The Long Distance Revolutionary – Larry Hamm
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He has written nine books, including “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to discuss the efforts to organize in American cities against police violence, structural racism, in particular economic racism.
And now joining us in the studio is Larry Hamm, one of the most important organizers in the country, founder, chairman, 32 years, of People’s Organization for Progress, a group based in Newark, New Jersey, but statewide.
LAWRENCE HAMM: Thank you. Good to be here.
HEDGES: So let’s talk about–and this is an issue that you’ve fought for decades, police violence, which isn’t new at all. It’s perhaps because of cell phones and video been presented to the wider society, but I know that this has been really one of the themes of your organization.
One of the things that we see is that–and you had a large march in Newark recently, in which you drew thousands of people through the streets to denounce violence–is that we see these marches. We see them in Ferguson, we see them in Baltimore, we’ve seen them in New York. And yet they still keep killing with impunity anyway.
HAMM: Well, that’s because the reasons for the brutality continue to exist. The conditions that cause the brutality exist.
Police brutality is deeply rooted in contemporary urban communities, especially African-American communities, but not exclusively African-American communities. And for African Americans, of course, they are part of an overall system–this is my opinion–of racial control that has existed essentially since Africans came to the United States. Laws and instruments of state power were established to essentially hold slaves in check and put down slave rebellions. We can go all the way back to the colonial period, almost from the time that Africans first appear in large numbers in the colonies, and see the establishment of slave patrols and night watches and all kinds of precursors to what we would call contemporary modern day policing. And their job was to use force, and they used it in the most brutal, most terrifying ways, the force that was used. But you need that kind of force essentially to hold millions of people in bondage. And even though a great war, the Civil War was fought, a million people died–the end result was the abolition of chattel slavery–this system of racial control mutates and adjusts itself to the new situation. So we have for a brief period Reconstruction. African Americans enjoy some semblance of democratic rights.
HEDGES: So even under Reconstruction you had convict leasing and you saw white former slaveholders re-create slave plantations. I mean, that’s what Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan and the largest slave trader in the South, did after the war.
HAMM: Yes. And you see that this is in fact–its origins are actually in the law, because when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, it abolished slavery except for people convicted of crimes. So that became a mechanism to re-enslave people.
HEDGES: It still is.
HAMM: And still is, and even more so now in contemporary periods. We see over time a kind of consistency, but an ebb and a flow, sometimes controlled tighter, sometimes looser, but controlled nonetheless. And now we see it again in the–here we are in the 21st century, and we still see policing and laws being used. Look at what happened to Sandra Bland.
HAMM: It was a routine traffic stop, failure to signal to change lanes, and within hours she’s dead. And this is always the case with African Americans if–a motor vehicle infraction, penalty is death. Selling loose cigarettes or being accused of doing so, penalty is death. Death, death, death in all of these situations, because police and society in general still doesn’t value black life.
HEDGES: And that’s not been changed by integrating police departments with people of color.
HAMM: No. And I grew up in the Newark, New Jersey, in the heart of the Central Ward, which is, like, the heart of what some people would call the ghetto, and I can remember my grandfather telling me–’cause my father passed away when I was very young–my grandfather would tell me a black cop will beat you worse than a white cop will. Now, he told me that in the 1950s.
HEDGES: Why is that?
HAMM: Because they want to compensate.
HAMM: They want to prove themselves to their fellow officers who happen to be white that they are as blue as they are.
HEDGES: And what worries me is that we see this outcry, we see these repeated marches, and yet there is no stoppage of these executions on the streets of our cities, because, of course, by professionalizing the police department, by giving them courses where they can supposedly learn sensitivity, we’re not dealing with the fundamental issue, which is that we have created physical mechanisms by which white supremacy perpetuates itself, especially in poor urban communities, and that the problem is not finally with the police forces but with the structural elements–capitalism, economic institutional racism. And until those issues are addressed–and I’m asking–you know, will anything change? Will these public lynchings stop?
