Protesters in the US continue to demand justice for Michael Brown, a black teen killed by a police officer. His death brought attention to issues of race, inequality and police brutality. Rallies grow loud, but the government answers by pouring more heavily-armed cops against the activists. Will the message of protesters be heard? How wide and deep is the problem inside the US? We ask these questions to former congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Former congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. Now, just when it seemed tensions around Ferguson were dying down, another black teen was gunned down by a white police officer. Why are these incidents so commonplace?
Cynthia McKinney: Well, these incidents have been happening since the founding of the U.S. It’s not unusual to have the authorities actually attacking the black community and, particularly, black men. Remember, the U.S. was founded on genocide of indigenous people and the human trafficking through the African slave-trade, of African people. So, this is not anything new. What is new, however, is that with the proliferation of personal technology we are now able to capture this police brutality and these police murders on film. And that is what is new. So, people now can actually see in their living-rooms young, unarmed, black men being shot down, being mowed down by people who are charged and sworn in their oath to protect and serve the community.
SS: But, just what you've said, like, because of this social media and the media in general, we can see everything that’s going on. So, wouldn't you expect them, the police, to be on their best behavior at least for now?
CMK: Yes. Now, there are some of us, who have been saying all along that the U.S. has a problem with police brutality - but now the whole world can see that the U.S. has a problem with police brutality. Unfortunately, we have also a creeping police-state into the larger American community; and as a result of that people now have their consciousness have been raised to the perpetration of political crimes and oftentimes, murder by people in authorities, by police officers themselves. At one point there was this idea: “well, if it happens in the black community that’s the black community - if it happens in the Latino, that’s the Latino community. That’s not our community, and therefore we don’t have anything to worry about.” But now, people feel a lot differently, because it is clear that the tanks, the drones, the military-grade weapons, that the police departments now have are going to be used. They are not acquiring this capability for it just to sit on the shelf. They are acquiring the capability, and they are using it.
SS: Well, I don’t know about tanks, but in response to the recent protests it wasn't just the riot police. It was also the SWAT teams that were deployed and they were wearing masks, and the rubber bullets were fire. Is that an effective way to calm unrest?
CMK: No! You deal with the underlying problems, of course, but what we have witnessed since September 11, 2001, is the growing militarization of local police departments. There are two phenomena here: one is the militarization of police. Second, is the failure of police departments to actually reflect the communities that they are charged to protect and serve. Therefore, you can get in a situation like in Ferguson, Missouri, where population is majority black and the police officers are majority white. You can get that. That, unfortunately is not uncommon. Actually, one journalist at the Washington Post asked the right question, she said: “How can this be allowed to happen, and where does it exist in other cities?” And what she found is that in large cities, small cities, cities across the board, unfortunately you have situation where the police department is not reflective of the people that it’s charged to serve. In addition to that you have another phenomenon, where the police officers themselves are not encouraged to even live in the community in which they police. So, we have several layers of problems, and then, on top of it what you have is the community that is under attack. Not only under attack from the police authorities themselves, but under attack economically, socially, culturally in every way imaginable, and they have been constantly under attack since the end of the Civil Rights movement.
SS: I just want to ask you a couple of questions right away. According to your answer, first of all, the movement against the police brutality, it’s not something new, the subject seems to come up any time there’s a protest in the U.S. What’s the reason, the larger reason for this continuing police brutality? Does the police have too much authority? Is it impunity, what is it?
CMK: Well, of course it’s authority and it is impunity and there’s something called “the Blue Line”; the Blue Line, this idea of the Blue Line says the police officers shouldn't tell on each other when they witness they fellow police officers doing wrong. So, there’s culture inside the police departments that allows this to happen. And then, of course, there’s this alienation of the police department itself from the community. The police really ought to be a part of the community, ought to come from the community, but the police in many respects are occupying forces - and that’s why a lot of young people have likened the situation in black communities across the U.S. to the situation in Gaza that is also occupied by Israeli forces. That then was not lost on these two communities when the people in Gaza raised their hands and said: “We are Ferguson!”. So, now what we are seeing is the cross-polarization of movements, and I think that’s a good thing. The same military hardware that soldiers used in Iraq and Afghanistan are being sent to police departments through the surplus military program, are being sent to police departments across the country. We had a visitor, an Israeli soldier who said that police departments are being trained increasingly by the Israeli military, the IDF. What they learn when they go over to Israel is how to treat the enemy. But, this soldier, so poignantly said, “But when they come home - you are the enemy”. So, his message was to warn people of the U.S. about what’s happening with the training of their police departments in Israel, something that we all also have to be concerned about.
