Discussing division and race ‘After Ferguson’ – Part 2

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    I went to Ferguson last weekend, and to the Lee Theater at the university of Missouri in Saint Louis, to moderate a PBS town hall on what the conflict there revealed about the town, the region, and the nation. Among other things, it gave people who see events differently a chance to talk to each other, rather than at each other.

    In this excerpt, the point has just been made that young people of color should get more involved in politics. The first speaker is a young man who formed a group called Dream Defenders after Trayvon Martin's death in Florida two years ago.

  • PHILLIP AGNEW, Dream Defenders:

    One of the last things that Dr. King said before he died was that he feared that he had brought us into a burning building.

    And, so, if you're getting people elected into a system that by its very nature was meant to cannibalize and kill communities, then you have only done half of the job. And so I think it's a "yes, and." We need people that look like us, but black officers — I have had interactions with black officers that were way worse than white officers.

    And, so, it's not a matter of just having a representative that's on the city council or in the mayor's office or on the police force that looks like you. They have got to come from the community, know the issues of the community, and then there's folks in the community that have got to remind them every day that we pay your bills, and we're watching every single day to ensure that the platform on which we elected you with is followed, and also defend you when those people that seek to calibrate the system and right the system as it's been built seek to come at you for that office.


    Now, here's the thing, Phillip.



    Everybody doesn't agree with you. Everybody doesn't see the root of the problem. Ross Kaminsky is one of them. Ross Kaminsky writes for "American Spectator." And he thinks, in fact, that a lot of folks should be looking at themselves in the mirror.

    ROSS KAMINSKY, "The American Spectator": I want to be really clear on this, because I agree with what the mayor of Ferguson said, that middle-class white guys like me haven't lived the African-American life.

    That said, from what we see on the news, from what we read, there seems to be a real dearth of leadership among African-American young men especially in their neighborhoods. And the other thing is, if I could react to what Phillip said, I get the feeling, I understand this feeling of this system isn't fair, it's biased against us.

    But then when you start going to this idea 400 years of repression in a system that's still designed to hurt us and still designed to keep us down, that starts feeling to me like racism against me just because of the color of my skin.

    My parents weren't here 400 years ago. My family arrived here way after the Civil War. We had nothing to do with it. And I think that a lot of people in the rest of America feel like we're being blamed for things that we didn't cause, and, in fact, that we would like to — we would like to help, because we should care.


    Well, for everybody's who laughing and snickering — no, let me make a point to you.

    Saint Louis — there was a Saint Louis County poll done just last week in which roughly 60 percent of the people said, you know, I think that this is a problem, and those 60 percent of the people were black. And then 60 percent of white people said, I don't think it's a problem.

    There is a real, real, true divide, and a lot of people who agree with what Ross Kaminsky said.

    So I want this conversation to take that into account as well, even if you disagree.


    Gwen, can I just say…




    … I'm not saying that I don't think there's a problem.

    I think there's a huge problem, and I think that middle-class white people who don't live near black neighborhoods should understand that it's a problem for them too. What I'm saying is that the language, when it starts being turned that — when it — in a way that even just implies "You're the problem because you're white" leaves — ends the conversation and removes any chance of a positive conversation.


    Is that what you're saying, Phil?


    No, absolutely not.

    So I never mentioned black, white or people. I mentioned systems. And so the arrest of Darren Wilson, if it happens, and the conviction of Darren Wilson, if it happens, though the system and the history would tell us that it may not, will not alleviate the problems that are happening here and that are happening around the country.

    This is a — for example, I can sit here with a great amount of empathy and say every day George Zimmerman woke up and saw that black men were evil. Every single day since he was a little kid, he woke up and saw on television, on "Cops," on the news, on his TV shows and videos that black men were filled with malice and had criminal intent in every movement that they made.

    And so, with a great amount of empathy, I could say that he may not be to blame for a very subliminal reaction to what he did when he saw a black man in a hoodie, right? I'm not mad so much at George Zimmerman. I'm mad at a system every day that stakes its claim on saying that there's a certain segment of society that is a criminal element.

    If I woke up every day, which I do, and they told me that lions were evil, if I saw a lion in here, and you told me that lion wasn't going to eat me, I wouldn't believe you.




    But George Zimmerman, on the other hand, as I recall, was a big brother to a young black boy. And I don't think there's any evidence to show that he had this pervasive kind of approach that you're talking about.


    I think we can't say it, but we can say the evidence does show that the images that are put forth of people that look like me, that have tattoos like me, that speak like me and come from where I come from scared the crap out of him every single day.

    And, no, he may have been a big brother. He may have been a great person with a spotless record, though we know he doesn't, but the society that we live in — and that is my issue. Our goal with Dream Defenders is to be a catalyst for change in how we are represented in this society.


    I'm going to let you say one more thing. Then I have got to move on.


    Again, I think that we're not going to have progress on this until we really can have a conversation, and the language that needs to be used in the conversation needs to be language that isn't just pointing fingers at each other as long as we believe we're all people of goodwill.


    That conversation, "America After Ferguson," airs on most PBS stations this evening. Check your local listings. Hari Sreenivasan will be live-tweeting with you throughout. Just use the hashtag #AfterFergusonPBS.

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