Rolling Out

Kevin Powell on protesting for change and hip-hop’s response to Eric Garner and Michael Brown


Kevin Powell, a hip-hop activist, author and founder of BK Nation, recently spoke to rolling out about the injustice that has taken place in the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other unarmed Black males who were killed by police.

Powell shares his thoughts on the recent protests and the hip-hop response.

Let’s go back to the night when we all learned that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing Michael Brown. For you, what do you remember most about that night?

Unfortunately, I expected it because I had gone through the experience a year before with the Trayvon Martin verdict in the summer of 2013. It’s a sad commentary on the state of this country, on the criminal justice system. I was out there in Ferguson back in August working with a lot of people. Younger people, older people, people of all backgrounds and races and cultures just trying to figure out how we can get justice with this indictment. When I learned that District Attorney Robert McCulloch would be the prosecutor for the case, and his relationship with the local police, I knew it was going to be problematic right from the very beginning. I don’t think local DA’s should be dealing with cases about racial profiling. I think that special prosecutors should be appointed for each state. So, in a lot of ways, the people were deceived in Ferguson into believing that there would be some form of justice.

One week after the Michael Brown failed indictment, we received more bad news with the Eric Garner case and a lack of indictment. What was the scene like in New York that night?

It was very tense here in New York. We were on edge because of the verdict with Michael Brown out in Missouri. So we were somewhat again expecting the same result. People were prepared and very proud of how we organized in New York City. Black people, white people, Latino people, Asian people, a lot of younger people, definitely some older folks as well. It has just been this incredible wave of protests. This week alone, I’m participating in three different town halls with mostly young people with different backgrounds here in New York around the issue of justice in these cases. We have Michael Brown there in Ferguson, Eric Garner here in New York, and now we’re working with the Akai Gurley family. Akai is a young black man who was shot by a police officer three weeks ago in a housing project stairwell. The police commissioner and the mayor said that he was innocent, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and that it was a horrible tragedy. But we’re saying that if you really believe it was a horrible tragedy, what are you going to do in terms of justice? And why is it that these officers over and over again are suspended with pay? Their guns, often times, are not taken away from them and ultimately with these lack of indictments, the grand jury is sending a signal to people that this is not really justice for all.

What are your thoughts on how protests have been carried out thus far?

I believe in peace and love and non-violence. That’s my position and that’s where I come from. However, because I’m an activist and I’ve been an activist for a long time, I’m not going to stand around and tell people, especially younger people, you should just be calm, you should just not be angry. I think that is absolutely insane for people to say that to folks and some of our so called established leadership, that’s the first thing that comes out of their mouth. But you don’t hear them telling the police department that they need to be calm and they need to not be angry, they don’t need to be violent. But they’re saying it to our community, especially to young people. So I understand. I think if you’re going to be a leader or an activist or someone who cares about our communities, you have to understand the psychology of our communities. So if you come from a world where you have terrible school systems, limited life opportunities, there’s barely any work for you, and you’re consonantly harassed by the police in your community. If someone gets killed in your community, you’re going to be angry. Dr. Martin Luther King said that, “a riot is a language of the unheard.” The only thing that I can say is that we need to understand the difference between proactive anger and reactionary anger. Proactive anger means that we’re going to take all this emotion that we feel and we’re going to operate and create strategies. Proactive anger means that you build or sustain organizations or businesses or institutions that support our community. Reactionary anger is that you just complain about what you don’t like. My challenge is, we should have those emotions. It’s a justifiable anger, a justifiable rage, but are you going to be proactive with it or are you going to be reactionary with it? Let’s build something.

We’ve had several rappers who have spoken out recently. But overall, have hip-hop artists done enough to respond to the injustice of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others?

Part of the problem is that there has been a dumbing down in America across the board in the last 20 years. Our music, our film, everything. The culture has been dumbed down. Reality TV shows all of it. So there’s an obsession with being famous, there’s an obsession with money and materialism. It’s extreme individualism and people, Bono of U2 once said, ‘We need to understand the difference between social justice and charity.’ Charity means you just give money to people during the holiday season and you feel good about it. But if you actually practice social justice, it’s in your bones and no matter how famous you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter how many records you make, you don’t get caught up in the fact that it’s just about you. You have a responsibility with that platform to provide information and resources and service to people to use your platform to speak out against injustice. The problem in the hip-hop community, which is one of the communities that I’m a part of, is that people will say all kinds of stuff about each other. Look at how many diss records we’ve produced just in the last couple of years alone. Everybody has got beef with each other. Look how we talk about each other in our records and rap about how we’ll blast this one and blast that one. But it doesn’t take a lot of courage to say you’ll beat up someone who looks like you. But it takes courage to challenge the power structure. A lot of people in our community are too cowardly to do that. I’m not impressed if you have beef with someone in your hood or have a beef with someone who is a fellow rapper. I’m impressed if you have the courage of a Marvin Gaye and say I’m going to make an album like What’s Going On. Even the athletes have more courage than some rappers. Look at what the St Louis Rams players did. Look at how all of these basketball players are wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. You mean to tell me that someone who puts out a record, who has all of these followers on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, can’t say anything? There’s something wrong with that.

How should we all move forward to make sure these injustices don’t happen again?

There has to be serious changes in this country because racial profiling has become the modern day lynching. There’s too many black and Latino males who have been the victims of this all around the country over the last several years. It’s not like this is new. Again, when I was a youth in the 1980s, Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs were murdered in New York City. Let’s not forget Rodney King in 1991 that was caught on video tape. But it seems like in this era of President Obama, the conservative right wing in this country has become so bold and so anti-Obama and so anti-people of color that it seems like it has been this acceleration of attacks on us. It’s on a level of what you saw decades ago when you had black soldiers coming from World War I who were lynched in their uniforms. After they had fought for this country oversees, you’re going to kill someone in their uniform, representing the country that you claim to love? So I believe that just like back then when we had to be vigilant and organize in a very serious way, that’s what needs to happen. I think that’s why these protests are not stopping anytime soon. People are like we have had enough of this. Stop telling us this is a democracy when it’s clearly an oligarchy. Stop telling us this system works for all of us, when it doesn’t. There is something wrong with a country that goes all around the world and tells people how they should organize and run their countries, when they can’t even do justice by the people who are tax paying citizens in their own country. It’s blatant hypocrisy. So the only thing that’s going to change that hypocrisy is that all people have got to be consistent in organizing non-stop to change these laws. It’s not just racial profiling, it’s the voter ID laws, the stand your ground laws. The same people who are putting forth the voter ID laws around the country and the stand your ground laws around the country, are the same people who are out there pushing and supporting an atmosphere that creates racial profiling. It’d the same exact people and we know who they are. … So we’re saying to the old guard, your day is over, man. You can’t continue to hold on to the stuff that is about dividing and destroying people. It is unacceptable in this country and on the planet and we ain’t going for it anymore.

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