Conversations w/ Hip Hop Journalists|
Kevin Powell & Charlie Braxton on 9-11 [pt 2]
by Kevin Powell & Charlie Braxton 3/24/02
I noticed that the recent mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, was named Time Magazine's man of the year. This is due, obviously, to his work in the city since September 11th. I find the selection, to be mad honest, very reprehensible. Here is a man who was mayor of New York City, the most ethnically diverse city in America, outside of perhaps Los Angeles, who went out of his way to be mean-spirited toward Blacks, Latinos, working-class people, the homeless, and a whole bunch of other less fortunate folks in this city. To call him a great leader, to act as if he were doing anything other than his job after September 11th is absolutely ludicrous to me, particularly since this Time man of the year witnessed the loss and abuse of several lives by the New York City police department, including those of Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by four White undercover officers with 19 bullets ripping into his body. Or Abner Louima, a tiny Black man who had a plunger stick rammed into his rectum while being held in a police station. Or the fact Giuliani could
barely contain his own racism toward Black and Latino elected officials, and RARELY had meetings with any of them during his eight years in office. Now he is being portrayed as the great uniter of New York City? Amazing. Here is a man who openly and brazenly had an affair with his mistress, which publicly disgraced his wife and children while he hypocritically talked about the morality of institutions like the Brooklyn Museum for displaying art he thought was anti-Christian. The man actually tried to institute a commission on decency around what institutions that received city funds could display. But what about his own public displays?
I say all of this to say, Charlie, when I think of post-September 11th, I feel that that tragedy has been used by some in power and some who do not want certain truths to be told to manipulate the public to the point of confusion. So we forget that in 2000, about a year before this tragedy, George W. Bush and the Republican Party literally had an election given to them by five Supreme Court justices while the votes of Blacks, Jews, and other folks who certainly had not voted Republican (could you imagine a Black or a Jew in their right mind voting for someone like Pat Buchanan, as some tallies stated in heavily Black and Jewish areas?) were left uncounted, or thrown out.
In the midst of the fear and hysteria surrounding September 11th, a lot of Americans, to me, have allowed themselves to be lulled to sleep by their fears to the point where we now blindly support the erosion of our civil liberties, all forms of military action, blind and blanket support of the police, blind and blanket support of politicians some of us once felt were not for us, and so on.
As Malcolm X once famously put it, I feel we are being bamboozled in a psychological way that will have an effect, over the long term, far greater than what happened on September 11th. As we fight for democracy abroad, we are unwittingly saying it is okay if we don't have any or only a fragment of it here in America.
I understand your feelings, given Giuliani's overall track record. But
understand that right now the average citizen in this country is in a state of political paralysis, which of course is largely due to the tragic event that took place on September 11th, but the press also plays a very dubious role in this situation. Recall all of the controversy regarding the election where African Americans in Florida, a state where George W. Bush's brother Jeb just happens to be governor, felt that their votes were undercounted.
There were serious allegations of all kinds of misconduct regarding the voting process in that state that helped decide the election, and to this day no one brings that up either. Even though I read somewhere where a group of independent researchers did a recount and discovered that there were some gross errors. Bush went to the Supreme Court to try to stop a recount even when the state election regulations said that a hand count was perfectly acceptable as a way of determining the final outcome of the election.
So even though all of this was looming over Bush's head it has seemingly disappeared since September 11th. As I suspect a number of other potentially embarrassing events, like the Enron affair, eventually will. Sadly, our country is currently being frightened into a state of fear-induced conformity.
That election in November 2000 was not just about African Americans being disenfranchised. It was about all of America being disenfranchised but the racial blinders in this country don't allow people to see that. The fact that the president of the so-called leading democracy is selected by a few hundred people called the electoral college instead of by popular vote, which we know Al Gore won, says a lot about what democracy means here. These are the sort of questions people need to be asking as we once again go abroad to make the world safe for democracy.
True. One of the things that needs to be at the forefront of most Americans' minds is some of the new laws that have been passed since the September 11th tragedy. There are laws, like you stated earlier, that are threatening the very fabric of our democracy as we know it to exist. Currently the laws allow the government all sorts of freedom to invade our privacy in the name of protecting us. But given the sordid history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), where many of our nation's most gifted leaders, such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and some of our major organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, were smeared, disrupted and placed in outright life-threatening positions by the people who were supposed to be protecting
them make me wonder, as Gil Scott-Heron asked, Who will protect us from the FBI and CIA if we allow them to go unchecked?
