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.
We black folk, all we’ve really had to keep us going has been a subversive memory of those who loved us. Remembering them pits us against a culture that doesn’t put a premium on integrity. The memory of our grandmothers, our grandfathers, all the way back to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and so forth. Even when you’re enslaved, they can’t control your memory. They can try, but they can’t. They can’t control integrity. They’re afraid of integrity because they want to buy everybody off. People who have it won’t be bought. Subversive memory, personal integrity, and courageous witness—if you have those three, you’re tilting in a certain moral and spiritual direction. That’s what I like about Phillip Agnew, and he’s one of the first that comes to mind in terms of the younger generation.
BLVR: How would you pique the interest of someone who’s not on the track of becoming a revolutionary to get involved and begin investing in the future they want to see?
CW: Anytime you have a deep commitment to loving your neighbor, you hate injustice. When you love folks, you can’t stand the fact they’re being treated unfairly. Jesus knew there was a revolutionary implication. He said you gotta love your enemy, ‘cause he knew you’d have so many of them. It’s not sadomasochistic. You’re not liking them, you’re loving them because you can’t hate folks, no matter what color they are, but you hate the injustice. Hate their deeds, but you don’t have to hate them. You can never trump somebody’s possibility. People can change. If you hate someone so intensely, you freeze them for that moment. They could actually undergo a transformation and become lovable people. It’s like Malcolm [X]. Malcolm Little? Malcolm was a gangster for a long time. Malcolm X? Brother had the love coming from him like I don’t know what. If they’d given up on Malcolm Little, he just would’ve been a gangster, would’ve died a gangster. We’d have missed out on one of the greatest prophetic witnesses of the 20th century.
BLVR: Wouldn’t you say police departments are freezing young black males now?
CW: Yes. It’s contempt, hate, but also killing and murdering. They’re killing and murdering, and that’s white supremacy in its terroristic form. There’s no doubt about that. It’s systematic. It’s chronic. Every twenty-eight hours there’s a young black person being shot. It’s an epidemic. Then the question becomes: if the racism is that extensive, how can we come together with integrity and be honest about how extensive it really is? From the government to the economy to the culture to the music and our own personal lives, we’re going to have to be very honest and candid, raise our voices and say we won’t put up with it. Now, what does that mean, not putting up with it? One: the government must have a thorough federal investigation and be candid with us, step-by-step. They didn’t do that with Trayvon Martin. They shifted to Stand Your Ground laws, but that’s not what we were talking about. We wanted the Federal Government to investigate. They didn’t do it. Now, with Michael Brown, they say they’re doing it. That’s fine, give them time. Let’s see if they do. Because if we don’t start sending some of these police to jail, they’re going to shoot down more and more of our young folks, and maybe not just young folks.
BLVR: The common notion is, if we were a raceless society, we’d discriminate against another trait. Believing this, if the government allows corrupt police departments to continue down this track and they succeed in disenfranchising, criminalizing, if not exterminating black males, they will target another group. Though it appears as an issue solely facing minority males, it ultimately is not. Why is it non-minorities aren’t equally interested in fighting police brutality?
CW: Morally and spiritually it should be about human beings, but that presupposes a certain level of spiritual maturity. We need to have fellow human beings who have enough spiritual maturity to empathize with people, no matter who they are, no matter what color, and especially no matter what class these days. Fifty years ago, with Jim Crow Sr., it was black folks across the board. With Jim Crow Jr. and the prison industrial complex, residential housing, and decrepit schools and educational systems—it is true, if it were black upper middle class brothers getting shot with the same frequency as poor brothers, there would be a quicker response. It’s still deeply racist and white supremacist, but class kicks in; we even get members of the black middle class who say, They need to pull their pants up, that’s their problem. They need to get themselves together, they’re listening to all that hip-hop and stuff. Some of them really need to get their acts together, there’s no doubt about that. As people, individually we always have a responsibility, but that’s not the point. A brother who is as well-behaved as he could be still gets shot. He still gets disrespected. He still gets put down. When we’re talking about white supremacy, you could’ve gone to every school in the world, got straight A’s, they’ll still shoot you down. It’s true for a lot of black professionals, even though some want to think they’re beyond that.
II. THE ONES THAT WERE TRUTH-TELLING GOT PUSHED OUT COMPLETELY
BLVR: I found the initial narrative of Michael Brown as a ‘college-bound gentle giant’ a troublesome, if not degrading, plea for his worth. When footage of him committing strong armed robbery was released in conjunction with the name of the shooting officer, public opinion shifted from poor gentle giant to dismissing him as a no-good thug who had it coming. It was as if being both college-bound and a delinquent was unimaginable. It spoke to an issue that has dehumanized the black-American male image for years: the denial of complexity. Why aren’t black males offered the same right to duality as other males? And, if I had to choose, I believe his first character narrative betrayed the most, as it fed the belief that black male life is only a valuable life when it is spotless and has achieved white mainstream approval.
