- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylorassistant professor of African American studies at Princeton.
- Cornel Westprofessor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University.
- Bakari Sellersattorney and political commentator. He became the youngest African American elected official in the country when he was elected to the South Carolina state Legislature in 2006.
Calls to defund the police mount after police erupted into violence this weekend in response to widespread protests across the nation, arresting more than 4,000 people and attacking demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. As police departments face increasing criticism for using excessive force on protesters, we get response from Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, renowned scholar Professor Cornel West and attorney Bakari Sellers.
More from this Interview
- Part 1: A Class Rebellion: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on How Racism & Racial Terrorism Fueled Nationwide Anger
- Part 2: “America’s Moment of Reckoning”: Cornel West Says Nationwide Uprising Is Sign of “Empire Imploding”
- Part 3: “My Vanishing Country”: Mass Protests Rise from 400 Years of Systemic Racism, Says Bakari Sellers
- Part 4: “America Has Looted Black People. We Learned It from You” Says Women’s March Activist Tamika Mallory
- Part 5: Defund Police: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Says Budgets Wrongly Prioritize Cops Over Schools, Hospitals
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, if you could respond to her extraordinary speech, and also the way in which public officials, including liberal officials like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have responded to the protests, simultaneously saying they feel the pain of the protesters but condemning the violence and looting, as they say, that have happened during the demonstrations, and then the fact that there are many who have been calling for defunding the police in response to what’s happened here? I mean, one of the things that’s been so remarkable about the images everywhere are the kind of military gear that so many of these police officers are wearing. I mean, one Democratic senator, Brian Schatz from Hawaii, tweeted Sunday in response, saying that he’s introducing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to discontinue the program that transfers military weaponry to local police departments. Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, if you could respond?
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yeah, there’s so many things to say about this. I think, I mean, one thing that becomes so apparent with the cops on the street, one, you understand — I mean, for most of America, you get a glimpse of why people are so angry. I mean, look at the kind of wanton, reckless abuse and violence that the police are instigating, and attacking people who are trying to protest. I feel like what we’ve seen over the weekend is a national police riot. And, you know, it’s no wonder. They feel emboldened by the white nationalism of the president of the United States and, really, the lawlessness of the Republican Party writ large. And so, it feels like we’re bearing the consequences of that.
But I think that there is a bigger issue about the cops that is also worth talking about, which is, why these police are never arrested, prosecuted, punished, really, even beyond just arresting and prosecuting people, but just punishing them as public servants for their kind of racist, abusive and violent behavior. And I think that, you know, regardless of what these elected officials have to say, I think that we’re actually going to see a lot more of this, which is why the conflicts will continue.
And the reason why I say that is because it has been a strategy of cities across this country that have committed themselves to not investing in the civic and public sector infrastructure — so, public schools, public hospitals, public libraries — all of the things that make a city function. Those have been systematically defunded, increasingly privatized. And the way that cities manage the inevitable crises that arise from that, when combined with unemployment, when combined with poverty, when combined with evictions and all of the insecurities that we see wracking cities across this country, the police are used to manage that crisis. And that is why, in city after city, as other public institutions take financial hits, as other public institutions are defunded, it’s the police that always get to maintain their budgets. And we look around now, where, because of the COVID crisis, every city is talking about massive budget cuts, but not to the police. The police almost never have to incur layoffs. They never have to incur budget cuts, because they are seen as the public policy of last resort.
And so, this is — when we talk about defunding the police, it is that the police should not be absorbing a third of the budget, as they do in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, while we’re closing public schools, while public hospitals don’t have the proper personal protective equipment. Look at the way that police are — the gear and the equipment that they have, compared to hospital workers dressing themselves in garbage bags, being forced to use the same N95 masks for weeks at a time. Look at the contrast between that, and then you understand what the actual priorities of the governing politicians and bodies are.
Which is why — and this is the last thing I’ll say — the hypocrisy of someone like Andrew Cuomo or Bill de Blasio or any of these politicians coming on television, on their press conference, wringing their hands about the police, talking about these issues as if they are passive bystanders or just concerned citizens, and not elected officials who have power, who have authority, who have the ability to punish the police, who have the ability to make budgetary priorities, who have the ability to shift resources in one direction or another, but they sit back and act as if they are just watching the train wreck in slow motion, and not that they are actually in control of the gears. And this is part of the hypocrisy that is making people so angry, is that we have these people, elected officials, getting on television, talking about how terrible this is, Andrew Cuomo saying, “Say her name.” Andrew Cuomo, do your job. And I think that this is part of what is forcing people to feel that they have no other choice, no other response, than to rebel, because the levers and mechanisms of government that are supposed to attend to these issues have shown themselves to be completely broken.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Cornel West, if you could comment on what professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said, and also the fact that some observers are saying that all of these emergencies occurring simultaneously — the economic emergency with over 40 million Americans now unemployed, the health crisis with the pandemic — that these could result — and then, of course, these protests across the country — that these could result in some significant structural transformation within the U.S., as occurred, in part, following the Great Depression and the protests of ’68? Do you agree with that? And if so, what kind of transformation do you think is essential?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I would just want to say, first, just ditto to what Sister Taylor said. And I want to say — of course, send my salute to Brother Bakari. He’s part of a family of political royalty with Brother Cleveland and others in so many ways.
