On September 9th, 2014, John Wessel-McCoy, our Poor People’s Campaign program organizer, interviewed Foster Pinkney, a student at Union Theological Seminary and a Poverty Scholars fellow with the Kairos Center, and Willie Baptist, our Poverty Scholar in residence and coordinator of the Poverty Scholars Program, about the conditions in Ferguson, MO and the political developments there. Foster had just returned from a visit to Ferguson to bear prophetic witness to the events there with members of the Union Student Senate. Willie Baptist was asked to reflect on what’s happening in Ferguson in the context of his experiences of the uprisings in poor black urban communities in the 1960s.
John Wessel-McCoy: Foster, can you talk some about what stood out to you from what you saw and learned in Ferguson when you were down there?
Foster J. Pinkney: One of the things that hit me the most was going to the site where Mike Brown was shot. What struck us was how small this place was. It was just a small community. He was killed in between two apartment buildings on a narrow twisty street. And what was powerful for us, is that we had all grown up in neighborhoods like this.
This was working class people that worked hard to get these apartments and took care of their neighborhood. But they had to come home to a body in the middle of their street just ten, twelve feet away from their doorway. And the fact that his body lay there for four hours in the heat in the middle of the day, when people were going to and from work and kids were coming home and all that…that was the frustration, that’s where the anger grew out of. That they just wanted to throw his body in the back of a car because the [the police] were afraid to bring the ambulance there. Even though St. Louis was fifteen minutes away, [the police] were just afraid of the crowd and they didn’t know what to do. They were trying to gather evidence and get themselves together while the body was lying in the street. The crowd did grow and they started to gather because the anger that this body was just laying there in the middle of their street in their community was just too much, especially for the younger kids around Mike Brown’s age. [The police] did, actually, just end up putting his body in the back of an SUV; they didn’t bring an ambulance in.
That’s when the so-called riots started because it was just too much for the community I think. To see his body just lying there, disrespected in that way and the fact that he was shot with his hands up. That was the horror, that he had given up and that he wasn’t armed and he was still shot. And what can you do with the police that will shoot you when you have given up and you’re unarmed? How do you protect yourself? How do you live in that condition? I think that opened a lot of eyes up, and that certainly opened our eyes up when we saw where he was shot and saw the makeshift memorials that had been set up.
We also went to the QT [Quick Trip] around the corner where all of the protests were staged. The woman who showed us around – I didn’t get her name – she’s a PhD student at Eden [Theological Seminary in St. Louis] and she co-pastors with her husband in a local church. She was based at that QT, handing out water, basically providing triage, pouring milk on people who had gotten tear gassed and getting people who had been hit with rubber bullets back to their homes and all that. She was with a group of pastors in the back taking care of people and giving pastoral care. So she gave us a different perspective on what had happened. She comes out of that community and she said the way it was represented on TV was the opposite of what she experienced- just a small working class community where if there is gang activity or drugs, it’s not on the scale where someone can say it demands that kind of police presence. And when we saw the street where the tanks, and the tear gas, and the rubber bullets had been used, that was shocking also because it was just so small. It was a four lane street, but it wasn’t a highway and there are shops on both sides. Tear gas was landing on people’s front yards. On Twitter they would always point out when the police would say to people to return to their homes, before curfew and before the tear gas started, and people would shout back, “This is our home.” And literally it was. We can’t return home! This is where we live.
That was the horror, that he had given up and that he wasn’t armed and he was still shot. And what can you do with the police that will shoot you when you have given up and you’re unarmed?
At an event organized by Metropolitan Congregations United we met a woman named Sierra Smith who lived in the Canfield apartments where Mike Brown was shot. She talked about her kids sleeping in their clothing – how they had to be on the edge, always ready to leave, how Ferguson had shut down their school system, so these children were stuck at home all day in that tense atmosphere with tear gas seeping through their windows. It gives you a sense of how small this little community was and how vicious that response was when there are families there and children there getting tear gassed out of their own homes.
JWM: What insights do you think you can share in terms of the terrain, of the conditions there, in terms of what really isn’t being talked about or is being misrepresented or is being missed through the mass media coverage, whether that’s social media or the corporate media?
