Talib Kweli on The Point That Went Missing

By Talib Kweli -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Sep 4, 2014 - 11:28:13 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

Talib Kweli with CNN anchorman Don Lemon.

When I left for Ferguson, Mo., my intention was to only deal with the people in the community. My intention was not to participate in spectacle. But we all know what the road to hell is paved with. After receiving several phone calls from a producer at CNN, I decided to use my “fame” to shed light on the police aggression that the peaceful protestors and the community of Ferguson were facing.

I was asked to do an interview with Anderson Cooper. However, when I got there it was Don Lemon on set instead. Apparently, he was filling in for Cooper who had another interview somewhere. Lemon, who I had never met, is a polarizing figure in the Black community, you either love him or you hate him. Although I’ve never paid enough attention to him to form an opinion either way, I was impressed that he was on a skateboard. It made him seem down to earth, and I looked forward to the exchange.

I’ve been interviewed on the news many times. Each time the interviewer made sure to say hi, greet me and thank me for coming down. Lemon did none of these things, and I found that odd. Still, I didn’t take it personal. I am not a big mainstream artist, I don’t expect everyone to know or even care about who I am.

Many people were happy at how this interview went. They agreed with my point and my stance. There were also many who were incredibly disappointed with me and felt the interview was a wasted opportunity that became a competition of egos instead. I am disappointed in myself for allowing the interview to become a spectacle which further distracts from the execution style killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. Even though I went in with the best intentions, I became a part of the spectacle.

The main issue that people became upset at me for was for mentioning that Mr. Lemon didn’t greet me, or know how to pronounce my name. I can see how on the surface that came across as petty. But go back, listen to the words said and consider the facts. After I made an initial statement about White supremacy and biased media reports, Don Lemon quickly defended CNN and his own coverage by saying “people in the community are actually coming up to me saying our coverage is balanced.”

I get it. Mr. Lemon had firsthand experience of people commending him in the street during the day. It’s valuable and I would never deny it happened. I have firsthand experience of police threatening my life and the lives of those around me at night for just being at a peaceful protest. My firsthand experience is equally valuable, and I didn’t receive a salary for my trip. Mr. Lemon didn’t know who I was, so he didn’t feel like he owed my perspective any respect. As far as he knew he was Don Lemon from CNN allowing some rapper to be on TV, and I should just be grateful for the opportunity. This is why I felt it was important for me to point out in that moment that he didn’t know me, as well as his initial rudeness before the interview. His ignorance of who I was allowed him to make the mistake of thinking my perspective wasn’t as valuable or accurate as the police’s.

I began to make a point about a headline that read “Ferguson Protest Calm Until Bottles Fly.” I was there for the event in question and I felt the article did a disservice to the community. I had no initial intention to bring that article up, but I felt it became necessary once Mr. Lemon suggested that CNN was “always” fair and balanced. After getting out half a sentence, which was “The article says police chased down men,” Mr. Lemon interrupted me to say-

“That’s not what happened where you were.”

Let that sink in. How would he know? I was there, he wasn’t. This dismissiveness of a firsthand account illustrated my point that the mainstream media has the propensity to ignore the facts in favor of sensationalism.

This is where I dug in. I refused to let Mr. Lemon say anything else until I finished my statement, and threatened to walk off if he didn’t let me talk. I don’t need CNN, they called me. My time in the streets with the people is far more valuable than time spent being interrupted by some anchor who doesn’t know who I am. If it wasn’t for Van Jones, who was standing on the side watching and motioning for me to stick it out, I would’ve left and headed right back down to Canefield and West Florissant to be with the people.

Mr. Lemon also dug in, but only to continue cutting me off about how he wasn’t cutting me off and then he said this:

“Police say that’s not what happened where you were.”

Without having even read the article I was referencing, Don Lemon tried to discredit a firsthand experience that I had yet to even relay by saying “police say that’s not what happened where you were.”

“Police say”? Word? When I added this blatant dismissal of my account to the constant interruptions of it I no longer felt the need to respect what he had to say, so when he kept insisting I stop talking to listen to him I felt the need to mention that he didn’t know or respect me, therefore I am not bound to listen to or respect him. That’s why I let it be known he didn’t greet me. In retrospect, I probably could’ve made my point without mentioning this. It made Mr. Lemon even more defensive, which caused him to say “I invited you on the show.” To me, this statement was indicative of the point I was making about media coverage, so I felt the need to expose it. Don Lemon didn’t invite me. A producer did. Don Lemon who was filling in for Anderson Cooper, had no clue who I was.