SS: Now, activists across the U.S. are still demanding the officer who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson to be put on trial, but so far he’s only being put on paid leave. Will he ever be taken to court, what do you think?
CMK: That is the question that has to be asked and answered not only by the people of Ferguson. You would think that our members of Congress and various legislators would look at the situation and provide a legislative remedy. What I did when I was in the Congress, I introduced - this was after the horrors the people experienced after Hurricane Katrina - what I did was that I said: “Ok, if a police department is found to violate the civil rights of the people that it has sworn to protect and serve, then that police department would no longer participate in federal programs, would no longer get federal funds and will not be able to receive federal equipment.” Of course, something like that, which seeks to actually lay a punishment down in the law for the law-breaking police departments… I was vilified for writing and dropping that legislation into the hopper. But something has to be done, and then of course on the other hand, we have a community that is under attack. I’m talking about the black community and brown communities inside the U.S. We have seen those two communities targeted by the banking community, the banking industry and wealth sucked out of those communities such that the black community in the U.S. has lost more wealth since the transatlantic slave-trade as a result of a foreclosure in Homes and other predatory practices of banks in the black and brown communities. This is a kind of thing that also has to stop. You cannot mistreat people and then maintain the impunity forever.
SS: For an outsider, it seems that segregation and racism is the thing of the past in the U.S. I mean, I've lived there and I never witnessed any discrimination of this sort. Do you feel oppressed? I mean, you've run for president, you've been congresswoman for a long time. You've elected first African-american president. Where is the oppression?
CMK: Let me just make it very concrete. The situation of the police state in the U.S. s so bad and the targeting of specific people when they’re on the road, like, for example, in the U.S. Latinos are stopped all the time, people who look as if they are Latinos and people who live in areas where Latinos live are stopped all the time just for driving their cars because they’re suspected of not having documentation for being able to drive in the U.S. Young black men are stopped all the time. I tell my son, when my son comes to visit with me, I tell him: “Please, make sure that you abide by every, every traffic law, because you will be stopped. You’re a young black man driving a nice, fast car, and you will be stopped.” And, of course, he was stopped. For myself, you have to be prepared for all times to be stopped and to have a mugshot taken, because the police are out there on the streets in predatory practices in black communities - and I live in a black neighborhood. So, I see what is happening, and I have seen what was happening in Los-Angeles, where young black men can go to the barbershop to get his haircut and end up on a police lineup. I’ve seen that with my own eyes. The police state is real in some communities and it is growing across the U.S., such that now young women have been cavity-searched on the street in broad daylight. That used to be reserved only to African-american and Latino men in Texas, and most recent incident occurred when two white women were cavity-searched. Can you believe? People are being stopped on the street and asked to give blood. This is amazing what is happening in the U.S.
SS: Ok, but, actually I have to agree with you on one thing: some startling figures show that 60% of the country’s prison population is non-white, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics says one in 3 black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. Is criminal justice reform needed?
CMK: Yes, it’s needed, but really, in many instances, we have laws on the book that just have to be equally applied. That’s all! They are not equally applied and some people are exempt from the law, some people never… an example is a friend of my son, a young white male, was driving with no insurance, no license, got stopped by the police for speeding - and he was allowed to go home! That doesn’t happen in the black community, it doesn’t happen with the Latino community. So, there’s disparate treatment in the hands of law enforcement. That goes all the way up from the first encounter, all the way up. And that’s why you have, for example, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement that did a study and found that a young unarmed black person is murdered once in every 28 hours. Can you imagine? Some mother is losing her child every 28 hours in the U.S.
SS: Just briefly about Ferguson again: President Obama was criticized for his response to Ferguson crisis. Why? Why do you think he didn’t take a firmer stand? Could he have taken a firmer stand?