FJP: The first take that I have is that this is a long-term problem. On the news it seemed like this sudden burst of anger. What we don’t realize is that these places like Ferguson are basically modern ghettos where people are housed and patrolled in a military way, so the police had a military response to this uprising. And it was the constant living under these conditions where you can be killed or arrested, at the drop of a hat for no reason, that’s what led to these protests – that’s what led to that anger and why they responded in that way. The fact that Mike Brown was the last straw in that way, that’s not being reported. They are not talking about the history of suppression and oppression in just that small community.
JWM: How did what you saw, what you experienced, impact you personally? How do you situate yourself in this?
FJP: I was really angry just seeing where Mike Brown was shot. It was very much like the community I grew up in where there are poor people, but they’re not criminals because of their poverty and their blackness. The fact that they’re viewed that way by people who are supposed to be protecting them brought up deep anger. I saw the same anger in the protest there and figuring out for myself how to transform that anger into action that can be sustained has been difficult for me.
There’s also the frustration- the whiter communities we were working with just didn’t understand privilege. They didn’t understand white supremacy, and they didn’t understand what was happening ten minutes away.
We went to this restaurant and this waitress, once she found out we were seminarians, sort of opened up about her experience living in Ferguson in that community and how when she went to work, she had to shut all that down. Because she was working where everyone else was white, she couldn’t speak to her experience about what was going on. And how she had two boys that she was raising and how to talk to them about dealing with the police and dealing with murder in their neighborhood and that was powerful for me because there are so many women in that situation. There are so many black parents that have to have that talk with their kids again about how to deal with the police, but what do you tell them when putting your hands up and surrendering isn’t enough anymore? So, what’s left?
So I brought that sadness back I guess. And that rage is still there, but I am trying to come to terms with how to transform that, work with that.
JWM: I want to shift here to Willie and get some of your reflections. And it may be good to just set a bit of the context and for you to give an overview of your relationship to Watts in 1965.
Willie Baptist: Well, I’m 66 now and I was 17 years old, growing up in Watts, just a year younger than Michael Brown, when particularly oppressive police relationships in the black ghettos triggered mass uprisings in Watts. Aggressive police acts and killings had precipitated smaller outbreaks of protests in black ghettos such as in Harlem, which predated the larger uprisings of the last half of the 1960s. However, it was the much larger 1965 ghetto uprising in Watts, California that inaugurated the largest violent social upheaval since the United States Civil War.
Watts was a mostly segregated poor black neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. It was one of poorest, if not the poorest, communities in the entire state of California. The uprising erupted in the small Watts community. However, the police and the National Guard cordoned off an area much larger than Watts. Watts had anywhere between 40- to 50,000 people, but the area they cordoned off had from 400- to 500,000 people, which was a broader black community. It was an area in which the events, which were sparked in Watts, began to spread throughout South Central Los Angeles.
Back then we were also confronted with a militarized police force backed by the National Guard. Military helicopters and other such equipment that had been used in Vietnam were deployed. The accumulation over the years of abusive police practices reached a boiling point at which pent-up rage and mass resistance were unleashed. Incidents of the escalated movement of police and military forces, the mass arrests and the killings left an indelible stain on my brain. Today I’m still a student of what happened during those times of ghetto revolts in Watts and throughout the country. Since then, I’ve been able to come to conclusions about things I couldn’t have come to while in the midst of those events. Even so I still find myself personally reliving these events every time I hear about police abuses, particularly as it concerns black youth who are the dead victims of those abuses. So the rage I’ve been building up since the age of 17 is still there and it’s often re-triggered. I find it hard not to respond emotionally to these situations and I tend to revisit those times over and over again.
JWM: What kind of comparisons do you think we can make between Ferguson and Watts?
WB: The global 2008 crisis has given rise to mass economic and social dislocations and an acceleration of police abuses and violence. This has precipitated resistance and significant protests – so called “riots” – in black communities.
I’m reminded of the impoverished economic conditions in Watts during the time of the uprising where we had upwards of 60-70% unemployment among the youth. Unemployment and bad economic conditions basically described the black ghettos throughout the country. It’s clear that what made the ghetto the ghetto was this economic situation, not just police racial oppression. This is true despite the official findings of the riot commission set up by President Johnson. The Kerner Commission [officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed July 28, 1967 by Lyndon B. Johnson] characterized the ghetto uprisings as “race riots,” as essentially caused by the continuing divide between white America and black America. This finding appealed to and reinforced a historically evolved, extremely limited and emotionally charged, racialized view in American thinking.
