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“America’s Moment of Reckoning”: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor & Cornel West on Uprising Against Racism

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Scholars Cornel West and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor respond to the global uprising against racism and police violence following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “We’re seeing the convergence of a class rebellion with racism and racial terrorism at the center of it,” said Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. “And in many ways, we are in uncharted territory in the United States.”

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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 Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the uprisings against police brutality and racism. I want to turn to a conversation Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I had in early June with the scholars Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University and Cornel West of Harvard University. I began by asking professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to talk about the mass uprising and the police killing of George Floyd.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Thank you, Amy, for letting me come on this morning to talk.

You know, I think part of what we are seeing is years and years of pent-up rage. Many people have referenced the 1960s, have referenced Ferguson in 2014, but I think it’s important to say that these are not just repeats of past events. These are the consequences of the failures of this government and the political establishment, the economic establishment of this country to resolve those crises, and so they build and accumulate over time. And we are watching the boiling over of that.

Imagine how angry, desperate, rage-filled you would have to be to come out and protest in the conditions of a historical pandemic that has already killed over 103,000 Americans, that has had a disproportionately horrendous impact in Black communities. I believe 23,000 or 24,000 Black people have died. To put it more bluntly, one in every 2,000 African Americans in the United States has died as the result of COVID. So imagine how difficult things have to be for people to come out in those conditions. So, I think that the buildup around police brutality, the continuation of police brutality, police abuse and violence and murder has compelled people to have to endure those conditions, because it is obvious that there is either nothing that our government can do about this or that the government is complicit and chooses not to do anything about this.

And I think that we have to add to that the crisis that is unfolding beyond police brutality in the country, as well, because we all know that the videotapes of police beatings, abuse, murder have never stopped. So, the movement that grew out of the Ferguson uprising, that became Black Lives Matter, the conditions that led to that never actually ended. And I think that what has reignited that is obviously the public lynching of George Floyd one week ago in Minneapolis, but also the conditions, the wider context within which that is spilling over. And because of that wider condition of mass unemployment, of the death that has been caused by the pandemic, that this is not just — I don’t believe these are just protests around or against police brutality.

But we see a lot of — hundreds, if not thousands, of young white people in these uprisings, making these multiracial rebellions, really. And I think that that is important. Some people have sort of described the participation of white people as outside agitators, or I know that there are reports of white supremacists infiltrating some of the demonstrations. And I think that those are things that we have to pay attention to, keep track of and try to understand. But I think we cannot dismiss in a widespread way the participation of young white people, because we have to see that what has happened over the last decade has gutted their lives, too. And there has been some discussion about this with perhaps their parents’ generation, with the description of deaths by despair.

So, we know that the life expectancy of ordinary white men and women has gone into reverse — something, by the way, that does not typically happen in the developed world. And it is driven by opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide. And so, this generation, whose lives really — you know, if you’ve graduated from college, your life has been bracketed by war at the turn of the 21st century, by recession and now by a deadly pandemic. And so, I think we’re seeing the convergence of a class rebellion with racism and racial terrorism at the center of it. And in many ways, we are in uncharted territory in the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Cornel West, could you respond to what professor Yamahtta Taylor said? You agree that, of course, the murder of George Floyd was a lynching. You’ve also said that his murder and the demonstrations that have followed show that America is a failed social experiment. So could you respond to that and also the way that the state and police forces have responded to the protests, following George Floyd’s killing, with the National Guard called out in so many cities and states across the country?

CORNEL WEST: Well, there’s no doubt that this is America’s moment of reckoning. But we want to make the connection between the local and the global, because, you see, when you sow the seeds of greed — domestically, inequality; globally, imperial tentacles, 800 military units abroad, violence and AFRICOM in Africa, supporting various regimes, dictatorial ones in Asia and so forth — there is a connection between the seeds that you sow of violence externally and internally. Same is true in terms of the seed of hatred, of white supremacy, hating Black people, anti-Blackness hatred having its own dynamic within the context of a predatory capitalist civilization obsessed with money, money, money, domination of workers, marginalization of those who don’t fit — gay brothers, lesbian sisters, trans and so forth. So, it’s precisely this convergence that my dear sister Professor Taylor is talking about of the ways in which the American Empire, imploding, its foundations being shaken, with uprisings from below.

