In an interview with Muslim Press, Kristine Mattis, a social activist, says ‘the protests that are going on in Charlotte, the ones that have occurred in numerous cities throughout the country following the murders of black people by police, the silent protests against the Star-Spangled Banner - these are all righteous, justified expressions of decades and decades of pent up emotion, and they should be acknowledged.’
Following is the full transcription of the interview.
Muslim Press: What's your take on the police-involved shooting of a black man and the following protests in Charlotte?
Kristine Mattis: It is just another in a growing list of unwarranted antagonism, aggression, and violence against people of color in America. The unjust targeting and killing of African-Americans is not a new phenomenon. We obviously know about the history of black oppression and murder during slavery, reconstruction, and throughout the civil rights era, but the commonplace executions of black men and women have been hidden from view for several decades until recently. Black people in America are rightfully angry about their brothers and sisters (OUR brothers and sisters) being murdered by the police, and about innumerable other racial injustices that have occurred and continue to occur since the inception of the United States of America.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a bookstore, and there was a group of four of us who became good friends. One of our friends was a black male. During our time in the bookstore, he faced many instances of covert racism – in language and attitude and lack of respect – from our bosses. I recall one particular time being a witness to this and fuming. I gave him a look and he basically looked back at me in a way that said, “Just leave it alone.” (This was not the first time a black male friend of mine responded to me in that way after I was angered by the racism shown to him.) I don’t remember if he told me this outright or if it was just insinuated, but the long and short of it was that he has to face this kind of B.S. all day, every day. He just couldn’t always get mad or fight it because not only would he lose his job, but he simply would not even be able to get through the day if that were the case. (It probably also accounted for his great wit and humor; he was one of the funniest people I knew.) So, imagine this subjugation happening to every black man, every black woman, and most people of color – be they Latino, Muslim, Native American, or African-American – all the time. After a while, you just can’t expect people to repress their anger and hurt and betrayal forever.
The protests that are going on in Charlotte, the ones that have occurred in numerous cities throughout the country following the murders of black people by police, the silent protests against the Star-Spangled Banner - these are all righteous, justified expressions of decades and decades of pent up emotion, and they should be acknowledged. If you listen to many of the protesters, they express profound, important perspectives, ideas, and stories that we do not normally hear in the corporate media.
MP: How do you see the Black Lives Matter and its impact in recent years?
Kristine Mattis: They are a phenomenal group who do not rely on any allegiance to either of the corrupted political parties in America. Any white person who doesn’t understand why Black Lives Matter is important - and why All Lives Matter is ridiculous - probably harbors tremendous white privilege if not racism. You cannot look at the history of the U.S. or the world and not realize that injustice runs rampant and fairness is an illusion. Black Lives Matter has illuminated the truth that certain people have more obstacles, fewer opportunities, less money, less power - in short, black people have always been left behind in America. Everyone should read the BLM guiding principles. You can see that they are seeking to create a better, more just world for the traditionally oppressed (i.e., black folks), and consequently, for all of us. As much as I think the mainstream media and the corporate elite are trying to marginalize BLM, I think BLM is having an impact in mobilizing people, and I think they will have more of an effect in years to come. Unfortunately, things are bound to get worse given that our country will be ruled by either the narcissistic, infantile ignoramus Trump or the neoliberal, corrupt, corporate Clinton, neither of whom will do anything to help people of color.
MP: Do you think the mainstream media implies that protesters are violent?
Kristine Mattis: In a word, yes. The media and government officials – even our African-American president - use more loaded words and rhetoric to describe black folks who protest. More often than not, black protesters are described as “rioters” and “looters.” When people organized rallies against the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama cautioned that people should “keep the protests peaceful.” Would he – or anyone, for that matter – feel the need to admonish groups of white protesters like that? (Perhaps environmental protesters …) Did we hear that kind of reprimand when all of the white Tea-Partiers gathered? Did the media ever treat the Tea-Partiers as troublesome, potentially violent mobs? It’s a fairly obvious double-standard if you are at all sensitive to the language and framing that the media employs in their reports.
MP: What role can the police play in such incidents?
