Racial Oppression in America
By LARB AVFebruary 1, 2021
TOM LUTZ: I’m very honored to be part of this conversation tonight. These are heartbreaking times as death prowls the land. Death by virus, death by the police, death by desperation. And as Jody Armour’s new book shows in detail, death by a corrupt and corrupted justice system, and a social system that blames people for their own deaths. Our speakers tonight have spent their lives fighting for justice and I feel we’re very honored to have them with us tonight.
Professor Jody Armour, I like to say, has a big brain and a big heart. And he’s just published a big book. It’s the result of that life fighting for justice, the result of many years work in the law journals, in the law schools, in the community, in the library, and in the fight. And you’ll be hearing about that book tonight. It’s the most thoroughgoing analysis we have of where racial bias lives and thrives in the most minute corners of the law, and in the most public aspects of our social and cultural lives. Jody is the son of an imprisoned felon whose rights were run roughshod over, and who wrote his way out of jail, on the Royal typewriter that’s on the cover of his book, and which has a place of honor in Jody’s home. And that prisoner’s son, Jody Armour, followed in his father’s legal, research, and writing footsteps to become the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. He’s the author of numerous articles in the top law journals in the country, and of the book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, as well as the book we’re discussing tonight, which I call N Theory, and which I encourage everyone who is not Black to call N Theory as well.
Jody will be in discussion with Professor Melina Abdullah, one of the original members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter. She’s a professor, a longtime Chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA, the author of numerous articles and book chapters, and a much called-upon expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. And to introduce her — I’ve been forced to pick and choose among her many achievements and honors, or we would be here all night — so I’ll just say that she spearheaded the successful effort to make Ethnic Studies a requirement in the LA Unified School District. She serves on numerous boards and has received numerous awards. So numerous, in fact, that two of them are awards named in honor of the great Fannie Lou Hamer, one from the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals, and one from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, which gives you have a sense of her range. She has said, “I wake up every morning in hopes that I do my best to honor my commitment to my ancestors, to the Creator, and to the community.” And in fact, she’s taking a break this afternoon, from the middle of organizing in action. And so thank you, Jody Armour and thank you, Melina Abdullah, for being here tonight.
To start us off — and thank you, audience, there’s about 400 of you here — for joining us. To start us off, Jody is going to read a section from the beginning of the book, and then we’ll head straight into the conversation. If you in the audience have questions, please do write them down, and we’ll try to get to as many of them as possible.
JODY ARMOUR: Thank you so much, Tom, and LARB Books, LARB, Melina, of course, and everyone who could join us for this discussion. This for me is really a moment of grace. I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot the last couple of weeks, when the book came out. I’m a living legacy of a jailhouse lawyer. He’s been the inspiration for everything that I’ve written and said about criminal justice over the last 25 years that I’ve been in the legal academy. And so I’ll start with a passage from the book that relates to him, go a little more into that, and then Melina and I will get into our discussion.
“But I say call me a nigga, first and foremost, to assert solidarity with, and express love for, a criminally condemned man, whose conviction relegated him to the status of a nigga in the eyes of many and whose legacy lives in every word I speak or scribble about blame and punishment. I look at our criminal justice system through lenses ground and polished by his experience. I cannot think about legal writing without seeing a Black man desperately click-clacking on a Royal manual typewriter on his cell floor deep into the night in search of his own salvation. That man, doing 22-55 in the Ohio State Penitentiary for possession and sale of marijuana, he was my dad. All that stood between him and a lifetime of iron bars and cell blocks and prison yards was word work. Nothing but the Queen’s English he and that Royal keyboard could crank out. After teaching himself to talk and think like a lawyer from the warden’s own law books, he drafted his own writs, and represented himself pro se through the state and federal court system, delivering his own oral arguments to appellate tribunals along the way, and ultimately vindicating himself in Armour v. Salisbury, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case I now teach to my first-year criminal law students. #PoeticJustice.”
That Black man who cranked out the writs of habeas corpus on his cell floor — he did it on this typewriter which I’m going to show you. My dad’s typewriter [is] really my muse. I saw in that example — in his example, since all he had really was language between him and rotting in a jail cell for the rest of his life, I’ve really come to appreciate the power of language, of word work, and recognize that words are more than just entertainment or even vehicles for communication. They are acts with consequences. He was able to find the key to the jailhouse door and the warden’s own law books because of the power of language. So I’m gonna just kind of stop there. I can come back to the whole language theme. I just wanted to kind of start there, though, because that really is what got me going on this whole project: losing him when I was eight years old, to a 22-55 sentence for possession and sale of marijuana. That’s the kind of family separation we’ve been doing in this country. Not just at the border, but all throughout the country, especially in our Black communities. We’ve been practicing family separation through the criminal justice system, hard and strong for 40 years, 50 years now. And a lot of collateral damage. My mom — I don’t go into this in the book — committed suicide behind the loss of my dad; there’s a lot of collateral damage when we lose these people to this criminal justice system. That’ll be something else we talk about another time.
I want to get Melina Abdullah into the conversation because I was so pleased that she would share this conversation with me about the book. I’ve been so inspired by her not only activism, but also her ideas and her insight. Her activism humbles me. You know, I remember going downtown and seen her out on sidewalks overnight, overnight again, over weeks, over weeks, people hurling epithets, as well as tangible objects at her while she was holding it down out there, protesting and paying the price of her convictions. And so there’s no one I can think of that I would be more proud to have this kind of conversation with, and she also wrote the introduction to the book, which I was very pleased about.
Melina, I guess I’ll kind of start there, and I know your classes here, sharing this conversation with us tonight, and so you’re fitting this book into your curriculum. And you wrote an otherworldly introduction that people just have to read to understand. I can’t do justice by trying to talk about it. How are you going to fit this book into the curriculum that you’re getting ready to share with your students? And how does it fit into your work?
MELINA ABDULLAH: Sure. So first, I just want to thank you for inviting me to write the introduction and to be with you here today. As you shared, we’ve been friends for a very long time, and I’ve always had a great deal of respect for your work, for the authenticity of your work, for the intention of your work, to not just be an intellectual masturbation, but to be about using intellectual work for the liberation of our people. I’ve always felt that about you. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said that art — I know you’re invested in the arts, even though people won’t often call you an artist, because you’re a law professor, right? — but I think that what you’ve done with this piece is really art. Because what Toni Morrison says is that real art is a relationship between the artist and those who are beholding that art. And it’s why anybody who’s ever read a Toni Morrison novel will get frustrated, like 30 minutes in, slam the novel down, go take a walk, and then be called back by that novel, right? When I was fortunate enough to read your manuscript, it challenged me.