But I think we also have to be very candid about the decadent leadership class, that when Sister Taylor talks about Cuomo and the others, absolutely. But, you see, we’ve had a Black leadership that has so sanitized and deodorized the Black freedom struggle that you end up with neoliberal politicians who have accommodated themselves to the Wall Street greed. That’s why they bail out Wall Street rather than everyday people. They have accommodated themselves to the killing machine of the Pentagon and State Department. That’s why they can vote for budgets where 53% of every cent goes to the military, and there’s no money left for investment in education, healthcare, jobs with a living wage. And we haven’t had enough organized voices to bring critique to bear on that kind of decrepit neoliberal Black leadership.
And Obama is at the center of it. The Black Caucus is at the center of it. Black professionals are at the center of it. And these cowardly Black celebrities — not all of them, but most of them — are at the center of it. So their lives become simply lives of luxury and exemplary of success, and have little to do with service to poor people, have little to do with sacrificing for working people.
So, when Martin King can say, “My country is the biggest purveyor of violence in the world,” that takes courage in '68, takes courage today. That's the kind of courage we need. Malcolm would be the same way. Fannie Lou, Ella Baker — these are not just names. They exemplify something that’s deep and rich in the history of a hated people who have taught the world so much about love. That’s my tradition, the greatness of Black people, not the cowardliness of Black people. We’ve got both in our community. But our tradition of telling the truth and being willing to live and die for justice, that is what is necessary in this moment of reckoning.
And we don’t — young folk hardly see it at all, hardly see it at all, because so many of the professionals have simply been bought off. They sold out. They’re indifferent. They’re too callous to the plight of their poor and working-class, not just Black, everybody, not just here, but around the world — the Wretched of the Earth, as the great Frantz Fanon wrote about with such power.
AMY GOODMAN: Bakari Sellers, I want to ask you about the accusation that when they look at a state, who are the outside agitators who are coming in. You certainly know, from your family’s illustrious history, that when people came from the North to support the push for voting in the South during the civil rights movement, that to go from one state to another, for groups of people all over the country, for example, to go to Ferguson after Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer, that that meant solidarity. It didn’t mean that it took away their validity when people want to gather to show support. If you could respond to that, this accusation of outside agitators? And then, as an attorney, why aren’t these police officers — why haven’t they been arrested? Philonise Floyd, George’s brother, said these cops arrest people every single day. Why are these police officers not charged right now? They can even change the charges later.
BAKARI SELLERS: So, you brought up a good point. And nothing makes me cringe more than hearing the term “outside agitator.” What it is, is a copout. Elected officials — and we’re seeing that used to say that my own constituents don’t have any reason to have this level of discord. You know, they deemed my father to be an outside agitator. They said that Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney were outside agitators. So, those terms, that terminology, it just frightens me to my core. But it’s also a copout.
And I want to piggyback on what my other two friends on this program stated, that right now is not the time to just tell people to go home. Now is not the time to hide behind sheets of peace. And now is not the time to tell people just to go home and wait until November when you can cast your ballot. That’s just not the way this is working. We have to have tangible solutions, which leads me into the next point.
You know, I’ve heard a lot of elected officials, including, to Dr. West’s point, Black elected officials, stand up and say, “Leave the streets, go home, and just register and vote.” Well, in '64, ’65, ’68, imagine telling Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer or my father, Cleveland Sellers, or Martin or Malcolm that they had to just go home and come back when it was time to vote. That's not the way this works.
You asked a very good question about what needs to happen and why law enforcement hasn’t been charged. And let me give you some very tangible things that we can do that need to be done. The first thing, to my Sister Tamika Mallory, who I’m glad I didn’t have to go after her, because I don’t have anything to say after she speaks. I would oftentimes say that the first thing we need to do is arrest all the officers. All the officers need to be arrested, not just in George Floyd’s case, but they also need to be arrested in Breonna Taylor’s case.
The second thing we need to do is we need to lower the federal civil rights standard so that we can bring criminal charges against cops who murder our people.
The third thing we need to do is limit qualified immunity, so we can bring these 1983 actions against cops who were bad in departments who allowed them to be bad.
And the fourth thing we need to do is we need to have a national database for law enforcement officers who commit bad acts. Right now you can murder somebody, get off, go two cities down and get rehired. That is not the way this should be.
And those are tangible solutions that I don’t want to wait ’til November for. I want people to put pressure on their local officials in government right now to do those things, and every mayor, every governor —
AMY GOODMAN: We have to — we have to leave it there.
BAKARI SELLERS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: But we are certainly going to continue the discussion, Bakari Sellers, attorney, author of the new book, his memoir, My Vanishing Country; Dr. Cornel West, professor in the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University; and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.