"In order to be free enough, you have to love deep enough."
An Interview with Cornel West
Deep love is the chief motivator for demanding justice, according to Cornel West, a trailblazing philosopher, theologian and uncompromising activist who wields a fist for justice powered by an empathetic heart heavy with radical love for all his neighbors. Tim Keller, a theologian, like West, and the closest person the broad Christian sphere has to a spotless guru, once stated that misplaced love is the force behind all violence and destructive actions. James Baldwin, author of Another Country and The Fire Next Time, believes it is a “battle,” a “war” in which we are torn “limb from limb” in its name. Classic literature insists love is worthy of our death. Looking at our summer of widely publicized police brutality and harassment through the lens of love as motivator, it is clear the love of power and authority that corroborates superiority—once safeguarded by the guarantee of white skin’s historical reign, now verified by blue uniform’s proven invincibility—led a California Highway Patrol officer to pound Marlene Pinnock’s head into a highway median strip fifteen times. That same love clutched Eric Garner’s neck until he relinquished his last breath to a gum-crusted, spit-soaked Staten Island street. In Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson fired six rounds into Michael Brown’s reportedly surrendered body and ended an 18-year life with miles of unfulfilled triumphs and mistakes in its future, love pulled the trigger.
Love does not limit its influence to zealous law enforcement; it abounds throughout life’s public and private, astronomical and misdemeanor offenses. Hatred didn’t lead jihadists to hijack and steer commercial planes into New York’s two tallest buildings or ISIL operatives to behead kidnapped westerners; unconditional love for culture, religion and belief in its supreme truth did. Likewise, a love for religious supremacy leads fundamentalist Christians to terrorize the secular and coerce LGBT congregants into identity-destroying conversion therapy. Love of control and dominance drives an abuser’s fist into a victim’s face. This is not to disclaim hatred as an operative force guiding cruel offense. On the contrary, it is love’s ever-present calling card, a symptom of its existence. Hatred, the heart’s allergic reaction to that which threatens its reason to beat, is always poised to defend love’s honor.
On my walk back from police detainment with dozens of other protestors at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan on August 14, 2014, following the Day of Resistance protest that led thousands of us from Union Square to Midtown with a failed attempt to return via the same mode we came—the street, I thought of Cornel West. I’d witnessed raw love in the streets that night and throughout the week following Ferguson, Missouri protest livestreams. At the time, Twitter.com’s @theanonmessage, Ferguson’s most vigilant, omnipresent, and thoroughly unidentifiable avenger, was my rallying source. I hadn’t a clue Dr. West was behind Stop Mass Incarceration’s leading presence at the march and defiant stance against the injustices inflicted on Brown, Garner, and Pinnock. At protests, on network television, in popular film, songs, and lecture halls at Yale, Princeton, Harvard and lastly Union Theological Seminary, Cornel has offered us decades of insight on race as defined, categorized and subjugated by the political sphere, and mobilized movements to further civil rights for the marginalized. Stop Mass Incarceration, one of his most recent endeavors, co-founded with Carl Dix, was birthed as a direct response to New York’s Stop and Frisk. SMI is upheld by a band of activists determined to educate groups targeted by police brutality, racial profiling, and mass criminalization while bringing officers whom engage in misconduct to task. October 2014 will bring their nationwide Month of Resistance, with demonstrations scheduled to launch simultaneously in cities across the country. I visited him at Union Theological Seminary to discuss police brutality and efforts to combat it, limitations on the black-American male image, passing his torch, and our hot summer of love.
I. WE NEED TO HAVE FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS WHO HAVE ENOUGH SPIRITUAL MATURITY TO EMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE
THE BELIEVER: What is Stop Mass Incarceration’s October Month of Resistance?
CORNEL WEST: Different events around the country making the connection that mass incarceration and miseducation equals genocide. By genocide, we mean the psychic, social, and in some ways the physical annihilation of significant groups of people—especially black, poor males and females, disproportionately poor black males. It’s one project and one voice among many others. We’ve got the revolutionary activist Carl Dix, the Organization for Black Struggle; they’ve been at it twenty-five years. All of these are coalescing to connect mass incarceration, arbitrary police power, the decrepit school system, indecent housing, not enough jobs with the living wage, and what was happening in Gaza. Because the young people in Ferguson got contacted by young people in Gaza telling them how to deal with the teargas. That was a beautiful connection.
BLVR: Can you think of anyone who’s coming close to taking some of your flame?
CW: There’s a young brother by the name of Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defendants. He is part of the rich legacy of Martin King—which is my own legacy—of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I met him in 2006 at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and was deeply impressed with him. He surfaced when they took over the governor’s office right after Stand Your Ground with Trayvon Martin. They took over that office thirty-one days, pushed through and got some major concessions. He emerged as a very important person of integrity.