I grew up in Oakland, born in the 1970s in Oakland, and I’m of the Panther cub generation. All of my parents’ generation, were either members of the Panthers or around the Panthers. And so there was a kind of consciousness that was there, and then it was also mixed with the fact that I went to Berkeley High School, which was the only high school in the country that had a Black Studies Department. Richard Navies was my teacher, he was the chair of the department. And one thing that happened when we set foot on the campus of Berkeley High, is that we were immediately corrected — because there’s also — and I write about this a little bit in the intro — there’s also this pimp culture of Oakland as well. So we grew up with whole sayings around the N word. It was corrected as we set foot on Berkeley High School’s campus. Mr. Navies had created this culture where you didn’t say the N word. You called Black people — and we were the plurality at Berkeley High — you called Black people brother and sister; you didn’t use the N word. We were trained to see the N word as cursed. And so from ninth grade on, I haven’t used that word. Reading your manuscript, I was very reluctant, because I’ve trained myself out of ever using that word.
But in delving into it, I understand how important it is to identify ourselves with those among us who are most set aside, most disrespected, most maligned. The “Ns” of our world. It is entrenched in this movement moment. When we say we reject respectability politics, well, how much do you reject respectability politics, right? It’s made me conscious of our language, of saying things to justify the lives of our people. We’ll say things like, “Well, you know, Jacob Blake didn’t deserve to be shot because he was a good father.” Or, you know, “Jesse Romero was only 14 years old. He wasn’t in a gang,” right? Or “AJ Webber was a 16-year-old, beautiful boy, he should have been — he had a right to his life.” But I think what your book is challenging us to do is say so what? What if Keith Bursey really were a gang member? What if Ryan Twyman really were a gang member? So what? We have to identify with those folks, because all of us are deserving of our lives. Until the most maligned among us are free, we are not free. And so we have to reject the idea of — not just of people who were born into a certain sense of privilege, but even the narrative…like I could easily say, you know, I was born in East Oakland, I went to jail — I always tell people, I went to jail six times. That’s not true. I actually went to jail six times for protesting, right? There’s more that we could add on. But my story then becomes one of: born in East Oakland, this stuff happened, and now I’m a professor. How do I interrogate? How do I challenge? How do I how do I dismantle that narrative? Because what if I had taken another turn? And there’s a lot of people who I grew up with who took other turns, who didn’t have a mom who was a school-teacher, you know?
The reason that we’re using this in my class — and we’re reading four books in my class. The class is Black Power. And I’ve opened the class. I am Facebook Live-ing it every Thursday at 12:15. You don’t have to be a registered student. Part of this movement moment says is — and your book also inspires [this] — let’s topple all of these systems that create these divisions that say, “Why should Ns have access to intellectual tools?” Now let’s topple all that, let’s topple the university system that was meant to keep us out. And so what I’m trying to do with my class is say anybody who wants to take Black Power and be a part of this collective learning process — because I’m the facilitator, but we’re all learning, we’re all learning together, right? — can just go on to my Facebook. It’s unlocked; you can go onto my Facebook every Thursday at 12:15 and we’ll learn together. The first book we’re reading, because it’s called Black Power, is Black Power, because we got to read Black Power: Black Power by Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton. Then we’re reading Robin Kelly’s Freedom Dreams, because I think it’s really important that we step back. Part of what the system does is prevents us from freedom dreaming. It blocks our radical imagination and tells us we have to be vested in what they tell us to invest in. The third book that we’re reading is yours. Because as we begin to engage our radical imagination, we have to think about not just who we are, what our imagination tells us, but whose we are. And I think that’s what your book also challenges us to do. To say, “we belong to our people, to all of our people.” And then the last book that we’ll read is my sister from another mister’s book, Patrisse Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist. So those are the four books that we’re reading.
JODY ARMOUR: Powerful, powerful. I’m gonna be there. What time is it again, for everybody?
MELINA ABDULLAH: Every Thursday 12:15 to 1:30. And as I was driving to this meeting I’m at, we were on the phone, and Professor Armour has agreed to be the guest lecture for the opening of the N Theory book as we bring that book into the curriculum.
JODY ARMOUR: For sure. You know it’s gonna be my honor and privilege. Thank you very much. Melina, there’s so many places we can go from there. But I’m going to talk about the ways that I’ve been inspired by the spirit of Black Lives Matter in writing this book, because you know, I remember back in 2013/14/15, you’re on the horn [saying], “Armour, get down here. We’re getting ready to talk to these people about some legal issues and police brutality, and they’re not gonna buffalo us on the legal end — you stand here for that — and I got the politics down, and we got somebody else [for] the history, you know, we got it all down.” I’m so appreciative of all that. But what it really goes back to is the couple other spirits of Black Lives Matter that have inspired me, [such as] disruption, that I’ve learned from observing your jaw-dropping success and ushering in the social movement of our generation and making the possibility for generational upheaval that may rattle the foundations of the nation. Your work, Black Lives Matter’s work, has set the stage for that and made this moment possible. And so I’ve learned a lot from observing some of the things that have gone into that success story. Close through your activism, one of the things I see a lot of times is disruption. We’re going to shut it down, cut through our collective complacency about racial injustice. We’re not going to just go about our daily business.
That’s what I tried to do with the N word as well. I tried to channel some of that spirit through my use of the N word. When I first used it in the 1999 at American Association Law School’s annual meeting with some tweedy law professors, sitting back, waiting for me to opine about cognitive science and all that sort of stuff, and the criminal law. And I gave them 16 bars of “America’s Most Wanted” from Ice Cube because I said, you know, the ossified language of the academy isn’t cutting it. It’s allowing this mass tragedy to happen under our noses, this warehousing of Black bodies and treating them as so much toxic human waste. And we’re just sitting back in these academic settings. And it’s changing a lot of euphemisms and circumlocutions. And we need to cut through that with some blunt, direct profane utterances. I used it to disrupt, you know, and it was disruptive in that tweedy setting. I think I kind of channeled some of the spirit of BLM. And then one of the other hallmarks I see of BLM’s methodology is, “Now let’s have some uncomfortable conversations.” That’s really good. Let’s compel those. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with this as well, pick up on those spirits of BLM. And there are lots of others.
But one more I want to mention, because I think this is at the heart of what I’ve learned from you through the years and taken even more seriously from listening to you is your rejection of respectability politics as a basis for political distinctions in our community. And I go back to Chris Rock’s routine, another source of inspiration for the N word title, when he goes back and forth in front of an all-Black audience and launched his comedic career with his ‘96 routine “Bring the Pain,” saying, “it’s like a civil war going on in Black America. There’s two sides. There’s Black people and there’s niggers. Niggers have got to go. I love Black people. But I hate niggers. Boy, I sure wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan.” And he keeps going like that for 30 minutes, 40 minutes. And his core definition of a so-called nigger is a morally condemnable Black person who’s done a crime. That’s his core definition. So we’re saying that the up to 90% of young Black males in some of these inner-city neighborhoods who are gonna wind up in jail on probation or parole at some point in their lives are niggas? As against the law-abiding, respectable rest of us. We’re going to condemn 90% of our own youth to that stigmatized status? But we do. Melina, you know, we did that in the 90s. We did that in the 00s. You’ve been out there fighting against it. So this is very much inspired by your rejection of respectability politics.