The conditions that gave rise to the Watts uprisings are today beginning to develop and worsen in other distressed communities including working class white communities. And bad economic relations give rise to bad police relations and we can expect the increase and spread of explosive events like what's happening in Ferguson.
The killing of Michael Brown and other similar killings have triggered the feelings of rage that have existed deep inside of me dating as far back as my traumatic experiences of Watts. So reflecting on what I’ve come to know about the Watts situation and the Ferguson situation and all the other recent “race riots,” I see how mainstream media has limited most people’s view of these outbreaks. They have the people only focusing on and discussing the tree and not the “forest of factors” involved in these processes- the complex of connected issues and problems coming out of the present economic situation. The conditions that gave rise to the Watts uprisings are today beginning to develop and worsen in other distressed communities including working class white communities. And bad economic relations give rise to bad police relations and we can expect the increase and spread of explosive events like what’s happening in Ferguson.
In the ‘60s the impoverished conditions in the black ghettos found expression in the mass resistance of the uprisings. One of the main forms of mass participation, for young and old, was looting- the all-out violation of legal property relations. People protested by taking what they needed economically. They took things like food, clothing, baby diapers, and so on. That right there shows the relationship of the ghetto uprisings to the economic situation. And while poverty among blacks and other nonwhites has always been disproportionately greater and more concentrated in segregated ghettos, barrios, and other deprived areas, poor whites have always in absolute terms outnumbered poor blacks and other poor nonwhites.
JWM: What do you mean by the “forest of factors”?
WB: I mean we’ve got to put events such as the Ferguson outbreak into context. It’s connected to the stepped up police activities in relationship to the Occupy eruptions, which included many students who are accumulating debt and facing a situation where they have very low economic prospects. So they took initiative to protest these worsening conditions and then that reverberated across the country in terms of other Occupies and then we witnessed the police reaction to that. But also globally with the role of the police in the situations in Greece and in Spain. And the police brutality in the favelas has intensified in Brazil. Here every year, something like 400 youth, or black youth, are killed during police activities, but in Brazil you have thousands, I mean thousands and thousands, dying. Vast sections of the youth in the Mideast and in northern African countries like Egypt and Tunisia are unemployed and educated with little or no prospect of being absorbed into the economy. With no jobs and an imperiled future they are being compelled into a fight for their lives and livelihoods. They are finding themselves in the forefront of these uprisings and being beaten back by police and military activities. And there’s this relationship between economic conditions and the problems of race relations and the problems of police relations. But the discussions about these problems are limited in such a way that their full scope and their causes are not understood and dealt with.
JWM: Were there similar limits in the discussions about and the responses to the Watts uprising?
WB: When you take a deeper look at what happened during the ‘60s black ghetto uprisings you see three major responses that were of major significance and hold some very important lessons for understanding the social problems we are dealing with today. First, the largest response was an all-white, all-classes, Law-and-Order backlash to the police-sparked mass black ghetto protests. As I mentioned, during the Watts uprising I also saw a militarized police force. Like what has gotten a lot attention in the media around Ferguson, we had this militarization of police and it was stepped up in response to the unfolding of the 1960s’ ghetto uprisings throughout the country. Like similar governmental programs today, LEAA [Law Enforcement Assistance Administration] programs were set up to further promote, among other things, this militarization with police departments purchasing military gear and weaponry. The all-white all-classes Law-and-Order backlash movement really served to strengthen these police policies – it was their main social base of support.
JWM: And it’s no mistake that the state of California produced Reagan out of Watts. It was Reagan’s launching pad.
WB: Yes, Ronald Reagan’s reactionary gubernatorial campaign successfully used the mass Law-and-Order backlash sentiments. He campaigned loud and long against what he called the “black criminals of Watts” and he was elected Governor on that basis of it. The all-classes, all white Law-and-Order movement also added to Richard Nixon’s successful Presidential campaign declaring that this movement constituted the new “Silent Majority.”
