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Transcript: Into an American Uprising: Can You Hear Us Now?

The full episode transcript for Into an American Uprising: Can You Hear Us Now?
People hold up their fists after protesting near the spot where George Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police, on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis
People hold up their fists after protesting near the spot where George Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police, on May 26, 2020 in MinneapolisKerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images


Into America

Into an American Uprising: Can You Hear Us Now?

Trymaine Lee: Black death at the hands of police and white vigilantes dates back long before cell phone videos and social media feeds delivered hashtags of black pain. But in the wake of the recent kills of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota, we find ourselves at a crossroads.

Anger, rage and grief are spilling across the country, with black people once again demanding equality, demanding justice, and demanding to be heard. The deaths, senseless and violent, and the uprising are reminders of just how far we have to go, how much healing we have to do, and how alone the struggle for justice often feels.

I'm Trymaine Lee. And today on Into America, I'm sharing a conversation we're calling, "Can you hear us now?" from NBC News Now and NBCBLK. I had the chance to convene this virtual discussion earlier today with Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, co-founder of Campaign Zero Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and actor Don Cheadle about being black in America in this moment.

And don't mind the Skype line and the street noise. I was outside of the podcast studio, connecting with these folks from all different corners of the country. I began with a question to Nicole Hannah-Jones.

Nicole, I wanna start with you. It's been a really rough, really heavy week for many of us especially those who are on the ground or from the black community. But I wanna ask you, why does this time feel different? Why does this time feel so personal?

Nicole Hannah-jones: I think there are a few things, and hey, Trymaine. 1) It was the shared nature of this particular police killing. To see a man laying face down on the concrete as a white law enforcement officer kneels on him for eight minutes and 46 seconds until the life literally seeps outta him.

And the look on that officer's face (THROAT CLEARING) as he knows he's being recorded showing that he had no concern either for Floyd's life or that would be any consequences. So just the nature of this particular killing. And then you have to stack that on top of the fact that it's coming on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery, on the heels of Breonna Taylor, and in the midst of three years of a president who ran on a white nationalist campaign, who has spent the last three years stoking racial tensions and divides.

And we're in the middle of a pandemic where black people have been dying at the highest rates, but also are facing the highest rates of unemployment in the country. There's just so much suffering and anguish and anger right now. And it all came together in a very combustible way. I think, you know, what you're calling this special is critical. Can you see us now? Black people are tired of having to invisibly bear this pain.

Lee: Brittany, as an activist, you've been on the ground, city by city. We actually met on the streets of Ferguson during that uprising. I wanna ask you, there is great pain on one side, but also great rage and anger. And we've seen that spill across the country in a way we haven't seen in prior cases. Why now? What about this latest case of George Floyd sparked this way?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, I think we have to recognize the important impact of black activism, black organizing, black scholarship, black writing, black art, black content creation in all forms to bring us to this point. Back in 2014, we did not have the data. We did not have the research.

We do not have the policy set up in a such a way that it could be easily accesses and socialized on not just how (THROAT CLEARING) systemic violence impacts black people, but specifically how police violence impacts black people. When we look at Nicole's project, The 1619 Project, there has been a continual awakening of America and a depth of understanding that people have. (DING)

And I wanna be really clear. The work that black activists like myself have done over the last six years (DING) is not new, just like these challenges are not new. Black people have been writing and talking and working and organizing for this since (THROAT CLEARING) we have been in this country.

And yet I do believe that there is an intentional dragging that black people have been doing in all of our various fields to bring people to a point where they are more clear, more ready, have better understanding, and most importantly see their own behavior as complicit in systems that they benefit from. And therefore (THROAT CLEARING) it's their behavior that has to change in order to shift this.

Lee: Mandela, you are the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, but you're also a black man. After these last two weeks that we've seen and the protests we've seen, what concerns you more? As a black man, the state of race relations and where we are right now, or as a politician who cares for the well-being of your state and your constituents?

Mandela Barnes: I'm mostly concerned about the people that still don't get it. We still got a whole lotta comfortable politicians, a whole lot of people in elected office who aren't ready to move yet, who aren't ready to take on this challenge. And as we've said before, this didn't just pop up out of nowhere.

