From Day One of this podcast, we’ve made it a point to cover America's obsession with imprisoning millions of its citizens and myriad other racial injustices that contribute to generations of discrimination. Here is our audio guide to civil unrest in America, including several all-important episodes that collectively help answer the oft-repeated question: "Why do people riot?"
(Featured image photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud/CreativeCommons)
The violent slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer has sparked mass uprisings in dozens of cities across the United States, with demonstrators directing their visceral outrage toward the police and corrupt institutions depriving marginalized groups the privilege of merely existing.
Tormented by decades of institutionalized racism and case after case after case of African Americans slaughtered at the hands of cops, protesters, not unlike previous generations, are not only condemning these modern-day lynchings, but demanding profound and systematic changes.
The dramatic rallies echo the widespread protests that erupted in the spring and summer of 1968 following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Characterized by violent clashes with local police, state forces, and in some cases, the U.S. military, the historic post-King uprisings share many of the same hallmarks of recent rebellions—racial inequality, police violence, militarized responses to collective action, and stubbornness to rectify, or even acknowledge, centuries-old injustices.
The kindle for the latest rolling inferno of collective anger was Floyd’s death—his cries of “I can’t breathe” agonizingly ignored. With Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressed against his neck, the 46-year-old desperately pleaded for oxygen until his body went limp—yet another black life extinguished on the streets of America. Outraged onlookers documented the killing on their smartphones, beaming it to the world, and unmasking the brutality of a system made rotten by racist indifference to the lives of black Americans.
While the four officers involved in Floyd’s killing were summarily fired, Chauvin was the lone cop charged in his death. Protesters have called for the others to be arrested and charged, and for prosecutors to upgrade Chauvin’s third-degree murder charge, which many find insulting considering the callousness of his actions.
As we’re often reminded, what we’re witnessing in cities across this country is America’s true identity. The fairy tales of equality and opportunity for all, taught in classrooms and repeated by subservient figures in mainstream media, are just that—utter fiction, a dream as yet unrealized.
At News Beat podcast, we believe in engaging in honest conversations about America’s racist legacy—one that began the day the first slave ship landed on these shores and continues today in the form of the mass imprisonment and wanton killings of black Americans.
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Our compelling, award-winning examination of the institutionalized inequalities threaded into the very fabric of American society that forces historically oppressed communities of color to inevitably rise up in rebellion, this episode was narrated by activists Lawrence Hamm, a veteran of the 1967 Newark uprisings; Rosa Clemente, a former Green Party vice presidential candidate; Baltimore-based professor Elizabeth Nix; and Dr. Cornel West, one of the leading social justice advocates and intellectuals in the world.
"Why We Riot" gets to the essence of why the most marginalized among us explode in visceral outrage when confronted with further evidence of state-sponsored oppression. In most cases, the fire is ignited by police brutality, compounded by the trauma from generations of systemic racism.
“That history starts the moment there was a European who took an African, and that African fought back,” renowned activist, lecturer, community organizer, and journalist Rosa Clemente explains in the episode. “We’re always going to have civil disobedience because people are going to get tired and are going to rise up, they’re going to rebel. That’s the United States’ history, period.”
Oftentimes during periods of racial strife in America, the media and lawmakers co-opt the message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach nonviolence. Regrettably, King’s message has been diluted throughout the years, so much so that his passionate warnings about unchecked capitalism and militarism—especially his virulent opposition to the Vietnam War—have largely been forgotten.
In fact, King said in 1967 that his “dream” had “turned into a nightmare.” And what would’ve likely been his crowning achievement, and perhaps even his lasting legacy—an interracial 'Poor People's Campaign' to uplift millions out of poverty—was considered radical for his time. Yet just before this historic uprising was to launch, MLK was gunned down and killed.
This episode strives to show there’s so much more to this civil rights martyr than we’re taught.
“Why do we have a Dr. King holiday and none of the six books that Martin Luther King wrote are required reading in any public school?” New Jersey-based community organizer Lawrence Hamm asks on our podcast. “So what’s the sense of closing the school if the children, the young people, the students, are not going to know what he stood for, what his principles were, what he was fighting about?
"But people, really, should go to the speeches that Dr. King gave, like 1967 and 1968," he continues. "If you want to know where Dr. King’s head was, read those speeches. Read ‘A Time to Break the Silence.’ People call it ‘Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,’ but the actual title of the speech is ‘A Time to Break the Silence.’”
Only a few years after the passage of two landmark laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to identify the causes of large-scale uprisings.
Headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, the group released the so-called “Kerner Report” in February 1968, blaming pervasive white racism, and warning that unless drastic reforms were implemented expeditiously, America would be torn into two societies: one white, one black, “separate and unequal.”
Fast-forward half a century later, and an update to that ominous analysis concludes things have gotten much, much worse. Yet several leading civil rights activists and scholars hold out hope.