MELINA ABDULLAH: I think that we’ve been lured — especially since the Black Power movement, Black folks have been lured into this idea that we should be asking the system that oppresses us for our freedom. And I think that’s the most ridiculous tactic of all time. You know, Frederick Douglass said “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.” So it’s really important to remember that the system is not going to give a shit. We got to demand it. And one of the things I love about you is — still, sometimes you got to play the system, right? So we would trot you out, but I think you’d given your cover away. We would trot you out when we needed somebody who seemed respectable. Here’s a Roy P. Crocker professor of law at USC. And you would co-sign the stuff that we said, and then it would seem legitimate.
But our approach has always been that we reject respectability politics, and we disrupt spaces of white supremacy. And this is uncomfortable to a lot of people, even Black people. You will hear Black folks saying, “Yes, I believe in Black Lives Matter. I believe in what they say. I just don’t agree with their tactics.” We knew in our spirits that we had to do things this way. Because the approach of asking a system for our freedom — we knew it doesn’t make common sense. But we still have mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers. My mother still cringes when she hears me cuss. And so one of the things that legitimized it for us, that made us feel okay in what we were doing — because there was a moment in Black Lives Matter where I believe white supremacy really tried to manipulate the “good Negros” against the “bad Negros,” which is an age-old tactic, which is what you’re writing about, right? It’s an age-old tactic. What they try to do is get to a lot of the pastors who have their own patriarchal bullshit and weren’t happy with the fact that many of us were women in leadership, many of us were younger in leadership. Many of us were queer or trans. They didn’t like any of that. Right? And so it was easy to manipulate them. It was easy for systems of white supremacy to appeal to egos and appeal to divisions within the Black community. Appeal to notions of “good negros” and “bad negros.” And some of the “good negros” wanted those strokes on the head, wanted that access to white power, right? And so, early on, maybe in the first three years, there was some of that manipulation happening. And, you know, as strident as we were in saying, “You know what? No. We’re just gonna shut shit down,” internally, there was still the “but I want my mama to not be ashamed at what I’m saying.”
JODY ARMOUR: Let me just tell you how vividly I remember that and how much I got a cosign on having observed that firsthand. Because, like you said, I was kind of the academic, you know, the professor of law. So I was supposed to be out a little bit outside the fray and could observe things a little more impartially, even though you know where my heart really was. But I was able to observe it impartially when it came to internecine intracommunity stuff. And I saw a lot of traditional Civil Rights-era people dumping on BLM people, because they didn’t like the style, the methodology. The disruption. I thought that it took a lot — because you do love your community, it took a lot for you to withstand those criticisms coming from people that you do respect, because they fought an important fight, too, in the Civil Rights era. They just didn’t understand how that fight had changed today.
MELINA ABDULLAH: Right? There was a whole article that came out in the Washington Post, about how, during the Civil Rights era, they dressed up in suits and prayed in front of their oppressors. And we should take a cue from that. But here’s what made me feel no shame in what we were doing. I believe it was 2016, might have been 2017. So we weren’t going to stop, but there just was this pang of guilt almost. John Lewis came to Los Angeles. And he spent almost two days with us. It was actually a formerly incarcerated activist that introduced us and got us to spend this time together with John Lewis. And what John Lewis said to us — said to me; this was one-on-one. He said, “Do not let them stop you. Do not let them make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing.” He was like, “They’re mad that you’re shutting down freeways. What do they think happened with the March on Edmund Pettus Bridge, you think no traffic stopped? You’re using the exact same tactics that we used.” But they’ve sanitized the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. They’re trying to make us feel guilty for doing things that are arrestable. Martin Luther King went to jail 40 times. So I got 34 more to go! Not that I want to catch up, but I’m just saying we’ve become the Ns of the movement. What this theory really challenges folks to say is, no, it’s not the ones who are closest to white power that are most legitimate. It’s the ones who are closest to the oppression, the most willing to be assailed, who are the most legitimate. And so for me, John Lewis’ words…I was like, they can’t say nothing to John Lewis. If he says we doing good, we doing good. And so forget everybody else. My mother has since come around. She still doesn’t like that I cuss. But she will get down with everybody of her generation, about what BLM is doing and why we have to utilize this tactic of disruption. And so as we walk through your book, again, during class, I really kind of want to — you know how it takes more than one read — I want to think about it in movement terms as well, because I’ve been processing how it also applies to the movement.
JODY ARMOUR: Yeah. I’m still distilling [my thoughts]. I got pretty far in the book, but let me try to give you a couple connections. Number one: I want America to be held responsible for the plight of Black America. Because they are responsible for the plight of Black America; America more generally. So I want to make sure that that is something that America — we as collective actors; as a collective social actor — America takes responsibility for the criminogenic conditions of poverty and inequality that’s on crime, and, therefore, land Black folk disproportionately in jails and prisons. But what I see is a move that’s made by people inside and outside the Black community especially, but all over the place when we get into this discussion of America’s accountability for poverty in Black America, and for crime in Black America, is that people will say, “Well, no, when somebody does something morally wrong, when they make a wicked bad choice, then that choice breaks the causal chain, between America’s criminogenic social conditions, those macro-level social facts, and the particular criminal acts that Black people go out and do.” And so those people would say, “From our perspective, from that politics of respectability perspective, you can’t call mass incarceration the new Jim Crow because the old Jim Crow was about innocent Negros suffering social oppression. Mass incarceration is about generally guilty Blacks” — we’re talking about Black people; I’m focusing on them — on us right now — disproportionately bearing the brunt of the criminal justice system. You’re talking about guilty people, typically, who often have committed violent acts. And so these people coming from that perspective, are gonna say, “Oh, that that means they’re not victims of social oppression. They’re victims of self-destruction. They’re not innocent victims of social pressure. You can’t compare Martin, Medgar and Rosa over here to a gangbanger and a drug dealer, and, you know, some other criminal over here, because these people are engaged in self-destruction; these people are suffering social oppression.” And so one of the things I want to make clear is that America’s responsible also for the gangbangers. There’s gonna be social oppression in self-destruction. When you concentrate people in criminogenic conditions, then that is social oppression in the voluntary choices — that look like voluntary choice, but when all you’ve got is bad choices, all you’re gonna make is bad choices. So that’s one of the things I’m trying to get at: make America acknowledge its responsibility, but knowing that it has a number of philosophical and legal arguments that it tries to use to evade responsibility, and I’m trying to smoke them out and reject all those kinds of excuses and cop outs.
