What do you think the “War on Drugs” means for criminal justice in America?
That’s an important question. I think it’s one of the most important questions in our country right now. The War on Drugs started before, I think, any of us in the room were born. And what we’ve come to learn and understand is that when it was created, conceptually, it had nothing to do with treatment. It really had very little to do with ending drugs, ending drug addiction. It had everything to do with punishing people, particularly people of color, poor people. So what we see now, in great part because of the so-called War on Drugs, is that people are using drugs just like they were before the war, except now we have millions of people in jail instead of a few hundred thousand. No developed country in the world has a so-called war on drug users like our country does. And it’s a mess. It’s why we have 2.3 million people who are incarcerated and millions more who are under supervision or probation when sometimes they should have gotten citations or treatment. So the system is greatly ineffective at addressing the root issue. What I say everywhere I go is that the system is not broken: it was designed this way. A lot of people look at it, and it is an ugly system, and their gut reaction is, “Oh wow, the system is broken,” which suggests that it was a wonderful, well-designed system that now somehow messed up. That’s not what we have. It’s a terribly designed system that needs to be scrapped from the bottom up. I think [now] more than any point in my lifetime, people are starting to have that conversation. What do you legalize? What do you change? What should the penalties be? It’s not moving fast enough, but I think we’re probably in the early days of some meaningful reforms on that issue.
What do you think makes people uncomfortable with the phrase Black Lives Matter?
That’s a good question. Issues of race can be very uncomfortable to talk about in general, in part because sometimes people have no idea what they’re talking about. So what you get is people are very uncomfortable because they don’t know if they’re saying the right thing, if they’re being offensive, on a hundred different levels. So before Black Lives Matter made people uncomfortable, people have been uncomfortable talking about difficult issues around race, around racism, around bigotry. It requires us to push through that. You can’t be so easily irritated that if you do say the wrong thing and step on toes, that if you get blasted for it you never have a conversation again. I think there’s also some people [who] are being obtuse about what Black Lives Matter means. People have defined and explained to people [that] in an ideal world, all people are treated equally. Anyone who says that’s the reality in this country is kind of being willfully ignorant on that issue. There are layers and layers of discrimination for all types of people, for all different reasons. So when these three young women coined this phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they coined it in response to black folk who were being treated like their lives didn’t matter. That’s the root of the phrase: even though society in a lot of different ways often treats black lives like they don’t matter, it’s a declaration, that yes they do. In this country, particularly if you are a black teenager, an unarmed black teenager, you’re almost 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than an unarmed white teenager. So when we say Black Lives Matter is to say, hey, why does this disparity exist? Where does it come from? Each case of police brutality is an individual case, individually complicated, but that phrase Black Lives Matter is a phrase that’s also affirming for people who feel like they’re under attack. Even if it requires an explanation, the phrase makes sense to me.
As Hillary Clinton would say, are the deplorables also irredeemable? Is it worth trying to overcome their ignorance?
I’ve been a very public critic of Hillary Clinton. I campaigned for Bernie. I had never heard that phrase before. The deplorables… It was a weird turn of phrase. I literally even thought I misunderstood it at first. I think I got the spirit of what she was saying. I think it’s true, and even some people within Donald Trump’s campaign have [admitted] because they have no choice, that large volumes of white supremacists and bigots and other people have been very, very supportive of his campaign. But when you’re running for President of the United States, you have to be very careful not to cause people to feel like you are grouping tens of millions of people into one box. Bernie, for instance, resonated with a lot of people who now support Donald Trump. I don’t think they were ever Bernie supporters. A small amount of Bernie supporters may support Trump, but I think had Bernie got the nomination, he would not have used that phrase. I think, thinking back on that, she would not have used it. The point is to say that to have a difficult nuanced conversation, you have to be careful not to group millions of people into one box. I’ve huge criticisms of Donald Trump and Donald Trump supporters. But it’s a little more complicated than that phrase gave into.
