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Historian Robin D.G. Kelley: Years of Racial Justice Organizing Laid Groundwork for Today’s Uprising

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Image Credit: E. Mackey

As protests against police brutality and racism continue across the country, we speak with historian and UCLA professor of African American studies Robin D.G. Kelley. “We’re not here by accident,” Kelley says, crediting racial justice organizers for laying the groundwork for this moment over the last decade. “The real question now is whether or not this can be sustained.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the mass uprising engulfing the U.S. and what protesters are demanding now, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Robin Kelley, professor of African American studies at UCLA. He studies social movements, author of many books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

Professor Kelley, it’s great to have you back with us, especially now. I mean, just in the last hours, you have the icons of the Confederacy being tumbled throughout the United States. You have President Trump announcing he’s giving his first campaign speech in months in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the worst massacres of Black people in U.S. history, on Juneteenth, June 19th, this in the midst of this global uprising. Talk about this moment we are in.

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Right. Yeah, that’s a slap in the face.

Let me begin by talking about Philonise Floyd’s testimony, because it was — you know, listening to it again is very emotional, and it really captures the moment we’re in. It moved me, in part, because we’ve been hearing this speech — I’ve been hearing this speech my entire life. I don’t remember a moment in my life when I hadn’t heard someone talking about holding the police accountable, teaching cops to treat people with empathy and respect, teaching them appropriate force.

And I was really struck — again, this kind of captures the moment — by how George Floyd called the officers “sir” — and this is something that his brother mentioned — as he was being killed, called them “sir.” And it was a painful and telling revelation, given how Black men and women were beaten or even killed for not addressing an officer of the law or any white man as “sir.” You know, this happened to my father-in-law.

So, in some ways, that question and the other question, which is “What is a Black man’s worth? Twenty dollars?” this moment that we’re in now raises that question. You have mass protests around the world coming back to a perennial question, is: What are Black lives worth? Are Black lives worth more than — less than property? I mean, Black Lives Matter drilled down on this question from the moment’s inception, you know, asking the question, “What kind of society is this that values property over Black life?” And, you know, when you think about even your last guest talking about tear-gassing, the fact that people are being tear-gassed during a pandemic, and over this question of whether or not a Black life has value.

So, this is a really crucial moment. Clearly, Trump and his ilk are really drilling down on what I would argue is a fascist response. It’s drilling down on a state that has no issue taking people’s lives over the smallest infraction. And I think I have a lot of — I shouldn’t say “hope,” but I do have — I do imagine real change occurring, when you have millions of people in the street saying, not what people said in '68 — this is a very different moment — but actually saying that we can't have police as we knew it, you know?

You think about the uprisings in the 1960s, where so many of the struggles emerging out of ghetto communities, you know, demanding an end to police brutality, police violence, demanding an end to the denial of basic needs, services, jobs, and in those days the response to the demands were things like diversity, inclusion, community oversight, more Black cops, demands that officers live in the community.

And you compare that to defunding the police, to basically reorganizing the way we deal with public safety. And this is coming from many different circles. People who thought, five, six years ago, that was a ridiculous demand, are now seeing it as not only viable, but we’re seeing it happening. We’re seeing at least the beginnings of it happening. We’ll see how it turns out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Kelley, I want to go back to something that you wrote immediately following Trump’s election in November 2016. You wrote that the U.S. needs a multiracial movement committed to, quote, “dismantling the oppressive regimes of racism, heteropatriarchy, empire, and class exploitation that is at the root of inequality, precarity, materialism, and violence in many forms.” You’ve just talked about how the demands of this movement are very different. Do you see what’s happening now as what you wanted to happen in November 2016?

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Exactly. And not only that, but what I wrote in 2016 was actually a reflection of what was already happening on the ground. So, in some respects, remember, the Movement for Black Lives put out their policy platform in August of 2016.

And one of the things we all have to acknowledge is that we’re not here by accident. You know, this is not a spontaneous response to the pandemic, and suddenly white people are waking up and saying, “Oh, wait a second, Black lives matter.” No, this is a product of enormous work, going back well before Trayvon Martin. But you think about all the organizing work, the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, the women who organized Black Lives Matter, initiated — Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors — people like Melina Abdullah, Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100, all the scholar activists who have been working on this question — Barbara Ransby, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore — and then, before that, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Copwatch, Dignity and Power, Critical Resistance, the African American Policy Forum. These were initiatives on the ground who did all this political education, all this organizing work — We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders, the Rising Majority, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, and also groups like SURJ, you know, [Showing] Up for Racial Justice, which deals with white racism.

So you have an infrastructure in place that has been doing this work for a decade or more — more than a decade. And that’s why people are out here. That’s why people can come out into the streets and simply roll off their tongues words like “defund the police,” connect transphobia, homophobia, gender oppression, patriarchy to racial capitalism and to racial violence, connect these things in ways that I think are kind of unprecedented. But again, without the organizing work, we would not be here, you know? And I think it’s very important to even go back and acknowledge how the foundations were laid by the Combahee River Collective, by people like Barbara Smith, raised by the Third World Women’s Alliance, I mean, fighting around questions of connecting sterilization, abortion rights with racism. You know? So, these kinds of links, these connections — and also with war — are important. So, there’s a long history that got us here.