As we’ve previously reported:
In 2018 we interviewed the last surviving member of the commission, Fred Harris, a former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.
“The racial and ethnic discrimination is worsening again, our cities and schools are re-segregating, inequality of income is worse than it was 50 years ago and is worsening still, and there are millions more poor people today than there were in those days,” says Harris, who co-edited the latest incarnation, titled “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.”
The 1968 version called for widespread reforms and highlighted core grievances prevailing throughout disenfranchised communities: policing, unemployment, inadequate education, and insufficient welfare programs, among others.
Its proposals went largely ignored, and King was assassinated five weeks later, sparking massive rebellions across the country.
The U.S. government has a long and sordid history of surveilling, infiltrating, and disrupting peaceful political and social movements it deems threatening, or adverse to the status quo.
Perhaps most infamous was a secret, FBI-led program codenamed COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), initiated in the 1950s against such civil and human rights icons as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and many others.
While purportedly shut down in 1971, its sinister tactics and spirit are very much alive today, deployed against modern-day activists and groups, including Black Lives Matter, environmentalists, Muslims, and indigenous rights groups. Recently, African Americans seeking social equality have been dubbed “Black Identity Extremists.”
“The types of tactics that the FBI used during the COINTELPRO era, particularly targeting Dr. Martin Luther King, involved widespread surveillance, the use informants within his movement, but then what were called disruption tactics,” Michael German, a fellow with the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, and former FBI special agent, says on the podcast. “These included writing letters and included sending audiotapes of extra-marital affairs to his wife, trying to get the Nobel Committee not to give him a Nobel Peace Prize, writing letters saying he had this dastardly secret life, and in fact, ultimately sent a letter to him threatening to expose everything the FBI knew about him if he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and suggesting that rather than go through that humiliation, he might look for another way out, which has been interpreted as pressure for him to commit suicide.
“But these weren’t unusual,” he adds. “The FBI sent these targeting college professors and students, and others, where they disrupted people’s lives, even where they committed no crime, and in fact were just trying to express opinions that the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI agents working those cases, found repelling to them.”
The agency’s sordid tradition of spying on black activist groups continues to this day. In 2017, Foreign Policy magazine revealed that the FBI’s counterterrorism division had adopted a new term “Black Identity Extremists”—which they warned posed a threat to law enforcement.
“The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence,” reads the bureau's internal assessment, which was obtained by Foreign Policy.
“The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since then have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement,” it continues.
The FBI’s in-house warnings of this alleged threat came the same summer white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite The Right” rally that killed counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Under a law that passed the North Dakota Legislature in January 2017, a citizen charged with engaging in a “riot” could potentially be imprisoned for up to a decade.
That’s one of four mandates approved by state lawmakers early that year, and more than likely, such actions were in response to the historic Indigenous-led movement at the Standing Rock Reservation against plans to build an oil pipeline that would endanger sacred land and public drinking water.
Across the United States, dozens of other anti-protest bills have been proposed in the last several years. While the far majority haven’t been passed, there’s a clear attempt by local governments to suppress dissent amid massive waves of discontent since President Donald Trump took office.
Not only that, but peaceful demonstrators are also being confronted by militarized police forces equipped with heavily armored tanks, water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, drones, and more.
At a time of intense debate about racist policies, killings of unarmed citizens, and anger over immigration raids, Americans’ right to protest is under direct assault from the powers that be.
As we reported:
Some of the most tense demonstrations have occurred in cities crying out for police reform. From Ferguson and Baltimore to Chicago and New York City, those directly affected by racist policies are more likely than not condemned for raising their voices. Oftentimes, those speaking out are the ones assigned blame for problems in their communities and put down for proactively raising their voices during times of tumult. Alas, instead of addressing the issues directly, legislators are coming up with creative means to suppress dissent. And the world is watching.
“One of the big trends that we’ve seen with this anti-protest legislation, generally, is that it seems to be reacting to the most successful tactics that are used by protesters,” Vera Eidelman, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, says on the podcast.
The United States—ostensibly 'The Land of the Free'—boasts the dubious, shameful distinction of holding the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Since the 1970s, the country has been obsessively locking up its own citizens, buttressed by the racist 'War on Drugs' and punitive sentencing measures supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
As large-scale protests often lay bare, black Americans are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned—in fact, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and one-third have felony records. Moreover, while African Americans make up only 12 percent of the United States population, 33 percent are incarcerated.
While disenfranchised communities have lamented the lack of resources, community services, and inadequate healthcare and educational programs throughout the decades, spending on jails and prisons has increased 1,000 percent since 1975.
The criminal justice system is so expansive that it can be difficult to outline all the reasons how over-policing and mass incarceration has contributed to what many community activists argue is a perpetual state of oppression. Even so, News Beat podcast has covered a wide range of criminal justice issues to help explain how 2.2 million Americans are annually marooned inside correctional institutions.