This is, like, volcanic activity. (THROAT CLEARING) It took a long while for us to get to this point. But people have been able to get away with runnin' for office. Now, I'm in Wisconsin. We are a 6.5% black state. These are still issues that I carry because they impact everybody.

And for those who thought that we ignore this for so long are seein' first-hand that that's not the case. And it means we have to develop a plan. It means gettin' out in front. And like Nicole mentioned earlier, we have a president who's just exacerbated these racial tensions, makin' people feel unwelcome, makin' people feel like they don't have a shot in this society.

So as long as that goes on, these things are gonna continue to get worse. But we are in a pivotal moment where we can address this head-on, where we can say, "No more. Not again." And as elected leaders, it's up to us to do that. It's imperative for us to do that no matter where you reside. You can be bold in any state in the country. You can be bold in any city in America. But if you don't act, you see the result of it. And that's not what we want.

Lee: I wanna bring in actor Don Cheadle. Don, there's no doubt that we have a society that's largely cleaved along race and class lines. (NOISE) And I wanna ask you personally, when did you first really understand that there's often (NOISE) a difference in the way that black and white people live and die in America?

Don Cheadle: Well, you know, unfortunately these are things that as black people we learn very early from our parents: how to come home safe, the way to comport yourself when you deal with law enforcement, the things that you have to do so that you can just return home in one piece.

So this is something that was, you know, put into my psyche personally and all of my friend's psyches that are black men and women from childhood. And it has continued throughout my adulthood. You know, I lived in L.A. during the riots (THROAT CLEARING) here in 1982.

And I have seen every aspect of this come along. And, you know,, I know a lotta dudes, a lotta people that are in the streets, a lotta people that are neighborhoods, a lotta gang affiliated folk. I've never had guns pulled on me by any of them. But I've had guns pulled on me by the L.A.P.D. Under the Daryl Gates hammer program countless times. Had my life threatened countless times from doing nothing but walking down the street.

And this is a systemic institutionalized problem that we are all now fully aware of. Some of us have known for many, many years. And we are seeing the watershed moment once again. I mean, we should not have these names that we can just repeat by rote. We should not be able to know all the: Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.

These things should not be burned into our consciousness. But thankfully now that we have film and we have cell phones and we have pictures that are, you know, speaking 1,000 words, this is something that can no longer be hidden. And this can't be swept under a rug.

And my fervent prayer and hope is that this energy and this outrage that we feel right now we can use to follow those who have been organizing in these spaces for many, many years. And we can, you know, glean some understanding on how to bring whatever we have to bear on this issue to the front right now.

Lee: Nicole, the experience that Don's talkin' about, the seeds of this going back to childhood, that you're raised not necessarily in fear of your neighbor, but your neighborhood police. That there is concern from a very early age that you know somehow things are different. That maybe you are different in some way, or the world sees you in a different way. Talk to me about growing up. Was there a moment when you realized that things were literally different, little in black and white?

Hannah-jones: Yeah. I almost can't remember a time where I didn't know that. I started getting bused from my black neighborhood and my neighborhood school to white schools starting in the second grade. My parents thought that was the best thing to do for me to get a proper education.

And you could see the (THROAT CLEARING) landscape change through the school bus window. Once we started leaving the black side of town, all of a sudden the housing got nicer, the roads were fixed, there were parks, there were nice restaurants and places to shop.

And so even as a kid, I recognized that there was a very big difference between how people live on the black side of town versus the white side of town. But I also saw the narrative about why that was wasn't true. (NOISE) Because the folks in my neighborhood were some of the hardest working people that I knew. They worked the type of jobs that people on the other side wouldn't even last in. So I've noticed these differences and thought about these differences really almost as long as I can remember.

Lee: It's almost in many ways as if we oscillate in completely separate universes. And Brittany I wanna ask you. There are probably many white people watching right now who wanna better understand the nature of injustice in America, the nature of inequality in this country, and quite frankly the nature of black pain, to tap into it just a little bit. But talk to me. When explaining black trauma to white people, does that exacerbate the very trauma that you're trying to explain in the first place? Is it a necessary step to push for change?