CW: It shows how deep the legacy of white supremacy still operates in the American psyche. We saw it on TV, on the radio, in conversations, in culture, and some black folks participated in it too. Oh, he was going to college, he was one of our good ones. As if to say if he wasn’t going to college, then forget it, we don’t need to worry about him. The very fact you can raise the issue means it also becomes an occasion where people can learn, an opportunity to provide real insight. Once you’ve criminalized any group of people, it becomes a rationalization for killing and the trivialization of their suffering. This is how we sustain contempt toward people.
BLVR: Do you think the majority of people who don’t believe in police brutality’s prevalence needed to see Michael Brown as a “thug,” in order to be okay with what happened?
CW: Exactly. And, if he was college-bound, it would touch their conscience. In their minds they would say, well, he’s a little bit more like my kid. So, they’d figure, well, I should have some concern. But, it still shows how the non-minority point of reference becomes the all-inclusive lens through which everything is viewed. It’s impoverished. It’s spiritually decrepit. It lacks any moral content at all.
BLVR: In light of what the media endured in Ferguson with the police retaliating against them on live television and streams, attempting to halt recording, threatening Chris Hayes with a gun, and dismantling Al Jazeera’s equipment amongst a host of unlawful arrests for continuing to broadcast, will the narrative on police brutality change?
CW: I hope so, I pray so, but it’s so easy for the mainstream to view it as an anomaly or aberration, and therefore go right back to the main narrative and say, Oh no, that was just one of the exceptions, but generally we are much better than you think. So, they end up not being challenged in the way they are.
BLVR: With the choking death of Eric Garner and assault of Rosan Miller, a pregnant woman beaten for grilling food outside her apartment, in July, and numerous documented abuses of Stop and Frisk, the public is watching the NYPD closely. Maybe this, compounded with events in Ferguson, will make society begin to say there’s something wrong with the police system. I mean, Amnesty International sent people into Ferguson. What does that mean?
CW: One of the few moments when brother Martin was willing to work with brother Malcolm was when Malcolm said, ‘I’m going to the United Nations to present a document that lays bare the violation of rights of black people.’ Martin said, ‘count me in.’ They got together. I say this because with Amnesty International in Missouri, more and more of the UN is now focusing on police departments all around the country. When we get an international spotlight on it, America has to respond because her image is besmirched and she’s got to do something about it. It could be on the international front we make real progress.
BLVR: In the 60s, and again in the 90s, there was an overwhelming wave of political music and uncompromising artists. They had the ability to open minds to new perspectives and reveal truths from visceral and intellectual standpoints. They succeeded where activists failed to dispel common misconceptions. This seems to have disappeared in the music scene. What happened?
CW: Part of it is, once the big money came in and took over, they tried to access certain forms of hip-hop music that became sellable and marketable, and the ones that were truth-telling got pushed out completely. KRS1, what a truth-teller he was, used to come to my class every year. Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Onestick Man. Erykah Badu, she’s still telling her truth. India Ari, in her own way, is still doing it. The Coup with Boots Riley. From D.C., you’ve got The Cornel West Theory. You’ve got some, but they’re not out there like Jay- Z and Beyoncé.
BLVR: In the 60s, those artists were still at the top of the billboard charts, and in the 90s Rage Against the Machine was making number one records while speaking out against the oppression and degradation of marginalized groups—they’re how I, as a kid, got involved. They repeatedly cracked The Top 10. Are we now, as a society, fatigued with discursive, militant, or combative music? Are we looking to be anesthetized?
CW: I think the owners of the labels, who are oligarchs, are highly selective in who they allow to surface, because if Immortal Technique, Dead Prez and others were allowed to surface to the top, they’d be selling records by the millions, because people are hungry for it. But it’s very difficult to get through. At that point, you’re talking about owners who want to make big money, and who don’t want any serious threat to their power. You’re right about the 60s. Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone. Temptations were singing about balls of confusion. Marvin Gaye, of course. “What’s Going On?” is a classic of all classics. Aretha’s “Respect” was at the core. James Brown was the godfather of it all, talkin’ “you ain’t got to give me nothin’, open up the door, I get it myself. All we want is a fair chance, nothing special, nothing ugly, all we want is a fair chance.”
III. YOU GET FREE WHEN YOU’RE ABLE TO SURRENDER TO SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOU.
BLVR: Celebrities who tweet about everything under the sun were silent regarding Ferguson. If you didn’t follow news outlets and only viewed celebrity tweets, you wouldn’t have known it was happening.
