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In this episode of Who Belongs? we’re bringing back john a. powell, our director at the O&B Institute, and professor of Law and African American studies at UC Berkeley, to talk about the ongoing events in Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd, and why he’s remaining optimistic about some of the glimmers of hope he sees in an otherwise very tragic situation.

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Interview Transcript:

john a. powell: If you police people and you don't care about them, if you don't love them, you become a colonizer. You become an outside force. So we need to do more than bring this one person, this one policeman to justice. We need to think about the whole system.

Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs. My name is Marc Abizeid, the host of the show. And in this episode, we're bringing back john a. powell, our director here at the O&B Institute and professor of law and African American studies at UC Berkeley, to talk about the ongoing events in Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd, and why he's remaining optimistic about some of the glimmers of hope he sees in an otherwise very upsetting and traumatic situation. Here was our conversation.

Marc Abizeid: john, here we are again. The last time we spoke was three weeks ago and we ended our conversation talking about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. And this time, we're going to be focusing on what's happening in Minneapolis around the killing of George Floyd. And I know this is something that you've been reflecting on over the last few days, so maybe you can share some of your thoughts before we get into the specifics.

john a. powell: Well, first of all, just a real tragedy. And I think a lot of people, myself included, is actually feeling a lot of harm, a lot of pain, some despair. I'm not a despairing person. And I especially wanted to give recognition to the family and friends and also the people of Minneapolis. I lived in Minneapolis for almost 10 years. But I will say, I was on a call earlier today and people were basically saying, "Will things never change? This has been going on forever."

john a. powell: And as you said, we were here just a few weeks ago talking about another murder. These are murders. And, in fact, they're actually kind of terror, they're not even just murders, terror. And if you think about terrorism, terrorism is not simply directed at the people who are killed or injured. It's actually directed at the entire community.

john a. powell: If you think about hate crimes, when you kill someone because of who they are, because of their race, because of the gender, because of their sexual orientation. Here in the United States, we recognize that when you do that, that inflicts an additional injury. Again, not on the person, not just on the person and their immediate family does that, but also on all those people who identify with that same race, gender, sexual orientation.

john a. powell: I think one thing that's important for people to understand is that any killing is bad, any killing of another human being. When the police do it, it's particularly bad, because the police is charged with keeping us safe. So here's the state's representative to keep us safe and they're committing these murders and too often.

john a. powell: And while occasionally, the police you have a post of killing a white person, and then I've never heard of a white person say they would kill because they were white. I never heard the white community say the reason that this person was killed was because he was white. I've heard people say the reason that person was killed was because he was gay, because he was an immigrant, and certainly, because he or she was black.

john a. powell: And so, it's really, all of those would be tragedies, but this is a special tragedy. And it's easy to despair and give up hope in these difficult times while we're all really struggling and trying to make sense of the pandemic and the fear associated with that. But there are some glimmers of hope that I want to just lift up, not to just paper over the pain and the amount of work that we need to do. But oftentimes when there's a police killing, there's a call for deliberation. There's a call for calm. More often than not, the police is not fired. He or she, and more often he, will be put on administrative leave with salary. It's like, what kind of punishment is that? While the investigation unfolds.

john a. powell: In this case, the police officer, first of all, four police officers were fired within one day. That's unprecedented and that's important. I'll come back to that in a minute. But then, in four days, the police who had his knee on Mr. Floyd was arrested. Now the police can do these things. And in fact, it's really striking, because we had hope when we have body cameras and cameras that we'd have fewer police killings. I haven't looked at the data, but I don't think it's substantially fewer, if fewer at all.

john a. powell: And in this case, the police know he's being filmed. People are talking to him, he has his hand in his pocket. It's like he's relaxed. And this goes on for a number of minutes. So he has a kind of impunity. He has a kind of, so what if you're filming me? I don't care. I don't care about this person's life. And I don't care that the whole world can see. So what? And why wouldn't he care? When I say he doesn't care, because that's just the way he is.

john a. powell: But I want to suggest this is something more insidious than that. He doesn't care because we have a history of putting our arms around police and embracing them whenever they're charged were doing anything wrong. And frankly, that comes up at times more from a segment of the white community. And not all whites, but a segment of them. And oftentimes, it come from representatives of the state, the mayors, the governors, the senators, and they try to calm the community if the community's upset. And at the same time, they wrap their arms around the bullies.