Cunningham: Of course, it exacerbates the trauma that we face. This unfortunately is precisely how oppression functions. That so often the people who are the most affected by the oppression are the ones who bear the greatest responsibility and the heaviest burden to actually correcting that oppression.

This is precisely why we can't waste this moment. I see a lot of black folks who are rightfully looking at non-black people and saying, "This is not just my job. And primarily it is your job." If you benefit from the systems of white supremacy and white privilege, if you benefit from systems of anti-blackness, then it is your primary responsibility to dismantle them.

You have to remove your tacit approval. You have to (THROAT CLEARING) remove the willingness to allow these systems to persist simply because they keep you comfortable. The fact of the matter is we're all sitting here having this conversation while we're dealing with a mountain of emotions.

We are trying to panic (?) through this. We are trying to love our spouses through this. We are trying to heal our own trauma through this. We are trying to manage how much we do and don't tell other people because every single time we have tell these stories, there is an additional rise in emotion.

And we're dealing with all of this in the midst of other crises. We are also trying to keep our people safe for coronavirus which is killing us more disproportionately. And why? Because the injustices that black people have always experienced are exacerbated in this moment.

So bad housing, bad education, technology gaps, bad medical outcomes, health disparity, low wages, all of those things are increasing right now in our lives and in our experience. So we're having this conversation right now to make sure, yes, that people can see and hear us now to recognize that for all of us talking and for all of the black people watching, this is an additional exercise in that trauma.

So you have to ask yourself, if you are not black, how will you continue to keep yourself on this work and in this work without us having to continue to expend our energy and our precious resources.

Hannah-jones: Yeah, if I could add to that.

Lee: Brittany.

Hannah-jones: I would love to see NBC host a panel of white Americans talking about what they plan to do to address the issues that are leading black folks to be in the streets right now.

Cheadle: 100%. And I imagine that everybody on this panel has probably gotten calls from their white friends and white allies who are asking these very questions and haven't done the research themselves. They're coming to us like we're supposed to be, you know, the Encyclopedia Negratica (PH).

Cheadle: And it's like, "What have you done? What have you looked into? Have you done any stock in your own life? Where do you have, you know, any influence in your community, at your job, in your church, at your school?" There are multiple places that you guys could be starting this conversation.

And not as you're saying, Nicole, once again bringing this trauma to us to please expect us to somehow assuage this. It's, like, get on these front lines with this. Get down with this. Let's go. You do this. I think it's 100%--

Hannah-jones: In fact--

Cheadle: --the effort (?).

Hannah-jones: In fact get on the front lines--

Hannah-jones: --in front of us.

Cheadle: In front of us. You know who's gonna say--

Barnes: It's people that are goin' through childhood, school, and profession life and have never had to worry about this and show no concern. And now as adults ask us, "What can we do to help?" That's not a me question, that's a you question.

Cheadle: Yeah, 100%.

Lee: Brittany, I wanna thank you for your time, my friend. You're always puttin' out that work. And you're also on TV. We know you're busy. So thank you very much. Thank you. Mandela, there has been two distinct scenes playing out all across the country. One is of peaceful protesters with chants and signs demanding justice for George Floyd and others. The other is of broken glass and flames and fire and damaged buildings. I wanna ask you this, Mandela. Is what we're seeing in whole, is it a riot, or is it rebellion?

Barnes: It's frustration. It's frustration. You can't tell people how to be frustrated. And I go back to the same point over and over again. This didn't come outta nowhere. Folks didn't just wake up and decide that we're gonna break some glass. We're gonna set some things on fire.

So on one hand you have the protests that are sendin' the message directly to leadership, makin' demands, very specific demands. And you have people who are doin' damage. However, the question always comes up, "Well, when are the protesters, when are the activists and organizers gonna hold the people that are doin' damage accountable?"