HAMM: We’re on a collision course. And what happened in Ferguson, what happened in Baltimore is going to happen again and again, because Ferguson and Baltimore were the first. The conditions that caused black people to come into contact–you talk about capitalism and so forth. Capitalism produces these horrifying conditions of astronomical unemployment. You know, I heard the other day–had an unemployment rate in Greece of 25 percent. Well, in black urban communities across the United States, it’s 60 and 70 percent.
HAMM: You know, astronomical rates of unemployment, underemployment, people working two and three jobs, still not being able to make enough money for rent. That is a formula to bring people into contact with the police.
HEDGES: And where are we headed? I mean, where is this going to–.
HAMM: I think we’re headed for a period of intense social upheaval in the United States. I think we’re headed for a period that’s going to look like the ’60s and maybe more intense than the 1960s. And it may involve more than African Americans, because the economic conditions, the economic crisis is having a negative impact on wide-ranging sectors of the population, including white working class and even middle class. And as we saw, I think, with the Occupy movement, I think that was initiated primarily by white people, you know, and blacks joined in. I mean, I went to the Zuccotti Park in New York City.
HEDGES: And that was white middle-class kids burdened with loans who found, as black youth have been finding for generations, that there was no place for them within the system, what Bakunin called déclassé intellectuals.
HAMM: That’s right.
HEDGES: And Bakunin said that they were–and I think he’s right, unlike Marx–a vital element towards revolt.
One of the things we’re seeing within the system of mass incarceration is that as they’ve run out of black bodies–and this is of course economically driven. A black youth on the streets of Newark doesn’t generate any money for the corporate state if they’re on the streets of Newark, but they can generate $40,000 or $50,000 if they’re locked within a cage for prison contractors and guards unions and money transfer companies and phone companies and everything else. But we’re seeing a larger and larger segment of poor whites coming into the prison. And the highest incoming segment of the prison population are women.
HAMM: Yes, and that’s unfortunate. And it’s having a tremendous impact on the social fabric of the black community, so many black men and now women locked up. Half of the federal prison population–more than half is African Americans. There are more people locked up in America’s prisons than in any other nation on the face of the earth. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are in U.S. prisons. And many, many of them are black.
And what happens? You know, there’s no father for the children, no husband for the wife, and on and on and on. And it has a rippling effect that just never ceases to stop. Poor black folk live in a daily state of crisis. It’s one–daily life is one crisis after another. You know, just as a minor example, a friend of mine, her car was parked, her car was hit while it was parked. She can’t get to work. She lost her job.
HEDGES: Right. Well, you talk a lot about public transportation, the failure of adequate public transportation being one of the many mechanisms that are used to make sure poor people of color stay poor.
HAMM: That’s right. And the movement of capital, the flight of capital, which is something that’s been going on for more than half a century, people say, well, the riots cause businesses to leave the city. That’s not true. The city, the factories started leaving after World War II. First they started moving to the suburbs where they could get lower property tax rates. Then they started moving out of the country.
HEDGES: Right .
HAMM: So, consequently, very few factories that were in the Newark area are there any longer. I mean, we had not in Newark, but near Newark a GM in Lyndon, Ford in Mahwah, Engelhard minerals. You could graduate from high school, get a job, and maybe make enough money to buy a house, buy a car, and puts your kids [incompr.] All that’s gone now.
HAMM: All that’s gone.
HEDGES: Is that why you think things would be worse than the ’60s?
HAMM: I think they’re going to be worse because we’re running out of reforms.
HAMM: You know? We’re running out of reforms. And it seems that the political structure–it’s ironic, because you would think the political structure as economic conditions grow worse would in fact become more liberal, more open to reform as a means to kind of hold down resistance and rebellion. But it seems that the political structure and political leadership of this country is moving further and further to the right.
And what we seem to be moving toward in the United States is a kind of de facto apartheid. The United States is beginning to look and will look more and more like South Africa. You will have a white minority, very small minority controlling most of the wealth, and everybody else, including white lower class and elements of the white working class, on the outside. And you’ll have a garrison state to protect this social order.
