‘I see value in that violence’
Protests over the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police turned violent this week. As citizens clean up, the National Post’s Chris Selley spoke to Toronto-based writer and intellectual Septembre Anderson about shifting the focus aw
Q: I’m going to quote from President Obama’s statement on Tuesday: “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It’s counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing.” I just wonder, though, with so many people dying at the hands of police in the U.S., is it reasonable at this point to expect or demand non-violence?
A: I think expecting and demanding non-violence from protesters is a point on which Obama misspoke. He should be asking for an end of violence from the police. This is where this started. This started because a man’s spine was 80 per cent severed. His voice box was crushed. There were no answers. So he is speaking to the wrong people. He’s speaking to the people who were reacting to violence, who were reacting to marginalization. He needs to ask the people who are doing the violence to stop the violence.
Q: Does the violence help in any way?
A: We need to realize that what happened in Baltimore didn’t start with Freddie Gray. It started decades ago. We’ve got people disenfranchised. Eighty-five per cent of the students in Baltimore qualify for a free or reduced lunch. There’s poverty, there’s a loss of jobs, there’s so many different points of marginalization that led up to this point. Freddie Gray, and the lack of response from the mayor, from the police, from everybody, is what lit this match.
Q: How much of the violence, itself, do you think was directly related to the anger and the frustration, and how much of it was opportunistic? You give people a chance to riot, some people are going to riot.
A: We’re getting a mix of things. Everybody who’s out there is not protesting. There are people who are out there who are being opportunistic; there are people who are out there protesting. I think riot is a term that I would move away from. I would more call it a rebellion. It is a different form of protest. Also, that protest, that violence that we’re seeing, it’s cathartic. These are people who feel so disenfranchised, who feel like they have nowhere to turn, who are lashing out. Am I saying I agree with it? I’m not saying I agree with it, nor am I saying I don’t agree with it. I see value in that violence.
Q: What is the value in the violence?
A: It’s cathartic. It’s people who feel like they have no power whatsoever. They have no power to feed their children, they have no power to find jobs, they have no power to step out of their poverty... It’s just like Martin Luther King said, because lots of people like to quote him: He said that a riot is the language of the unheard.
Q: The situation in Baltimore, if you look at their most disadvantaged communities, it’s very difficult to compare to, really, any Canadian city, certainly in terms of the black community. Do you see lessons from what’s happening in Baltimore and the U.S. for what’s going on up here?
A: When we look at the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it’s not just people are being murdered by the police. It’s speaking about so many different kinds of marginalization. So we can see echoes of that in Toronto with the push out/drop out rate of black youth. We’ve got carding where, actually, more people are being stopped per capita than we are seeing with stop-and-frisk in the United States. There are so many points of disenfranchisement. We have unemployment disparities. There are a lot of echoes that we can see there, and it would be beneficial for us to learn, and fix our problems before we have something like that on our hands.
Q: Conservatives are clearly much more skeptical, I think, of the police than they were, say, 10 years ago. Do you think society at large — Canadian, American, or both — is finally beginning to come to terms with the level of violence that police are capable of?
A: I don’t know because there are many people who are extremely supportive of the police. So, I don’t know if people are becoming more aware. … Even if we think of the youth prison in Brampton, Ont., all of that money to imprison youth that we could use to feed youth, that we could use for better schooling, that we could use for better child care. We have to look at the larger prison- industrial complex and all of the ways in which we’ve got this cradle-to-prison pipeline for black people. …
Q: The video of police shooting Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina then apparently planting a taser on him, then lying about basically everything that happened afterward — you have to be so set in your ways to look at that and see anything other than just a horrible situation. I wonder what you think of the images and if you have any thoughts on body cameras.
A: We talk about Walter Scott and we talk about Eric Garner, which was a miscarriage of justice, but then we also have to remember Rodney King. So, we’ve had video before, and you would think that we would say, “Here’s you on video doing a thing that is against the rules and against the law, this should stop things.” But we haven’t seen that happening. Are body cameras a step in a direction, that’s possibly the right one? Yes, but there are lots of police who turn off their body cameras or cover them, just like the G20 (in Toronto) when police covered or took off their name tags. …