Well, the fact is, organizers are just pushin' for accountability as well because that goes to the good cop/bad cop argument. When are good cops gonna hold bad cops accountable? We're all lookin' for the same thing. So more than damage, destruction and rebellion, it is frustration. And it didn't get this way outta nowhere. The onus falls on all elected leadership, all decision-makers who failed to address the crisis before it got to this point.

Lee: Thank you. So, we've been getting submissions from black people all around the country. And they've been tellin' us why they're out there protesting for George Floyd. This is what Guy Barnes from Washington DC had to say. He said, "Being black, gay, and active duty, I've seen my fair share of injustices.

"Our beauty is in our diversity. But our power is in our unity. I march so that the death of George Floyd and countless others known and unknown will not be in vain." Nicole, (SIGH) we've had many conversations about black death and struggle and protest. And we've had this conversation many times before.

But in this moment, with all the passion and the pain, do you believe that any of this, the demonstrations, the protests, the panels with esteemed black panelists will actually push us any closer to meaningful change?

Hannah-jones: I hate to try to predict what's gonna happen in the future because I think it's hard to tell. What I will say is the last time we've had this many uprisings in this many city (SIC) for this sustained period of time woulda probably been around 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King.

And what actually came from that was the passage of the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act had been on life support. It had filibustered focus several years. And everyone thought it was going to go down in flames again. And it was these uprisings with the Capitol building being guarded by the National Guard that forced Congress to pass that fair housing legislation that it had refused to pass prior.

So I guess what I'm saying is people say that these types of uprisings are only destructive and can never lead to positive change. But it is possible that when you've seen this type of property damage, when you've seen this type of sustained protests going on in all of these cities across the country, that elected officials will be forced to pay attention and actually do something and to hold police accountable for the way that they treat citizens. What this really is about is people who wanted to be respected, to be treated with dignity, and to have equal protection before the law.

Lee: Don, you said you have experience going through L.A. And we've seen Ferguson. And we've seen Mike Brown. And we've seen Freddie Gray. We've seen it all, pushed and pushed and pushed, and a lotta hew and cry. But little seems to change. Do you expect this time to be different? Are we at a pivot point where maybe this time meaningful change might be on the horizon?

Cheadle: I think I have to believe that (UNINTEL) and Nicole said and say it is possible. But I know that all the forces struggling to protect the institutionalized racism and the systematic injustice that has got us here. So it's not going to be easy especially with this leadership, and I use that word incredibly loosely, that we have at the top that is just fomenting the unrest and, you know, taking the opportunity to do photo ops (LAUGH) with a bible in his hand after he's tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted people out of the way so he can look strong.

I mean, this is most craven sort of leadership that we have. We have George Will talking about the (THROAT CLEARING) enablers that are allowing this to continue, that gambol around the president's feet like a pack of dogs, hungry for petting. I mean, when you have George Will saying that, then we're talking about a 360° awareness of what it is that we are pushing upstream against.

So yes, it's possible. And from, you know, the ashes of this conflict can come great change. But it's not going to happen if we rest. It's not going to happen if we don't get behind the people that have been doing the work thus far and learn how to take this energy and organize, learn how to take this energy and put it into voting, to put it into, you know, filling out your census.

To put it into making sure that you are seen and heard in ways that we can make ourselves seen and heard that we don't always take advantage of. We have to take advantage of all the levers of power right now and not let this momentum die. Because another thing that we know as being human beings in this day.

And we've seen in '92. We've seen it, like you said, in '68. It's a cyclical thing. And it can lose steam. We can only continue and hold this for so long. We get weary. We get tired. We get broken down. Our immune systems can't take it. Not to mention we're in the middle of a pandemic as we said before.

We don't have endless stores of energy to do this. We have to do this now while it is still fresh, while we are still passionate, while we're still out there in the streets. We have to do it right now.

Lee: Coming up, we go to Minneapolis with a look at what protesters on the ground are calling for. Stick with us.

Lee: We pick back up in Minneapolis when NBCBLK reporter Janell Ross is on the ground. After nights of protests, some of them violent, I asked her what the feeling is right now in the community.

