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Mychal Denzel Smith on Breonna Taylor, Defunding Police, Systemic Racism & His Trump-Era Depression

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Journalist and author Mychal Denzel Smith joins us for a wide-ranging discussion on the uprising against racist police, the upcoming presidential election and why he says a Biden win won’t cure his Trump-era depression, and his new book, “Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream.” Denzel Smith questions whether arresting and charging the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, a core demand of many protests in the wake of her death, represents justice, despite the historic settlement between Louisville and her family. “The only way to prevent another instance of the situation that took Breonna Taylor’s life is to defund, dismantle police departments across the nation,” Smith says. He argues defeating Donald Trump in November will not solve systemic racism, inequality or the climate crisis. “What Joe Biden has offered thus far is not a transformative enough agenda to be able to face those issues.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We’re joined now by Mychal Denzel Smith to discuss the historic settlement the city of Louisville has just reached with Breonna Taylor’s family, the upcoming presidential election and far more. Mychal Denzel Smith is a fellow at Type Media Center, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education and his new book, just released this week, Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream. One of its essays was adapted for an op-ed this week in The New York Times headlined “A Biden Win Won’t Cure My Trump-Era Depression.”

Mychal Denzel Smith, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Let’s start with the Breonna Taylor settlement in Louisville. We just heard Benjamin Crump, as well as Breonna’s mother and Tamika Mallory, talking about this record $12 million settlement to the family, and police reform in Louisville, though the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor have not been arrested. Your response?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: I hope that this settlement brings Breonna Taylor’s family some semblance of peace. I hope that this helps in mitigating their pain, in helping them heal together. But I think we have to dispense with the notion that there is justice for Breonna Taylor at this point. There is no justice in her lost life. There is no justice in arresting and indicting and convicting the officers who killed her, because what we’re doing then is relying on a system that is built to inscribe injustice in our society to deliver justice, that the idea that prison would be a just result. No, what the system can do right now is enact a sense of revenge by inflicting harm on the officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

And, look, her family is well within their rights to want that right now, and I will never question that. But what I can say, or what I want the rest of us to think through, is the idea that what the community needs in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor, what the nation needs in the response to killing of Breonna Taylor, is the arrest of these individual officers. The only way to prevent another instance of the killing that — the situation that took Breonna Taylor’s life is to defund, dismantle police departments across the nation, across the world, abolishing police, abolishing the very idea of policing, setting up a new organizing principle for our society that wouldn’t require policing in the first place.

You know, what we’re looking at there — I mean, the settlement is huge, but the idea of public money subsidizing Black death is nothing new. This is routine. And they’re willing to pay this amount of money in order to continue the system. You know, police are going to kill again over a thousand people every year, and they’d be willing to pay $12 million for each of those if that means that they can go about their business continuing to do that.

What I think we have to understand is that it’s a structural problem. And some of these reforms that they’ve offered here in response, I mean, it’s great that they’re thinking in that way, that in addition to the monetary settlement, they’re asking for things to change within the police department. But the things that they’ve asked for, I mean, the things — or, the things that they’ve won here in terms of police officers needing to be parts of their community and live in the communities that they’re policing, well, that just means that police are going to kill their neighbors now. The idea that we need more oversight from higher-ups within the police departments, what do we think is going to happen? Do we think that police chiefs have more compassion, that police chiefs have more wisdom to pass down or more ideas around eliminating violence from their communities? This isn’t — these aren’t things that are going to change the fundamental nature of policing or eliminate the reasons for policing in the first place.

So, I think we just have to understand that there is no — there’s no justice here. Justice needs to be conceptualized as something that is more proactive, that is about providing people with the things that they need for a sustainable life while they’re here, and that we can’t think that justice means monetary compensation for Black death.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mychal Denzel Smith, I wanted to ask you — Benjamin Crump, at the press conference yesterday, put a lot of stress on this whole issue of reforms of the so-called no-knock warrants. These were actually products of the 1980s Reagan “war on drugs.” In the early 1980s, there were about 1,500 no-knock warrants by law enforcement across the country. Today there are 60,000 to 70,000 a year. Do you think that this will have any significant impact, this whole idea that there are no constitutional rights for people who are accused of or are suspected of any kind of illegal activity, that police can just break down their door?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yeah. I mean, James Baldwin was writing about no-knock warrants in the ’60s, and Gil Scott-Heron, again in the ’70s, talking about these no-knock warrants, the ability of police to simply go into any home that they please, without cause, break down doors and arrest people, shoot people.

I mean, but the idea that the warrant, in and of itself, being something that we require in these instances points to the fact that people have no rights to begin with, right? Because even if you require the warrant, police find ways around that or develop systems that then don’t require them to have warrants in the first place. There’s no warrant required or had — there was no warrant required for stop-and-frisk here in New York City, right? But we found justifications — or, the city found justifications for being able to implement that program.

So, again, I think, you know, there’s the specifics, right? There’s the things that very clearly are harmful, and no-knock warrants are something that we absolutely have to address here, but that’s part of a structural problem in which what police are sent out to do in these instances is to enforce these laws that are meant to subjugate segments of the population.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the role that the protest movement across the country has had, and the activists in Kentucky specifically, in terms of forcing — we’re increasingly seeing police departments in cities have to respond — the Rochester situation where the mayor fires the police chief this week. What is your assessment of the impact of the movement on trying to get some structural changes?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: There won’t be any structural changes without movement. And I think we have to acknowledge that a huge reason why these changes are taking place in the first place is that it’s not just that people are in the streets, it’s not just that people are demanding these things, it’s that they’ve taken radical action. They have taken militant action. They’ve directly confronted state power.