The second response, which was related to the all-white response, was the all-black, all-classes Black Power movement, which eventually resulted in the advocacy of black capitalism, black businesses, more black cops and the election of impotent black politicians. It was reduced to being utilized as an added excuse and supplement for the backlash despite its legitimate but limited and ineffectual protests of police wrongdoings. With the lack of political consciousness I had at that time, I got caught up in the Black Power movement. So I also got caught up into this cruel manipulation of the Powers That Be.
And both of these two responses fed off each another and combined to maintain and deepen the historic disunity and mutual fear between poor whites and the poor blacks. This disunity has meant the pre-emption of the united action of the social forces necessary for attacking the exploitive and oppressive economic conditions and the racism that have largely created the ghettos and the bad police-community relations in the first place.
Racist attitudes and fears continue to dominate our thinking. And the Kerner Commission reinforced and encouraged this thinking as well as the two racialized movements this thinking contributed to.
It is a thinking that has the mass of the people seeing only the surface and separateness of things. It is a thinking that is fixated on a tree and not the forest or at most it only sees the separate trees and not their connections to each other and to the ecosystem of the forest as a whole. The prevailing focus on racial oppression as a factor isolated from the economy as a whole is derived from this long established mindset and in turn reinforces a narrow and categorical thought process and approach. And this approach like a broken record keeps us repeating history, keep us on a seemingly interminable merry-go-round of police killings of black youths and then black protests with a few left or liberal whites in support.
But there was importantly an attempt at a third response to police brutality and the ghetto uprisings. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s launching and organizing of the nonviolent Poor People’s Campaign, which aimed at uniting the poor and dispossessed across color lines on the basis of their common economic needs. Most strategically, this included poor whites. This third response was tremendously crippled by the political assassination of Dr. King. All the evidence presented in the 1999 civil court case [King vs. Jowers] proved that Dr. King was a victim of police and military violence. The case proved that a poor white man was falsely scapegoated as a diversionary device. The American public, both black and white, was susceptible to believing in this false accusation, which had been manufactured by federal agencies, particularly the FBI.
The trial also proved that Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, his last initiative, posed both a political threat and an immediate military threat involving the demoralization of the front-line US troops in Vietnam, which consisted mostly of poor whites and poor people of color. The threat on these two levels was not about Dr. King the man but about the message he communicated through the launch and organization of the campaign.
JWM: Those last years of King’s life – his opposition to the Vietnam War and especially the Poor People’s Campaign, they aren’t talked about very often. What do you think the significance of that is?
WB: I think the obscuring of the last years of King’s life is obscuring the fact that neither the “right-conservatives” nor the “left-progressives” are in power. It’s the dominance of big capital that manipulates both left and right from a more or less center position, manipulates both the liberal-progressives and the conservatives, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. This manipulation is the application of the political formula of divide and conquer specifically evolved out of US history.
Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction, explained the origins of this doctrine. He described what could be called the old “Plantation Politics.” Du Bois showed us how the poor whites were used to police and control the black slaves and how the super-profits attained through the super-exploitation of the black slaves were used to entice and bribe the poor whites. Throughout history and in my lifetime this formula of power and control has been replayed over and over again. And even in my militancy in joining the Black Power movement and resisting these attacks on black youths, I unknowingly played the part of manipulated pawn in a much larger power game. At that time I didn’t have the political consciousness to get out of the box of this kind of formula of power.
Dr. King on the other hand developed a consciousness that allowed him to begin to get out of the box of being another manipulated pawn piece. His third response was an alternative to the police riots and the two race-based all-classes responses I talked about earlier. His response was a direct challenge to the replay of the old “Plantation Politics” of racial division and manipulation of the bottom classes Du Bois described, the old pattern of power and control that has evolved out of US history. His response was a strategic departure from a Civil Rights Movement that was largely limited to ending only de jure segregation and discrimination, or legal apartheid, in the United States. His response was to begin to pull together the economically exploited and impoverished sections of all ethnic and racial groups despite the de facto segregation of these communities in the ghettos, the barrios, the slums, etc. He was assassinated before he could complete this mission behind his message.