Janell Ross: I think that the climate here is quite different than perhaps it might seem on TV to be frank. It's very, very calm and I'd say almost warm and I guess inviting to those who would like to join the cause of calling for increased police accountability.

That being said, of course, Minneapolis has been through a lot in this one week. And whatever America feels, I think Minneapolis is probably feeling two to three-fold. However, I think one of the things that I keep hearing from people on the ground here is a real desire for people to take this situation seriously.

I heard your earlier guests talking about the hamster wheel, the sort of recurrent cycle of someone dying, there being some public outrage, some public outcry. And then the cycle starts all over again once we've forgotten about it. What I'm hearing from a lot of people on the ground here is a lot of concern about how seriously their sense that there may be some outside and extremist forces that have sort of infiltrated protests, their sense that that's not being taken seriously.

And then secondly that there is a lot of attention being paid to the health and welfare of designer stores and businesses and perhaps not enough attention being paid here and elsewhere to the actual policies that govern police conduct.

Lee: Janell, let me ask you this. When we see images from Minneapolis and Minnesota which is a very white state, and we see kind of a dividing line here. We have a black community that's say they've been beleaguered and beat upon by the police. On the other hand we see more Kumbayah kinda moments.

The day after the fires, black and white coming together to clean up the streets. In that push for that Kumbayah unity moment, are we losing any of the steam and energy? To activists and people on the ground feel that the rage and anger that they feel from the death of George Floyd is being lost in this desire to already move forward?

Ross: Absolutely. You hit it on the head. I have had multiple people say to me that as much as every human being, they strive for peace and enjoy the calm of going about their daily lives, the problem is that normal really was a condition in which people were being killed all the time, right.

And there are basic questions about justice and accountability that are not being answered. I certainly have had several activists say to me that the sort of focus on "let's get together and hold hands and have unity" seems to be misplaced. I think they would prefer to see people asking questions in their communities about what local use-of-force policies are, whether or not choke holds are allowed by their police forces.

What are the policies and procedures for dismissing a problem officer? What are the union contracts in their cities? I think the list goes on and on and on. But at very are minimum, I think that there is a lot of concern that in the sort of focus on "let's come together and hold hands," which is sort of a reflexive perhaps deep human need, that more important things might be lost.

Lee: Janell Ross, thank you so very much. Keep up the good work. We are back with our panel now. I wanna ask you, Mandela. As a wise man once told me, there's no way to separate the roots of a tree from its leaves. There's no doubt that this country was founded on racist ideals.

And while great progress has been made, the roots remain the same. Mandela, are white supremacists' ideals and engrained anti-blackness, the kind baked into every American institution including policing breakable? Can we actually snap out of the systemic nature of racism? Or is this just who and what we are?

Barnes: We have to snap out of it. If we don't snap out of it, we're gonna be completely destroyed. This nation will implode if we don't snap out of the white supremacist ideology that got us to the point of where we are. I wanna remind people that things can actually get worse.

It is my hope that they don't. It is my hope that people step up and recognize the moment and see the need for change. And we use the root and tree analogy, I also wanna point out for those who still subscribe to the bad apple theory that you're just seein' a handful of cops. We have to think about the growing condition that led to those bad apples. And that is the white supremacist ideology that you talk about. So if we don't snap out of it, it will only be to our own peril.

Lee: Nicole, the nature of what we're dealing with here, it's not just policing. It's health care, it's education, it's environment. We're segregated by our bodies. But the air that we breathe is also segregated. Do you believe in your heart of hearts, given all your experience and everything you understand about how this system works. Do you think we can break out of it? Is there any way to move past it, move through it, change society in any real, meaningful way?

Hannah-jones: I would say that can and will are two different things. Yes, we absolutely can. We know how to do it. We know all of the resources that went into creating the inequalities that we see and experience. But do we have the will? You know, James Baldwin said that white people have to be willing to give up their rightness.

And I don't think that we have seen enough white Americans in power willing to do that. You know, when we think about this police violence, police are the agents of the (THROAT CLEARING) state who work most intimately in black communities. But they are the face of a much larger system of oppression that you just talked about.

