Lawyer Connie Rice & Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, Part 1

The civil rights lawyer and UCLA history professor join us to discuss the recent police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana as well as the killing of 5 police officers in Dallas, TX.

Connie Rice is one of America's most influential lawyers. Rice has taken on public school and transit systems, death row, the states of Mississippi and California and the L.A.P.D. and won—in court, on the streets and in prisons. She's also known for co-authoring a report that revolutionized Los Angeles' law enforcement policies and outreach to gangs. Rice was co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's L.A. office and co-founded the nonprofit Advancement Project, which provides support for organizations working for racial and social justice. Rice is a graduate of Harvard College and the New York University School of Law, she chronicled her life in the trenches of civil rights law in her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing.

Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of history at UCLA. His research explores the history of social movements in the U.S., the African Diaspora, and Africa as well as black intellectuals; music; visual culture and contemporary urban studies. His essays have appeared in a wide variety of professional journals and publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Black Music Research Journal, African Studies Review, New York Times (Arts and Leisure) and New York Times Magazine, to name a few.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

In light of last week’s shooting deaths of two Black men and the sniper attack in Dallas, tonight we’ll get insights from and talk about a path forward with civil rights attorney, Connie Rice, and UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. That conversation coming up right now.

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Tavis: Joining us tonight for insights and a conversation about a path forward, given the carnage of last week, those shooting deaths of two Black men, of course, and the sniper attack in Dallas, pleased to welcome back to this program professor and historian, Robin D. G. Kelley and civil rights attorney, Connie Rice. Good to have you both on the program.

Robin D. G. Kelley: Thank you.

Tavis: I want to start with a quote from Dr. King. I want to share this because I went back to look this up, Robin, in the days after the shootings last week. It’s very telling because this is what Dr. King who we, of course, know was a peaceful man himself, so clearly behaving peacefully doesn’t spare your life. Dr. King is Exhibit A in that , Mr. Castile, Exhibit B.

We could go down the list, but King would tell you that being peaceful doesn’t mean that you’re going to live a long life. I wanted to know what King had to say about the assassination of JFK in Dallas. Here’s what Martin King said.

“We were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate, we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views. We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.” Is America sick, Robin?

Kelley: Yeah, and I think been sick for quite some time, in fact. You know, we talk about these problems as race relations. Rarely do we talk about this problem as racism.

You know, one of the things that King also said was he described racism as not just an illness, but a whole philosophy. He talks about a way of thinking that denigrates other human beings which, of course, then denigrates the denigrator, that racism dehumanizes everyone.

And as long as we have racism, you know, whether it’s the colorblind type of racism that we’re dealing with now or the explicit racism of Jim Crow, we’ll always be a sick society. We’ll always devalue human life that doesn’t look like us–and when I say us, I don’t mean me. I mean the dominant culture that is white supremacy.

Tavis: Yeah. Some illnesses, Connie, are benign and some are malignant. How do you diagnose our racial sickness? Can we be healed from it? Because everybody’s talking now about healing. Can we be healed from this?

Connie Rice: Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. I’ve seen pockets of when we focus together on fixing a sociological dynamic like this. Say, for example, the police reform work that I do. When we focused on creating a specialized unit of cops who could bond with poor folks in Watts, we did it. We just now have six years of data on how successful it is.

You can transform mindsets. You can transform and reverse isms like militarism, excessive greed, of capitalism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia. You can reverse all of these, but it takes a very concerted effort and it takes a network of us doing it altogether. So I have no doubt that we can fix it.

There’s just no political will to do it and, in this country, we’re so divided and segregated. Because you remember the other thing that Martin Luther King, Jr. said is that we will never, ever overcome the four things that are dooming the United States.

The militarism, excessive capitalism, the racism and the misogyny were the four things that he listed. We’re never going to overcome those things because we’re so segregated. He said without full integration, we will never, ever unwind these toxic isms.

Tavis: Let me challenge you on a piece of that. You used the world political and I think one of the things that concerns me, maybe even frankly disturbs me, is that we keep looking at this problem–and I mean the problem of racism, the problem of guns–as a political conundrum.

And I hear your point now and I agree that we don’t have the political will. So in many ways, it’s not a skill problem. It’s a will problem. Do we have the will? Having said that, though, I see this as not a political issue, quite frankly, but a moral question.

And what concerns me about your charitable, generous outlook about what we can do is that this is a moral issue and I just don’t know, one, that you can legislate morality or, number two, that we have the kind of moral leadership that’s required in this moment.

Rice: I agree with that totally.

Tavis: Okay, okay.