Kristine Mattis: The police have a motto: “To protect and serve.” We assume that they are supposed to be around to protect and serve all citizens, but in reality, the police force in the U.S. was established to serve and protect the elite. The police may not even be aware of that role all the time because they are rule-followers, and the laws are written by and for the privileged powers that be – the corporatists, the capitalists, the one-percent.
Instead of being authoritarian, and now, militarized, the police could be the peace-keepers they were supposed to be. According to the First Amendment, all Americans are supposed to have the constitutional right to free speech and peaceable assembly. Black protesters shouldn’t be met with police armed like soldiers, with riot gear and even tanks. The police should actually be protecting the protesters.
Furthermore, we see how differently black protesters are treated compared to white protesters. As I said before, the rhetoric in the media is different, but the treatment by law enforcement is also different. In recent years, some Tea Party groups assembled at Obama speeches with loaded guns in hand. The police didn’t come out in full military regalia to deal with them and certainly didn’t shoot them. In January of this year, armed white militants took illegal occupation of the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They, like other white, right-wing groups were treated with kid gloves compared to how black protesters are treated. And since the announcement that the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, has endorsed Donald Trump for president – which means Trump garnered a 2/3 majority of the union voters – it seems clear that there exists a definite current of racism flowing through the American law-enforcement system.
Police are acting like we live in a war zone rather than a so-called democracy. They perpetuate the violence rather than prevent it. The police should be our allies, not our enemies. In other countries in Europe, police do not even carry guns. We need a re-envisioning of the purpose of a police force in America, because if we truly lived in a democracy, the police would be protecting the 99%, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable among us, while arresting the 1% who perpetrate the majority of crimes against humanity and against the planet.
MP: What do you regard as the root of racism in the United States?
Kristine Mattis: Racism has been around in this country since its inception and has never left. Overt racism has been somewhat squelched since the civil rights era, but places like Fox News and people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump have brought racism back to the fore. The election of Barack Obama angered the racists in the country who had been somewhat hiding in plain sight. They could not believe a person of color was their president. But it was what coincided with his election – the rhetoric of the commentators on Fox News and right-wing radio and the emergence of truly moronic, incompetent, and prejudiced politicians such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, who made racist remarks and actions acceptable again to a certain segment of the population. These people have empowered the bigots.
But, the other reason racism is coming out again is because of the increase in income inequality in the U.S. Not only do people want to find some boogeyman to blame for their misfortunes, they want to find some “other” to declare as worse than themselves, so they can feel better about their own unfortunate circumstance. And let’s be clear, the circumstances of too many people in America are absolutely reprehensible in a country of such plenty and such wealth. It doesn’t help that here in America we perpetuate the bogus myth of the self-made man and pretend that anyone who is not financially “successful” only has himself to blame. We have a whole psychological and self-help industry that makes people believe that their economic circumstance is wholly a product of their own hard-work, rather than a product of nepotism, privilege, corruption, and often, criminality. This way, we ignore the myriad systemic problems that have caused the increase in homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality (and environmental degradation). And this way we have white people railing against people of color rather than against the one-percent and the corporate criminals who have plundered the country and the world.
MP: What could you say about the recent African-American Museum? Do you think it distracts people from the recent incident?
Kristine Mattis: I do not know a whole lot about the museum, but from what I have read, it is as superficial as most anything else in America. It puts a pretty face on a deeply important and still-evolving history. It sounds like a bit of whitewashing to me, which is the same complaint I have heard about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C.
I would not say that the African-American Museum is a distraction exactly, but it certainly appeases white people. Too many white people claim to care about the plight of black people in America, but are not willing to sacrifice their comfort for the sake of all of their black brothers and sisters who are suffering. The African-American Museum should definitely exist, but it is not the be-all, end-all that is needed to help race relations or to improve the conditions of black people in the U.S. That’s where a movement like Black Lives Matter comes in and why it is crucial. Hopefully, BLM welcomes all of the white brothers and sisters who stand in solidarity to support their cause. As a white woman, I can never begin to fully understand or empathize with the plight of African-Americans due to the very real privilege of my skin color, but I can be willing to stand with them and fight with them and for them. The willingness to fight for justice is what is needed much more than a museum to appease the elite masses.
Martin Luther King Jr. put it best in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963). His words ring as true today as they did then, so I will leave you with some of them:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. Her work examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Before returning to school for graduate studies, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a teacher.