When it became clear that I was either leaving or saying my piece, he got quiet enough for me to say this-

“The CNN report says they chased men down. No, they chased men, women and children down. The CNN report says ‘Calm Until Bottles Fly.’ But don’t mention the bottles in the article! I saw the bottle fly. You know when the bottle flew? After the cops told me they gonna blow my f-in head off. After the cops put on riot gear, put up their shields, took their batons out and lined up on the streets. Then when they got in position, a bottle comes flying out of a peaceful protest? That don’t make no sense. So what I’m saying is the headline should’ve said ‘It’s Calm Until The Cops Agitated The People.’

Once I got my point out, I stopped to allow Mr. Lemon to question me on my eyewitness account. His response?

“That’s what you saw from your position. You’re not seeing everything that’s going on.”

Of course I’m not. I can only tell you what I saw from my perspective. Is my perspective the only one? No. Is his refusal to recognize my perspective as valid indicative of a mainstream media organization pushing the narrative of the police? Absolutely. Without ever addressing any of the points I raised about the inaccuracies in the article, Mr. Lemon decided instead to address the fact that I said he didn’t greet me or know how to pronounce my name. I should’ve never given him that platform, because it allowed him to ignore the many facts I raised while he was trying to cut me off.

The fact that there were also women and children being tackled in the street by police for peacefully protesting is an important detail. For CNN to report it was only men fits nicely into the narrative of the angry Black male thug looting for no reason that the mainstream media has been attempting to sell to us. As a man who was chased through the streets and forced to the ground at gunpoint by Ferguson police along with my sisters Jessica Care Moore and Rosa Clemente, I took exception to this. As a man who saw a cop put a gun barrel into the chest of a seventeen-year-old boy who was protesting peacefully, I took exception to this. These are important details. If the CNN reporters were at the same event I was, it would’ve been impossible to think that it was just “men” that the police treated like animals. If this was an oversight, it was a horrible one. If it was written that way intentionally, it’s just plain evil, and CNN should be held accountable.

We are part of a generation that gobbles down headlines without ever reading the story. Headline wording is extremely important. If I am about to read an article that’s titled “Ferguson Calm Until Bottles Fly” that would lead me to believe I’m about to read about how a flying bottle broke the peace. Even though this was the headline, the article never once mentioned a bottle. What does that tell me as a thinking person? The sole purpose of that headline was to cast a negative light on a peaceful protest that I witnessed with my own eyes. The purpose was to make people think that a militarized police presence is justified. Who else can stop dangerous water bottles? It shifts the narrative from “police should not be executing the unarmed citizens they are sworn to protect” to “maybe people should stop throwing things at police.” That article was grossly unfair to the community of Ferguson.

I am not an anarchist. But I do recognize the phrase “law and order” as code for legalized racism. To see the racist roots and the political history of that phrase, please read the excellent book New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. With that said, police have a very hard job. The divorce and suicide rates for police officers are through the roof. Police serve and protect property, not people, but there are many who become police officers because they genuinely want to help their communities. These are “good” police officers who may not know history or care about politics, they just want to help in any way they can. Still, when part of your job is to drive around looking for trouble, it can lead you to have a warped view of humanity, especially when you are patrolling in a community you have no relationship with and do not understand.

The people in Ferguson had a right to protest the excessive force used to execute Mike Brown. It’s more than ironic that the police responded to these peaceful protests with an even more audacious show of excessive force in the form of tanks and artillery more suited for a war zone. This was before any looting, rioting or burning took place, it was not a response to it. The police response showed an incredible lack of respect for the people of that community, but the world didn’t take notice until the people got fed up enough to start burning things down. Ask yourself, without the stories of “looting and rioting” would the mainstream media have covered this at all? Of course not. So while all sensible people can and must condemn looting, rioting and destruction of property, we also must recognize how “looting and rioting” is the only thing that makes the mainstream media care about such gross injustice. Do we have the power to change that? Of course we do, by shifting the focus back to those in our community who fight the good fight. We can change things by attacking the root of the problem, not the symptom.