Rice: Totally. But moral doesn’t preclude political, doesn’t preclude sociological, doesn’t preclude economic. I’m saying that there has to be a comprehensive wrap-around approach to these problems because they’re so deep. I mean, we’re talking about stuff that’s gone back to the beginning of the Native American genocide, the slavery, you know, that this professor here could probably give us a lecture on.

And to unwind 400 years of that, it takes that kind of wrap-around comprehensive strategy. But first of all, Tavis, it takes acknowledgement. We won’t even admit. I mean, it was a big news thing for Newt Gingrich to say, you know what? White people don’t understand what Black people go through. That was a banner headline.

Well, that tells you that we’re so segregated and so politically divided now, we can’t even have these conversations. So I think to start with, we have to begin with that kind of, all right, we got to start over. All of us have to go back to our corners and then come out in the middle together and have that conversation.

Tavis: One of the other banner headlines beyond Newt Gingrich which people found shocking that Gingrich would confess something like that, again, I speak for myself. I was disturbed when I heard the president make news when he suggested that we aren’t as divided as people would have us believe.

Now I get the political rhetoric, but I’m like who is the president talking to? What America is he looking at? Was it just me or did you see it the same way?

Kelley: Right. You know, it’s rhetoric that he uses to maintain his base. You know, I think that’s part of it. But it is rhetoric because the fact of the matter is that we’re not just divided by race. We’re sharply divided by class and it’s gotten worse.

So we’re talking about at least four decades of policies that has not moved us forward toward a more just integrated–when I say integrated, I mean integrated in terms of access to basic services, terms of the value of our home, into even owning a home, in terms of the way we’re treated by the police, in terms of even being marked as fully human beings.

In some respects, we’re talking about four decades of policies that have created greater inequality, structural inequality that just can’t be resolved easily.

In fact, I would argue that we’re more divided now than we were, say, even in 1968. It may not appear that way. The only difference is that in 1968, it appeared to be more contentious, there’s more struggle, more conflict because of the sense of belief that we could actually win this.

Now is despair, you know. I’m not saying it’s not struggle, but there’s an enormous amount of despair and what we’re seeing in terms of these police violence cases, a lot of them are directed at people who not only did not commit a crime, but they’re like status violations.

People selling CDs on the street, people being stopped for a broken taillight. That’s tied to a particular kind of policy, broken windows policing, that targets the most vulnerable because of this conception that somehow the immiseration and poverty of urban centers has to do with culture, not structural policies.

Tavis: The last time you were on this program, Connie, you talked about–I’m using a phrase that you used and I’ve heard you use it a number of times, which piggybacks on Robin’s point-predatory policing and predatory government.

Say something about that notion connected to the things that these Black men end up being killed over. Status violations, selling CDs, a broken taillight. How do you end up dead for that if that isn’t predatory policing or predatory government?

Rice: Yeah, yeah. How in the world do you end up choked out over some loose cigarettes? The mind boggles. When I say predatory government, I’m talking about–I mean, when I went to Ferguson, Missouri, I was stunned. I didn’t even look at the police because when I realized that the police budget is raises by mass stop-and-ticket.

Never mind stop-and-frisk. This was mass stop-and-ticket and every African American family in that county had at least three tickets of over $250 and they couldn’t afford to pay them. So then that criminalizes you and you can get stopped again.

So what I meant by predatory was that you’re raising–the police have all the incentive in the world to stop everybody Black because nobody’s going to raise any questions about stopping someone Black. Give all the Black folks tickets. We’ll raise our budget from that and they are fodder for our budget. That’s predatory. You are preying on poor people of color because you know you can.

So what we’ve had–and this stems from the Jim Crow era where you had, you know, the slave plantations. You have slave police. They became the sheriffs and all they did was pass down this notion that African Americans exist to be preyed upon, to be used, to be suppressed, to be oppressed.

The police have never been given the mandate to go in and protect poor African Americans, poor Latinos, poor immigrants. They’re there to make sure that the Grape Street Crips don’t make it out to Nancy Reagan’s back yard or my back yard.

Let’s be honest. My back yard as well, because I am part of the privileged few. So what I mean by predatory is that we have got to face what Robin was talking about in terms of the class divisions, the geographical divisions. I agree that we are divided.

I also agree with the president that it’s not as apocalyptic as some people would have it made out. ’68 felt like a lot more dangerous to me and I was only seven [laugh ]. This is unsettling, it’s disturbing, but there’s so much more fabric amongst us now simply because we see more of each other through the networks.

I agree that we are more segregated in a lot of ways by class, by race, by geography. Geography, you know, the cities versus the coastal communities versus the inland communities. You could tell more by where somebody lives than almost their race.

So, yes, there’s a lot of division, but I also see more capacity to come together. So it doesn’t feel as scary to me as ’68 did. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m wrong.