MELINA ABDULLAH: So I had a really, really important conversation with my daughter. I want to first ask you, have you ever read the Quran?
JODY ARMOUR: No, no. I hate to admit it.
MELINA ABDULLAH: So you should, because the argument that you’re making is actually an Islamic argument. That until society absolves itself of guilt, then the individual is not guilty. So if someone steals something because they’re hungry, because they have a need; if someone joins a gang which functions as family because there was no nurturing of familial environments; if someone commits whatever act, society has to prove that it is innocent in that act, that it played no role in how that person committed that act. So in Islam, the there is very, very rarely individual guilt. It’s societal guilt. So then society has to go back and fix those things. If you’re reading the Quran correctly — I’m not saying that every Muslim country employs it this way, but it’s really important. It’s a really deep theory. My daughter Thandiwe is a much more devout Muslim than I am, and we had a really important conversation about that, and how that related to what you’re saying.
JODY ARMOUR: What I love about that, Melina, is it helps us look at things that way, when we look at things from the societal standpoint; when we’re able to focus our attention on the basic social structure and the injustice of the basic social structure. That’s what Rawls talks about in his theory of justice. You know, he says, “Justice is a virtue of social institutions and structures.” And so you ask yourself, Is there tolerable social inequality in our basic social structure? Or is the basic social structure characterized by intolerable, savage social inequality? If it is, and you’re focusing your attention on that, then that’s kind of a Gestalt shift. You’ve foregrounded what’s usually in the background — the basic social structure — and you’ve taken what we usually put in the foreground, which is [a] particular person went out and looted that store by breaking the window and grabbing a bag and running. If we focus just on that, okay, we’re not focusing on the structure; we’re focusing on the act and that person’s subjective culpability and their mens rea, and all the stuff I talked about in the book. If we zero our attention in on that, we’re gonna forget all about the basic distribution of wealth and power in society, how unequal it is, and the basic social structure. Now but if we keep that focus on that, we’ll look at that act of looting, not as something wicked, but as at least morally neutral, if not justified. Perhaps justified in a big picture. You’re gonna look at property differently. You know, Marx famously said, “property itself is theft.” As a property owner, it makes me a little uncomfortable to think about things that way. But I recognize the truth. And I recognize there’s a lot of truth in the fact that in a casino economy built on exploitation, I am benefiting from the exploitation of others, and I gotta acknowledge that going in. Yes, once we are able to bring the basic social structure into the foreground, take the individual criminal acts of particular individual culprits, and put them in the background, and then say, “Make this basic structure just or you don’t have any standing to judge anybody, society. You can’t tell people ‘don’t care about society,’ when you don’t care about them.” There has to be basic reciprocity in the basic social structure, and if it’s not there, then there’s no civic obligation. You know, it’s simple as that.
MELINA ABDULLAH: Right. And it’s why we say “reimagine public safety,” right? Because we have to load up on the front end. It just makes sense. So then we can also get to the intention of things. When they try to blame people for their own conditions, what’s really happening? If we go down the rabbit hole of trying to justify our lives, trying to present ourselves as clean, we’ll never win. We’ll never win. You know, the rule on social media is “don’t read the comments,” right? But sometimes I violate the rule and read the comments. And people say ridiculous stuff. Like, “Why didn’t Jacob Blake not get in the car? He should have followed the police’s orders, and then he’d be all right.” If you read the comments about the murder of Black people at the hands of the state, or the salt on Black people at the hands of the state, white supremacists always make up a reason to legitimize that assault. And so then we get down this rabbit hole of saying, well, “Keith Bursey didn’t have an obligation to get out the car. Kenneth Ross Jr. didn’t have an obligation to not be walking down the street. Nobody has an obligation to not have a criminal past. What are you talking about?” And then we get into these things. What’s really happening is white supremacy is trying to maintain itself, right? And we’ll never win that argument. So it’s really important — because then they’ll just be individual arguments; 1100 individual arguments every year. And so it’s really important that we think about — and this is why we use Robin Kelley’s book in my class, right — that we step back and have a hawk’s-eye view. That we look at the world that we live in, and say, “Don’t just take an assessment of what is, but imagine what can be.”
So the reimagining of public safety is about saying — everybody knows this, and if they don’t believe us, they can just Google it — like 94% of 911 calls are not for real emergencies. They’re for bullshit. People are calling 911 because their neighbor’s car is parked in their driveway. And what happens out of that is there’s this false narrative that we need police to solve our problems. We don’t. What if we took that money and invested it on the front end? What if we made sure that people who were self-medicating with drugs had rehabilitation and ongoing mental health maintenance, because what are they self-medicating for? What’s the underlying problem? We know virtually all youth crime would end if we had quality after-school programs from three to seven p.m. And this isn’t radicals telling us this; this is like the RAND Corporation doing studies, which is not a bastion of liberalism, even. And so if we invest on the front end, then we have this kind of completely reimagined world where we can begin to topple not just mass incarceration, but all of these interlocking systems: policing, mass incarceration, medical racism, economic oppression. When we think about what’s happening under the pandemic, all of these things can be addressed by starting with, “What kind of world do we want to live in? And how do we invest our resources to make it so?”
JODY ARMOUR: You brought up Jacob Blake a couple times. And I want us to give a moment’s reflection in this regard. I’ve talked a number of times about the Jacob Blake case when it’s come up in media engagements. But it’s hard for me to talk about, because I have three sons. And I’ve had three sons in the car with me when tense relationships between me and the police happen. And so I have a lot of what-ifs and close call memories. And this is the other way that the N word in my title figures in, in these cases at the front end when it comes to police brutality, as well as at the back end when it comes to sentencing and locking people away in the way that we do, in draconian ways. At the front end, when it comes to police, one of the reasons I use the N word is: there’s no other word in the English language that more otherizes its referent. That more monsterizes; demonizes; that really, literally more otherizes and distances itself from its referent. And that means you don’t have any empathy, sympathy, care, or concern for anybody that you otherize like that; anyone that you niggerize like that. And you’d have to niggerize a man to go up on him, know he’s a father; know he has some kids in his car and treat him like that. You can’t have any human feeling for that individual.
It’s kind of like what happened in Katrina. When you had the water coming up to the necks of those Black people in the Ninth Ward after, what — day 1, 2, 3 — 4 days in, Sean Penn’s running up, handing out fresh water because FEMA still couldn’t get their act together, because there was no empathy, sympathy, care and concern for those Black lives. Compare that response to the response after 911 when those planes ran into those buildings. There was a panic moment for those victims, and they just got it done, because, you know, we had care and concern. But those Black lives in the Ninth Ward didn’t matter. And I have some studies in my book that talk about unconscious empathy bias and mirror neurons and all of that [and] make it look pretty grim. I mean, in some ways, Melina, we all we got. Black folks got to realize that on a deep neural level — and we need a lot of allies, and we need them to help us as much as possible — but at the end of the day, we got to recognize that as well. So that’s one of the other reasons for the N word.