In hip hop circles, people often spend far more time complaining about what they don’t like rather than supporting what they do. I see the same thing happen with protest movements. Rather than seek out and support community organizers who do this work whether the camera is on them or not, folks sit at home in front of their computers complaining about what other people don’t do. The irony is they are only criticizing themselves. If you only see protest movements when CNN covers them, that’s your fault, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

So what’s the solution? There isn’t just one, we must be strategic and work on a collection of solutions. There are those who say the solution is to vote, but every problem is not solved at the ballot box. We have a Black president—that is not stopping police from executing us. If we are not organizing voter blocs like Adam Clayton Powell Jr. used to do back in the 1960’s then our votes have a far less chance of changing anything. Education is key, but westernized education alone will not save us. Mike Brown was scheduled to attend Vatterott College this fall, that didn’t save him. Some say it’s religion but in the words of poet St. Teresa of Avila, “God has no hands but our hands to do his work today.”

All of these strategies can create positive outcomes, but from where I’m sitting, the preservation of White supremacy is our truest enemy. Identifying White supremacy as the root of these ills is not suggesting that every White person is racist, that would be silly to me. White supremacy, by definition, is the belief that White people are superior to those of all other races, especially the Black race, and should therefore dominate society. The fact is, the slave owning founding fathers of this country were White supremacists, as was the vast majority of the population back then. These founding fathers put systems in place to ensure their children and their children’s children would reap the benefits of their racism for generations to come. These systems work. America’s institutions and values are forged in the fires of this racism, a system created to justify the greed and the lack of humanity of the Europeans who profited from the Atlantic slave trade. Historically, racism as a concept is relatively young. This hasn’t stopped it from becoming the elites chosen tool for maintaining power over people. The captains of industry, the folks who run the World Bank and the IMF, are not people of color.

The prison industrial complex is White supremacy’s most dangerous tentacle. While Blacks are six times as likely to go to jail as Whites, the rush to fill for-profit prisons destroys the lives of Americans of every race. The “War on Drugs,” which has had zero impact on the consumption of drugs since President Nixon began it 40 years ago, is truly a war on poor communities. There are about 2.3 million Americans in jail. The inner cities, where the people are the poorest, become pools where police, judges and prosecutors fish for bodies to fill prison quotas. The same way Jim Crow laws attempted to roll back the advances made since the abolishment of slavery, the prison industrial complex ensures that it’s easier for police to treat people of color like animals. Black and Brown people, especially the poor, are criminalized from birth, conditioned to go from horrible public schools straight to prisons and then denied the right to simply exist. This leads the justifications people make when people of color are stalked and shot down like prey.

Civil disobedience is sometimes necessary to combat injustice. We can’t afford to put peace above justice. As the great historian Howard Zinn said, “protest beyond law is not a departure from democracy, it’s absolutely essential to it.” Showing up in the flesh for the protest movement is important, but what if you don’t have the power to go to where the protest is? And what happens when the protest is over? This is why organizing is important, acting is better than reacting. When organizations that share a common goal move as a unit, nothing can stand in their way. Racism cannot be killed with legislation and history has never been changed by discussion alone. I do not have all the answers, so I choose to align myself with those actively looking for solutions. The organizations that understand and combat the devastating impact that the racist prison industrial complex is having on our society are the ones that I give my support to and show up for. You can support these organizations online and if they don’t have a chapter in your hometown or you can probably start one. You can start your own organization. You don’t even have to join an organization, you can just support their efforts when they do things you agree with. The point is for you to spend time thinking about what you can do rather than what you can’t.

Please spread the word about a petition aimed at creating legislation that would combat police brutality, started by Shaun King (@shaunking)

Here are some links to some of the organizations doing excellent work that I personally rock with. They are not your parents’ civil rights organizations. They are young, here and invested in the now. Check them out, and if you like them, get down with what they’re doing, or add on in whatever way works for you. They can all use our support. Help them help us. Peace-

Malcolm X Grassroots Movement


Dream Defenders (@DreamDefenders)

Black Youth Project (@blackyouthproj)

Advancement Project (@adv_project)

Organization For Black Struggle

(@OBSProject) …

Fellowship of Reconciliation (@Forpeace)