Tavis: See, the part that troubles me, though–I hear Connie’s point, Robin. But the part that troubles me is that I think that the fundamental problem that existed in ’68 is the fundamental problem that exists now, which is that there is a fundamental lack of respect for the humanity and the dignity of Black life.

Kelley: That’s right.

Tavis: And I think so long as that’s a reality, it’s hard to get from here to there if you fundamentally don’t see the other person as your equal.

Kelley: Right, exactly, exactly. That’s in every single respect. You think about the focus on video and body cameras that is documenting these cases of police brutality. The fact that we need that is evidence of the lack of respect because what does the court usually use? Eye witness.

Black eye witnesses don’t always have the same value. The fact that not just police officers, but sort of self-proclaimed vigilantes can take Black life so easily, you know. It suggests a complete lack of respect, but also it goes even deeper than that.

It’s not only dehumanizing Black people, but it’s part of a very long tradition of seeing Black people as walking criminals. You know, it’s one thing to say you’re there to serve mainstream America. It’s another thing to say that you’re probably guilty of a crime.

You know, we see this not just with Black people. We also see it with the Arab population where you talk about a U.S. foreign policy that begins to target people because they might commit an act of terrorism. So that kind of dehumanization is so fundamental to the history of this country and you can’t separate this, say, slavery in Jim Crow from where we are today.

And that’s why when Black Lives Matter makes the argument that we matter, that we want to be treated as human beings, it’s not simply equivalency that they’re arguing for. They’re arguing for a complete elimination of what you began to show with. And that is this idea that human beings are simply not respected, you know, that whole groups of people could be reduced to animals in a sense.

Tavis: Connie said something earlier I want to get your take on, Robin. Then I’ll go back to Connie here. But I think Connie is right that, for some fellow citizens, as troubling as this moment is, it doesn’t feel as scary, say, as 1968 felt for those who were around and remember it. But I think one of the reasons why that is the case is because they are comforted by the fact that they see Black faces in high places.

So they see Barack Obama as President, they see Shonda Rhimes producing hit TV shows, Beyoncé runs the world, and they see three Negros right now on PBS, which wouldn’t have been the case in 1968. So I think they see these Black faces in high places, so they feel like things aren’t as bad as they are.

So they buy into this notion the president advanced the other day that America’s not as divided as some would have us believe. But focusing on those Black faces in high places ignores or certainly blurs the reality about the masses of Black people, that class divide we talked about. Am I on to something here?

Kelley: Right. You know what? It not only blurs the reality, but it reproduces the reality. In fact, it confirms. It confirms equality. It confirms this idea which is colorblind racism that all you have to do is work hard and you too can become Tavis Smiley, you know, that you too can become Barack Obama. And the reason that you’re not is because you don’t work hard enough.

So ironically, it’s a racism in which the success of some confirms, you know, the fact that the lower orders are only at the lower level because of their own incapacity, their own laziness, or their inadequacies.

Rice: I’ll tell you, just to build on Robin’s point. When you see someone complying with all the rules, they’ve played by the rules, they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do, it takes you back to the shooting that happened in Minnesota.

He was asked for his identification, he’s complying with the request. As he’s complying with the request, he gets shot. He did everything he was supposed to do. He played by the rules. We declare, look, I’ve got a gun, I’ve got a gun.

As the governor said, if that person had been white, they would never have been shot. So I think that what’s so baffling about this is that I think that both are true. I think that we’ve never been–we’re extremely divided, dangerously divided.

I think the reason it doesn’t feel as dangerous is that we haven’t had an assassination of a political figure yet. We’ve had assassination of cops, we’ve had assassination of people pulled over by police. You know, we’ve had assassination, but not something like a president killed. And, knock on wood, that will not happen again.

But, Tavis, I think you’re absolutely right and, Robin, you’re absolutely right. I just may be too optimistic, but what I do see is that, for example, when I sat down with these white cops–I had to interview about 800 officers for Chief Bratton. It was his way of keeping me busy so I wouldn’t sue him [laugh].

I took 18 months and I said, well, let me talk to these cops. You know, I need to learn more because I had represented African American officers, but that’s a very different–as Robin and I were talking in the green room–very different matter, you know, African American cops and Latino officers.

But the bottom line was that, when I was talking to them, once they got comfortable and they realized I was never going to use anything that they said to me against them, they started to get really honest.

I can’t tell you how many of them said, “I’m terrified of Black people. I’ve never been in a Black community. When you put me in a housing project, but, Connie, you know, you’re not really Black. I’m talking about Black people in Watts and there’s a crack war and I’m not gonna make it home to my family because I have to go into that neighborhood and think that everybody’s a criminal because I can’t tell who’s gonna kill me.”