You know, black people are the most segregated people in terms of housing, in terms of school. We have the worst health effects. We have the highest poverty rates. We have the highest unemployment rates. Anything that you name, we suffer from the worst.

And that's because we are the descendants of those who were enslaved in this country. So do we have the will to actually do what is necessary? I don't think so. But we certainly can if we choose. We just sent somebody to the Moon again. If we wanted to do something better, we could.

Lee: Don, what do you think about that? And I also wanna add, how much of that intimacy between police and the people and all of the ways in which we're segregated. But how much of what we experience day-to-day do you think is the result of unconscious bias, people meandering through life not realizing that they harbor anti-black sentiment? And how much of it is actual conscious racism, conscious anti-black sentiment?

Cheadle: I think it's not possible necessarily to quantify it in percentages. I will say that both are absolutely at play every day. People do not realize that they have these biases. And like I said, my friends are really realizing it now. It's really coming out now. And they're really understanding the impact of inaction.

Thinking that because they're good people and they do good things during the day and they're nice to people, that that's actually enough to tear down something that has been systematic and has been not only institutionalized, but, you know, it's codified in the articles of the creation of this country.

We were never intended to participate in this with any sort of justice or any sort of equality. So it's (THROAT CLEARING) going to be (INAUDIBLE) and it's going to be a struggle. And again this moment that we're in right now that we got to very honestly and has been this confluence of all of these things coming together at the same time with a terrible president and enablers around him who don't have the courage to stand up to him.

At a time when, you know, people wanna talk about looting, but on the other hand they don't wanna talk about trillion dollars tax cut that went to the richest 1% of this country. Let's have the holistic conversation about this and really be honest about where we are and how we got here.

And if we can't do that, and if things like this, like Nicole said, if powerful white people aren't willing to have these kinds of conversations and hold each other accountable to that, and people who really hold these levers of power, I don't know how this will change.

But this is absolutely the moment to impress upon them that it has to. Or as Mandela said, we're looking at a very bad outcome. And the riots happened in '92 after the trial and the officers were found (INAUDIBLE). We still have three officers who haven't been charged and one who may be found not guilty. They may be acquitted. And that's when it jumped (?) off in L.A. in '92. So yes, we may not be at the greatest point of this yet. And that's terrifying.

Lee: Mandela, you hold the levers of some power. You are the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin which includes Milwaukee which has among the highest black male incarceration rates in the country. I wanna ask you, what is next. Where do we go from here? And do you think that white America wants the change that many in black America actually want?

Barnes: And so that's the thing. I think a lot of people are wakin' up to a reality that they never had to experience. And if I can go back to the question that you brought to Don, I think folks just have been able to go throughout their entire lives without ever havin' to worry or think about it.

But on the policy front, there are (THROAT CLEARING) so many proposals that have been brought up. But on the political front, there are still, like I said in the beginning, people who don't have to worry about it. And in my position, I think about the issues that I'm expected to carry, the issues I will carry regardless because they are important.

Whether it's the LGBTQ issues, whether it's a woman's right to choose, whether it's environmental issues. I carry those issues. They are important to me. But rarely is racial justice a part of that conversation. And what I feel that I can do because we do have elections comin' up.

It's not just the presidential election. We have state and legislative races all across Wisconsin as well. We have other races goin' on. And from my position, I don't have to endorse anybody that doesn't take on racial justice. And that's what I plan to do.

Like, for people who are runnin' for state representatives, state senator, if they don't talk about racial justice, I'm not endorsin' them. Because we have to build not just power, we have to build the policy infrastructure to make sure that these issues get addressed and brought to the table and talked about in a meaningful way.

Lee: That was Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, New York Times journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones, co-founder of Campaign Zero Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and actor Don Cheadle speaking with me as part of, "Can you hear us now?" a conversation from NBC News Now and NBCBLK.

Thanks to my colleague Janell Ross on the ground in Minneapolis as well. You could check all of the News Now coverage of this moment of protest by visiting Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.