CMK: Absolutely. The President has many tools at his disposal and one of them is the bully pulpit. So, a pronouncement from the President goes a very long way and if the President had put police departments on notice, that we in the executive branch, particularly the Department of Justice, are paying attention to the way, to the patterns and practices of police departments across the U.S., particularly ones in which some young unarmed person has been killed by police officers - it would have gone a long way, I believe, towards stemming this problem. It didn’t happen. It’s still hasn’t happened. The criticism was correct, and the Department of Justice should have moved very quickly against these police departments where these young unarmed black men were killed in particular, and other atrocities have been committed.
SS: You also said that you’ve never imagined it would get this bad under Barack Obama. Obama’s approval ratings are at the lowest level of his presidency. What is he doing wrong?
CMK: I’m a peace person, and you cannot wage war all over the planet and then think that you’re going to have peace at home. It just doesn’t work that way, because it has been demonstrated that the tactics that the U.S. government employees overseas it also eventually employes at home. So, I think, first and foremost, that our Nobel Peace laureate President should have a been a man of peace. And, instead of creating these organisations that are in the process of destroying and dismantling whole countries, he should have been in favor of peace. Stop financing, stop funding the war-machine. Stop recruiting people. Now we have people in the U.S. military, being recruited in the U.S. military, who are not citizens of the U.S., being hired to go and kill the children and the parents of other people around the world and this all is being done at the promise of a U.S. Green card. This is amazing, what the U.S. is becoming.
SS: You are a strong opponent of the U.S. wars abroad, I can see, but since the U.S. has the means to deal with a lot of crises, it is the most powerful country in the world - doesn’t it also have a global responsibility and moral obligation to intervene where no one else can?
CMK: It has moral obligation to comport as a citizen of the world, as a responsible citizen of the world. That doesn’t mean destroying countries. That doesn’t mean bombing countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali - all being bombed, literally, as one - I think it was Colonel Emerson that said: “Back to the Stone Ages”. Iraq irreparably harmed. The use of depleted uranium affects countries for generations to come and the use of depleted uranium, the use of these white phosphorous and the DIME weapons. All of these weapons are being used every day as a part of the U.S. military arsenal, and we are in the midst of an election season right now, which will happen in about 2 and a half to three weeks, and nobody’s talking about stopping the wars. How can you have national elections, and neither Democrats, nor Republicans are talking about peace?
SS: How big of an issue is the situation with Syria and ISIS for American people? If needed, would the people support a ground intervention, what do you think?
CMK: Of course, when the people of the U.S. are being pepper-sprayed, tazed and shot by their own local police departments, then something that’s happening in Syria or Ukraine is not immediately on the minds, and, of course, it’s not, but I can tell you that the people that I interact with, abhor what the U.S. is doing abroad. They have disengaged from the political process. This is one of the few quote-on-quote “democracies” in the world where a majority of the voting-age population don’t even bother to vote. They have completely disengaged from the political process, which I believe is a mistake, by the way, because it allows those forces of war and oppression to seize control over the apparatus of government, and that is what has happened.
SS: People like Noam Chomsky say that ramping up the terror threat is highly beneficial for the U.S. military. Do you believe the U.S. establishment would purposefully fuel fears of terror at home to increase military budget?
CMK: I served on the House Armed Services Committee and I have never seen such bipartisan agreement on the need to arm ourselves to kill people. But that’s exactly what my experience was on that committee. Bipartisan agreement, I was the lone dissenter of the defence budget… it was not even a defence budget, it is an offensive, morally offensive budget. In the U.S. we have children who are going to sleep hungry, we have people sleeping on the streets, homeless. We have veterans who have served our country, who answered the call, when our country called for them, and they are sleeping on the streets. So, there’s something terribly wrong with the values of the public policy that’s being made in Washington DC. And that is what I call for. I call for a re-valuation of our public policy, and the only way that’s going to happen is to stop the business as usual that is carried on in the name of politics in Washington DC. We got to have average, ordinary folk, with the different kind of common sense, come to Washington DC making public policy on behalf of average, ordinary, common sense folk.
SS: Thank you very much for this interesting viewpoint. We were talking to American politician, foreign congresswoman Cynthia McKinney,talking about the Ferguson case, also we were talking about the problem of police brutality in America and the legacy that President Obama is leaving behind.