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Cornel West on US protests: The chickens have come home to roost

Activist and scholar talks to Middle East Eye about the Black Lives Matter movement and the roots of neoliberalism that need to be dismantled
By Azad Essa in New York City

Since the killing of George Floyd on 25 May, the United States has been awash with protests.

Rallies and demonstrations have taken place in cities across the country as millions mobilise against police brutality, racial injustice and income inequality.

The rage has even gone global with protests flaring in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Seen as a symbol of resistance, Floyd has been painted on the separation wall in the occupied West Bank. His face, and some of his last words: "I can't breathe," are on a blown-out building in Idlib, Syria.

Statues and monuments of slave traders, imperialists and confederates are being torn down or removed.

The convulsion has prompted some commentators to compare the nature of the Black Lives Matter movement to the vibrant scenes last seen in the late 60s.

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But what does this growing angst mean in the larger story of ending white supremacy and securing a more equitable society for all in America? What are we to make of the gestures of corporate elites towards the Black Lives Matter movement when they continue to profit off the racist make-up of capitalism?

Can we separate America's treatment of Black people internally from its racist foreign policy abroad?  And why are so many people from so many countries enamoured by the Black struggle in the US?

Middle East Eye spoke with Cornel West, an activist and philosopher from Harvard University to understand the possibilities of the movement and its international appeal.

Middle East Eye: The protests against police brutality come during a time of national mourning. A hundred thousand lives - mostly Black and immigrant - taken by Covid-19; tens of millions of people, especially Black Americans, Hispanics, women of colour, unemployed because of the economic shutdown. So is the rage we're seeing on the streets far bigger than the complaints about the police?

Cornel West: Oh, indeed. I think that the fundamental impulse behind the rage is the indictment of elites who are unaccountable. So it has to do with police power and police murder in the Black community. It has to do with Wall Street power and Wall Street crimes in terms of the legalised looting that's been taking place for so long on Wall Street with high levels of wealth inequality flowing therefrom. It has to do with Pentagon power and not just the drones dropped on innocent people all around the world in Yemen and Libya and Pakistan and Afghanistan and other places, but the torture that took place with no accountability whatsoever; and then its presidential power.

So it's a critique of political elites who have been beholden to police power, beholden to Wall Street power, beholden the Pentagon power.

'We've had Black faces in high places for the last 50 years. They've become very much beholden to the same police power, the same Wall Street power, the same Pentagon power, the same presidential power'

- Cornel West

So, the critique, in the end, is one of an empire that is unable to provide accountability of its elites vis-a-viz everyday people. And there's various efforts these days, among a narrow leadership to try to isolate the issue. They want police power over here. They want Wall Street somewhere else. They want Pentagon power somewhere else. And they hardly want to get to presidential power because by presidential power, I'm talking about the ways in which politicians have been beholden to the police power, the Wall Street power and the Pentagon power. 

Once you see that kind of combination taking place, people began to see - 'lo and behold - no wonder I feel powerless. No wonder I feel helpless. No wonder I feel hopeless; that the spillover from the vicious lynching of brother George Floyd now forces me to see the connections between lack of accountability in the police, lack of accountability on Wall Street elite, lack of accountability at the Pentagon elites and a lack of accountability of presidents.'  

And I think this is a very marvellous thing. This coming together. That's one of the reasons why the crowds are so multiracial and multicultural; that they begin to see these connections you see. And I should add too, of course, you know, ecological catastrophe is something that large numbers of people on the street say they're concerned about, and that has to do with lack of accountability as well of corporate elites.

MEE: You have described this moment as an illustration of America as a failed social experiment. Could you explain what you meant by that?

Cornel West:  I think what it meant was that America began as an imperial project vis-a-viz indigenous peoples in the new hemisphere, viz-a-viz Europe and Asia. And it had democratic practices, procedures and possibilities because it was trying to generate some mechanisms of accountability against the backdrop of the stolen land of indigenous peoples, of the enslavement of Africans and the subordination of white workers with no property, and unable to vote.