Which is why it is so ironic to see so many people now walking around with FBI and CIA shirts, jackets, and baseball and ski caps. You see parents here in New York City with their children parading around in this stuff, either ignorant of the history of these agencies to certain communities in America, or to governments overseas. It is the ultimate form of brainwashing under the guise of the new patriotism: If you love your country, then you will endorse everything it does and wear its paraphernalia without raising any critical questions. Very frightening, Charlie, very frightening. Here we are celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King's life and legacy this month while wearing the letters of the very organization, the FBI, which harassed and monitored him for much of his political career.
And speaking of the CIA. African Americans will recall that it was the CIA who was implicated in the influx of crack that totally devastated our communities. People forget that Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California tried to shed light on this and was mocked and ignored. People of color and progressive people everywhere should be very weary of the current move to return to McCarthyism, this move to silence dissenting opinions. It doesn't bode well for democracy in this country. It doesn't bode well at all.
The new patriotism is in fact the new McCarthyism. Back in the 1950s if you were considered a Communist sympathizer, in bed with the Russians, then the Soviet Union, then you were a Red, a traitor. Today if you have the nerve to question the waving of the American flag, the singing of patriotic songs, or dare have conversations like this one in a public forum then, why, Charlie, you and I must be unpatriotic. People in this country should not allow the tragedy of September 11th to become the tragedy of an era of silence and blind acceptance based on fear and ignorance. To me, to be patriotic means to fight for democracy in its purest form. Or what Patrick Henry said during the Revolutionary War period: Give me liberty or give me death. Liberty, the way I define it, is suppose to be about truth. And liberty, to me, means I have the right and freedom to say what I want whenever I choose, particularly if it is about the issue of democracy. We are not telling people to burn draft cards, we are not telling people to burn the American flag, we are not even telling people not to love America if that is what they choose to do. We are simply saying we need to struggle for clarity because our future depends on it, and we have been down this road before and we never seem to learn the big lessons.
No, to the contrary, Kevin, we are actually probably truer to the spirit of democracy and being an American than most of the flag wavers who are out here right now. By exercising our right to dissent and protest we preserve the fundamental ideas of democracy, or at least that is what we are attempting to do.
I remember wondering right after that fateful day happening if I should say anything given the magnitude of the event. But I sort of knew all this stuff would go down. It seemed like flags and tee shirts and hats and buttons were on sale immediately after it occurred. Almost like someone had these things stored away in a basement somewhere. It's very strange how capitalism operates even during a time of tragedy and grief.
To paraphrase James Baldwin, this is my country and as a citizen of it, I reserve the right to praise or criticize it as I see fit. A lot of people get so caught up in the emotional hoopla that they forget that there are things wrong with America. It is by no means perfect. Our system is by no means perfect. We have problems with racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, the raping of the environment by greedy multinational corporations. These are issues that need to be addressed and addressed boldly. They will not simply go away because the powers that be decide to steer the masses of the poeple's attention to the struggle in Afghanistan. If we bomb all of the Middle East and South Central Asia tomorrow, we'll still have these same issues facing us here.
Right, and those problems existed before September 11th, and they exist after September 11th. I have heard people say, including folks in the government, that the war on terrorism is the only issue that matters now. Or that united we stand. Or that we are one family now.
If that is so, why is there still racism in police departments around the country where Black people and other people of color are still routinely profiled? I have heard of or read of at least three incidents of police brutality since September 11th right here in New York City. Why are women still the victims of domestic violence, of rape, of other unspeakable acts right in this country? Why is it that one day when I was walking in Manhattan I saw an SUV loaded down with American flags and graffiti about the driver's love for America, about killing bin Ladin and all of that, yet when that driver and his friend in the passenger seat saw a group of overtly gay men getting into a cab, they screamed from that SUV God bless America and fuck them faggots? How can you say you love America and hate some of its citizens at the same time?
I think that it is very important for us to understand that the idea of
America is very different to many people. To some America is a multi-cultural society that, although nowhere near perfect, it has great potential to live up to its creed if its citizens remain vigilant. But to others America is White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, male, straight and very very conservative.
Recall just after the September 11th incident and all of the flags started flying there was a rash of hate crimes, mostly committed against Arab Americans and people, like Indian Hindus, perceived to be Arab. In fact, it got so bad that President Bush had to go on national TV and urge Americans to stop, because it was unAmerican. Also recall the number of incidents where Latinos and light-skinned African Americans were harassed. It's all part of some people's idea of America. But as James Baldwin said, America is not a White man's country, it never has been, nor will it ever will be.
