Three months after Grand Jury hearings on Michael Brown‘s killing failed to produce and indictment, Ferguson, Missouri is again at the center of the national stage with the release of the Justice Department’s “searing” report on the systemic racial bias that characterizes its Police force. Perhaps no voice has been as clear and strong on the issues facing Ferguson as our own Talib Kweli, putting his own boots on the ground through the weeks of protests and taking the mainstream media to task when they missed the real story. As weeks turned to months, Kweli worked to collect donations to pay for legal fees and everyday expenses so that some in Ferguson who felt that they must continue to protest and push back against oppression could continue. Those donations ultimately became the Ferguson Defense Fund, a campaign that set a goal of $25,000–and then succeeded in raising over $100,000 for protesters and their families.
So Kweli was naturally the first brain we wanted to pick when confronted with questions about how to engage these issues as 2015 wears on–especially in light of the mixed results of the DoJ’s report. It’s worth revisiting those results here. The investigation began six months ago under the guidance of Attorney General Eric Holder and yesterday’s results confirm what so many of the city’s black residents have asserted: The Ferguson Police Department has for years been terrorizing the non-white residents in its jurisdiction, disproportionately harassing, arresting, charging, fining and sentencing minorities to an alarming degree. At a press conference following the report’s publishing, Attorney General Holder referred to the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death. “Of course, violence is never justified,” Holder said. “But seen in this context, amidst a highly toxic environment defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it’s not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”
Yet, Holder and the DoJ declined to re-open the investigation of officer Darren Wilson‘s killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown–the flashpoint to Ferguson’s powder keg–citing lack of strong evidence to contradict Wilson’s account. Also apparently outside of the scope of the report are the irregularities of prosecutor McCulloch’s handling of the Brown/Wilson Grand Jury hearings. So in spite of the DoJ’s strong stance against racist policing, Michael Brown’s death will still not be investigated in a fair trial, nor will the structural coziness of police and prosecutors in investigating their own conduct be called in to question–a major systemic conflict of interest that has been one of the main targets of protestors and activists since the Grand Jury decision was handed down.
With all that in mind, Kweli’s views on how we, the people, engage these issues in 2015–and how much we should rely on our Federal Government to take the lead–are more relevant than ever. In an exclusive interview, Okayplayer spoke with Kweli about his fundraising and organizing work to effect change in Ferguson and how the task of turning those funds into tangible change has become one of the greatest challenges of his career.
Okayplayer: How do you feel about the results of the Ferguson Defense Fund? You exceeded your goal about four times over…but how does that total compare to the needs you’re trying to meet on the ground?
Talib Kweli: I did not expect to raise more than $25,000. I was confident that I could get $25K to the right folks on the ground by myself, but once the donations ballooned to over $100,000…? I knew that I needed to reach out to more experienced organizers before I decided where the money was going. The money was raised in the name of the protesters fighting for justice for Michael Brown, and they turned that community into ground zero for the fight against injustice everywhere.
I formed a committee of organizers, activists and entertainers, including some from the Ferguson/St. Louis area, called the Action Support Committee. Recognizing that the money was raised for ‘jail, bail and life” costs that the Ferguson protesters were facing, we developed a few different plans, some immediate, some more long term.
In the press release we outline the Action Support Committee members, the programs we sent the initial round of funding to, as well as the plan for the rest of the money to reach the community by fall of 2015.
OKP: How do you feel people can best engage with the issue as of Spring 2015–is the greatest impact to be made in fundraising, petitioning, organizing physical protests? Should we be letting the DoJ do the heavy lifting here?
TK: I think suing the police is a sound strategy and it is one the the Action Support Committee supports. I know there are groups like PLEA that have already begun this work, and once we assess the effectiveness of the first round of funding, we are certainly considering funding groups that are doing this kind of work. If someone wins the lottery, they would not spend that all in one month. They would be strategic and take the time to maximize their spends. This is what we are doing with the donated money, even though we’ve given ourselves a deadline in the fall to complete this task. However, I stress that we are interested in supporting those already doing the work in the community. I do not think waiting for the Justice Dept. to do anything is a sound strategy at all.
Figuring out how to spend this money has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced. There has been some push back, but all of it is due to folks trusting blogs to give them accurate info rather than coming directly to the source. The committee was formed for the express purpose of honesty, transparency and accountability, and so we welcome any and all inquires or questions into what we are doing with donated money, but I encourage people to use the contact info we’ve provided in our press release rather than jump online with wild accusations and unsubstantiated rumors.
The positive side is that this Acton Support Committee can now add on to the many organizations, people and programs that are designed to be proactive about our liberation, rather than waiting for tragedy to strike to be active.