And the real question now is whether or not this can be sustained, because we know, throughout history, we’ve had revolutionary moments, after Reconstruction in the 1870s, followed by backlash and by what we can describe as American fascism. We have the sort of Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, followed by backlash, the rise of the Klan, the tamping down on the strike wave in the 1970s, neoliberalism. And now we’re facing another one. We have these forces trying to transform the world in a way that could actually bring safety and prosperity to all versus a president and a regime that asks, “What happened to Gone with the Wind?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Kelley, you talked about the long history of this movement, which certainly is the case. It builds on many precursors of this kind of rebellion. But it also has — there are dimensions of a dark side in some of the phrases that are being employed, especially in the media here, some of the media, and that is “looting.” “Looting” is — in fact, “loot” is a Hindi word with Sanskritic origins, and it entered the language in colonial India, with South Asian historian Vazira Zamindar pointing out that its initial usage — one of its initial usages was to define as rapists and looters those who were involved in the first rebellion against the East India Company in 1857. And, I mean, it’s very difficult to imagine — and they were characterized as “looters” and “rapists.” It’s very difficult to imagine that Trump would know this history, but he certainly knows of its connotations. So, could you talk about the use of the term “looting” in the media and the fact that you’ve said every single rebellion and uprising has included it?

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Right. Well, you know, the other day I did a Google news search, in its sort of search engine, and put in “looting,” and I got 19 million hits. And then I put in “excessive force” and got 1.1 million hits. So, what’s interesting is the way that the media really has grabbed onto looting as the problem. It displaces some of the major issues that are being raised, especially the violence of the police against protesters. And so, what’s interesting about looting, you know, if you look at the long history, there is not a civil disturbance, civil unrest of any significance, or even a natural disaster, in which some sort of flash looting or appropriation of goods didn’t take place. So, that’s not uncommon.

Also, there’s a tendency to treat looting as a way to dismiss legitimate organizing work, when, in fact, many people who are sort of seizing the moment — in this case, during an economic crisis with 40 million people applying for unemployment — as if somehow those kinds of attacks on property or appropriating property are themselves part of a movement or part of a wing of a movement. And we know that’s not the case at all.

What the question of looting does bring to fore are two things. One, what — it goes back to Mr. Floyd’s question: What is a Black man’s life worth? What is a Black person’s life worth? Is the destruction of property or taking things or taking sneakers or computers somehow more important than watching someone die on film, you know, watching the 5,000-some-odd people killed by the police over the last few years? I mean, what’s more important? And so, what’s the value of someone?

The second part of looting is it displaces the looting that is the history of the United States. We know that human bodies, that Black bodies, were looted — that’s how we got here — that Indigenous land was looting, seizing that land. We know that for years the housing market has been a kind of form of looting, in which the value of Black-owned homes have been suppressed, Black wages suppressed. The transfer of wealth is a kind of form of looting. But also, if you look at the history of race riots in America, most so-called race riots were basically pogroms, going back to Cincinnati in 1839, 1841, going back to a whole range of so-called race riots in Philadelphia. You mentioned Tulsa in the opening of the show, Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was a kind of looting — not a kind of looting, but you’re talking about destroying 35 blocks of Black-owned property and businesses worth millions of dollars, people going into people’s — white people going into homes, with the support of the police, taking Black people’s stuff, destroying and taking stuff. Tulsa, Oklahoma, East St. Louis in 1917 — we could talk about Rosewood in 1923. You know, there’s so many examples — Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. And some of that looting is also about taking political power.

And so, one last example I want to give is the most absurd. And that is, if you noticed, during George Floyd’s funeral, the New York Stock Exchange decided that it would go silent and not trade for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Now, what’s interesting about that is that — talk about looting — Wall Street has profited from police misconduct. I mean, to consider that, cities have been paying out billions to cover police misconduct lawsuits. When they can’t pay out the settlement, what do they do? They try regular tax revenue; they can’t afford it. They fleece the poor with more fees and fines, and they also borrow. And when cities and counties issue bonds to pay for the cost of police misconduct, which is in the billions of dollars, banks and other firms collect the fees for their services, investors earn interest, and then, using the bonds to cover the settlement, those bonds and up costing sometimes as much as 100% more than the original settlement. So, this is a transfer of wealth from overpoliced communities to Wall Street, which is called — or Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America. And this is what is called police brutality bonds.


ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: There’s a great study of this. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin D.G. Kelley, we’re going to have to leave it there.


AMY GOODMAN: But we have so much more to talk about with you, and we hope to have you back very soon. Robin Kelley is professor of African American studies at UCLA. He studies social movements, author of many books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thirty seconds, and then we go to Seattle.


AMY GOODMAN: “Yes We Can Can” by The Pointer Sisters. Bonnie Pointer, the founding member of the group, died at the age of 69 earlier this week.

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