Military intelligence had done surveys during the course of the uprisings and they found that despite his well-known commitment to the nonviolent philosophy, Dr. King was polled as the most respected of all the leaders, by [even] the most militant and youthful rioters. Malcolm X came second. Dr. King had gained this respect because of his bravery in risking death and going to jail, because of the religious values deeply embedded element in most everybody even if they don’t go to church. By the time of the uprisings he had been awarded the Noble Peace Prize and acknowledged as the main leader of a fairly wide network of civil rights organizations. By taking up opposition to the Vietnam War he at once moved to the forefront of the largest struggle for peace in US history. All told, between the ghetto uprisings, the Civil Rights movement, and the peace movement he had become a leader of the three major currents of resistance in the country, along with having attained international legitimacy and influence. With his launching of the Poor People’s Campaign he threatened to unite these major currents against the economic interests and foreign and domestic policies of the Powers That Be.
The killing of a black youth in Ferguson is not an isolated racist event. It is part of a bigger picture, the causes and effects of which suggest a kind of solution that is much broader, and much more encompassing, than what is being discussed right now in the mass media.
In my study of Dr. King’s last years I see how he came to understand the interconnections of the major problems he called the triple evils: the evil of economic poverty, the evil of militarism, and the evil of racism, and how they are all inseparable and you can’t resolve one without resolving the others. What he came to realize is that all those issues and more are embodied in the position of the poor. And if you can unite the poor you are uniting and dealing with all of those issues at the same time. The way the issues of poverty and police brutality have been framed is as separate categorical silos. Poverty is looked at as something over here, the housing crisis and all the other symptoms of poverty—the healthcare crisis, food and water crises, the crisis in education, and the deadly consequences of environmental degradation and disaster for the poor are all seen as disconnected issues. This superficial and false view serves to preempt the kind of motion that Dr. King was trying to enlighten and organize.
The killing of a black youth in Ferguson is not an isolated racist event. It is part of a bigger picture, the causes and effects of which suggest a kind of solution that is much broader, and much more encompassing, than what is being discussed right now in the mass media. And what is being discussed right now is more or less a repeat of history.
Since 2008 and with the continuing stagnation and devastation of global economic crisis, similar conditions of economic depression and political repression that caused the mass eruptions in Watts and other ghettos during the late ‘60s are spreading to white neighborhoods. We are now beginning to witness more political instability globally and more eruptions of protests breaking out globally.
The new situation is requiring more than ever that we reignite the strategic approach Dr. King inaugurated in the last years of his life. I think that one main lesson we must take from the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign is that we do not need just one Martin Luther King but that we need instead many Martin Luther Kings. In other words, we need the replication of many leaders who are clear and committed to his strategic approach of uniting the poor and dispossessed as a leading rallying point for the marshaling a broad and powerful movement to abolish all want, all injustices and human indignities.
JWM: On Dr. King, you know we are working toward reigniting Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign for today. The fundamental strategy for Dr. King and the Poor People’s Campaign then and now is uniting the poor and dispossessed across color lines on the basis of what they have in common. The killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson really exemplifies the disunity of the poor and dispossessed; it’s an important and clear sign of the relationship between race and class in this country. How do we approach Ferguson and the many other Ferguson’s that we anticipate are going to break out as conditions worsen?
WB: This is the reason we need more Martin Luther King-like leaders who can see the more complicated, deeper and bigger picture of social reality in terms of the interconnections of the problems and injustices and the necessary in-separateness of their solutions. Corporate mainstream and elite media would have us not see the truth of this reality. That is why they are focusing public attention on the police killing of Michael Brown and the response of protests in such a way as to present the problem as an isolated one and simply about race. National and global debate has been focused on the images of a militarized police force and the issue of police brutality in a way that limits the discussion to only violations of civil rights and covers up the deepening problems in communities like Ferguson of violations of economic human rights. The worsening economic situation is resulting in an increasing death toll of poor people, including from among growing ranks of poor whites. If you are a youth with no decent job prospect and therefore join the armed forces to die needlessly in war, along with the massive numbers of war deaths of unemployed and poor Iraqis and Afghans, you are just as dead as if you were shot dead by the police. The same is true with drug-related killings and deaths from the epidemic of diabetes. According to the World Food Program more people die from hunger than in the wars that are currently being waged around the world.