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And with the patriarchal subjugation of women, and so on, I would even add trans, lesbians and gay people as well. 

So that you get this democratic possibility within an imperial project. America has always been an empire. But there's been anti-imperial elements within it trying to expand these democratic possibilities. Well, what has happened, I think, recently, is the "chickens have come home to roost", which is to say that the deep imperial project tied to predatory capitalism, tied to white supremacy at its centre of male supremacy too, have now created a situation in which the people feel as if there is no possibility of rendering these elites accountable [when it comes to] economic, political, cultural, and so they hit the streets.

This is what happens when reform seems to be impossible. It renders some kind of resistance non-violent or violent, inevitable. This seems to be a fundamental law of social life. And right now, we're seeing the neo-fascist backlash.

BLM New Jersey [Azad Essa/MEE]
Several commentators have noted the diversity of people arriving to protest in cities across the United States  (MEE/Azad Essa)

And I think we're going to see even a more severe clampdown, not just in electoral politics, but we want to see it on the streets given the militarisation of the street. 

'We have to be morally consistent in our critique of US racism, militarism, poverty, as well as materialism'

- Cornel West

People don't like to point out the fact, my brother, that the police regularly kill about 1000 fellow citizens every year; and about one out of four of those are Black folk. 

So you got a lot of non-Black folk getting killed by the police too. We know that the vicious legacy of white supremacy and brutalising Black people has its own distinctive weight.

But the police power deployed in an arbitrary weight really cuts across the citizenry. 

And this is something to keep in mind. I think the sad moment right now is the fundamental question: what do you do if you got a system that basically cannot reform itself. All this talk about reform and police training, but all of this sounds empty. We have heard this over and over again. So right now you're going to see Black neoliberal elite trying to somehow seize this moment and convince folk that they can deliver when more and more people recognise they can't.

It's amazing to see brother Barack Obama out there acting like he's part of the vanguard and struggling against police power when Black Lives Matter emerged under his administration, with his Black attorney general, with his Black homeland security.

But he helped militarise those police departments. He helped generate the levels of poverty when he had bailed out the Wall Street criminals.

And we haven't got to foreign policy, yet in terms of dropping bombs on innocent brothers and sisters in different parts of the world, especially, in the Middle East, and Asia. We haven't even gotten to the killing of innocent Palestinian brothers and sisters with US-supported Israeli Defense Forces. 

What we have to do is to recognise that - that funeral of George Floyd - where those tears are flowing, that they have funerals on the West Bank like that because of US policy [and] US bombs mediated through Israeli Defense Force.

They have funerals like that in Yemen, [with] US support. They got funerals like that in Pakistan, in Afghanistan. They’ve got funerals like that in Mali. They’ve got funerals like that all around the world that the United States is very much playing a disproportionate role in facilitating, if not playing a direct role. So in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr, we have to be morally consistent in our critique of US racism, militarism, poverty, as well as materialism.

There is a spiritual dimension to this thing in terms of people being obsessed with superficial celebrity and fame and money. And so that you know the commitment to human dignity, Black dignity, must be deeper than the commitment to just green money and superficial position and status.

MEE: How does the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters maintain the momentum of this antagonism that they've produced through these protests in the face of attempts to pacify them through these liberal efforts and symbolic offerings? 

Cornel West: There's always the need to resist the cooptation and the pacification. And the aim of most of the politicians and the aim of most of the spokesman is to pacify the people to make police brutality and police murder an isolated issue. So it ends up primarily about police reform, that we all support, pushing reform as long as it can go. But we have to be honest, we got to tell people the truth.

We've been talking about reform for the last 50 years. We've had Black faces in high places for the last 50 years. They've become very much beholden to the same police power, the same wall street power, the same Pentagon power, the same presidential power.