If nothing happens — the protest movement doesn’t grow to the size that it did even this past summer, if it weren’t for the fact that, in the beginning of this, that police station was burned in Minneapolis — right? — that police cars were set on fire in New York, in Atlanta, in Louisville. We have to understand that the property destruction as a tactic was used, and it set the nation on notice that something has to change now.

And so, the thing that I — you know, that gives me hope is that these things are possible. But what makes me question — what I have questions around is: How much more of that is going to be necessary, if what we’ve won in the aftermath of that, of such dramatic action, is these very milquetoast and middle-of-the-road reforms?

AMY GOODMAN: Mychal, your op-ed piece in The New York Times that just appeared, “A Biden Win Won’t Cure My Trump-Era Depression,” adapted from your new book, Stakes Is High, you begin by talking about the killing of your 12-year-old — when you were 12 years old, the killing of your cousin and the effect it has on the family, on the community. Share that personal story with us, and then take it bigger.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Well, I think, you know, the acknowledgment there was that there’s community violence that does impact us, and on a deeply emotional level. And as a 12-year-old, losing a big cousin of mine, who was 17 at the time, had an impact that I didn’t acknowledge at that time, but it did set off a chain of events in which I experienced depression every year. And so, I was diagnosed with this, an anxiety disorder, later in my life.

But the piece is about the ways in which, like, the outside forces contribute to that level of depression. It’s something that I wouldn’t have — even as someone who has lived with depression, wouldn’t have acknowledged as depression during the past four years of the Trump era, until very late in this time, because I wasn’t acknowledging that it had any impact on me personally. But what I’m pointing to in that piece is that many people are feeling the anxiety of this era.

And I think we have to note that a part of it is coming off of eight years of the first Black presidency. And for the limitations of it — and there were many — it was an era in which people felt like there was some type of avenue toward progress. This, the election of Donald Trump, is a retrenchment of the forces of white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalism that are grinding people to an early death.

During an era in which we have very little time to face the climate apocalypse, as we see the fires raging out in California, in the Pacific Northwest, and the hurricanes gathering in the Gulf Coast, during a global pandemic of an airborne illness, we think we just don’t have very much time to address this. And four years of a Trump presidency has only done anything to accelerate the climate disaster here.

So, what we’re facing is an idea that we’re depressed, and I am depressed, because it seems so large, it seems too big to handle, and that the response from the Democratic Party, the party that’s supposed to be in opposition to everything that is happening now, was to nominate for president Joe Biden, who has a nearly 50-year history of public service in which we can acknowledge or identify that he has mostly been a conservative ideologue, that he has staked out positions to the right of the Republican Party in many instances. And that doesn’t give me much room to feel like we are shifting in any significant way to the transformative things that we need to address the large problems that we’re facing, the existential crisis that we are facing globally.

So, it’s to say, you know, yes, Donald Trump must be ousted from office, and that is whether or not he wins the election or not, whether or not he cheats his way toward winning the election or wins it legitimately or he is voted out of office. In any of these instances, there are things that are going to have to be done that are bigger than Donald Trump, that are bigger than Joe Biden. We have to — there has to be collective movement toward facing the large-scale crises that we are up against now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to get clear something. In your essay, you do talk about this — what many psychologists have said, that there is actually an increasing mental health problem in the United States since Trump became president. Some even name it, as you say in your article, “Trump anxiety disorder.” But you’re saying, at the same time, that you don’t think that there will be any substantial or measurable difference in terms of if Biden is successful in coming to office?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Well, the problem is that there could be — there will be some movement, of course. Like, there will be jubilation in certain segments of America if Joe Biden is elected president, absolutely. But what I’m saying is that after Joe Biden is elected president in that scenario, the problems that we face are still going to be in front of us. And what Joe Biden has offered thus far is not a transformative enough agenda to be able to face those issues.

And so, what I’m saying is that, yeah, like, the Trump part of that may be settled, but the rest of it, the things that are fundamental to the nature of American empire, the things that are fundamental to the nature of American capitalism, white supremacy, all of those institutions, the structural problems, the ideology undergirding that, that keeps oppression in place, those things are still there and that we haven’t then elected a president that will be willing to confront those things.

And so, the depression part of that could still sink in, because, again, what we’re up against, what we’re facing — I mean, these fires are not going to stop. Like, the things that we’re up against are just not going to abate just because Joe Biden has been elected president. And I think, you know, we have to acknowledge that, yes, the Trump part of it could be settled by November, but the rest of it is going to — could potentially cause another depression.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mychal Denzel Smith, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 of our conversation after the show and post it online at Mychal is Type Media Center fellow, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. His new book, just released, Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream. We’ll link to several of your essays, one in The Atlantic and the other in The New York Times, its headline, “A Biden Win Won’t Cure My Trump-Era Depression.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the U.S.-brokered Bahrain-UAE-Israel deal that was signed at the White House yesterday. Stay with us.

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