Unquestionably, Black Lives Matter has done a lot of work in elevating dialogue in our country. Can you offer some criticism to the movement, or what would you like to see change in the movement’s approach?
All movements could be better. I regularly see people say things like, ‘Dr. King would be turning over in his grave if he saw this or that.’ I see people say this and it’s really ahistorical. The civil rights movement was messy as a movement… They sometimes disagreed widely on how to approach those problems… So the Black Lives Matter movement is no different than that in the sense that some of us hardly know each other. Some of us see problems very differently. And so, a lot of people say, ‘Wow, I wish there was more unity in the Black Lives Matter movement.’ That’s never really been the case in any civil rights movement. There’s always disagreements and wildly different approaches. Less than a criticism, I’ll tell you where we’re going. I think, for the past two years, this movement has been focused on building awareness. And I think we’ve succeeded. You know, here we are at the campus of Bates College in Maine talking about it…. Most Americans are aware that there’s police brutality. And they were not aware of that just a couple years ago. But we’re pivoting away just from awareness, which we will have to continue to do, to solutions. And I think that’s a natural progression, and that you’ll see in most movements, for a long time you’re just trying to make people know that there is a problem. And once you’ve almost completely saturated the market, you then say, well how do we solve it? So, I think you’ll see more and more of us in the movement talking about what solutions are and how we approach them. But I think you’ll continue to see many of us disagree on many of those approaches. And I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy that we approach the problem from many different angles.
What role, if any, do you think your religion and faith plays in your social justice work? Do you think that religious values are something that can unite people?
My religious background, faith [and] history guide a lot of what I do. One of the reasons I was excited to come here to Bates is a hero of mine, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, graduated from Bates and I graduated from Morehouse College where he was president for 29 years and even before he was president, he was a professor and a debate team coach at Morehouse. And he was a man who had faith at the center of a lot of what he did, but did work that went way outside of religious circles… I think a lot about Dr. King when I do the work. One of Benjamin Mays’ students was a man named Howard Thurman. When he taught, Benjamin Mays was the debate coach at Morehouse before he became president. Howard Thurman was a student on the debate team. He wrote this book called Jesus and the Disinherited. And Dr. King actually had that book when he was assassinated. Dr. King, Howard Thurman [and] Benjamin Mays all believed that their version of Christianity was one that fought against injustice. And I believe in that as well. There’s a huge evangelical Christian support of Donald Trump that I just can’t make sense of. And I’m deeply disturbed by [it]. But Dr. King was disturbed in the same way. He wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, and what it was really about was how he was confused and perplexed and bothered by his fellow white Christians in Birmingham, who seem[ed] to support segregation and worse. He just couldn’t make sense of it. What bothered him the most was not the ugliness. What bothered him the most was the silence of people who claimed to be Christian. So I don’t speak a lot publicly about my faith, but privately, it guides me, and it keeps me encouraged as well.
What sort of advice would you give with regards to motivation, inspiration? Who do you look to, and how would you guide young college students on their quest to make a difference in the world of social justice?
I said this at a class I spoke at earlier, but I’m actually in the scheme of this movement seen as this old guy. I don’t think of myself like that. But some of the most amazing leaders in this movement are in their early 20s… Particularly college students and young leaders who are functioning inside of systems that they feel are racist or oppressive… I spoke at University of Kentucky last week, and earlier that day several students had people drive by in trucks and yell at them, have people throw stuff at them. This is 2016. And I felt terrible because I left that campus and flew back to New York. And I’m safe and I don’t deal with that. So I admire students who are there fighting it, speaking out against it. I just want to encourage students to know that if you look and study any movement over the last 100 years, students have always been involved, in part because they have a healthy recklessness that adults who have bills and jobs and all other things don’t have. There’s a bravery and a courage that students have that you need to use… Don’t assume you’re too young to make a difference. Don’t assume you’re too far away from discrimination. Like the country might talk about Charleston, or Charlotte, or Baltimore, but there are problems right here in Maine, right here on this campus that need to be addressed… Just use the time you have and use it well.