'When people now see the neoliberal spokespersons come forward and act as if they are so militant, and act as if they are so radical, they say: 'hey, we were born at night, but not last night'

- Cornel West

So if we can shatter both the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party, which is one wing of the ruling class in the American empire; and the neo-fascist wing of the ruling class, which is Trump and company, and generate the kind of opposition against both - as a critique - that does mean that we may end up having to vote for certain neoliberal politicians sometimes on the ground, but you tell them the truth: they might be better than neo-fascists, but that's no moral compliment.

That's just an acknowledgment that they are not the source of any serious breakthrough or progress.

They're a holding operation against the fascists because I do believe we have to have an anti-fascist coalition in the country. Right now, we can already see the elites are just salivating to give money to pacify these leaders on the ground, to make sure that it doesn't spill over.

MEE: We have also seen corporations and brands come out with statements supporting Black Lives Matter when they often have dubious labour practices that exploit Black people or persons of colour. And you have warmongers like George Bush and Barack Obama speak out too. How are people meant to discern between the performative and the real when it comes to calls for change?

Cornel West: A moment like the present is one in which it is more difficult for the superficial to actually have weight and gravity. My experience on the ground is that when people now see the politicians and when people now see the neoliberal spokespersons come forward and act as if they are so militant, and act as if they are so radical, they say: 'hey, we were born at night, but not last night'. This is just too empty.

But that's got to become more broadly available, which is to say, we've got to raise our voices and we've got to raise our voices strongly wherever we can. You can raise it on corporate media, raise it on any media, raise it in our reading, our writings, raise it in our various churches and mosques and synagogues and temples and civic associations.

Because these are the moments in which people can experience a broadening of consciousness, and a broadening of consciousness is a broadening of their vision, a broadening of their analysis, but most importantly, a broadening of their souls to be courageous because I do believe there's a whole host of people on the ground who recognise the relative acuity of much of the neoliberal rhetoric.

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They're just afraid. They are scared. They don't want to walk into that "radical zone".

They don't know what it means to be part of that "radical zone". But they're being pushed there by historical circumstances by the scope and depth of the suffering beginning with brother George Floyd, but it flows all the way across, all around the world. 

Now part of this issue of the decadent leadership; we got too much decadent Black leadership; we get too much decadent white leadership; we've got too much decadent brown leadership locked into very narrow neoliberal modes that don't really want to tell the full truth. We have to hit that head-on.

Now, of course, we've got the vicious leadership of a neo-fascist like Trump, but it's so easy to fetishise him and downplay the role that neoliberal elites have also played in terms of the way they've contributed to the militarising of the police [and] the rendering invisible of the Black brothers and sisters who have been shot for the last 40 years under both Democrats and Republicans.

And then to connect that to deaths that result from Wall Street and big pharma greed. The decrepit school systems, dilapidated housing, unavailable healthcare because of the way pharmaceuticals end the debate on medicare for all. And people are going to funerals as a result of this. So, yes, corporate elites have promoted policies that end up killing people and so, it's not just police killing folk in that regard.

Police brutality and US imperialism
The links between US foreign policy and domestic racism has become increasingly clear over the past few decades (MEE/Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

And then we get around the world - oh my God, the US imperial and foreign policies; the tears in Gaza and the West Bank as a result of people turning away and being cold and callous to the killing and murder of innocent people. I believe that killing innocent people, in general, is wrong. So I mean, you know, Israeli brothers and sisters who get killed are innocent, I think that's wrong, too.

But that's a moral and spiritual stance I have as a Christian, but we have to be morally consistent in terms of US foreign policy. What about Egypt, all the money Egypt gets and the deaths that take place for dissenting voices in Egypt; the US facilitates billions of dollars there. I mean, we have to have solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Kashmir; the Dalit brothers and sisters in India. The Roma brothers and sisters in Europe. And we can go on and on and on.

There are too many folk who are much more concerned about popularity as opposed to integrity.

MEE: What do you make of those scenes of police officers taking the knee or holding Black Lives Matter posters or posing with protesters, and those being made very popular by the media?

Cornel West: Well, one is that it's always a beautiful thing to see people have a certain moral and spiritual sensitivity to a public lynching. But again, you don't receive a moral prize for that. It doesn't take a whole lot of courage to oppose public lynching.