john a. powell: And it certainly comes from the police union, who have been almost unabatedly taking sides with the police, like there are sides. Law and order should that'd be about sides, it should be about justice. But in this case, we have the mayor, we have the governor, we have police chiefs around the country, we have the police union all saying this was wrong. And some of them saying it was murder. That's unprecedented, as far as I can remember.

john a. powell: And the reason that's so important is that the police represent the state. And they may not care what I as a citizen or as a black man think, but they have to care what the state thinks. And when I say that this was not an act of terror, like a lynching ... An act of terror, again, is to traumatize the entire community. And there've been a number of studies showing that when there is a police shooting of an unarmed black person, man or woman, the entire black community is traumatized for months afterwards. And so, it's accomplishing something.

john a. powell: And then you get this, we have to talk, we have to do this, but in the meantime, the community is just hurting. And the community is hurting, and not just the black community, but all people care. The people in Minneapolis to people around the country. The mayor of Minneapolis, as far as I can tell, is white and he was on television on the verge of tears. And to me, that was a positive thing, if he could have real feelings and empathy.

john a. powell: So I don't want to make too much of it, because we need really profound, structural changes. We need a situation where if you're going to police the community, we should make sure that the police care about that community and know something about that community. Maybe they do community service for the first six months. Because if you police people and you don't care about them, if you don't love them, it turns into something else. There's no longer public safety. You become a colonizer, you become an outside force lording over people that you are indifferent or even hostile toward.

john a. powell: So we need to do more than bring this one person, this one policeman to justice. We need to think about the whole system. And we need to think about, how do we help the community heal? How do we help the country heal? And there are shades of that being drawn out and I hope we will continue to build on it as we go forward. And again, I know we're all already hurting and struggling and stressed out, and this is just one more on top of that.

Marc Abizeid: And I think that's part of the frustration that a lot of people are experiencing right now is that fact. Now, you mentioned some of those changes. I mean, we can talk about how significant those are, but there's a real sense of frustration after so many years of organizing and protesting. And we saw the emergence of the movement for black lives, for example, it came on the scene in a really powerful way.

Marc Abizeid: But despite all those efforts, despite all those protests, we're still seeing these incidents of police killings occurring very frequently. And I think this is why so many people are just like, "What do we do now? Yeah, we do have to change the system, but specifically, I mean, how do we reorganize our society, our systems? I mean, how do we ensure police accountability?" How would you respond to those views and those sentiments that are from people who are really hurting right now?

john a. powell: Well, I think they make a lot of sense. And I think what I was suggesting earlier was looking for glimmers of hope, because it is easy to despair and become disempowered. And again, I want to say, even though we have in some ways slipped back, progress is not a straight march forward. There are glimmers of hope there, and they're to be built on. So I'll come back to your question as to what we can do concretely, but that will take time. But I think already see some things to build on.

john a. powell: I'll also make note of the fact that, the situation in Central Park. Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper. Amy Cooper, a white woman, by some counts liberal, walking her dog. Christian Cooper, bird walking. He asked her to put the dog on a leash, which is required in Central Park in New York. And she threatens him. How she threatens him is that, I'm going to call the police and tell them not that you're bothering me, that's not the case, that an African American man is threatening me.

john a. powell: What she's saying is that if I trigger the system by saying a white woman is being threatened by an African American man, your life is in danger. And I'm going to do that to you because you're having the gall to talk to me, maybe even to be in Central Park in what some people might consider a white space. And he says, "Go ahead and call the police." And she calls the police and they come, and the situation is de-escalated.

john a. powell: But one of the things that's important about that is that, how does she know? How does the average American know? I'm not saying she's a standard for the average American. But how the average American know that a police is a threat, even when no crime, no real altercation's going on? Or police is a threat to black men and women? Most white people, I think, would say they don't believe that. She not only believed it, she acted on it. And so she was threatening him. I'm going to call the police and tell them that African American man is threatening me. That's a dangerous thing in America. And that's the backdrop, the American psyche. And then New York, fortunately, the police did not escalate.

john a. powell: But you have that same situation in Minneapolis. I even think, I would say to all of us, we need to be safe, we need to protect ourself. But think before you call the police, especially if you're in a place where, there's been a number of police killings have been in many cities like Minneapolis. Because we have to be concerned about how the police will respond. And I'm not trying to suggest all police are this way, but there's system failures, not just a failure of an individual, but there's a system failure.