But I don’t want this to just hit on this grim note, because there’s a lot of grimness out here. I want to move to something a little more positive, even though it’s sad too. But I saw some postings of the king of Wakanda. I was thinking about him passing away and doing all that acting with colon cancer and holding it together. I was thinking about the impact he had on Black kids I saw at the time when the movie came out. [The] Black kids were so great to see, because we talked a lot about the burdens of Blackness — as we must, because a lot of people don’t believe those burdens are there. You do poll after poll. And even as late as 2019, you have 56% of white people saying that Black people don’t experience racial discrimination in America. What? So we have to keep on talking to people about the burdens of Blackness so we we’re all even in the same social reality [and] on the same page. But we don’t talk enough about the blessings of Blackness. And you know, Wakanda was about the blessings of Blackness, and recognizing that there’s a second vision that comes with Blackness; that dual consciousness gives you a depth perception; a nuanced way of looking at the world from two perspectives simultaneously that a lot of others don’t have. And so why don’t we celebrate more often? I hope that we can do so more often so that I can see more of our kids experiencing the joy that I saw them experiencing a couple years ago, when my man was holding it down. You actually met and spent time with him. Can you share some reflections? Pour libations to the brother who’s no longer with us?
MELINA ABDULLAH: Yeah, actually, we just poured libation in his name. I’m a Black Lives Matter member-only meeting right now. We always open in libation. We poured in libation in Chadwick Boseman’s name. There’s a lot of pain and grief that we deal with, and I didn’t expect his death to hit me the way that it did. Because I don’t know him well. I only met him one time. And he spent some time talking with us. He went to Howard; I went to Howard. When they say he was only 43. I did not know he was 43. I thought he was, like, 35.
JODY ARMOUR: Black don’t crack.
MELINA ABDULLAH: There was the Chadwick Boseman piece of it, that he was just a very humble and kind — I wouldn’t call them warm, but humble and kind and inquisitive around the children. Just very open and generous, completely generous with his time. We met him right after Black Panther came out, maybe a month later. And I was like, everybody wants him; we got to let him go. But he was fine with it. And so I thought that was wonderful. As I examined why I was crying…and I spoke yesterday at Bruce’s Beach. We had a protest at Bruce’s Beach yesterday. And that’s the beach [by] Manhattan Beach that the Black family owned and had stolen from them.
JODY ARMOUR: Tell them the story of that.
MELINA ABDULLAH: So in the 1920s, Willa Bruce and her husband had this vision of creating a Black leisure space. And we have to remember: Manhattan Beach was not what it is now. But she had this vision of buying this land, beachfront land. She built this hotel and restaurant and bar and dance hall. And it was the spot. And then Black folks started also buying little plots of land around there. And then as white folks decided they wanted Manhattan Beach for themselves, they used every tool in their toolbox to get rid of the Black folks. They condemned properties, they used eminent domain. They didn’t have a lawyer like you, Jody, to come and do the work. They did hire some lawyers. But they weren’t able to preserve Bruce’s Beach. Basically, what they did is condemned the property, seized the land through eminent domain, and said that they needed a park, even though they had this huge lot further down in Manhattan Beach that had already been designated for a park. And so there’s a demand by the very few Black folks — less than 1% Black in Manhattan Beach now — to pay restitution and reparations to the Bruce family for taking their land.
So we were there. There were about 100 of us out, maybe a little more, who started with making demands in front of City Hall, then marched down to Bruce’s Beach, held space, did some art there, we had a band there. And I was asked to speak and as I was asked to speak…I’m pretty good at holding my emotions in check. And Chadwick Boseman just kind of overcame me. I started crying. And as I processed it, and continue to process it, it was the theft of Black freedom. I know that there was critiques of the movie. The CIA will never partner with Black people. That’s never gonna be who we need to run to.
But when we think about what Wakanda represented — and if you remember, just those few weeks after the movie came out, Black people who you didn’t know would greet each other like this. The Black man at Costco was going, “Come to my line, my queen.” White people are looking at us, like, what’s going on? I’m trying to bring Wakanda to life in real life. And it was the theft of that. Then I thought about my son. My youngest child is a 10-year-old boy. And for the last three years, he has dressed up in this Black Panther jumpsuit, which is now getting too small for him, every single day. Virtually every single day. And he goes in the backyard, and he recites words to himself, and he grabs sticks and practices his fighting skills. My son’s name is Amen. I think about what the death of King T’Challa means to my son. There’s a term that I don’t usually like: “Black boy joy.” But it is the theft of Black boy joy. And I know nobody killed Chadwick Boseman. He had cancer. But it’s why it’s so heartbreaking to so many of us, because we can’t even hold on to that. There’s people whose names I put in the bottom of my shoe, because my family is from Texas and Louisiana and it means something. There’s people — including sometimes the current occupant of the White House — whose name I will put in the bottom of my shoe. Why did it have to be Chadwick Boseman? And so those are the things that I think we think about. I know you’re also the father of sons, and I don’t want to over-genderize it. What Monique Morris talks about is the adultification of our children. She talks about it in terms of girls, but we see it in terms of Trayvon, in terms of AJ Weber, in terms of, you know, so many others; Tamir Rice, who was a 12-year-old little boy. I think it’s heartbreaking, because it unfair and it continues to adultify us.
JODY ARMOUR: I think that all that is absolutely spot-on. I’m gonna cut to one more thing I want to get your response to. In the prologue to my book, written over a year ago, I said that there are two people — two politicians — very closely associated with racialized mass incarceration that should not be the models on which we base progressive prosecutors, that we should not tell progressive prosecutors to model themselves on in any way. One of them was Kamala Harris, in the prologue, and the other was Joe Biden. I said in the prologue, “Joe Biden is the architect of mass incarceration,” because he is one of the architects of mass incarceration. Kamala Harris, you know, has supported truancy lockups for parents of kids who don’t attend school, and laughed in the face of a reporter when they brought up marijuana legalization, even though Blacks bear the brunt of unfair marijuana enforcement laws at a grossly disproportionate rate; and never going after corrupt prosecutors as an AG, and other things I talked about specifically in the prologue. And here we are now with those two at the top of the Democratic ticket. And at the same time, we’re having marches in the streets about mass incarceration, and police brutality and the criminal justice system run amok, and law enforcement support being at the being a big part of the problem, not the only, but a big part. So what does that say about where our politics are? Because now I want you to put on your political theorist’s hat, if you would, Melina. I remember when we were sitting together at PolyCon, and I heard on the stage that there were — what is the percentage of Black women who have PhDs in political science?
MELINA ABDULLAH: I don’t know, but it’s very few of us.
JODY ARMOUR: It was such a small number.
MELINA ABDULLAH: Yeah, it was, like 1% or 2%.