But it raises the question as to where those police voices have been when their fellow policemen have been killing all of these Black people and all of their fellow citizens across the board; the cultural silence in the police department.  

You [have] got to fundamentally transform the lack of accountability in the police department - taking a knee is not going to do it.

So it's a beautiful witness. But again, you know, the last thing we need is to become so obsessed with certain symbolic gestures as opposed to substantial forms of transformation. And these might be the case of these police departments [that] are not capable of undergoing transformation and they might not even have the ability to treat the masses of Black people with decency and dignity. 

'If you really want Black people to be free, and I do, Black people will never be free under a system of predatory capitalism. We will never be free under a system with imperial tentacles'

- Cornel West

If that's the case, then if we take over our own community, we police ourselves. Let's just be honest about it.

That's the real challenge that we have here, and, and it's a real one.

I mean, you got a lot of Black people in the police department who could come up with other better systems of keeping track of the humanity of Black folk. But they also have to recognise that the repressive apparatus has a role and function of reproducing a system in which unaccountable elite in the economic sphere like Wall Street and company; in the political sphere, politicians beholden to [the] Pentagon and this militarism, is so that we have to understand the role and function of the police as a whole that is much larger and it transcends just the individual attitudes of police who take a knee and feel as if for that moment they are making the grand contribution to progressive politics.

But again, you know, more sensitivity is always a beautiful thing. I don't want to downplay it. Yeah. But it's not in the end, in and of itself strong enough in the face of structures and institutions.

MEE: How do you explain the support from beyond the US borders for Black Lives Matter. Why has it resonated abroad?

Cornel West: Well, I think that there's a large number of people all around the world who've experienced the ugliness of the American empire in so many different ways. Seen not just the hypocrisy of it, but the downright effects of it in terms of their lives. The deaths and the domination and the dogmas that flow from US policy.

I mean, you've got so many US military interventions since World War Two. Those folks who are victimised by those interventions. They have a different perception of America than most Americans do.

If you invade a country like Iraq and kill over half a million precious brothers and sisters, who are Iraqi, and never even acknowledge it, never even apologise, nothing whatsoever. They say these are gangsters. These are moral monsters. 

MEE: Some say that we shouldn't be talking right now about the linkages between settler colonialism in Israel and American empire and how police forces are being trained by Israel. That we should focus on Black Lives right now. Do you think we can actually separate any of this, ever?

Cornel West: You can't understand our plight and our predicament without understanding the relations of the systems that hold us down. And those systems are not just in the hood; they're not just in the states. They're not just in the United States. They're around the world.

And so it's true that you can end up talking about interconnectedness in such a way that you dilute and water down the specific forms of plight and predicaments. And we must never do that, I agree with my brothers [and] sisters there.

BLM New Jersey [Azad Essa/MEE]
Protesters are turning up to demonstrations and rallies with specific demands from the US government, from defunding the police to changing educational curriculums at schools (MEE/Azad Essa)

But in the end, if you really want Black people to be free, and I do, Black people will never be free under a system of predatory capitalism. We will never be free under a system with imperial tentacles. We will never be free with Pentagon elite running amok with militaristic policies and killing people in Latin American, and the Caribbean and so forth. 

So it is not a luxury which is theoretical or academic, to say, oh, 'we don't have time for interconnectivity and interdependency, we have to deal with this particular issue'.

That particular issue is always already connected.

It's like asking Palestinian brothers and sisters, let's just talk about the plight and predicament of Palestinians without talking about US imperial policies. You can't do it if you really love Palestinians. I say the same thing about my Jewish brothers and sisters; they are catching hell in France, they are catching hell in Russia. They are catching hell in various parts. Anti-Jewish sentiment goes hand in hand as well with other systems.

So in that way, I get pretty fired up when people downplay the systematic character of the oppression. No, no, no, we got to be honest in terms of what freedom is all about. We got to be honest, in terms of what we are up against.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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