The catalyst was certainly Brother George Floyd’s public lynching, but the failures of the predatory capitalist economy to provide the satisfaction of the basic needs of food and healthcare and quality education, jobs with a decent wage, at the same time the collapse of your political class, the collapse of your professional class. Their legitimacy has been radically called into question, and that’s multiracial. It’s the neofascist dimension in Trump. It’s the neoliberal dimension in Biden and Obama and the Clintons and so forth. And it includes much of the media. It includes many of the professors in universities. The young people are saying, “You all have been hypocritical. You haven’t been concerned about our suffering, our misery. And we no longer believe in your legitimacy.” And it spills over into violent explosion.

And it’s here. I won’t go on, but, I mean, it’s here, where I think Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rabbi Heschel and Edward Said, and especially Brother Martin and Malcolm, their legacies, I think, become more central, because they provide the kind of truth telling. They provide the connection between justice and compassion in their example, in their organizing. And that’s what is needed right now. Rebellion is not the same thing in any way as revolution. And what we need is a nonviolent revolutionary project of full-scale democratic sharing — power, wealth, resources, respect, organizing — and a fundamental transformation of this American Empire.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts, Professor West, on the governor of Minnesota saying they’re looking into white supremacist connections to the looting and the burning of the city, and then President Trump tweeting that he’s going to try to put antifa, the anti-fascist activists, on the terror list — which he cannot do — and William Barr emphasizing this, saying he’s going after the far left to investigate?

CORNEL WEST: No, I mean, that’s ridiculous. You know, you remember, Sister Amy — and I love and respect you so — that antifa saved my life in Charlottesville. There’s no doubt about it, that they provided the security, you see. So the very notion that they become candidates for a terrorist organization, but the people who were trying to kill us — the Nazis, the Klan — they’re not candidates for terrorist organization status — but that’s what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a Trump-led neofascist backlash and clampdown on what is going on. We ought to be very clear about that. The neofascism has that kind of obsession with militaristic imposition in the face of any kind of disorder. And so we’ve got to be fortified for that.

But most importantly, I think we’ve got to make sure that we preserve our own moral, spiritual, quality, fundamental focus on truth and justice, and keep track of legalized looting, Wall Street greed; legalized murder, police; legalized murder abroad in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Africa with AFRICOM, and so forth. That’s where our focus has to be, because with all of this rebellious energy, it’s got to be channeled through organizations rooted in a quest for truth and justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Professors Cornel West and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. We’ll hear more from them in a moment, but first let’s turn to former Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory. She spoke at a rally in Minneapolis days after the police killed George Floyd.

TAMIKA MALLORY: We are not responsible for the mental illness that has been inflicted upon our people by the American government, institutions and those people who are in positions of power. I don’t give a damn if they burn down Target, because Target should be on the streets with us calling for the justice that our people deserve. Where was AutoZone at the time when Philando Castile was shot in a car, which is what they actually represent? Where were they?

So, if you are not coming to the people’s defense, then don’t challenge us when young people and other people who are frustrated and instigated by the people you pay — you are paying instigators to be among our people out there, throwing rocks, breaking windows and burning down buildings. And so young people are responding to that. They are enraged.

And there’s an easy way to stop it: Arrest the cops. Charge the cops. Charge all the cops, not just some of them, not just here in Minneapolis. Charge them in every city across America where our people are being murdered. Charge them everywhere. That’s the bottom line. Charge the cops. Do your job. Do what you say this country is supposed to be about — the land of the free for all. It has not been free for Black people, and we are tired.

Don’t talk to us about looting. Y’all are the looters. America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you. We learned violence from you. The violence was what we learned from you. So if you want us to do better, then, damn it, you do better.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tamika Mallory speaking in Minneapolis over the weekend. 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: Harvard professor Cornel West and Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. If you’d like to watch the whole conversation with them, as well as Angela Davis and more, go to democracynow.org.

That does it for today’s show. Democracy Now! is produced by a remarkable team, in the studios and sheltering at home. We want to thank each and every one of them. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras and María Taracena. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike DiFilippo, Miguel Nogueira, Mike Burke, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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