JODY ARMOUR: It was shockingly miniscule. But I want to get your take as a political scientist. I know BLM doesn’t support any particular politicians or anything; I understand that. But as a broad strategic matter, when it comes to trying to enter the political process and advocate for change. When people say, “don’t march, don’t protest, don’t riot, just vote.” And then we see a couple days ago that the California legislature is putting — all these bills that came up during the George Floyd marches that were supposed to reform police? They are letting them die now. So it doesn’t look like those votes have translated into a change in policy at the Sacramento level. So it does this mean that those of us who care about criminal justice issues in the Black community are just going to have to grin and bear it? Accept this as the lesser of available evils? Or is it instead of the evil of lessers? Is there something basically wrong with the choices that the process is giving us?
MELINA ABDULLAH: There’s an idea that has been presented to us that the way to move forward is to go from protest to politics. In fact, Katherine Tate has a book of that name: From Protest to Politics. The idea that Black people are fighting for inclusion into the system. I think that what that approach neglects is that many of us recognize that the system was intentionally and deliberately designed to produce the outcomes that it does. You know, Manning Marable says that in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. And so this is not a broken system. This is a system that’s working exactly as it was intended. And so the idea that we should be only utilizing electoral politics and formal governmental avenues as a solution to our oppression is really, really problematic, and really neglects the intentionality of that system.
I also want to be clear, I do believe in voting. I’m not one of these revolutionaries who says don’t vote. I believe in voting, even if it’s only because we want to honor the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer. Even if you think it’s just an exercise, so what? She’s worth it. Go vote. My grandmother’s worth it. Go vote. So I absolutely believe in voting. And I believe in voting all the way down the ballot, including getting rid of this trash District Attorney, one of the most corrupt District Attorneys in the country, who has signed off on the murder of 618 people at the hands of police since she’s been in office. We have to vote out Jackie Lacey. There’s opportunities in November to also usher in a reimagining, there’s a Measure J, which is “Reimagine LA,” which will invest do front-end investment on resources for communities. So voting doesn’t just mean voting for either Biden or Trump. My mother always gets mad at me when I say that there is violent white supremacy, as we see embodied by Donald Trump. But there’s also liberal white supremacy, as we see embodied by people like Eric Garcetti. I would say Biden’s not even a liberal.
Here’s my political science hat. Barack Obama, who was a moderate — anybody who reads his book The Audacity of Hope will hear him say it. I know we like to say that he was a second coming of Malcolm X. He was not. He was a moderate. But he was still seen as too left for white voters. They gave us Joe Biden as a nod to white racists. They were saying Barack Obama can’t get the white vote by himself. And so Biden, who is as far right in the Democratic Party as you can get, was actually selected as a counterbalance to Barack Obama. So Biden isn’t even a liberal white supremacist. He represents the white supremacy that also lives in the Democratic Party.
The last thing is this: we don’t get freedom by voting ourselves into it. No oppressed people have ever voted themselves into freedom. We have to vote, but that’s not going to secure our freedom. Being in the streets is what will secure our freedom. Creating pressure; issuing demand is what will secure our freedom. There are tangible ways in which we can engage. So we need people to be out in front of Jackie Lacey’s office with us every Wednesday at three o’clock. And we also still have a few legislative items that are moving. The one that I’ll lift up for this audience that we need immediate action on because the legislative cycle closes tomorrow, is SB 731. That’s the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act. What that bill will do is the very bare minimum we could do for justice. It says that police who kill our people or committed serious acts of misconduct should have their badges, guns and jobs snatched. They should at least not get to be police anymore. The reason it’s given the name the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act is because Kenneth Ross, when he was murdered at Raleigh Park, by Sergeant Michael Robbins of the Gardena Police Department, Michael Robbins had already shot three other people. If his badge had been snatched after he shot the first person, Kenneth, this 25-year-old father, wonderful person, beloved by his mother and five siblings, would still be alive. Jesse Romero, 14 years old, killed in Boyle Heights. His killer, LAPD officer Eden Medina, who is now with Rampart Division. Watch out for him. 12 days before he killed this 14-year-old boy, he had killed Omar Gonzalez. And so it’s really important that we pass SB 731. Here’s one thing people can do right now, is called the Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and tell him to pass SB 731 and then call your own legislators and tell them to vote yes on SB 731. And I know his number by heart because I call him every day. Anthony Rendon’s number is 916-319-2063. So that’s an easy thing that you can do right now. It won’t take you longer than 30 seconds, because the voicemail won’t go longer than 30 seconds.
JODY ARMOUR: SB 731. All right. Let’s go to Q&A. Tom?
TOM LUTZ: Milena, you mentioned the campaign to get restitution for the Bruce family. And Jody, you mentioned America taking responsibility for the plight of Black people. And Jean Jones asks: “The movement of People’s Party had a convention today. What seemed to be missing from their platform was reparations for descendants of the enslaved Africans. What is each of your positions on this issue?
MELINA ABDULLAH: Well, I would love to hear the legal analysis of reparations.
JODY ARMOUR: Yes. I had a chapter I was going to put in the book about this. And it was just getting too big. But I’ve thought a lot about this. And when it comes to reparations, I think one of the best cases for reparations that is not discussed — there are a lot of good cases for reparations that are discussed. I don’t have much to add to that literature. But in this chapter that I’ve researched, it was jaw-dropping. I was not prepared for this. When I got here in LA, in ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, Gary Webb had dropped an article in the Mercury News, San Jose Mercury Press, titled “Dark Alliance,” in which he described the CIA contra connection in Nicaragua. And how the CIA was complicit. I’m not talking about conspiracy; they kept saying there’s no evidence of conspiracy. Nobody’s talking about conspiracy; we’re talking about complicity. They had a little loophole that they kept jumping in and they’d always set in motion.
JODY ARMOUR: So law professor: explain the difference between conspiracy and complicity.
There’s a difference between conspiracy and complicity. Conspiracy requires an agreement, an understanding. We have a meeting of minds; we have an agreement that we’re going to engage in some criminal enterprise. So if the police are chasing you in your car, you come up my street on Kenway, and you call me before you get to Kenway, and you say, “when I get up to Kenway, I want you to pull your car out into the street so that the police can’t follow me. I’ll get by and you’ll get in their way.” That’s a conspiracy. And now, let’s say that I don’t talk to anybody. I just see on the TV that the police are chasing this car, and I see they’re coming up my street, and I don’t talk to the driver at all. All I do is pull my car out after they go by and the police can’t get by. I’ve helped them; I’ve aided and abetted them. I’ve facilitated their getaway, but I have no conspiracy. All I have to do is help you in your criminal enterprise to be complicit to be an accomplice. I don’t have to agree with you.