HEDGES: Well, Cornel West makes the point, I think correctly, that the result of the civil rights movement, which he calls a legal victory, not an economic victory, is that you were able to buy off a certain segment of the black elite. And that is gone. It’s the same way that white radicals from the 1960s were integrated into the economic system and in essence bought off with a good paying a job and some kind of security and benefits, all of which, most of which have vanished, and so that mechanism by which they essentially defanged the movement, coupled with the acts of severe repression, assassination, and incarceration of black radicals. But I think the argument that economic force was one that helped mute the radicalism and push large segments of people back into the society, that’s not there anymore.
HAMM: Right. You’re right. And it was there for a while. I was in Newark during the transition from apartheid Newark to what we had now. We had apartheid in Newark. You had a majority black city that was run by a white minority, the Addonizio political machine. Even though blacks were the overwhelming majority in the city, there was one black city councilman, and he was under the control of the Addonizio machine. And it really took an–’cause Ken Gibson, the first black mayor, he ran in ’66 and lost, and it really took the uprising of 1967 to change social consciousness.
HEDGES: People call it the Newark riots. You call it the uprising.
HAMM: That’s right. We call it–. That’s right, uprising and rebellion. But it took a rebellion to change people’s consciousness so that they could even think to elect someone from their own community to represent them. So for a while Gibson was able to avail himself of what patronage was left in the municipal government and the poverty programs coming from the federal government. But remember, Dr. King wasn’t even dead yet when he was lamenting the fact that the country had turned its back on the war on poverty and they were already rolling back many of these poverty programs, antipoverty programs, and all the other programs that went with them, so that by the time you get almost to the late ’70s, early ’80s, almost all of that is gone and there are fewer and fewer jobs to offer. And I think this is–it’s causing an explosive situation.
I was a student who was able to go to a very good university.
HEDGES: Princeton, Princeton University.
HAMM: Yes, yes, I was able to go to Princeton.
HEDGES: We forgive you for that.
HAMM: That’s right. And I know for a fact that I was there because of the civil rights movement. And I don’t run away from that fact. But the truth is I was able to get mostly scholarship money, very little loans.
But now all of that’s been reversed. Students are going to college, they’re finishing undergraduate school with $30,000 and $40,000. They’re indentured servants. You know, it may be impossible for many of them to even pay back these loans.
So that frustration is there. You know, people go to college and they end up with jobs at McDonald’s.
HAMM: You know? And it’s funny because I’m old enough to see the evolution. I can remember when working in a fast food restaurant was something that you would do as a high school student. But now you go to the McDonald’s and you see two and three generations of mothers and grandmothers working in the McDonald’s.
And to top that off, you can’t go to a fast food restaurant now in Newark without encountering people begging for food. And this is outrageous in the richest country in the world. And sooner or later, people are going to say enough is enough and they’re going to say by any means necessary.
HEDGES: And you once told me that you thought that the trigger for this kind of unrest would come out of places like Ferguson or like Plainfield, a suburb of New Jersey outside of Newark, because they replicated the power structure of the ’60s, in essence a white power structure with predominantly people of–the communities being predominantly people of color and that white structure being utterly tone deaf.
HAMM: Right. What we have is a demographic shift in the United States. You had cities like Newark and Detroit and other places that at one time had been predominantly white but then became predominantly black, and in time the political structure reflected the demographic change. But you had these cities that surrounded places like Newark and Detroit and others. Ferguson is to St. Louis, say, as Irvington, New Jersey, was to Newark, right on the border. But Irvington stayed white for a long time. It didn’t begin to shift until the ’80s. And so you have happening in these towns where you now have this population shift taking place this demographic change and then this change in the political structure and a similar kind of confrontation going on in the 21st century that went on in the 20th century. But I tell you, my theory was exploded with Baltimore, because Baltimore had had rebellions in the ’60s, and with the death of Freddy gray had rebellion again.
But I think there’s one thing that’s going to happen that I see happening that’s going to be somewhat different from what happened in the ’60s. And I think you’re going to see a convergence of what I would call these people’s organizations, these grassroots noninstitutionalized–.
HEDGES: You mean like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and [crosstalk]
HAMM: Right. You’re going to have a convergence between these grassroots organizations and what’s left of organized labor and a convergence also of labor that’s not organized.