john a. powell: And I think part of the response is, and 20, 30 years ago, we used to have community police. We used to have a place where the community had some input in terms of selecting, hiring, training, evaluating police. Maybe we have to look at that again. In terms of what we can do, and I think one of the things we're at right now is, we can begin to have the question. Eric Holder, when he was attorney general, he started a pretty aggressive program of looking at police practices. Jeff Sessions came in and he dismantled a lot of those things.

john a. powell: So, to be candid, part of the lack of progress, because we were making progress under Holder, was because we had an election. And the election brought in someone who had a history in Alabama of being racist. It wasn't new, it wasn't a surprise. In fact, he wasn't chosen, I would say, in spite of his racial attitudes. He was chosen, in part, because of his racial attitudes.

john a. powell: There's a saying I think of, a fish rots from the head. You have to look at the head of the country right now, who is constantly inflaming racial hatred. His thing, after this, to say, "If the looting starts, the shooting starts." I mean, who tweets someone saying, "The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." That's not someone bringing the country together.

john a. powell: So one of the things I would say, there are a lot of things we can do. But I'd also say, you have to make sure to get involved, to register and vote, and to make sure that no person can occupy office of the presidency or the governor or Senate who wraps themselves around and surrounds himself with white supremacists. You can not make progress if the head of our country, if the people running the country, if our attorney general, if governors are not just engaging in racial acts, but they're being applauded for that.

john a. powell: So I think, frankly, I think this election last term was one of the big setbacks. And we have to learn from that. And I know that many people that listen to this think, "Well, it doesn't matter." It does. It won't be perfect. It wasn't perfect under Obama, it was a perfect under Holder, but we are in a whole different ballgame with this regime.

Marc Abizeid: John, I think that a lot of people would offer a little bit of skepticism to that view that ... I mean, I know you said it wasn't perfect under Obama. It wasn't perfect before Obama. I mean, I'm seeing some people saying, "Oh, if only Clinton had won," or whatever. But, I mean, realistically, what do you think could have been different? I understand that Trump is activating white supremacy and that there's been an uptick in these kinds of crimes. But realistically, I mean, if the core problem, the root problem is the system itself, what can a new president, a new administration feasibly do to change that?

john a. powell: So, we aren't speaking realistically, Mark. They say you eat an elephant one bite at a time. And I think we have to actually sometimes, even though we hurt ... And I could tell you many personal stories and friends and family members that's been killed at the hands of white supremacists. So I understand the pain. The pain is my pain. But we can't use the pain to just despair and disengage. In some ways, we use that pain as protection.

john a. powell: And I can say, I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before the election. And I was on the platform with another speaker, which I won't name, and the person says, "There's no difference between Clinton and Trump. And it doesn't matter which one of them gets elected. It will have no impact on the black community."

john a. powell: And what I said, among other things, is that there were four mothers in the audience whose sons had been killed by police, four. And they were all being investigated by the Department of Justice under Eric Holder. And I say, "If Trump is elected, all those investigations will end." And those mothers stood up and said, "Is that true?" They weren't talking abstract, they were there talking about their son's life. And there was some work being done under the imperfect Obama administration to try to do something about that. And as soon as Jeff Sessions came in, they were over. So it does matter.

john a. powell: And so, people will push in different ways, but the difference is profound. When we're talking about the Supreme Court, when we talk about, as bad as some of the immigration policies that happened under Obama. I don't believe Obama would ever put children in cages. And so, we're at a very important point in society with the pandemic, this inflection point. We're going to see serious change, not just incremental change, but nothing will happen unless we engage. Nothing, nothing. And I should say nothing positive. Because things will change, but they'll change for the worse.

john a. powell: And so, you can just go down the list. I mean, we're not talking about a minor change with Trump. I'm talking about a radical change. We're talking about a president who called the people in Minneapolis hoodlums and thugs. You haven't seen that in decades. So it matters. The president has a lot of power, and we have power too. And one of those powers is the power to be engaged, and be engaged even when we don't get everything we want and should get.

john a. powell: So I've pushed really hard. I mean, if you just look at who surrounding Trump, people who have spent years on the alt right, people who have spent years saying black are inferior. It's a huge difference. And I think we do make the perfect enemy with them. And I'm not saying this problem will go away if Trump went away, but it will be a different problem. It'll be a different set of possibilities.

Marc Abizeid: So I want to talk a little bit about those glimmers of hope that you mentioned earlier. You mentioned the unprecedented aspects of this case, about how these officers were immediately fired in the case of Minneapolis. And a lot of the statements from police unions around the country, including I think here in the Bay area, in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, which are really condemning that scene in Minneapolis.