And so that was always their loophole. They knew that they were facilitating drug transactions, pushing cocaine from Colombia through Nicaragua to LA. I’ve had Rick Ross sitting right here in this room talking to my class about how he was making up to $6 million a day running drugs as a way for Reagan to get around the Boland Amendment and go ahead and try to get the communists out of Nicaragua and use this as his foreign policy tool. But basically, the Black community was sacrificed for his foreign policy objectives. That’s what Gary Webb exposed in “Dark Alliances,” and the CIA admitted it in 1999, after Maxine Waters had a town hall meeting here in Watts, in which you have the guy come from the safe confines of Langley, the sitting director, to a mad crowd of people saying, “What’s this complicity between the CIA and drugs coming into LA?” And he said, “Well, we’ll get to the bottom of it.” And then they let out a report quietly a couple years later, admitting that they had all these operatives that were accomplices.
And so, as an accomplice, you are actually treated just like the perpetrator. As an accomplice, you are just like the drug dealers. You are guilty for exactly the same crime, US government, so you can’t prosecute your own accomplices. And you also have to go out here and make good on all the damage you caused to promote foreign policy. Yeah, you may have thought you did it for a justified reason. You might say, “oh, getting Communism out of South America was so important that it was worth sacrificing some American interests, so we had to sacrifice some Black neighborhoods to get the communists out of South America.” Okay, even if you buy that argument, which I don’t — but let’s say you buy that argument. Still, you have to then make reparations, you have to compensate those whose interests you sacrifice as the means of your own salvation. That’s a basic principle of law is called Vincent V. Lake Erie. When you deliberately appropriate another person’s welfare as a means of your own salvation, you have a legal obligation to avoid unjust enrichment to compensate them, to take care of them. So hell yeah, I’m for reparations just on that ground alone.
MELINA ABDULLAH: So yes, I’m for reparations. Absolutely. And the argument has always been that this country doesn’t have the money to pay reparations. Look at what they just did. They, all of a sudden, pulled trillions of dollars out of they ass, right? All of a sudden, they got trillions of dollars. And they want working-class people to be celebrating these little 1200-dollar checks that some people got; I didn’t get no check. But they want working-class people to be celebrating these 1200-dollar checks, when most of the money went to bail out companies that have been exploiting us. And so it’s really important to remember that they have money for what they want to have money for. Black people are owed reparations, point blank, period. We’re owed reparations.
Here’s the basic idea. Reparations is the idea that for generations, our folks have not only been forced to work for free — so not just this idea of working for free. It’s the dehumanization of chattel slavery, and it’s the extension of that dehumanization beyond 1865. And so here’s how I make people understand it. If somebody stole your mama’s ring, you would want the ring back, your mother would want the ring back, because then the argument becomes time. Your mother would want the ring back. Then your mother dies. Don’t you still want your mother’s ring back? Then the person who stole the ring dies, but their child is wearing the ring. The child has used the ring as collateral to get more wealth and riches. Don’t you still want that ring back? Even if generations and generations go on and on, the basis of the wealth that that that thief now has comes from you, and your family is owed it. That’s what reparations is. We are owed reparations. We are owed it. You’re not giving us anything. We are owed it. Black people are owed reparations, point blank.
JODY ARMOUR: What that gets us back to again is the macro-level picture. We get to the basic structure — reciprocity, fairness, which they don’t want to talk about. They too often really don’t want to talk about the fairness of the basic social arrangement that we’re all involved in, and whether that is intolerably unjust or not.
TOM LUTZ: This question comes from Desmond Tutu’s book. The question is: “How do we get to truth and reconciliation?” And I might guess from what you both just said is that reparations would be a part of getting to truth and reconciliation. But is that phrase, that idea, important to either of you? The idea of truth and reconciliation?
MELINA ABDULLAH: Truth and reconciliation with who? Right? We don’t want to reconcile with some folks, right, and some entities, and some institutions. So that’s what I’d ask: truth and reconciliation with whom?
JODY ARMOUR: I would say that what the US should be doing is taking an approach to the Black community like it took to many European Communities after the Second World War, under the Marshall Plan. Remember the Marshall Plan? They said, “we’re gonna build up what blew up. We’re gonna build it back up.” And we committed all these resources because they saw they needed to target those resources at those communities to build them up if there was if they were really going to give them a chance to get on their feet economically, and avoid falling back into demagoguery of the kind that led to the Second World War, and the First. So a kind of Marshall Plan, if you will, to the Black community, or some kind of reparations. You know, we can’t even come to an agreement on simple kinds of reparations.
The only reason I’m talking to you now is because of a small program that was reparative in a small way. It’s called A Better Chance, and it’s a program that takes kids out of inner-city neighborhoods when they go into high school and puts them in boarding schools so that they’ll have a better chance to go into college. I went to Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant’s high school. We had 10 of us staying in a house with house directors and tutors and all that. That was a Great Society program, in other words, that intervened and said, “We’re going to take the problems of some of these poor, marginalized neighborhoods seriously, and give them some resources at least.” We don’t even make gestures in that way anymore. My program is still there, but it’s not big enough to really make a real intervention. So what I’m guess we’d be talking about on a more intermediate scale, if we’re not talking about full-blown reparations — which I support, of course — but a more intermediate scale, is cranked back up the marginal tax, general tax rates to where they were in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the country was very prosperous, and it was up there at 70/80/90%. Most people weren’t paying 90%, because they were finding ways to get it down. But it was much higher. We were engaging more Great Society kinds of programs. But we gotta do that with much more commitment, and many more resources. And just as Melina said, we found the resources. She put it rightly, where they found a way to pull it out of their ass when they wanted to, for their corporate donors.
TOM LUTZ: K. Edward Copeland said, “I hear about protests, disruption, politics, inclusion, but I don’t hear anything about economic power, and how it can be leveraged for freedom.”
JODY ARMOUR: I’m gonna defer to Melina on this right now, because she has been doing some fabulous work on economic justice and recognizing the imperative of economic justice.
MELINA ABDULLAH: So, if you haven’t heard, I would encourage you to connect a little bit more deeply. From day one, Black Lives Matter has understood the relationship between racial and economic oppression. We’ve done everything from we have a whole way that we practice using our economic power. So we have a website called BlackXMas.org that pulls people away from the consumerism of the holidays, and talks about using your dollars intentionally, first to Build Black. We don’t need all this stuff we buy, right? If you got to give gifts to people, give donations to Black-led organizations in their names. So that’s Build Black. We have Buy Black, if you got to buy them something. We have a whole list of Black-owned businesses that contribute to the Black community. So I want to be very clear: all skin folk ain’t kinfolk. And just because it’s Black-owned business doesn’t mean that it’s a positive for our community. So we list Black-owned businesses like Simply Wholesome, like My Two Cents. There’s a Black-owned skateboard company, a social-justice-minded young brother owns a skateboard company — skateboards and snowboards — called Rad Black Kids. Buy your skateboard from there. Build Black, Buy Black, Bank Black. So what does it mean if your money is being held by Wells Fargo, which helps to finance the Dakota Access Pipeline? How can you be intentional about where you house your money as well?
