Podcast: 'Freedom v. Equality': john a. powell on the clash over shelter-in-place and its roots in slavery

Interview

Friday, May 8, 2020

In this episode of Who Belongs? we hear from john a. powell, a professor of Law and African American studies at UC Berkeley. He’s also the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. In the interview professor powell offers historical context for the conflict over this question of when to reopen the economy, and the government’s authority to impose shelter-in-place orders. This issue has been framed as one that pits freedom against equality, but as profesor powell points out these two notions haven’t always been seen as in opposition to each other as concepts of freedom have evolved over time. We’ll also talk about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black man who was gunned down in February by two white men in Georgia.

Related resources:

The clash over shelter-in-place rooted in slavery (San Francisco Chronicle)

 

Interview Transcript:

john a. powell: We should be upset when we see people locking little kids, but even adults locked up in cages. We should be upset when we see not just white men going out killing black men, but then the police department not doing anything and the list goes on. So those are things we should be upset about, but they should call us to action.

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'll hear from john a. powell, Professor of Law and African American Studies at UC Berkeley. He's also the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. In the interview, Professor powell offers historical context for the conflict over this question of when to reopen the economy and the government's authority to impose shelter-in-place orders.

Marc Abizeid: This issue has been framed as one that pits freedom against equality, but as professor powell points out, these two notions haven't always been seen as an opposition to each other as concepts of freedom have evolved over time. We'll also talk about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the young black man who was gunned down in February by two white men in Georgia, and I should just note that this interview was recorded on May 7th, just hours before police arrested the two gunmen following widespread uproar that ensued with the release of the footage showing the killing. So our comments did not reflect that update. Here was our conversation.

Marc Abizeid: So john, there's a few things we need to talk about and we'll just get right into it and I want to start by asking you about your views on this conflict that we're seeing around the country over reopening the economy. This issue was the focus of an op-ed you had published last week in the San Francisco Chronicle. So can you give us a little overview of your position on that issue and your interpretation of what we're witnessing in these protests that are demanding the lifting of shelter and place orders?

john a. powell: Well, first of all, thanks for doing the podcast. Obviously, these are difficult times and with any complex issues, there could be a number of different perspectives and positions sort of supporting and opposing those issues. So when I talk about what's going on in the context of the protest, I'm not suggesting that everyone who feels this way or everyone who joins a protest necessarily feels the same way. But I do think there's an underlying theme that's runs fairly deep within America, and I think the theme is oftentimes framed in terms of freedom versus equality.

john a. powell: So you don't just hear it from the protesters, you hear it from a number of the governors who are supporting opening early or refuse to close this fight. I don't want to interfere with people's freedom. People are adults, they can make their own decisions, and there's a notion that anytime you do something like this that is constrain people or somehow is the government overreaching? This position really goes back at least to the to beginning of the farming country and to some extent even further than that.

john a. powell: There's a tension or an apparent tension between the way we think about freedom and the way we think about equality. If you go back to the founding of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, what you find is that the men were deeply conflicted about both freedom and equality. The person who drafted the Constitution was from Virginia. The person who drafted the Declaration of Independence was from Virginia. Virginia was the largest, most powerful state and 40% of the slaves in the United States lived in Virginia, and they were conflicted about both the idea of freedom, equality and slavery.

john a. powell: They were hoping that that conflict would resolve itself because they knew that they punted on it. Slavery is not mentioned in the Constitution. There's some reference to it, but the word is not there. Equality takes a back seat in the Constitution, and freedom is front and center. The reason with that is not because of just intellectual, although many of the people who are involved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were intellectuals, particularly Jefferson is influenced greatly by France, and were troubled by slavery and were troubled ...

john a. powell: So if you read the Declaration of Independence it starts off with the host from truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. To pursue liberty all men are created equal. Jefferson had over 200 slaves, so how do you sort of square that? And it's not just a small thing, he was troubled by it. He talked about it. He wrote about it. So one of the ways the United States dealt with that early on was to part on the question of equality and arrange some kind of freedom or liberty. Now, even the word freedom is a complicated word.