So I think that it’s incumbent upon us to take up the mantle of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not just the man but the message of his ministry, which would mean going beyond the leaves and branches of social problems and getting at the root cause. It would mean stepping from behind the pulpit and hitting the pavement and working toward the true and just solution.
Because otherwise, the problems as have been manifested in Ferguson are going to be framed in the way that they can’t be solved…They can only be repeated again and again. Like Dr. King once stated, we are not going to have the accurate prescription for the disease if our diagnosis of it is inaccurate. In other words, if your diagnosis of Ferguson is that it is just a race issue, when in fact it involves and is connected to all these other questions, then you’re not going to be able to build the right kind of solution to the problem, we’re just going to have to relive the inhumane horrors of history.
The worsening economic situation is resulting in an increasing death toll of poor people, including from among growing ranks of poor whites. If you are a youth with no decent job prospect and therefore join the armed forces to die needlessly in war...you are just as dead as if you were shot dead by the police.
JWM: Looking at the media coverage of this event, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone in the news say, “Ferguson is an example of how we as a nation are overdue for a real deep and honest conversation about race.” And they say it over and over again. I really want to know exactly what people imagine that conversation would be like and who would be having that conversation. The events that happened in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, and his being gunned down, strike me in a very personal way. I grew up not very far at all from St. Louis. And coming from where I come from in down state rural Illinois – I see what’s been happening to my home town: the real economic devastation that’s been happening there and that’s been impacting people across color lines, always disproportionately impacting the black community in my home town, but more and more becoming something that has a generalized impact.
I know Illinois better than Missouri, but it’s true in both states that if you go outside the cities, things are getting tough there, and a big thing that is not being said is how much this violent repression and control of communities of color through the police and the criminal justice system there are just as much about how you control poor whites and the white masses. The justification for this system of repression can, and will, be turned against anybody, ultimately, as things get worse. It’s a real clear example of “plantation politics”, but I don’t think it’s a done deal, I don’t think that the dis-unity of the poor and dispossessed is inevitable.
I find it really curious that even when people try to suggest this question around class and the class nature of Ferguson, there’s almost a knee jerk reaction to say, “Hold on, you’re not talking about race.” And I think that’s very interesting. That response really indicates something about how dominant views or understandings are propagated and sustained. I think the challenge of leadership today is to figure out how to tie all these issues together.
WB: There are parallels in history that we can learn from in understanding and responding to the problems of economic and racial injustices that we are being increasingly confronted with today. One is the struggles and organizing of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s. Due largely to the economic devastations of the Great Depression, which hit people no matter what their color, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union out of necessity brought together poor whites who were influenced by the Klan and poor blacks who were influenced by the Marcus Garvey movement. They came together based on what they had in common, and the agitation around that allowed for a discussion of race that got more to its deep economic roots and political complexity. W. E. B. Du Bois’s discussion in his 1935 Black Reconstruction, is a deeper discussion of the questions of race and class and the struggles around them as they found expression during that pivotal period of US history following the Civil War. His magnum opus reveals how he had developed a far deeper grasp of race than his earlier understanding of racial oppression. His more famous and more often referenced book, The Souls of Black Folk, from 1904, discussed race relations separate from economics and class relations. In contrast Black Reconstruction is not just a discussion of how Wall Street and big industrial capital, after abolishing slave capital and through defeating Reconstruction, came to dominate the country economically and politically. It is also a discussion of the central role race played in that violent drama. He describes how both Slave Power and eventually Wall Street utilized the time-worn “Plantation Politics” formula to manipulate and ultimately defeat a disunited class of the dispossessed, that is, property-less, black and white workers.
You can’t understand class and its consequence, poverty, in this country unless you understand race and you can’t understand race and its consequences, like police brutality, unless you understand class. All of the one-sided racial propaganda that has been bought and paid for by the rich ruling class down through US history has led to the current limited appreciation and approach we are witnessing today in the responses to injustices like those in Ferguson. If we are going to change the prevailing misconception of race and class that most people have and if we are going to change the wrong and dehumanizing direction this country is heading, we’ve got to organize to change it – there’s got to be an organized effort to do it. The solution to these injustices is not going to come spontaneously.