But what I think Jody is referencing is this work that we’re leading around the country, but especially here in Los Angeles, called the People’s Budget. So for the last six years, we’ve been interrogating the budget that the liberal white supremacist, as I named him, Eric Garcetti, rolls out every year. Every year, Los Angeles spends upwards of 50% of its general fund on LAPD. And we don’t think that’s a good use of funds. And this year, we actually got a whole coalition of folks together. And we said, “This isn’t just a problem in terms of prioritization of resources.” What the real impetus for it [was]: in the midst of the pandemic, we wrote a letter to Eric Garcetti that was signed by virtually every Black organization in the county. 55 Black-led organizations, ranging from Africa Town Coalition, to the NAACP, sign on to this letter, basically saying that we need resources in the Black community to address the health pandemic and the economic fallout. After we sent the letter, this Mayor had the nerve to propose an increase to LAPD spending. 54% of the city’s general fund was proposed to go to police at a time when we need it for health and economics, and also at a time when crime was plummeting in the city. And so we were outraged. We put out a couple of Tweets and then this flock of organizations was like, “We want to get down with y’all.” So we built this thing called the People’s Budget. You can find more information at peoplesbudgetla.com. Very quickly, one of the things that we did is engage in a participatory budgeting process where we asked people, “Where would you want your money to be spent?” This is all before the murder of George Floyd. The initial set of responses, which was more than 10,000 Angelenos responding, was that they wanted to spend just 5.4% of the city’s general fund on police. After George Floyd was killed, which was a couple weeks later, that number plummeted to just 1.6% of the city’s general fund on police, traffic enforcement and prosecutions combined. You can find all of this information again on peoplesbudgetla.com. We were successful in that effort and getting $250 million cut from the LAPD budget. We were successful in getting councilmember Herb Wesson to get a motion passed that says police will not be the responders for nonviolent emergency calls. And then there’s a second motion that Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Mike Bonin are working on that will remove police from traffic stops. And so all of that work is around economics. So I encourage the question-asker to please look up that work.
TOM LUTZ: I thought maybe we can finish with this question, which is from Justin Kenneville. It was directed to Melina but it’s for both of you, because you both are teachers. You mentioned Mr. Richard Navies, and how important he was. And the question is: “What role do you think teachers need to focus on as we return to school, in the midst of a medical pandemic and this powerful political moment?”
MELINA ABDULLAH: I think we need to ground ourselves in Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies is about really building out subject area and correcting the record, but it’s also about the way that we teach. It’s about making sure that we center our students’ experiences and recognize that the knowledge that is really white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, [and] heteronormative in nature, right, the idea that all knowledge comes from reading books written by people with three letters behind their names is problematic. That our students come into the classroom with a body of knowledge that comes from their grandmothers; that comes from their experiences. And so there’s a pedagogy that comes with that. There is also a reason that we do the work that we do; that all of the work that we do in the classroom needs to be in the classroom. And Jody has made such a tremendous contribution with this book. [It] has to be for the liberation of our people. It can’t be so that other professors read your book. It has to be that it awakens something; that it enlivens something, and contributes to us getting further down the road to freedom. Jody, this is just such a gift to the world, such a contribution, such an honoring of your father, and all of the people who’ve walked before us. So I’m just grateful that I get to call you my friend, and that I get to use this book for my class. And that it can be a way of awakening everybody who reads it. So thank you for the freedom that will come as a result of us engaging with this book.
JODY ARMOUR: Thank you, Melina. I’ll first go to the first statement you made about your approach to teaching. Yes — everything you say, yes. You have to make the classroom relevant to the real world. You have to bring the real world into the classroom to make the classroom relevant to the real world. And students want a relevant classroom. They don’t want any irrelevant classroom. It just has to come in. I’ve had two people who wrote early intros to the book. The foreword by Larry Krasner, and the introduction by Melina Abdullah. I really felt strongly about having Larry Krasner, as one of the most iconic progressive prosecutors out there, to handle the legal end of things. The political, philosophical, though — the cultural end — it’s really coming from Melina. You have exposed me to Black Lives Matter and brought me in, helped me participate in the world-changing work that you and the organization are participating in and making happen. Man, I don’t want to start tearing up here thinking about putting you and my dad together. I’m going to stop right there and go back to you, Tom, before I start choking up.
TOM LUTZ: Thank you both so much for this. I’m also honored to be able to call you my friend, Jody, thank you so much. And Melina, thank you so much for this fantastic conversation.
JODY ARMOUR: I’m gonna just say this. I forgot one thing that I should have kept in the protocol here. I need to introduce somebody. My dear friend, Chairman of the Board of LARB; Los Angeles Review of Books, Albert Litewka. Albert and Tom believed in this book from the beginning. And I really just can’t express my appreciation enough for the support. You know, this is an edgy project. This is not a project for the faint of heart. I tell my students all the time: “You got to write and live with your head in the lion’s mouth.” Well, you published with your head in the lion’s mouth on this one. I think it was a worthwhile risk. I think it turned out cost justified. But it was a risk. And I appreciate you taking that risk. So I want to turn it over now to Albert Litewka, Chairman of the Board LARB.
ALBERT LITEWKA: Thank you very much, Jody. I’m going to take my head out of the lion’s mouth briefly to thank various people that were involved. But first [I’ll] say that when LARB was founded, one of our goals was for it to be a home for important, intelligent discussion on a wide range of subjects, and also for it to be a home in terms of intellectual community. And today’s event really fulfills these goals. You and Melina really delivered today. This was a wonderful discussion of vitally important subjects, and it went far beyond social justice reform — as both of you aptly pointed out, there are so many strands to the subject. We want to thank today’s attendees — we had 400 or more — for tuning in and for your questions, and we encourage you to continue your dialogue on Twitter and other platforms after we sign off. Thanks to Allison Hedge Coke for her sponsorship of this event. Thanks to the LARB team, Irene, Jessica, and Nanda, for organizing and managing it. Thanks to my friend and colleague, Tom Lutz, the founding editor of LARB for his participation. And most importantly, thanks to Jody Armour, and to Melina Abdullah, for your really profound and illuminating discussion of race, social injustice, and the need for social reform, as well as criminal justice system reform. Before signing off, I want to hold up for everyone, again, Jody’s book, N* Theory. This book was published on August the 18th by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s available now to be purchased on the LARB website or at your favorite bookstore, or Amazon or other online outlets. And if you’d like a signed copy of the book — and I do encourage you to want one, you can get it for $20 on the LARB website, using the code ARMOUR8-30. A-R-M-O-U-R, the number eight, dash, thirty. With that, thanks again to Jody and Melina and to all those who were involved, and have a good night.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!