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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.