Lives Matter could engage in a debate, really, about what the movement needed to do to advance itself. And I think that the lack of political engagement and debate then means that questions and issues don’t really get resolved, which can turn into acrimony, which can then lead to a kind of paralysis when it comes to understanding what to do next. When one set of tactics have run its course, how do we pivot? And so, all of those questions exist. They still exist. And the movement was not able to, I think, generate the political space necessary to have those debates out. And so that’s one of the key focuses of the article.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what you’re expressing, isn’t that a part of the limitations of any social movement, that when social movements arise from disparate forces, and maybe they have immediate successes, but then the question of how do you move to new tactics and strategy in the absence of sort of more permanent political parties or organizations, independent, whether — even of the Democratic and Republican parties. There’s also the — there’s always the problem, whether it’s the immigration movement, the climate change movement. In the absence of established and stable political formations, there’s always a tendency in the lulls of a social movement for people to begin having major differences about how to move forward.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Absolutely. And, you know, I try to write about this as part of that phenomenon. And so, you know, there are a couple of things about that. One is that social movements don’t just continue because they’re right. We all know that we need a Black Lives Matter movement as the police continue to maim, murder — maim and murder African-American people in this country. But that, in and of itself, doesn’t ensure its continuation. And so, without that kind of regular political engagement, it’s difficult to move forward.

But I do think it’s also important to say that even if activists had done everything right and had, you know, met with each other, even if there were clear entry points into the movement for the tens of thousands of people who populated the marches that made Black Lives Matter what it was, even if they’ve done everything right, that doesn’t mean that the movement would have succeeded and we would have ended police brutality once and for all. I mean, one of the things that I look at in the article, as well, is the seeming permanence of police brutality and violence as a consistent measure of social control within our society. Like, there has never been a golden age of police relations with, you know, working-class communities, let alone poor and working-class African-American or Latino communities. So that that’s not the issue: “If this had happened, then, you know, we would have been successful.”

The issue is, is how do we learn and grow and generalize from our experiences, so that in the oncoming situations, that, you know, people have some understanding of what has happened, people deepen their collaboration with each other and have really been able to learn some lessons that can be applied in the next phase of the struggle. And so, even you know, there are important lessons to learn from this in order to be able to move forward with a different set of strategies, a different set of tactics, as we all continue to grapple with this problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I want to —

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: But this isn’t new. This is —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: This is, you know, historical.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the other side of the coin in this issue, which is the rise of white supremacist movements, many of them fueled by the president in the White House. And you notice he’s always having press conferences with law enforcement groups, whether it’s local police, Border Patrol agents, always elevating these local law enforcement troops as the heroes of the movement that he represents.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To what degree the police forces and law enforcement sources have become the base that nurtures the growth of white supremacist activities in the country?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, one thing I should say is — and I write about this in the article — that this is a complicating factor for activists within Black Lives Matter, is the way that Trump has, in some ways, unleashed or activated, you know, what had been existing but fringe elements within among white supremacists in the society. He has been a point of cohesion or an attempt to cohere the, you know, different factions of whites, of the white nationalist, white supremacist movement, even if he, you know, proclaims to not actively be doing that. This is the one thing that they all agree on, is the Trump presidency.

And his putting Black Lives Matter, in particular, in the crosshairs unleashed a torrent of racist abuse, you know, on the internet, death threats, attacks on Black Lives Matter activists and those perceived to be so. I know that when I publicly criticized Trump in 2017, I was subjected to death threats and a kind of racist hatred that I had never been subjected to. And so, this was part of the pressure exerted on activists and shouldn’t be diminished in terms of a set of complicating factors in trying to successfully navigate a social movement under these conditions.

And I do think that this is also part of the problem with police brutality and the organizing against police brutality right now, is you have a president in the White House who sanctions police brutality, who’s joked about it, who’s given not just a wink and a nod to it, but actively comes out and encourages and support the police under any set of circumstances, no matter what. And that has meant, you know, the Justice Department reneging on consent decrees with cities across the country or essentially having a hands-off approach, which, in my mind, gives the green light for continuing the types of abuses that fueled the movement in the first place.

And in many ways, this is a call for — this is exactly why we need a stronger movement, with deeper roots in organizing, to be able to consistently respond to this, because there is no one — there’s no help coming from above on this. I think, you know, in many ways, you could look at some of the actions of the Obama administration, much of which I thought was really just a kind of attempt to look busy, while really actually doing nothing. But it was a way to placate people, in some ways. There’s no illusion of that with the Trump administration. There’s an outright vitriolic hatred of black people, of Latino people, and certainly encouragement of police to do whatever it is that they want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of which —

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: And that creates a very — sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the police killings in Dallas and Fort Worth. In last week’s debate, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro raised the issue of police violence, after being questioned by Anderson Cooper on handgun violence.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Castro, the vast majority of homicides committed with a gun in this country are from handguns, not assault-style weapons. What’s your plan to prevent those deaths?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Thank you very much for the question. You know, I grew up in neighborhoods where it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots at night. And I can remember ducking into the backseat of a car when I was a freshman in high school, across the street from my school, my public school, because folks were shooting at each other.

You know, in the neighborhoods — let me answer this question about voluntary versus mandatory. There are two problems I have with mandatory buybacks. Number one, folks can’t define it. And if you’re not going door to door, then it’s not really mandatory. But also, in the places that I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door. And you all saw a couple days ago what happened to Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth. A cop showed up at 2:00 in the morning at her house when she was playing video games with her nephew. He didn’t even announce himself. And within four seconds, he shot her and killed her through her home window. She was in her own home. And so, I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door to door in certain communities, because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, raising the latest killing by police of a black resident, this in Fort Worth, Atatiana Jefferson. Her funeral is on Thursday. And, of course, right before that, the trial of Amber Guyger, the police officer who killed her neighbor, Botham Jean. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, as we wrap up, if you can talk about this issue of police violence and what you think needs to be done?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, I think that this is also an example of the kind of resonance of Black Lives Matter, the fact that the officer in Fort Worth was arrested and for murder, the fact that Amber Guyger was convicted. I mean, in some ways, it’s impossible to imagine these things happening without Black Lives Matter. But it also shows almost the poverty of these solutions, that, you know, she can get a 10-year sentence, and this cop can be — in Fort Worth, can be arrested and potentially indicted, and yet where does it — where does it actually end?

And so, I think that this raises serious questions about strategically what needs to happen, that I think we have to get back to the mass movement, but I also think that in terms of where the demand focus should be is we really have to deal with these police union contracts, that in many ways codify racist and abusive behavior by the police and allow them to be treated differently than anyone else, that allows them to exist above the law. But this is why we need to have open spaces and places to debate and talk about what is the way forward, how do we regroup, resume and refocus on ending these kinds of insidious racist attacks in black and Latino working-class and poor communities once and for all.

AMY GOODMAN: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, I want to thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, author of the new book Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership. She is also author of From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, and we will link to her piece in Jacobin. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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