That is why this new patriotism is so strange to me. In a lot of ways it really is a cover for a new form of White nationalism or, rather, if you do not see the world from the White male perspective which dominates America, and the world, then you are not down with us. By White nationalism I mean that this country was founded on racism under the guise of the so-called founding fathers fighting for their freedom while ignoring the freedoms of Native Americans and African peoples and women and poor whites. And you can draw a straight line from the Revolutionary War period to today, from well-to-do White males of that era, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin, to George W. Bush: a small posse of wealthy White males dictating what is best for America at the expense of the rest of us.
I agree. I live in the Deep South, where the Confederate flag is seen as sacred by Whites down here. Just after the controversy about that flag in Mississippi and Georgia, I saw hundreds of Whites flying the rebel flag. In fact there was a specialty store in the mall that made a killing off of them. After September 11th, I noticed that some of the same Whites who were proud to display their rebel flags had either replaced them with American flags, or were selling the two together. Interesting.
Hey, man, you ain't gotta tell me. My family is from South Carolina where folks just cannot seem to understand why Black citizens there see the Confederate flag as so offensive. What we Americans do not realize we are doing with the American flag is making it a symbol of us versus them just as the Confederate flag has been used as us versus them. Because we are Blacks in America, we get to be part of the USA team for this war against terrorism. But what happens when we come back home this time? We know that right after the Gulf War you had all kinds of racial rifts in this country ranging from Bill Clinton attacking Sister Souljah on the campaign trail to the Los Angeles riots to how divided this country was around the first O.J. Simpson verdict to all those harsh exchanges, to this day, around the issue of Affirmative Action.
Man, talk about Black people's dual consciousness, Whites in this country need to come to grips with their own dual consciousness. The very fact is that the naked reality of American life directly contradicts the ideals expounded upon by some super-patriots. America has serious contradictions. There are issues of race, gender, and class that must be addressed by the citizens of this country. Look at that situation with John Walker.
Man, this John Walker stuff is crazy. White folks trying to imply that
because this young White male deviated from the good core values given to him, by reading books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and by becoming a lover of hiphop music and culture, those things must be factors in why he would leave his prominent middle-class life, head off to Afghanistan, and join the Taliban. The implication is that if John Walker would have stayed true to himself as a privileged White male, had he not sought out the world generally denied to him in the school systems of this country or in popular culture, save the stereotypes, then somehow he would not be facing treason now and either the death penalty or life imprisonment. To me the questions should be something like What is it about how White people are taught to define themselves in America, by race, by class, by status and material trappings, and by power, that would lead this young White male, John Walker, to reject all of it and go another direction? Or, Is John Walker really the aberration
here, or is it this American value system that we think supreme to anywhere else on the planet, and which we fail to acknowledge revolves, in the main, around White perceptions of what is good and wholesome and what is bad and evil?
Yes, it's frightening. I knew when I first heard that John Walker was once a hiphop fan that sooner or later someone would get around to using his cultural deviations as a way to attack hiphop. And they did.
You know, Kevin, one of the things that really disturbs me is how reactionary some members of the African American community have been in the aftermath of September 11th. It really disturbs me to know that some African Americans have been actually out there harassing Arab Americans. I heard many African Americans calling Arab Americans racial epithets, and generally treating them bad. While I don't know of incidents where a Black person has physically harmed an Arab person, it still troubles me that we, of all people, would even fathom doing something like this. I mean, even on urban or hiphop radio stations, you could hear all kinds of remarks that can be viewed as anti-Arab.
You are making me think of something Ras Baraka said at a few of our HipHop Speaks forums last year: that Black Americans still do, in fact, suffer from that double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois wrote about one hundred years ago. In other words, on the one hand we are Black, are of African descent, and have been forced to live an existence based on that reality, and we have spent much of our existence in this so-called Western world as outsiders trying to get in.
Historically, we have seen that manifested in everything from folks like Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley petitioning some of the founding fathers about our concerns to the period following the Civil War called Reconstruction and our struggles to be a part of this nation, then, of course, during the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s we fought to get in and to be treated as equals. As Ras' father Amiri argued many years ago in Blues People, we are those people who evolved from Africans to African Americans. We are, indeed, very American. I did not think that until I first left this country and realized while I shared certain Africanisms with my sisters and brothers in the Caribbean, in the Brixton section of London, or on the continent of Africa, the fact remains that I am very much a product of this environment and I have a certain connection to it, albeit it an outsider connection.
I say all of this to say that I am not surprised that so many Black folks in this country, including recent immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa, have been among some of the most anti-Arab, anti-Middle Eastern, anti-Islamic folks since September 11th. A lot of us feel that the pressure now being put on Arabs and Arab Americans is somehow removing that pressure from us. Or that it is less likely that we will be the ones who are the victims of racial profiling, of police brutality, of discrimination. That aligning ourselves with this mentality somehow makes us more American, more down. Safer. Free from that historical hurt and suffering.