john a. powell: Orlando Patterson in one of his books about freedom and basically the making a Western civilization, the making of the West, he talks about freedom actually covers multiple areas. There's what he calls individual freedom, I can do what I want as long as it doesn't interfere with other people. Then he talks about sovereign freedom, which is basically, I get the right to do whatever I want even if I trample on other people, and civic freedom, I have the right to participate in the government and in civic life. Those three concepts and there are more, those three concepts themselves are in conflict.

john a. powell: So if you think about many of the demonstrations, they're arguing some form of sovereign freedom, that I get to do what I want, even if it hurts other people, because the whole idea of shelter in place is that it's not simply we're restricting the actions of the person being in place, the person in the home or wherever, we're doing it because the person can injure others. That if we don't do that, we can injure others, and those others are equal concern as the actor, him or herself. That's very similar to Mills' concept and many of ideas of freedom comes from Mills. Mills had the idea that basically they're self-regarding acts and there are other regarding acts.

Marc Abizeid: This is John Stuart Mills, you're talking about.

john a. powell: John Stuart Mills, yes. He wrote a book called On Liberty and he said, "Basically, you have the maximum amount of liberty or freedom when your acts were self-regarding." So if I want to stay in my house and read trashy novels or smoke dope, if it's not impacting anyone else, even though it might be a bad thing for me, the government and others should not have a right to interfere. So I have a personal right to that freedom, individual right. But when my actions affect others, he calls those other regarding acts, I think, then the right is actually not individual, that's a social right if I have it at all.

john a. powell: A good example would be, I think I have a right to drive a car that produces emission into the atmosphere. Well, from the Mills in perspective, he was saying no, you don't have a personal right for that. You don't have an individual right. If you have a right it's because we have collectively come together and said, we're going to allow John to drive this car, even though it injures, because the benefit is better than the injury, but that's a collective decision. That's not a personal decision. And if the collective changes his mind and says okay, we're going to limit emissions because of interest in environment, which all of us actually partake off, then I can do that under a Mills in approach.

john a. powell: So what I'm saying is that what happened in these protests is that people are glomming on to a notion of freedom without thinking about equality at all and without thinking about our relationship to each other at all. And yet even from the Mills in perspective, it's ignoring the fact that by going out, I may be injuring others. Now, this tension which I talked about in an article was something that early lawmakers was very much aware of and so is Lincoln. So when Lincoln gave this address that the Gettysburg, after the battle in November 1863, he gave the speech was he actually wrote many drafts off.

john a. powell: So it wasn't spontaneous and he made reference to, not the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, and he did that because the Declaration of Independence lifted up the concept of equality. Equality was paramount. Equality was how you get to liberty. So what he's trying to do is put these back in conversation with each other and get a balance and so he ended that short speech, which is very powerful by calling for a new birth of freedom. What he's calling for was a birth of freedom where freedom and equality and inclusion are all interrelated and out of that effort came the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment being the one that enshrined equality and Lincoln, as you know, was assassinated, and so in a sense, that new birth of freedom never really happened. It was in a sense, because they still born again.

john a. powell: So when people glom onto liberty without giving proper way to equality, they're not really considering our history and the tension in our history and that tension has become sharper now since the Soviet Union fail, because if you look at Brown V. Board of Education, which is in many ways a lot of people consider that the most important civil rights case in the US history. The United States government filed a brief in that case, arguing for the court to integrate schools, and it talked about both our position in the world and our need to sort of, in this case, the Negro, treat the Negro with equality because the rest of the world was looking.

john a. powell: So for the next 30 years, the country had a balanced discussion largely about equality and liberty. In part because it was in competition with the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union failed, the use of equality in popular discourse among elected officials and the elite started declining. So since we'd gone back to pre-1950 and started again of thinking of equality as freestanding and not realizing that it's always been in relation to an intention with the concept of equality.

Marc Abizeid: So what you did is you basically showed how that concept of freedom changed over time. How it used to extend to what slave owners used to claim was their freedom to own slaves, and then later on it extended to segregationists claim to the right to send, for example, their children to all white schools or to exclude people from different establishments based on their race by invoking the Constitution saying this is my freedom to do this. So this whole concept kept on changing. How would you apply that idea today, to the current pandemic and these people saying well, if I want to go to work that has nothing to do with race, that has nothing to do with me saying I'm above other people.

john a. powell: Yeah. So I mean, again, these are important but also complicated concepts. And I'm not suggesting that people are historians or constitutional scholars per se, most people are not. Most people haven't read the Constitution. Most people don't know that history I just set out and there's more to that history. There's a lot more. So for example, I mentioned Brown V. Board of Education. After Brown, a very prominent constitutional scholar named Webster wrote a series of articles arguing that the court was wrong in its decision for Brown, and argued that the court had sided with blacks who wanted integration, Negroes at the time and cited against whites who want to be segregated.

john a. powell: He said, "Okay, so blacks may have a right to integrate at schools based on the Constitution, but whites had a right to segregate at schools." He was saying that the Constitution is neutral or the Constitution is not neutral and it embodies certain values, and the Constitution is not just a document in terms of law, it also creates a sort of a normative way in which we think about the world. So everyone talks about free speech. Again, almost no one's read the first amendment.

john a. powell: So what I'm saying is that what Mills and others were doing, were not just sort of putting out ideas, they we're talking about, how do we order a complex society. And prior to the civil war, the idea was that really the United States was a largely property owning white society, a white male society. Women had very few rights and long into our history, 1830s, a lot of non-property owned white males didn't have rights. They didn't have the right to vote, for example, in many places, didn't have the right to vote directly for the Senate. The Senate was actually selected by states.

john a. powell: So our history has been one of bringing more people in. So the foundation was there. What I'm suggesting is that this is part of the American project, and the fact that it's been separated so that people who are identified on the right are more likely to identify with some concept of freedom, and people on the left who are more likely to identify with some concept of equality is actually a distortion of our history and its distortion in many ways. So for example, we talk about a free market, but clearly, that was not what "The founding fathers thought and certainly was not what Roosevelt thought."

john a. powell: And it was a period in our history where we did have, the court should not interfere with the relationship between corporations and an individual. It's called the Lochner and that era came to an end in the 1930s, and it came to an end in part because what Roosevelt was arguing and others as part of the new deal was that workers could not be protected from corporations. They weren't on an equal playing field so to say that they could just contract didn't make sense. So what's happening now as a country is more diverse, and we've never ...

john a. powell: In fact, Hoggs another giant in terms of Western political thought basically argued that they can only be one sovereign person in a country. So in a sense saying only one person can do whatever he wants and it would likely be a he. Everyone else would be, in some ways, their freedom and the equality would be diminished by a sovereign notion of freedom. I can enslave you, I can beat you up, I can kill you, but I made it great for me, but it's not great for you. So the notion of sovereign freedom, which is really what people are arguing, that I have a right to injure others has never been embraced by most of the modern Western political thinkers and it couldn't work, is unworkable.

john a. powell: So what I'm saying is that people are going back to a period of time and the period of time was punctuated in a very serious way by the civil war, and the civil war was certainly about race and slavery. So when people grab onto that idea, they're grabbing onto an idea that's associated with the right to dominate other people, they're grabbing onto an idea that equality is anemic, and because of slavery, they're grabbing onto an idea that's not a founding idea because the founding idea was not the Constitution, it was the Declaration of Independence.

john a. powell: Black who's the Dean of Yale Law School, I believe, wrote a piece about this, wrote a book about this called A New Birth of Freedom and he sort of explicates a lot of this. So it's an important discussion. It's not clear how we will totally resolve it, but it is important that we have it and that we recognize it. Freedom and equality are complex concepts, but they inform each other.

Marc Abizeid: Another important aspect of this op-ed you wrote was, how it pointed out that there is a danger from these protests, not just from the vantage point of public health officials about spreading the virus, but it also threatens the kind of cohesion we have as a society because they're very divisive and that there is a potential for these protests, for this conflict to really spiral out of control and lead to violence.

Marc Abizeid: You talk about the possibility of a new civil war and Trump in a lot of ways has been kind of agitating for this because he's really explicitly been calling on these protestors to "Liberate their States," especially States that are led by democratic governors. So I want to know if you think that, if you could just kind of talk a little bit more about this aspect of the situation and if you think Trump's doing this deliberately or if he doesn't, maybe realize what the potential consequences of those kinds of statements are.

john a. powell: Well, I often hesitate to kind of figure out someone's internal psychology because it's hard to know, but it's clear what their actions are and sometimes you can have a sense of their intent or their internal psychology by repetition. It's clear that Trump is a very deliberately incendiary character. He trades in being controversial and he's really challenged the Republic and the constitutional and democratic norms that have been so important in this country. Just today, the Justice Department said that they're not going to prosecute Flynn for ... And the prosecutors in the Justice Department who was involved in the prosecution quit, a number of them because they're saying this is just unheard of.

john a. powell: First of all, this is a political decision. We're not supposed to be involved in political decisions, we're civil servants. We want to do our job. But yes, Trump has traded very heavily in sole division. He's gone out of his way to basically make the claim that certain people don't belong and he's done it based on people's religion, so the Muslim ban. He's done based on people's geography, talks about Mexicans being bad hombres. He's attacked blacks. He's celebrated his attack of women, saying he could grab women by the P and it's okay.

john a. powell: Then essentially telling people to go break the law because these shelter in place provisions are law. Telling people to break the law for the president to be doing that, it's just phenomenal. Even then turning around and saying, we don't know if we want to help the States that are blue States, States that didn't vote for me somehow now are not full Americans? So yes, he's actually sowing extreme division. He's not showing respect. When a judge rules against him to suggest that because the judge has a heritage where his family comes from somewhere else, which all of our families did unless we native Americans. Then they even came from somewhere else, some place else to 10,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago. It's just unheard of.

john a. powell: He's just constantly seeding negativity. He's constantly making the claim and he's appealing to frankly a lot of anxiety that people feel about the changes that are happening in the country, in the world, and that's why the idea of make America great again, going back to some prior time. A lot of this obviously has long racial tales, long racial roots. We know the Republican Party, which in the 1950s and '60s, on civil rights issues, they were equal partners with the Democratic Party. We had whether it was Rockefeller or the Lodges or Rami, we had a number of prominent Republicans independents who actually embraced the idea of creating a society for all of us, a changed and after the civil rights movement. And the Republican party deliberately adopted something which was called the Southern strategy, which was how do you actually trade on white anxiety about ending racial hierarchy, racial dominance in the South?

john a. powell: How do you trade on that to actually garner support for the Republican party? They deliberately sought to demonize people of color, particularly blacks and Trump took it to a whole another level. After Obama was elected, Republican party talked about creating a larger tent where they invited in blacks, where they invited in Latinos and not just a token, but where they had serious discussion with those groups. When he talked about issues of policing, Trump would have none of that. His strategy was not to sort of involve people who are black or Latino or Muslim, but really hardened a core support among primarily whites, and if you look at the Republican Party now, it really has become overwhelmingly a white party. And I should be clear, it doesn't mean that reflects all white people because there are a lot of white people, 40 plus percent, they still vote Democrat and they have much more open views. So this is a strategy, an ideology to garner support from certain groups. The law, the Constitution, the courts, everything is going to run ripshaw over to get what he wants.

john a. powell: So yes, he's deliberately doing this and I have to think he and his folks are very conscious of what they're doing. When he thanked blacks for not voting, and the whole voter suppression, the whole idea of saying ... He created this commission on voter fraud and the commission basically said there's not voter fraud. So he's constantly saying things that are not true but are inflammatory to garner, not just favors but to sow division between a certain group of core white support is primarily and everybody else.

Marc Abizeid: So I want to get your views on these two contrasting scenes that we witnessed in Michigan, in Lansing, outside the State House or actually inside the State House in one case. So one of them took place last week, which was when all these armed men who were demanding freedom, calling for freedom, calling for reopening the economy, stormed the State House and they were just packed inside the State House. There was a session, there was like a legislative session happening and I'm sure the lawmakers must have been really terrified about the scene. The police, by the way, they were just kind of standing there and observing. They didn't take any action. They just let them do whatever they wanted to do. They weren't standing six feet apart.

Marc Abizeid: Then this week we had a different scene where we saw a group of three black men at the same State House assembled outside of it also carrying rifles. But in contrast to the display last week, these men said they were actually here to protect those lawmakers who felt threatened last week. There was some footage and pictures of them actually escorting some of these lawmakers into the State House. One of them, one of the lawmakers, her name's representative Sarah Anthony, she was later quoted in a news article expressing appreciation because she was saying that the police, the official security forces that are supposed to be protecting them weren't doing their job, that she didn't feel the protection was adequate. So what do you think about that sort of contrast and what emerges from a situation where people don't feel like the government is playing the role they're supposed to and to be able to protect the public or in this case, lawmakers?

john a. powell: Well, it's actually very, very sad. First of all, there are many different levels of government. So the lawmakers themselves represent government. The state patrol represent government. The police represent government. The judges represent government. Trump represent government. City council represents government and what's happened ... Up until recently, there was some sense that the government should work together in favor of the people, even when there's disagreement.

john a. powell: Former President Bush came out and basically said, let's put partisanship aside. We're in the middle of a crisis. We're in the middle of a pandemic. We care about American lives, and of course, instead of accepting the Olive Crest that he was handing out, and as well as others Trump attacked him. In fact, basically ratchet up a notch for more partisanship. I want to say, in my mind is not really Republican and Democrat in the traditional sense, because remember, Lincoln was a Republican. The Republican party frankly, has lost his way. They're doing things that they would've never done based on their principles 10 years ago. They're really, this is Trump's party.

john a. powell: Trump, even when he was running for election, he said he wouldn't agree that if he lost to Hillary that he would accept that or that he wouldn't encourage his people to engage in violence. In some ways we're seeing a continuation of that expression. Okay. He won and he's still encouraging his people to engage in violence, and unfortunately the country's complicated history. But many police departments and Marc as you know I'm from Michigan, many police departments have been often times having people who are generally hostile to civil rights. Many police departments had a long history as evidenced by the Justice Department of being associated with the Klu Klux Klan.

john a. powell: So in a sense they're not discharging their jobs. They should be there to protect the legislature and anyone else who's following the law and against people who are threatening or breaking the law. When they don't do that, it puts us in a very complicated compromising situation. So for others to go there with guns to protect the legislators, you want people not to be injured and so you have to sort of applaud that on one hand. On the other hand, the implications of it are very disturbing. I'm glad guns weren't fire. We had a case in Little Rock where we had the national guard trying to enforce segregation and ignore the Supreme Court and Eisenhower called in federal troops. So that was one of those situations where we had a stand up between two branches of government. That's always problematic.

john a. powell: And unfortunately, we have leadership now that actually agitates that. So when Trump tells these folks that they should liberate the country when he doesn't condemn them showing up with guns and swastikas and Confederate flags, reminds me of his thing of saying, "There are good people on both sides out of Charlottesville." So I think he's tearing at the fabric of this country and I worry for it, and especially in this time of a pandemic when so much of America is hurting.

john a. powell: New York took the brunt of it, but all indication is that the pandemic, the virus will move across the rest of the United States and including so-called red states and rural states, and we should care about the loss of lives. To me it's just shocking, right? That on one hand, Trump was so obsessed and obsessed about football players taking a knee, he could see nothing good in what they were doing even though they're trying to advocate on behalf of black people, men, women who were being killed by the police and sometimes not being brought to justice. His only concerned was somehow you're taking a knee and disrespecting the American flag.

john a. powell: From my perspective, in many ways, one could say they're respecting the American flag, because we're not living up to the values of the American flag. But then he turns around and people showing up with guns, some of them threatening violence and he only has nice things to say about them. I mean the hypocrisy, the veil and unveil racism coming from the White House and beyond is just amazing. One can only hope that people at the state level, people at the city level, people of faith and others will come together and help us heal and move forward as a country and continue to wrestle with this thing of how do we actually have both equality and freedom. How do those two things, to want to pull ideas, support each other in practice, not just in theory.

Marc Abizeid: Also contrasting the scenes from Michigan with the scenes from New York and other places and how the police are reacting to people who are not observing physical distancing. For example, we've seen them really brutally attack people in New York, mostly black people congregating and just, I mean, viciously attacking them and not just in a couple of incidents here and there, but I feel like every day there's new video emerging of more incidents like this and I don't know. I mean, I think it just like pertain to this question of who these institutions were designed for and who they're serving. It's not really a question, but I mean, if you have thoughts on that.

john a. powell: Well, so two things. I'm not fatalistic and I'm not even ... I mean, I'm saddened by what you just described and what just happened, but also know wonderful things happen. I think it's important to actually look at some positive things as well as negative things, to look at things with a certain clear eye. As I tried to suggest in the little piece I wrote, but also in our conversation today, the country was designed initially for a white males property, but even in that design, there were ideals that went beyond that.

john a. powell: There were ideals where President Obama used to say about to create a more perfect union and we hadn't gotten there. So even within the design there was a seed of hope and aspiration and possibility. It's not given that we will get there, it was not given that we won't go backwards, but the seed is there to go forward and we need to hold on to that. So I think even as we look at our past with very clear eyes and with all the terrible and wonderful things that have happened, we also need to hold on to that possibility as we think about our future.

john a. powell: You and I live in California, certainly no state is perfect, but the stuff that government has done here in California, letting people, some people out of jails, telling the police not to aggressively enforce shelter in place even though the Bay Area in California were the first, the governor's deciding to extend benefits to undocumented immigrants, so that's the government too. So we have to sort of, there's a possibility we have to call out the things we just called out in terms of police abusing their power in a racialized way in this painful time.

john a. powell: We also should lift up other police and other governments doing positive things because otherwise if we get too fatalistic, people sort of give up and think there's not a possibility to move forward. We probably will, we can move forward. It won't be a straight line and we can actually become a more perfect union, but it takes work or we can continue down this road and sort of watch the destruction of our country.

Marc Abizeid: Okay. Now I feel guilty about the next question I'm going to ask you because it's also in that direction of fatalism and depression and sadness and anger that I think a lot of us felt when we saw that video emerged this week of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down in Georgia while he was jogging. Then again, this goes into the role of the institutions, the role of the police and taking action or not taking action, but the case is so outrageous for so many reasons. We can just start with the fact that these two white men could chase down this young black guy, 25 years old, going for a jog, minding his own business. In February, murder him in cold blood, broad daylight, and then not even get arrested. It's been more than two months now and they're just at home or whatever. What do you make of that?

john a. powell: So first of all, I want to be clear when I said, there're positive things, I don't mean that we shouldn't be upset, angry and take action for the negative things. Reverend Dr. King talked about righteous indignation. So there's some things that should upset us. We should be upset when we see people locking little kids, but even adults locked up in cages. We should be upset when we see not just white men going out killing black men, but then the Police Department not doing anything.

john a. powell: We should be upset when we see law enforcement officers or security guards kicking black people out of Walmart because they're wearing a mask and the list goes on. So those are things we should be upset about, but they should call us to action. You should also understand, for example, in the case of what happened in Georgia, one of the people who was expressing outrage which is positive in this sense was a white woman. She was like, "I'm not associating with that. That's terrible. It really upsets me." So we can start breaking this and realize that there are people, who some of them are not in institutional position, some in institutional positions who do the right thing, who will take a stand, then there's some that won't.

john a. powell: It goes beyond as you suggested, it goes beyond just a bad apple. We have for the last several years, the whole movement of Black Lives Matter was basically saying, not simply that black people being killed is pre-cautioned by the police. Many of them are, some of them children. Someone when they try to walk away. Is that the prosecution is that we're not then hold them accountable. So we are creating an institution of violence, an institution of killing with impunity at the state, which is worse than even killing by individuals.

john a. powell: So yes, I think from my perspective, we should be upset about that and we should fix it, and not perfectly, but I felt like Eric Holder, when he was attorney general, he started taking actions against police departments. You had a lot of police departments under consent decrees looking at their action. That's not the case under Trump. That was not the cover in the session. That's not the case under Barr. So they've taken these institutions and turn them around. So what does Barr talk about? Being upset about, he's talking about being upset that some states are still closed, even though every medical professional, every expert says we shouldn't open too early.

john a. powell: Barr, who's not a medical professional is talking about joining a lawsuit to force states to open. We should be upset about that, and we should talk about it. We should write about it. We should organize about it and we should vote. We should get a new set of ... and getting different people in there won't solve everything because part of it is institutional, but it helps, and there's a big difference between almost anybody else and the current administration.

Marc Abizeid: Well, what do you think about that? I mean, you talked about him being killed with impunity or people killing other people or the state killing people with impunity. What gives people the sense that they have a right to do that? I think it does go back to that idea of freedom that you were talking about earlier. It's like, we'll have the freedom to do this, this and that, and I have a freedom to gun down this guy who was jogging on my street because I "Suspect him of being involved in a burglary or something."

john a. powell: Part of it is there's a core, and I think they're a minority, but they're emboldened by the president, people who feel like, as I said, we're ground that this is a white country, that black people don't belong here, that Jews don't belong here, that Muslims don't belong here and that they have a right, and then in Georgia you also have, stand your ground, which is a terrible law and it's been, the law is terrible and the way is actually implemented is terrible. In this case, it was clear from what I know, that there's no stand your ground issue. These guys were in a truck, they passed the guy, and then they claim though that they were standing their ground because of fighting suit.

john a. powell: So laws are important and it emboldened people. It's what we say is important. It affects people. We've had a long history of people who are considered marginal or less than or other, trying to get justice at every level, and that affects not just what's happened in the courtroom, what happened on the police department, that affects private individuals. What we should do is actually participate at every level. We need to hold not just individuals accountable, we need to hold the police department accountable. We need to hold the system accountable, but at its best, at its best, and we've never had it at its best. That's what a democracy represents.

john a. powell: And democracy, the concept of democracy that we embraced largely comes from the Greeks, some influenced by native Americans as well, but it's the idea that, if you're a citizen, you're an equal citizen. You don't just have rights, you don't just have liberty, you are equal citizens. You have the right to participate, you have right to make laws, you have right to live throughout society. So we haven't achieved that. Some people feel like their rights, their liberties are somehow under threat, and that's being animated and amplified by the White House, by the Justice Department, by some state houses.

john a. powell: The New South unfortunately looks way too much like the old South, but we can't give up. We have to keep going forward and again, there's no one strategy. One is to learn how to talk to each other. One is to have these interactions, to tell different stories, but the is to hold our systems and our individuals accountable which includes getting involved. You don't fix the system by staying outside of it. You have to get involved and that includes voting.

Marc Abizeid: All right, great. We can just end it there. I guess we're out of time unless there's anything else you wanted to say.

john a. powell: Well, two things I'll say in closing or three. One, I'd be happy to do another session with you, but we're in the middle of a pandemic and we're watching this pandemic, because the data keeps changing, but we're watching this pandemic disproportionately kill black people. This could possibly kill Latinos. This could possibly kill native Americans, disproportionately killing poor rural whites, that's the violence. That's violence itself. So our care has to be about all of us. How do we change the system? We shouldn't have a system where we're deciding where to send medical equipment rather not to a red state or blue states.

john a. powell: We shouldn't have a system that says the relief reviewing unemployed was going to decide whether or not you're a red or blue states. We shouldn't have a system that says because you are a restaurant worker and you don't make minimal wages, you're not eligible for unemployment insurance. We shouldn't have a system that says you're an immigrant and an essential worker serving, picking our food, serving our food, but because you are undocumented, you can't use our healthcare system. So our system is broken in so many ways and this pandemic I think offers us an opportunity for new growth of freedom.

john a. powell: We can go back to the old way, so trying to button down, lock down and say this country is only for a small group of people, although in order for it to work, which depends on all of us or we can actually have the new birth of freedom and say, how do we actually come out of this, we're a country where everyone matters, every life counts, and give everyone a chance to contribute. Those are the two big issues I think that we're grappling with beyond just the pandemic itself, and you'll see, I think acts on both sides where we land would depend on what we do. So I hope we will have a new birth of freedom and do the right thing.

Marc Abizeid: Now, that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs. I'd like to thank john a. powell, Professor of Law in African American Studies at UC Berkeley for coming on the show. john is also the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. We'll put a link to Professor powell recent op-ed on the clash over shelter in place, along with a transcript of this interview on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.

 

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