Last Monday, Cornel West was arrested in Ferguson, Mo., after a scuffle with police while protesting the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer. The Sacramento-born West, one of the nation’s leading voices on race relations and nonviolent protest, said he didn’t go to Ferguson “to give a speech, I came here to go to jail.” West, 61, joined hundreds of protesters who have been arrested in Ferguson since Brown’s death on Aug. 9.
In an interview from his Princeton, N.J., home, West, author of “Race Matters” and 18 other books and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, discussed why he went to Ferguson to get arrested and offers his view on the current state of race relations in the United States.
How did the Michael Brown case affect you?
It hit me in the gut because the boy was lying there for 41/2 hours, like he was a worthless piece of material rather than somebody’s precious son. Every 24 hours in this country, some black child is being shot by police or a vigilante, according to the Malcom X Grassroots Movement. I planned to go to Ferguson immediately just to be with the young people, but I had a long talk with civil rights hero Harry Belafonte and we decided not to be part of the media circus. In New York, we had a weekly conversation with nine young African American activists who connected by phone with young activists down in Ferguson.… On Sunday the 12th, the timing (to go) was right.
What did you hope to accomplish in Ferguson?
In the short term, it was a call for the arrest of the policeman who shot Michael Brown and a fair trial, and to galvanize the nation by putting the spotlight on arbitrary police power. I wanted to go when the young people were center stage. We wanted to create a moment which would make Ferguson a Birmingham. In 1963 Birmingham (Ala.) was the turning point in the Civil Rights movement, both initiated and executed by thousands of young people who marched out of school into the streets and filled the jails over the voices of the elders. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very nervous, but the cameras that captured the brutal treatment of the children by police using dogs, clubs and high-powered fire hoses touched the conscience of the nation. King said the Children’s Crusade was “the impetus we needed to win the struggle.”
So in Ferguson we needed to stand alongside our young people as they speak of their pain and their vision for freedom. Our young people are dealing with police brutality, massive unemployment and inferior schooling. I think they’re too unloved and too uncared for, and we want them to know there’s a wave of older people who deeply love and care for them and are willing to sacrifice for them. I grew up in the Glen Elder neighborhood of south Sacramento, and always felt I am who I am because somebody loved me – my parents, my older brother Clifton, my baseball coach and the late Rev. Willie P. Cook of Shiloh Baptist Church. You express love by respecting, correcting and protecting.
How did events unfold last week?
I flew in Sunday, spoke at St. Louis University before 3,000 (people) and took part in nonviolent training with about 75 people, including rabbis, imams, Christian clergy, labor union reps and young people. On Monday we sang songs and marched from Wellspring Church to the Ferguson Police Department. It started raining cats and dogs, Lord have mercy, there was a tornado watch, and then each minister would go up to a policeman and ask them to repent for their department shattering the peace of Michael Brown’s family.
One officer broke down and said, ‘We do have fault,’ a beautiful recognition of his own humanity. It was a very powerful moment. Police are human beings, too, and they’re working class. We had at least 35 direct, one-on-one dialogues for about 15 minutes each. I spoke to an older white brother, about 58. He began with a profound suspicion. I told him we are both children of God who loves each of us equally, but we have to get at the killing of these precious young kids. I said I’m sure we can agree there’s a profound difference between fair policing and arbitrary policing. He said, ‘Yes, I agree but sometimes these things are unavoidable; they happen no matter what.’ I said it can’t be viewed as unavoidable. There are lives being lost.
Why were you arrested?
We had gone down there to be arrested and bear witness and let young people know we loved them deeply. When it was clear they were not going to arrest us, four of us held hands and walked up to the police line and said, ‘We would like to talk to the chief about the situation.’
We said, ‘We’re going to step forward,’ then touched the police and that’s when the tussling began. The irony is, we go down there and get arrested for assaulting a police officer, but the officer who shot Mr. Brown has yet to be arrested. I got a big hole in the elbow of my suit, they handcuffed us from behind and put us in the paddy wagon. Then they gave us more comfortable steel handcuffs in front, put us in a cell and we were out in a matter of hours.
Where does America stand with racism, and what can young people do about it?
We have made great strides in dealing with interpersonal racism, face to face, person to person and gaining access to voting rights and civil rights. But when it comes to institutional racism, you can have a racist system where people – through their policies –still value white life more than black life. If you have a whole system that not just targets poor blacks, but gives the impression that when you mistreat them there’s no accountability, it becomes part of the culture and decent police officers fall into place. I tell young people you never want to be callous or indifferent toward unfairness. You want to raise your voice for justice and you want to be on fire with love for those who are being mistreated. It could be in your school, on the streets, in Little League, in your mosque, church or synagogue.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed to this report.