And because we have been in this country so long, longer than most except for the original owner of this land, the Native American, psychologically all we want to do is be a part of some American thing, even if it is incredibly reactionary and putting out the same kind of oppressive discrimination and ignorance that we have been the victims of for so long. Twisted logic, yes, but very real for so many of us.
Yes, we are Americans, but as African Americans our history is quite
different from, say, an Irish American or an Italian American or any other European American here. We have been through slavery, Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, and all manner of racial discrimination that makes our perspective unique from the White flag waver who beats an Arab store owner up or firebombs a Mosque. A lot of Arabs and people who have been mistaken to be Arab, like Hindu Indians, are so terrified now of being labeled a terrorist, an enemy, that they have American flags everywhere you go: on their cabs, in their store windows, even their neckties. Does anyone not see something wrong with this picture?
I recall just a few decades ago, hell, just a few years ago our Black churches in the South were getting bombed and racial slurs were being plastered all over our houses of worship. People forget that folks were not feeling real united then. Also most of the people who are Muslims in this country are Black Americans and have absolutely nothing to do with the actions of September 11th, but Muslims are now all being lumped together.
As we said previously, people have very selective memories. I have heard Black folks say Things are easier for us now since September 11th or Better them (the Arabs) than us. Some of us want to be accepted so badly as Americans that we will accept this temporary moment of inclusion as a replacement for the sort of acceptance we should have by virtue of being born here; that and the fact that our ancestors literally built a good chunk of the economic infrastructure of this country thanks to that thing called slavery.
The point that I am trying to make here is that the spirit of anti- Arabism is the same evil spirit of racism that has historically placed people of color in the crosshairs of this country's society.
Which is one of the reasons why I think that we, as people of color, are in a unique position to critique this whole spirit of what Brother ?uestlove from the Roots has termed bandwagon patriotism.
People forget that Americans were asked in previous eras to go fight overseas to make the world safe for democracy while some segments of this society, like African Americans, were not enjoying democracy here in America.
It is important for us to remember that we cannot and should not allow our love of country to cloud our sense of morality or reason.
Think back to World War I, and all those Black soldiers who fought gallantly in Europe only to return to America and its peculiar form of democracy for a Black person in uniform: being lynched from trees. Some of these soldiers were actually lynched in their uniforms. Only someone who really understands this country, really loves what this country could possibly represent, would be able to be clear-headed about what is happening, I feel. Folks who operate solely on emotionalism, historical ignorance, and ingrained biases against people who are different are not going to see the big picture here.
I cannot help but think about the fact that about two weeks after September 11th happened, a judge in Cincinnati very quietly, without any jury, cleared a White police officer of any wrongdoing in the murder of a young Black man in June 2001, which led to an uprising in that city. That Black man had been shot down, like an animal, in an alley. No one clearly felt real united with him or his family or, in fact, considered him and his family a part of their family.
The big picture isn't all about stopping terrorism either. Some of it is about oil, power, and the revving up of the military- industrial complex, which raked in billions during the so-called Cold War. But that is one of the major contradictions about the whole bandwagon patriotism thing. It totally ignores history and requires that citizens stifle their voices or criticisms in the name of God and Country.
Correct. And no one bothers to ask questions such as: What does it mean that both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney are both former oil company executives, or that National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was corporate counsel at Chevron? Or: If 15 of the 19 hijackers of those planes on September 11th were Saudis, and Osama Bin Ladin's roots are in Saudi Arabia as well, why is the government bombing Afghanistan?
Perhaps the answer to the last question lies in the fact that the United States shares a very cozy economic relationship with the Saudis. After all, we get a lot of oil from them whereas when we tried to get the Taliban out of Afghanistan to approve of a pipeline that would ship oil from their country to the Caspian Sea they refused.
So it makes one wonder when Bush and others say this war may take years does that mean years to root out terrorism, or years to entrench ourselves in the Middle East, Central Asia, in terms of access and control of the vast oil resources? These are some of the questions people need to raise, especially as American lives are slowly but surely being lost in this war. It starts to look like Vietnam, the sequel. With no end in sight. And if we lost approximately 3000 lives on September 11 (this is what I last saw as the official number) and I've read a number of accounts that say about 3500 people have already lost their lives in Afghanistan, when do we call it even, say that we have exacted revenge, and can move on? Or do we allow the number to hit 10,000, then 50,000, then 100,000, then 500,000, as some accounts say is the number of people who have lost their lives in Iraq since the Gulf War a decade ago. 500,000 people because of that war and the subsequent sanctions.
And that is very frightening.
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