So I could see this heightened, ratcheted up endangerment, this response. And my point to them was it’s because you have no fluency, you have no cultural competence. You have no familiarity. You’ve never had dinner, you’ve never been to the churches. You’ve never…

Tavis: But that’s the question, Connie. How do you police when you are that frightened? When we all saw this videotape, back to Mr. Castile in Minnesota, this cop is losing his mind. He’s screaming, “I told him to keep his hands up! I told him to keep his hands up!” He’s terrified.

Rice: He’s terrified.

Tavis: How do you police an environment, Connie, where you’re that scared?

Rice: You can’t, you can’t, which is why, when I wrote the report, this had to be front and center. You cannot be sent into a Latino community if you don’t speak their languages and you don’t understand the fear of deportation.

You cannot go into a poor Black community without understanding the ravaging dynamics of the 150 years of poverty. You cannot police a housing project without understanding what those families face and without becoming so familiar that you know every kid’s name.

That was what I wrote in my report, which is why LAPD created this unit that now you have to become completely immersed. You have to become professionally immersed in that neighborhood. Otherwise, you end up with what we see.

Tavis: I got a question, but your comment first.

Kelley: Just a comment. So Donald Pomerleau, who was the Chief of Police in Baltimore in ’68 around the time of the ’68 uprising, he had the exact same argument. He said, you know–in fact they were offering Black history courses for police officers in Baltimore.

Rice: Yes, yes.

Kelley: Assuming that all we need is just knowledge, sensitivity training, a relationship with the community, and he did all that stuff. Meanwhile, Baltimore blew up. Police violence wasn’t reduced. I mean, they should have had your report. But in the case of Baltimore, it didn’t work and part of the reason it didn’t work was because they were still over-policing the community.

They still had way too many police officers. So after the ’68 uprising, instead of seeing the ’68 uprising as a sign that we need to change our policies, that we need to actually go deeper into that community and actually develop local community forums of public safety, no. They turned to militarization. So you see the beginning of militarization in Baltimore in ’68 after that.

Rice: But you’re absolutely right. The training and mindset–I call it mindset of acculturation for cops. That’s not enough. If you have stop-and-frisk and a war on gangs and a war on drugs, you’re going to end up with what we have. You’re absolutely right. The policies have got to be inverted.

You don’t want war. War on gangs produced more gangs. L.A. did 30 years and $6 billion on a war on gangs that ended up with six times as many gangs [laugh] and over 100,000 gang members. They just produced more of the same problem.

Kelley: And a massive prison incarceration.

Rice: And mass incarceration.

Tavis: The thing that I’ve seen many cops, many police chiefs on the news over the last few days saying the same thing, Robin, which is compliance, compliance, compliance. You have a son. Everybody in white America now knows that Black folk all have the talk.

Our parents all had that talk with us about how to handle cops when we get caught in those situations because it’s bound to happen at some point. But what about this notion? What do you say to cops who perhaps legitimately say that the issue is that we just aren’t compliant when we get pulled over?

Kelley: [Laugh] Well, there’s two things. One, the evidence suggests otherwise. Many of these cases we’re seeing we’re seeing compliant individuals who are complying with officers who are still being shot and beaten. So that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I mean, what seems to be the case is that they’re assuming that because the individual’s Black, Black male or sometimes Black female, that whatever they’re saying has no relationship to what they’re capable of doing, that they must have a gun somewhere, so they’re trigger-happy.

So what ends up happening is you get these horrific cases despite the fact that statistically cops are more likely to be killed by white men. 78% of the cops who were killed are killed by white men.

So to me, I’d be afraid of white men [laugh], you know, if I were a cop. Like they’re the ones, but that’s not how it works because even before they become police officers, they learn early on that these people are most likely to be criminals. These people are the most likely to rob you.

And I’ve had that experience of complying with the police. A Lakewood sheriff in 1981, I got beat by the Lakewood sheriff myself, you know, and because they claimed I was walking around with a big legal briefcase that had all my books from Marx and Lenin. They dumped all my stuff on the ground, threw me on the ground, beat me with a billy club because I was trying to catch a bus.

They said, “Well, why are you running?” “I’m trying to catch a bus.” “Well, criminals run.” That’s what I was told in 1981. So I don’t know any Black men who haven’t had some experience like that. I’ve never met one.

Tavis: I’m out of time for tonight. I want to start this conversation tomorrow night with Rudolph Giuliani. It didn’t take Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, long to make the argument that cops ain’t the problem. Y’all kill each other. So I saw him on a few places making this case that the issue is not cops. It’s your own people who are killing you.

So we’ll come to that tomorrow night and continue this conversation with Robin D. G. Kelley from UCLA and Connie Rice, attorney. We’ll continue that tomorrow night. Until then,  thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 12, 2016 at 6:27 pm