CW: Same was true in some ways with Gaza. You’ve got innocent young people in Gaza—423 babies have been murdered. It’s too much for the mind to take, and US Congress still votes unanimously to give the Israeli killing machine more money. It’s our money, our support.
BLVR: There were a few celebrities who tweeted support to Palestine and then they—
CW: Took it off right away. There were a few athletes who said, I’ll never say anything about international affairs again in my life, I apologize. Hey, speak your mind! We don’t have the courage to speak up on behalf of Palestinians. It’s a very sad thing. I tell people all the time, if there was a Palestinian occupation of Jewish brothers and sisters, I would be just as intense in my support of the Jewish brothers and sisters against Palestinian occupation because it’s wrong. Here you’ve got an Israeli occupation of Palestinian brothers and sisters, and very few people want to say anything because they’re scared. They figure their careers would get undercut by the powers that be here in the states. It’s very unpopular to be critical of Israel, people call you anti-Semitic. No, my personal savior is Jewish. Jesus is Jewish. He wants us to be concerned about the weak and the vulnerable, the motherless, the fatherless, the widow, the stranger, the oppressed. He wasn’t talking about one color, wasn’t talking about one culture, he was talking about people across the board. So if Israel does something wrong and vicious, it needs to be pointed out. If Palestinians do something wrong and vicious—they’re wrong sending rockets to kill innocent Israelis, but the Israeli army is killing babies and innocent men and women. That’s wrong, that’s barbaric.
Back to integrity: people don’t want to speak up. Part of it is, in order to be free enough, you have to love deep enough. If you are not free to say what’s on your mind and speak your mind, then you don’t have enough love in your heart, because love will make you free. When you love deeply, you’re free to say and do whatever you need to protect your loved ones. And, if you don’t, then you’re a coward. If you find deep love, you can find deep freedom. You get free when you’re able to surrender to something bigger than you. People then say you’re submitting. No, you’re surrendering. When you surrender you’re the freest person in the world, ‘cause all they can do is kill you. It’s a privilege to die for a cause. What else are you going to do? You’re going to die one way or the other. You might get hit by a Mac truck—that’s not too noble. It wouldn’t be your fault, but you figure if that was going to happen, you could’ve died for a noble cause: telling the truth, loving somebody, fighting for justice.
BLVR: The first Sunday after the national outrage over Ferguson erupted, I went to church—not for God or comfort, but to hear a religious authority take a stance on the issue. I attended Resurrection Williamsburg, one of New York’s “hipster” churches, according to The Post and Gothamist. During the Prayers of the People portion, the assistant pastor prayed in-depth for various crises around the world, but only acknowledged Michael Brown’s death and subsequent protests with, “I’d like to pray for quiet in Ferguson.” Quiet. As a theologian, where do you see the church fitting into this? We try to say keep politics out of church, but the truth is church is one of the most political arenas.
CW: Quiet means stay calm and go back to business as usual and quit making such a stink about it. That’s ridiculous. In the church, we’re supposed to be talking about love and justice, and he’s talking about quiet—they should be ashamed. When Jesus went to Jerusalem he went straight to the temple and ran out money changers with a veracity and intensity. I wouldn’t call that quiet or calmness at all. It’s the idolatry of unjust order they’re worshipping. They call it order, but it’s an unjust order. Martin used to say, “Peace is not the absence of tension, it’s the presence of justice.” So, even if the pastor were to say “and we call for peace in Ferguson,” what kind of peace? We love peace too, but we love it when there is justice. There was “peace” on the plantation. We don’t want quiet in Ferguson, if it includes shooting black folks multiple times and leaving the body for four and a half hours. People often overlook this, but they not only left Michael’s body out there—when they picked it up they just threw it in the back of an SUV. No respect, no dignity, nothing. That’s another thing that got people fired up. The people who saw it thought, you kept it out here all this time, won’t allow us to touch or access it, and when you finally pick it up you just brazenly throw it in the old SUV? My God, who do you think we are? What kind of people do you think we are that we’d put up with something like that? If we did that to one of their folks, they’d talk about The Klan as heroes coming to the defense of human dignity. Yes, they did. They came to the defense of white dignity. When we come to the defense of black dignity, we’re told be quiet, you need to cool off, need to be calm.
BLVR: The following week at Resurrection there was no mention of Ferguson in the prayer. It was omitted in exchange for “persecuted Christians.”
CW: The irony of it is Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr., sister Leslie, they’re Christians. But they can’t see us as persecuted Christians. Isn’t that something?
Riayn Fergins is a writer, performing artist, and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY.