Elaine Brown Pt. 1: The 400-year Struggle for Racial Justice in the US

In the first of a two-part interview, Rob Johnson talks to author, activist, and former Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown about the killing of George Floyd and the protests sweeping the U.S. in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.


Rob Johnson:

This is Rob Johnson, the President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m here today with Elaine Brown. She’s the former Chairman of the Black Panther Party. She’s an author and activist. Her books include A Taste of Power and The Condemnation of Little B.

She’s also the CEO of Oakland and the World Enterprisers, where she creates businesses for former incarcerated people and underserved people. And, she’s working on the building of 79 housing units in the Oakland area to support these people in their living standards.

Elaine, thanks for joining me today.

Elaine Brown:

Thank you, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

We’ve got a world that, as I listen to your music, as I listen to your speeches, that you have understood for a long time. But, with this pandemic, the social dysfunction, the death of George Floyd and many others; we’re at a place where the unmasking is now becoming what we might call common knowledge. It doesn’t mean that there’s not resistance to changing this system, which people can see is horrid in many ways.

But, I’m curious what you see right now that concerns you, what you see that you find inspiring? Do you see light at the end of the tunnel? Not only see the light, but how to get there. I’m curious how you’re perceiving the challenge that the pandemic has unleashed upon us.

Elaine Brown:

Well, I’m not sure that the pandemic has unleashed anything, other than to simply expose what is there. And what is there is a country that has created institutions or institutionalized the oppression of black people as well, ultimately, of other of people of color and including white people who are poor. And so the rage that the one murder of George Floyd has triggered among some people is good to see, glad to see people are at least awake, if not necessarily conscious of what needs to be done. You cannot dismantle a 400 year institution or empire with a protest in the street. It’s good to see some of these young people, but we get distracted by all kinds of members of the establishment, putting on Catholic cloth and kneeling and police chiefs running around kneeling and holding black people’s hands.

And people saying, like the Minneapolis Police Department, we will dismantle the entire police department. And so there will not be a followup for that, unless there is a followup. Some of these things that the young people are calling for are really very minor reforms and they will not go to the fundamental issue. And if we’re going to talk about the issue of George Floyd, fundamental issue of policing or not policing, so many people have come to me saying, “Well, we want to take that money and redirect the police money, at least, as to the certain parts of the police budgets and redirect it to community, to reducing community violence.” What’s wrong with that question?

Well, that presumes there is community violence. And so we have to have a correct analysis in order to come to correct conclusions about what needs to be done. So since people generally really understand it when you quote Martin Luther King, let me just quote one big statement from Martin Luther King, not a long one. King, in his 1967 speech, Where Do We Go From Here, advocates for fundamental change. Indeed, he uses the word revolution, revolutionary change, meaning that as he says, using a story from the Bible, because he was a Christian minister of Jesus being asked if Nicodemus could be saved because Jesus was in the business of saving people. And Jesus said, “You have been a murderer and you’ve lied.” So the conclusion that King quotes Jesus as saying is that you’ve committed so many sins Nicodemus. There’s nothing I can do to save you. You will have to be born again.

And then King says to the audience gathered at the SCLC convention in August of 1967, “America will have to be born again.” And he’s not speaking of Christianity now, he’s speaking of being born again, everything will have to be uprooted and reorganized. This was the launching of the poor people’s campaign, where the goal was to use a public protest, but an organized one. And everyone could go to Washington DC, join in the protest, the march and the occupation of DC around the White House and demand that everyone received guaranteed income and not leave until that had been done.

Now, even then, of course, that demand is being made of the very people that are your oppressors in the way I see it, in the way the Black Panther Party did and the way I continue to see it is that if you’re going to ask the person who’s got his foot on your neck to take his foot off, well, the person has his foot on your neck. So how do you expect to get that foot off your neck? The famously… The viral video of Al Sharpton, of all people, saying, “Take your knee off our necks.” And everybody cheering, is what does it mean if you’re asking the very guy who’s doing it to stop doing it?

Now for us and the Black Panther Party, in the end of the day, to quote Huey P Newton, when the oppressor is tired and his knees get weak, we will rip his kneecaps off. So I would say that at the moment of death of George Floyd, it might’ve been better if someone tried to rip off the kneecap of that cop, rather than now, crying and crying about it and asking the very people who employed that guy to stop doing what they’re.

So the question of whether or not you can go to the people who are the chorus, the bureaucratic institutions that are supporting this kind of behavior, and ask them to stop doing it is to presume that they have a moral center in the first place, which is something I don’t presume. And there’s not a lot of evidence of that. Just ask a banker’s big corporations to redistribute their wealth and to think that’s really going to happen by simply marching in the street and annoying people again, and having reports distracting establishment news report saying things like, “Oh, well, there’s the good marchers, good peaceful protestors and the bad protestors who are throwing rocks and disturbing everybody.” To imagine that that is a pathway to dismantling the system in place that put that cop’s knee on George Floyd’s neck is to not have a correct analysis, but I’m happy to see that the spirit of some sort of opposition is finally reappearing. But we certainly saw this back in the 60s and we’ve seen it in other periods of time.

And, given social media, it certainly can attract and ignite action of this kind. But the question is whether this action has any potential for change. And I think it can have the… It has the potential for change only if it comes to be developed into an organized force that is going to start the long, hard march of dismantling, trying to dismantle those institutions that have kept black people oppressed since the beginning of this country in Jamestown.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I can’t help but cite your famous song, Seize The Time. The time is now. Seize the time and you know how. I want to go a little deeper with you into the question, which I think is the right question. Is asking people who are in that bureaucracy to have a moral transformation or asking a system which has proven itself to be systemically corrupt, distorted, and oppressive to somehow wake up, seems a little romantic, a little too idealistic. But what do you see as the ways in which to seize the time? Is it get… What do we have to get at in order to, how we say, unlock transformation?

Elaine Brown:

Well, a song is just a song. I wouldn’t get too hung up on a song. It’s just an inspiration. It’s like a poem or any piece of art. It’s just a song. It is not a direction. It is not. It is, in that case, I was attempting to use a song as part of the work I was doing, but my song comes second to work. As Che Guevara used to say, “Words are beautiful, actions are supreme.” There is no one answer. There’s no panacea for this. This took 400 years to develop. So there’s no, “Well, how do we seize the time?” I have no idea. If I had an idea how one big sweep of the hand or somebody’s activity would change everything, I would certainly have done it by now. So there isn’t any one answer objectively speaking and when we look at the analysis.

When the United States government was formed at the end of the Revolutionary War and the Continental Congress met in 1787 in Philadelphia, where I was born. And I like to say that only because it likes to call itself the City Of Brotherly Love, but it’s the city where the country put all of its documents and all these smart men wrote all of these words about the equality of men and self-governance and what have you. Slavery of course, had been in existence in the United States, slavery of African people brought here as captives for over 150 years by then. So the question came up as to the Constitution, what do we say about these slaves? As to our representation in voting for different offices of our new government.

Now, nobody, no body, opposed slavery. Slavery was legal. Nobody opposed it. That is to say nobody in the Continental Congress, but the people who were forming the government and creating the institutions that would support what they were doing. Nobody had any problem with slavery. The question is the Southern Representatives at the Continental Congress wanted to count each slave as equal to one white man. Now somebody might think, “Wow, equal?” No, count was the question. And the Northern whites said, “No, because that’s unfair. You have all those slaves. And we don’t have that many. We have them, and we were making money from them, but we don’t have them.” So the compromise, if you will, was to identify the black in the Constitution as three fifths of a person or a man. Not value, just identify it for representational purposes. And this is how Thomas Jefferson ultimately became the third President because Aaron Bearer would probably have been the president, but Jefferson demanded a recount or demanded that the body that I’ve suddenly lost, forgotten the name of, the Electoral College, that the Electoral College look at this and count those slaves in the States that voted for Jefferson.

And he won the election by counting each slave that they had an account of as three fifths of a person. It’s for the purpose of his election. Now this is the origin of the country, really not, because we know that the country really, we pegged the country’s origin to the First English Colony of Jamestown in something like 1619, but we know that the English arrived incredibly on a ship called The White Lion in around 1609. This is our record. Obviously, I can’t attest to any more than what records there are. Those records could be maybe not as accurate as today. Of course, we have so many lying records today, so I’m not sure. But let’s assume, let’s put a peg in the date 1609 as the arrival of the first English so-called settlers and the native people who were part of the Pohatten Confederacy led by Pocahontas’ father, Chief Pohatten, gave these people food, tried to arrange things with them.

Ultimately the English wanted more and more, and they finally started burning down native homes and everything else because they couldn’t find enough food, couldn’t grow any food. In fact, started eating their dead and this kind of thing. And then finally, The White Lion arrived, which was really called a privateer ship, which is really pirates because these people are armed ships and they go, having robbed slaves from a Portuguese slave ship. They land in the area now called Jamestown, Virginia named after King James author of the Bible that we generally read. And they dumped their slaves and sell their slaves to the natives or someone for food. And you have the beginnings of African slavery in America or in what is called America, North America, United States of America eventually. And you have all of that history and the Pohatten then have to be wiped out and are wiped out.

They’re removed from their lands and they’re killed, including Pocahontas’ father that we like to romanticize about, John Smith and Pocahontas, some fiction that we’ve invented, though she did go to England and all of that, and we can assess that. But rather than go down there, just to suffice it to say that the English settlers had to completely wipe out the existence of the Pohatton through murder and burning and violence to create Jamestown. And then in order to grow and continue to grow the tobacco they had started to grow, they needed more labor, couldn’t find it. And so went to the African continent where every other European was trying to use slaves to settle other areas like the Dutch and what would become Wall Street, which was a Dutch word.

So the English won the day, as we know, because this country arises from English colonies, not French, not Dutch, not German, not Spanish, not Portuguese. I don’t know that Portuguese was actually here, more like Brazil. So that violence that we talk about here and now, we want peaceful protestors about a country that is founded on the gun and violence and murder. And set up institutions that by the time the Continental Congress is meeting, these men who are owners of tobacco farms and now even slave trading ships, like the Brown family, who founded Brown University. All of these men and all of them had slaves, just not maybe in the numbers in the South, but all benefited from slavery.

So if all of them benefited from slavery, what reason would they have to abolish slavery by some moral persuasion? Even though some of them like Benjamin Franklin made nice statements against slavery and the abolition at some point, but they all benefited. So they compromised. And in the end of the day, this country was not only founded with slavery as a legal entity and legal institution, but it had spent 150 years building up wealth that created the wealth was so big from cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice that they had become richer than the very King they sought “independence” from. That is the origin of the country.

Now, until we understand the nexus between all of that 150 years before 1776 and all of the years that followed and that there was no real break in anything, there was a buildup. All of these Wall Street companies and banks and insurance companies were engaged in the slave trade because it was a lot of money. Millions of people being captured. Insurance companies start writing things about slave ships and so forth. These institutions exist. And a lot of people benefit from them. Now, even more people today benefit. So if we’re going to say, “Well, one of the biggest parts of the US budget, forget the police budget. Let’s talk about the United States government.” Is what? What is it? It’s the defense budget, right? We don’t know exactly how much. It’s like, at least a quarter could be almost a third of the entire budget.

Now we want to say take some of that money and put it to social programs, to the very people that are profiting from it. We have to think about that for a minute. And so we have a situation where you’re working at Boeing, you’re getting paid $50 an hour. You’re not going to necessarily be inclined to want to give up that job. It’s like the police job. These guys are basically just poor people. They’re not necessarily highly educated. They’re not in academe. They’re not in business. They don’t have any money. They’re working for a living. They got a good pension. This is tied to their money.

And so when you have a situation like George Floyd, the question is who’s police are they? Are they the police of the money? Did I pass a counterfeit bill? Are they the counterfeit money police? Is there realistically something? Yes, because that is who they’re there to protect and serve. The police exist to protect and serve the institutions that keep us oppressed. And that has been true since the end of so-called… Well, I’ll say the end of the Civil War and the institution of policing operations as slave catchers and so forth and so on.

So this is so long standing, but as Thomas Jefferson said in The Declaration of Independence, we don’t take it lightly, but we’re going to resist these long standing institutions of England. But, we don’t have an army, the Continental Army. The English had to come to the United States, get on ships and fight on territory they didn’t know. Not to count the fact that a few black people with some sense said they would join the English rather than stay with the enemy they know.

And so you have a situation where the conditions were ripe for revolution, because that’s what we talk about, the American Revolution, American Revolutionary War. We don’t have that army. The Army of the United States is still prepared to do exactly what Donald Trump said, because they’re getting paid to do it. So we have to discuss how we could persuade the masses of people to demand, and in fact, exact our demand to change the government. But if we think that these demonstrations will cause the people of the government and the institutions of finance and corporate institutions to change, Mark Zuckerberg is not going to be giving up any money. So they’re not going to dismantle overnight.

And there is no one answer. The answer is that there’s a little spark going on now. I’m glad to see it. If I had more energy, I’d be out there running up and down, but I can’t run very well anymore. So I’m not going to be in a crowd that might require me to run, just a practical matter, but I’m happy to see it, but I’m not emotional crying. This is a new day. For some people it is, but it’s certainly an indicator that we have the will of some people, of more and more people, to see some sort of change. It’s just a question of what is that change and how do we make it?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, well, I know one of my earlier guests on this podcast, Gerald Horne from Houston has written a book called The Counterrevolution of 1776, where he says the so called Revolutionary War was in part a counter-revolution, the conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their right to enslave others, which underscores exactly what you were saying. In the modern context, I’ve seen people both on the left and the right, talking about the prison industrial system. One of my guests last week, Wendy Brown, was talking about how much money is spent on the prison industrial system in California in relation to the education budget.

And I was astounded, but you’ve written a book about a horrific episode called The Condemnation of Little B. How do we repair a profitable system that’s incarcerating people in order to make money? How do we get at that particular challenge on our current institutional grid?

Elaine Brown:

Well, again, that question calls for some panacean answer, and I don’t have that because it doesn’t exist. The institutions are there, so you can’t just say, “Well, but even if we got rid of all the prisons and all the police agencies, would we all be living in a land of equality and justice?” No, we would not. Right? We would not.

Rob Johnson:

No, we would not. The psychology is too deep. And like you said [crosstalk 00:25:36] it’s 400 years.

Elaine Brown:

It’s not a psychology. These are real things that really happen.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, yeah, no, that’s right. But I would say that [crosstalk 00:25:41]-

Elaine Brown:

Infiltrated into the minds of people. For example, I lived in France for seven years. And when I tell people in the United States, ordinary working people, ordinary people that I know, that essentially medical care in France is free. It’s essentially free for the French people. And even for people like me that had no citizenship standing per se. I was a visitor or I had some relationship to a French person and therefore I could be there. There was nobody putting me out. There’s no immigration policy, certainly not on Americans. If I’d come from North Africa that might’ve been different.

But anyway, that there was the French had made a decision to put money into keeping their children and human beings healthy. So for example, a young woman I know, a black woman who was a model, a fashion model, and met her husband, a black man from the United States. And he had a job as a designer in France. And they met, fell in love, got married and had a baby. And she had no job, no work. And she told me that all of her prenatal care was free or essentially free. Things like what would be comfortable to $10 and $15. And this is in the 90s. And she said that for the first year, everything was paid for, children’s diapers, a bed, car seat if you had it or, a stroller or what have you, all of these kinds of basic things, but food also, et cetera.

And then they have a thing called the Creche, that you can, if you’re working, your children can be months old and you can have a daycare as we would call it for children even that young. And none of that stuff costs money. So people were like, “No, how’s that possible?” They can’t even imagine having medical care and without having to pay, how is that possible? Imagine that you see a doctor, you should have to pay. If you want food, you should have to pay. So you’re right. There isn’t a mindset, there’s not even a way to think about this.

So as to the people, particularly those who don’t have the money to pay, it would be-

… Particularly those who don’t have the money to pay. It would be interesting. You could change them around by saying, why should we pay? Such as the Black Panther party did when we instituted a free breakfast for children program and people said, “What? I should be getting free food?” Well, yeah, you don’t have any money. Your children are going to school hungry, and we’re saying, this is one little teeny thing that we can talk about that you can glom onto and have changed and instituted. Now that was over 50 years ago and people did, and they forced the school systems to put in free breakfast. Then of course, the backlash was, there’s no free lunch and all that, but that’s not the issue. The issue is you cannot isolate the prison system, and this abstraction called the prison industrial complex, which was really a term that was invented by the Wall Street Journal.

Wasn’t exactly somebody from the left, as some people like to claim it, that did it only because it went to Eisenhower’s military industrial conflict. The country is not living off of the prison system. The prison system is just one more arm of all the other aspects of profiteering and so forth that the country lives on. Every day, a lot of people get up, not poor people and ordinary working people, and review the stock exchange. Now, how do you imagine, which is changing money and hands all over the world in matters of nanoseconds given technology, how do you imagine that you going to take down all that trading in a single swoop? The prison industrial complex, as it’s called, is nothing in comparison to that. Now, is that a reflection of one of the aspects of the oppression of black people and other poor people? Because there’s no rich people generally speaking in prison.

Yes it is, and it does have to be addressed and attacked. That could be one more arm of things. The education system is falling apart. So for someone to say, pardon me, we’re spending more on the prison industrial complex than the education budget in California, what’s the difference? Black people bled and died to enforce the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools in America. Not only has that not happened, that is to say desegregation, but the schools in the black community, public schools, remain poorly funded, overcrowded, so forth, and education is as it was in 1954. Now, taking money from the prison industrial complex and putting it into the budget, is just one of these kinds of little things if somebody does a little study, and they want to talk about how bad things are as if this is news.

We have been fighting for the right to be educated, let’s just think about that, since the end of the Civil War. We being black people. You had people like Mary McLeod Bethune, who was burning bark to create pencils to educate black children to read and write. We have been fighting to just simply create a place to be educated. Booker T Washington, creating Tuskegee Institute for educating black children, getting money from white philanthropists, like so many others that created the other historically black colleges. Fighting toward the end of that century, the 19th century, to try to find some way to at least be conscious in a foreign land. We don’t have any much to do with the country. So we have fought for education, but now you want to say, using what you said, California budget. Why are we surprised? But what are we doing about it?

If you are a guard in a California prison, you probably making 150,000 a year. Now, what makes you think that the California Peace Officers Association, which was the biggest union, almost the biggest union in California, which was the biggest supporter of every single governor that has been around just about, especially and including Jerry Brown, who the first time around was a so-called liberal? You got a big, powerful union like that, do you honestly think you’re going to convince these guards to dismantle the prison system when they’re making 150,000 a year, most of them can barely read English? Seriously?

So the question is, do we want to deal with that or not? But we watched this stuff expand and the expansion of the prison system came under Bill Clinton. Now, where were these voices when Bill Clinton was saying three strikes, you’re out? Nobody was saying anything. Now, 20 some years later, that was 1994 so I don’t know what that is. ‘94, ‘04, 14, more than 20 years later, 25 years later, you want to talk about how there’s a prison industrial complex? Well, how did it happen? Because if we don’t understand the problem, we won’t understand the solution.

Rob Johnson:

I remember on election night in 2016, I was in Detroit and I stopped by to see a black gentleman who used to work in the medical office building where my father was employed. His name was Ulysses. I said, “Ulysses, what’s going on with this election?” He said, “Mr. Johnson, when you go to a restaurant and there’s nothing on the menu you want to order, you stay home. You don’t eat there.” He said, “The Clinton family passed NAFTA, passed welfare reform, and criminal justice reform, and people just not going to turn out.” Now, obviously the ramifications were that Donald Trump won Michigan’s electoral votes, and that was not a wholesome outcome, but he was right. He was right. He had seen into the legacy of what the Clinton family had represented in that particular dimension. But I think one of the things people in the economics-

Elaine Brown:

Did Ulysses have a last name?