Marc Abizeid: But here's something kind of interesting I just wanted to pitch and get your thoughts on is that yesterday, we saw the county attorney who was overseeing this case in Minneapolis, who had a press conference. And he said, this is horrific and everything, but based on what I've seen, this is just yesterday, based on what I've seen, there isn't anything there yet that merits a charge against these officers who were involved in murdering George Floyd.

Marc Abizeid: And then overnight, we saw what happened in Minneapolis. People came out, the community came out, they set fire to a police station. And then today, that same guy who we heard yesterday saying there's nothing that merits a charge said, actually, he changed his tone and all of a sudden, he says there will be a charge of third degree murder. And then, they arrested this guy.

Marc Abizeid: And we saw something somewhat similar happened in Georgia with a case of a Ahmaud Arbery, where for over two months they had these two guys who killed Ahmaud Arbery just chilling at home. The police had the video of the incident. They didn't take any action at all until the video emerged. Then we saw a lot of public pressure and then they arrested those guys.

Marc Abizeid: So it's like, I don't know. It's like, you could say those are a glimmer of hope, because there is a little bit of change and the action, but at the same time, it still feels like you need to exert an enormous amount of pressure to be able to see that action. So it's like, how do you get the state, the authorities to take responsibility to take action without having to burn down a police station or something?

john a. powell: Well, a couple of things, Marc. I think, first of all, again, a lot of the condemning of what the police in Minneapolis with George Floyd took place before the burning of the police station. The mayor of Minneapolis came up almost immediately. And so, again, that was before mass demonstrations, that was before the burning of the police station.

john a. powell: We're talking about a system, we're talking about thousands and thousands of people. And what I'm saying, there's a crack in the system. We have to actually exploit that. I think it's dangerous to just think that nothing ever happens, and it does. I mean, because things do happen. And we can dismiss those things that has happened saying, "Well, that's okay." But still, but I tell you, there are many times when there is not a crack in the system. And so when there's a crack, we need to exploit it. We need to acknowledge it.

john a. powell: One of the reasons I live here in the Bay area, the Golden State Warriors, one reason I like LeBron is that he steps up right away. He doesn't wait. He used the power he has in terms of that platform he has to say, "This is wrong." And more and more people have to do that. That's power. There's power on the other side. So, and yes, the public, the community has power too. And we have to assert our pain in ways strategically vocally, and just expressively. One of the joys in that in that, which is happening in Minneapolis, which is happening around the country, even before the police station burned. We need to acknowledge that too.

Marc Abizeid: Do you have any other thoughts you wanted to share before we end our conversation?

john a. powell: Yeah, just that this is a crisis on top of a crisis on top of a crisis. We have black people dying in disproportionate rates. We have Native Americans not being able to get equipment they need and not even water to wash their hands. We still have immigrants locked up in places that are not safe. We have prisoners who ... I mean, there are many things that need to be done and you can't do them all at once. We can try and we should.

john a. powell: And to some extent, all the suffering and harm associated with this pandemic, it does give us an opportunity to reset things. Things will not be exactly the same when we come out of this pandemic. Can we actually turn this pandemic into something that, socially, structurally something could comes out of? And I don't think that happens automatically.

john a. powell: I was on earlier today and someone was talking about King's quote in terms of the arc of justice. It's long, but it bends toward justice. The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice. I'm paraphrasing. And I agree with much of that, but I don't think it bends by itself. We have to bend it, and we don't know if we can bend it. But if we don't try, it won't bend in the direction we want. And that's why I'm pushing us to do what we can in every place we can.

john a. powell: And I think, in the years I've been alive, and there've been many, I can't remember a president in the middle of crisis suggesting people should be shot. And he has power. And I for one don't think that kind of comment is appropriate for someone at the top of our country's political system. And similarly, what happened in Charlottesville, similar to what happened in Michigan when people were marching on the streets with guns at the State Capitol in East Lansing. To suggest they're good people and we just sit down and talk with them. This is unprecedented. And I think it calls upon us to step up. And again, my heart goes out to the family and community of Minneapolis and to the country, to all of us, but especially to black Americans.

Marc Abizeid: And that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs. Thank you to john a. powell, professor of law and African American studies at UC Berkeley and director of the O&B Institute. Check out our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/who belongs for a transcript of this episode and other resources. Thank you for listening