HAMM: And I think that that’s something we saw a little bit of during the civil rights movement, because some of the big unions supported Dr. King. But for the most part, labor would go with the establishment. It would go with the Democratic Party for the most part. And they–except some elements went with Reagan, you know, when Reagan came in. But I think we’re going to see a convergence. And I think that’s a good thing.
I think the worsening economic conditions in the United States are going to force a lot of these movements which have been working more or less on parallel lines to now work on vectors that will bring them together. I am not in a union, but as chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, I’ve spoken at so many union rallies. And the unions see it’s in their interest to make alliance with groups like mine. And we see it in our interest to make alliance with labor. And I think that that’s going to build a stronger–I hope it’s going to build a stronger people’s movement.
HEDGES: Doesn’t this economic deterioration also empower proto-fascist–.
HEDGES: I mean, and that’s always been a strain in American society,–
HEDGES: –the Tea Party, the militias, the Christian right.
HAMM: Absolutely. The greatest danger in the United States today, according to–which was it? The FBI or Homeland Security. FBI came out with a report about the infiltration of white supremacist organizations into local police forces. They said the internal dangers is terrorism from these white nationalist neo-Nazi type organizations. And we see that. We see that with Roof going into the Emanuel Church and killing people. We saw it earlier in the last decade with McVeigh blowing up the federal building. I mean, when these people go out and kill, they kill a lot of people at one time. And I think we’re going to see more–unfortunately we’re going to see more of that. And then you listen to the rhetoric coming from these right-wing–you listen to Trump and some of these other people, it’s really reminiscent of some of the kind of stuff you heard in this country during the ’30s. A lot of people don’t know there was a lot of sympathy for Hitler in the United States in the–there were rallies at Madison Square Garden.
HEDGES: Oh, and they attempted to get Smedley Butler to carry out a coup d’etat, the industrialists.
HAMM: That’s right, against FDR. Was it FDR?
HEDGES: Yeah, it was against FDR.
I mean, what we had, though, in the ’30s were powerful progressive Communist Party, the anarchists, the old CIO. I mean, we had a powerful left wing, which we don’t have anymore.
HEDGES: And these right-wing forces which celebrate the gun culture are funded by the most retrograde elements of American capitalism, the Koch brothers and others. So everything you care about and I care about is in a much weaker position than it was.
HAMM: We are.
But I think in time–right now, let’s say, in this particular decade or what’s left of this decade, we’re in a weaker position. But ultimately I think as time goes on I think we’re going to get stronger. I think we’re going to get stronger. You’re right. During the ’30s we had organizations, and then those organizations were–but the same thing happened to during the ’60s.
HAMM: They repressed and destroyed, they infiltrated revolutionary organizations, black and white, during the ’60s. But it will come back. I mean, people will rebel. It’s just the natural tendency.
HEDGES: Do you see a return to the kind of radical black violence that we saw with the Black Liberation Army and other groups in the ’60s, I mean, if they just keep killing and killing and killing and people keep marching and marching and marching and nothing is done?
HAMM: I think there’ll be some elements that will embrace that. I don’t think the majority of folk will embrace it. But you have to understand there are a lot of people out there with guns now. There probably are more people that out there with guns now than there were in the ’60s. You know. So I think we will see some elements of that.
See, I think we’re in a period now where people have to rediscover their ideological paths, so to speak. What worked in the ’30s is not going to work in 21st century America. And the ideologies that guided people, there may be some basic elements that’ll be carried over, but I think people are going to have to create new ideas and new types of organizations to meet this new situation.
And there’ll be some people–you’ll see parallels. I mean, in the aftermath of the Black Panther Party, we have the New Black Panther Party. You’ll see that again and again. But you’ll also see efforts to develop some type of real mass movement. And that’s ultimately what we need. And that’s what Dr. King was trying to bring about before he was assassinated. And that’s why he was assassinated, because he did not rest with civil rights. He was trying to make–he wanted to make a fundamental–in his words, a fundamental transformation of our socioeconomic system, a radical redistribution of power and wealth. That’s what he wrote in his last book before he was assassinated.
HEDGES: And that’s what we’ve got to have.
HEDGES: Thank you.
HAMM: Thank you.
HEDGES: And thank you for joining us on Days of Revolt.