Rob Johnson:

I don’t know his last name.

Elaine Brown:

[inaudible] should make note of that. But go ahead.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I will try to find him.

Elaine Brown:

I don’t care. I was just asking you because you referred to him as Ulysses and he referred to you as Mr. Johnson.

Rob Johnson:

That’s true. That’s true. That’s interesting. I got some work to do there.

Elaine Brown:

Well, I wasn’t being personally critical. I was just saying that when we talk about this slogan that even people like Joe Biden and cops are, Black Lives Matter, what it means is really nothing. From my perspective, the only thing it can mean is that it is a cry for white people to give value to black people’s lives because we value our lives. So who are you telling that black lives matters? You certainly not telling me because I’m black. So who could you be talking to with this slogan, Black Lives Matter? The only people you could be talking to are the people who are the dominant group and that is white people. Now, not all white people are our oppressors, but our oppressors are only white. You see?

So I’m not asking anybody white to like me one way or the other. My life matters to me, and if you cross the line on my life, I’m going to respond in a way that I know I am valuable. I don’t have to prove that to you. When I say you, I mean to anyone white anybody.

I don’t have to explain myself. I saw a superintendent of the public school system of something like Palm Beach, Florida, palm something, Florida, who was the first black. There’s always a first black in 2020, no less. The first black superintendent of schools of wherever Florida is an interview on MSNBC talking about everything as everyone is, and he says, “I have lived my whole life.” He was 44 years old. Said, “I’ve lived my whole life afraid to go outside that I might offend someone and get killed or get hurt.” Now let’s just examine that because that’s what we have to do when we want to have a correct analysis. We have to break it down.

What do you mean that when you’re afraid to go out of your house, you’re afraid that you might offend someone? Like, if I wore a hoodie, sweatshirt he said, something like this. Now, who is the someone that he’s going to offend? Let’s just think about that. He’s not going to offend black people. Why would we be offended by this man walking around with a sweatshirt with a hoodie on? So his point is he wants to please white people every day of his life so that they don’t kill him. Then we have Kamala Harris, who goes back and forth between being an Asian American and a black American, whatever that might mean. To those of us in California, it means nothing because you were more importantly, a prosecutor who never found a cop that you’d prosecute and who never found a black man that you wouldn’t prosecute. But I digress from her record. So you have people saying that … I’ve lost the thread of this. I’m sorry.

Rob Johnson:

You were talking about, who are you trying to please?

Elaine Brown:

Right, exactly, thank you.

Rob Johnson:

You were talking about that gentleman saying he didn’t want to [crosstalk].

Elaine Brown:

Thank you. [crosstalk] please. I’m sorry. I lost the thread. I went off thinking about the crimes of Kamala Harris. So when you say you’re afraid to go outside and offend someone, what you mean is that somebody white, like the little stupid girl, woman in Central Park that was choking her dog trying to get a black man to stop doing what he was not doing. So you are afraid to go out because you offending white people, so you got to find ways to not be offensive to white people. Now, let’s just think about the very idea that that’s how you’ve been thinking all your life, according to you, and you’ve been teaching your black son the same thing. Don’t offend. Don’t say … Now, back in the day before the Emmett Till case came out, black people in the South especially say, don’t look a white woman in the eye.

Almost everybody black knows that. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. We know that’s how we think. Don’t let Massa see you. Don’t talk back to Massa. This’ll get you killed. This is our problem, so we want to say our little piece of something at this point is Black Lives Matter. Please don’t kill us. Hands up. Don’t shoot. That’s the big one coming out of Ferguson that just elected his first black mayor. A black city in Missouri that spent two years fighting over the murder, protesting over the murder of Michael Brown, and in between that time and this up, until the other day when a black woman was elected mayor of Ferguson, you had a white, male, Republican, former cop who was the mayor of Ferguson and who was elected after Michael Brown was killed.

So black people have to get out of the mindset of being slaves and decide that we will do more than beg white people to value us, ask for the police to take their knees off our neck, and decide that if you think that you can do that, we’re going to stand up and do something else. We’re going to deliver a consequence that will begin to change your mind.

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