Among these: A cash bail system that crushes the poor; the aforementioned War on Drugs; the mental health crisis, which has fueled incarceration; the imprisonment of America’s youth by the tens of thousands; the power of prosecutors to set sweeping criminal justice policies; the scourge of sexual assaults in prisons; and much more.
So where do we go from here? As hard as it is to admit, that’s a difficult question to answer.
As we’ve documented in this audio guide, black Americans have been systematically oppressed for centuries—and that includes the 157 years prior to independence in 1776, as The New York Times Magazine brilliantly documented in its powerful and deeply sobering “1619 Project."
First, what we can all do is conduct our own research, eyes wide open, to help get to the bottom of how we’ve made such little progress over the course of this nation’s history.
Asking questions is obviously important, but don’t solely rely on your black friends to educate you about centuries of racism, suppression, and state-sponsored brutality. Consider delving into the full lives and works of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks—two highly influential figures whose legacies have been reduced to a soundbite and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, respectively.
Both were so much more than history books profess.
As these two civil rights pioneers demonstrate, taking to the streets and using your voice—perhaps the strongest weapon at your disposal—to condemn racism in all forms is especially important. Likewise, devoting time and resources (if you’re fortunate enough) to helping community-based organizations uplift their neighbors is also a laudable endeavor.
Several News Beat podcast episodes highlight ways people can help create change.
This episode introduces the concept of restorative justice, in which crime victims actually have a say in the punishment handed down to their offenders. So instead of universal prison time, reparations may come in the form of community service, or meeting face to face, or any number of other acts of redress or atonement those affected see as fit. This isn’t a new approach, either, but centuries-old, which again, empowers victims and paves the way for true, meaningful healing.
Restorative justice programs are quite literally changing the way “justice” is dealt to those who cause harm. As we report, this is not easy, but often raw and emotional. It does, however, provide an opportunity for the person who committed a crime to actually face those they’ve harmed and understand their pain.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who last year campaigned on a restorative justice platform, has promised to implement such programs in his city. [Check out our exclusive interview with Boudin about reform measures he's put in place since being elected.]
Who’s your district attorney? There’s a good chance that person is an older white man who has served multiple terms—perhaps as long as two decades—and often runs for re-election unopposed.
The reality is that voters don’t often get a say in who runs their local DA’s office. According to the ACLU, more than 70 percent of DA candidates ran unopposed in 2016. At a time when one-third of the 2.2 million Americans incarcerated are black, even though they represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, incumbent prosecutors are overwhelmingly white (92 percent) and male (80 percent). And unlike high-profile races for federal office or governorships, the candidates, especially the opposition, are often unfamiliar to many voters.
“Prosecutors are one of the most powerful figures in the criminal justice system. They have the discretion on a daily basis to make decisions both small and large that impact the lives of tens of thousands, millions of people in this country,” Arisha Hatch, director of Color of Change PAC, says on the podcast. “Decisions like whether to charge something as a misdemeanor or a felony. Decisions about whether to charge something at all. Decisions about whether to ask for bail in a particular case. And so these tiny decisions add up and have power in people’s lives.”
In recent years, a new wave of prosecutors—much like the aforementioned Boudin—have heard the call of public service and are challenging incumbents who they believe aren’t representative of the community in which they serve or who perpetuate long-standing practices that lead to the over-incarceration of black Americans and other minorities.
Before the emergence of Black Lives Matter and other groups fighting for racial justice, there were activists who called for the abolition of prisons in America.
Prison abolition may appear to be a radical concept, but it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, in the ’60s and ’70s, the idea of prison abolition in the United States was a very real issue being discussed among academics and politicians alike. This was before the passage of sweeping policies and laws targeting impoverished black and brown communities, a resurgence of the racist War on Drugs, and Clinton-era criminal justice policies that collectively transformed America into the world’s largest prison state. The prison abolition movement is alive and well, and those who ascribe to its principles are still hoping for drastic change.
“I know that’s not what people think of when you hear the term ‘abolish,” Mariama Kaba, one of the leading voices of the movement, says on the podcast. “I think people think of something really drastic that happens immediately. And the history of even the abolition of chattel slavery teaches us that things don’t happen abruptly. That they happen over time with forethought, and strategy, and persistence.
“Critical Resistance says that abolition really isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages,” adds Kaba. “But we also have to focus on undoing the actual society we live in because the PIC (prison industrial complex) feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment and violence. So it’s not isolated. It’s part of the larger systems in which we live.”
“The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts.”
Those were the words of then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, testifying before a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing on bail in 1964.
The fight to abolish the bail system continues to this day.
Consider this: On any given day, more than 400,000 people sitting in a jail cell are innocent and have yet to be convicted of a crime.
Fighting for the freedom of many of the people locked up behind bars are community bail funds, which utilize the money they raise to bail people out. Ironically, organizers of bail funds would rather they themselves didn’t exist, since that would mean bail's abolition.
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