And that effort has to include an understanding of the relationship of conditions with consciousness. In conditions where people are being evicted and laid off no matter their skin color, the discussion of race has to be much deeper than simply white people don’t like black people. And yet that’s the predominant way people understand the problems that beset this country. This thinking is no easy thing to shake and change because it’s historically rooted in a culture and in systems of education and entertainment dominated and paid for by a profit-making and poverty-producing economic system. This economic system and dominant thinking are upheld by an exploiting and ruling class which has vested interests in the maintenance of that system and thinking.
And so today, when incidents like this happen, you have basically two battlefields: one is in the streets and the other is the new global media – Facebook, Twitter, and so on – that has opened up an interactive ideological and political battle on the mental terrain of world public opinion. We didn’t have that kind of global interactive mass media in the ’60s, so we couldn’t fight on that level. In this new era of ideological and political conflict, the struggle for the unity of the poor and dispossessed must be fought on both offline and online. In other words, Dr. King’s concept of “a freedom church of the poor” will have no walls and everyone will be welcome into this fight for human dignity and abolition of all poverty forever.
But without an organized effort to wage a battle on that ideological field alongside the battlefields in places like Ferguson, people are going to respond in a way that doesn’t resolve but in fact prolongs the problems. What makes matters worse is that events like those in Ferguson are going to continue to happen and multiply as the economic and social conditions that give rise to them get worse. History teaches that bad economic relations give rise to bad police relations as well as other forms of social and political oppression.
You can’t understand class and its consequence, poverty, in this country unless you understand race and you can’t understand race and its consequences, like police brutality, unless you understand class.
That’s why we have to finish the unfinished business of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by reigniting the Poor People’s Campaign along the lines of the key principle he preached and practiced: uniting the poor and dispossessed across color lines as a “new and unsettling force,” the only social force that can awaken the critical mass of the American people necessary if we’re going to abolish unnecessary human misery and human indignities. A new Poor People’s Campaign is needed more now than ever. It would highlight and unite the struggles around needs we have in common. It would constitute a force whose interest it is to abolish racial and all other inequalities and prejudices in the context of these struggles. This campaign would provide a space and an opportunity to have the newly emerging leaders, the particularly young leaders, unite in strategic dialogue and coordination of their efforts.
The initial goal of this Poor People’s Campaign must be the identification and uniting of leaders in these different communities that are hurting and that, in one form or another, are facing police violence or economic violence or whatever the form that the violence takes. What’s needed is what we didn’t have in the uprisings in the ‘60s: leadership from people of all races that could understand the issue beyond just the issue of race. This is what we’re challenged with. If you study American history, the basis of police brutality, and the racial elements to it, is this alignment that has this all-white across-class union versus the all-black union or all-people of color union. To me that unity is the social base of racial injustice and conflict. The disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color, all the different discriminatory situations, even the attack on immigration, are grounded, are all based on this kind of racial divide that has been maintained by every possible means. The whole idea of class unity of the poor and dispossessed cuts into and breaks up the predominant all-white all-classes unity, whether it manifests itself in complacency or in repressive measures. In other words, the unity of the poor and dispossessed means disunity with class exploitation and the oppression of the black community, all the communities of color, as well as the white community. And that is necessary to break up the social base of police brutality and eliminate it altogether. As long as we fall into the trap of this racial divide, like developing an isolated and all black movement that can then be used by the right wing element, we won’t be able to avoid repeating history.
I see this period of unprecedented and tremendously productive technological revolution and great global economic shift as a moment of great danger and great opportunity. This is indeed another kairos moment to build a new movement of global proportions to move the world to a better place with dignity and justice for all of God’s children. Every major turn in history attended by great economic shifts has necessitated and made possible changes in economics, politics, and ideology. This kairos moment is giving rise to a great opportunity to develop a new theology and a new consciousness and new theories and a new and powerful social movement for social transformation. And while we can expect more Fergusons and worldwide social eruptions as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, we can also expect that people are going question things much deeper and if we can answer those questions, we can organize a network of leaders and teachers who can then agitate. One day when asked by a youth “What do we do?” Frederick Douglass answered, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Well today we need to be agitating, agitating, agitating so as to educate and activate toward a deeper and broader understanding of the race question, the economic question, the global question and how the injustices defining all these questions connect.