Kathleen Cleaver on Mass Incarceration and Sustaining Social Movements

By Patrick Reilly

April 21st, 2016

Professor Kathleen Neal Cleaver became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when she dropped out of college to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and then the Black Panther Party. From 1967 to 1971, she served as the Black Panthers’ Communicating Secretary, becoming the first female member of its Central Committee. Since then, she has supported a variety of racial justice struggles, and now teaches on the faculty of Emory University School of Law. On April 21st, Professor Cleaver visited International House for a lecture celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. Before the event, Global Voices Interview Editor Patrick Reilly spoke with Professor Cleaver about her perspective on current racial issues.

Global Voices: A few weeks ago we saw an altercation between former President Clinton and a Black Lives Matter Protester—

Professor Cleaver: Well we only saw the part with Clinton. I saw that on television. I never saw the Black Lives Matter people. I only saw Clinton and maybe that’s because I didn’t see it live. I saw the news story. But I never saw who the Black Lives Matter people were. Clinton got a lot of publicity. The former President got the publicity, not the Black Lives Matter people, in my opinion. Well, I don’t know. How did the news coverage you saw portray it?

Global Voices: It was like that. The news coverage was just summarizing the event, but focusing mainly on Clinton.

Cleaver: Yeah! You didn’t get to see them. Clinton got the coverage. I mean, I thought, that’s what kind of bothered me. I’m not trying to denounce Clinton, but when I saw that video, I was reminded of his background, which people tend to forget. He was an Arkansas boy who had a lot of friends who were racist and sexist. That’s who he was when he was growing up. Now he’s matured and he’s gone beyond that, and he’s become a president. And I respected him as president, but I saw something else during the recent protest. I didn’t like what I saw.

Global Voices: I was actually going to ask about part of that background. The Black Lives Matter activists were protesting about the ’94 crime bill.

Cleaver: As well they should. As well they should. This is devastating. Mass-incarceration, has devastated the black population. I think that the full-scale damage done to the Black community across the country by having so many young men and older men taken out of the mix, and all these women left with their children and their problems, is horrible. It’s criminal, okay? The social consequences are criminal. They could have been avoided. But they weren’t. And I think that they have every right to call Clinton on that. So I don’t like the way he responded. He’s probably felt guilty about the crime bill. But I just don’t like the way he looked when he responded to them.

Global Voices: I have another question about racial issues back in the ’90s under Clinton. How would you respond to the claims that many members of the Black community supported the ’94 crime bill?

Cleaver: It’s true. But that doesn’t justify the ‘94 crime bill. It could’ve been a different type of crime bill. In fact, I was reading an article. It was between a woman who supported it and her child—

Global Voices: I saw that one, in the New York Times?

Cleaver: Yes. She said she supported it “because there was a wave of criminal activity in the neighborhood,” and she wanted to see these people locked up. But, I don’t know. It’s overkill. To me it’s overkill, but then, I’m not the kind of person who’s gonna be an advocate of imprisonment. I mean, I think you need alternatives to imprisonment.

Global Voices: Do you think we’ll be able to dismantle this system of mass incarceration?

Cleaver: Well, I think Obama has started something. Obama’s not gonna be here much longer, but he did start talking about changing this system—changing sentencing structures, and releasing a lot of people. The Black Panther Party position on this was: “We want all black men released from prison because they have not had a fair trial.” So if you want to do the right thing, you just need to go wholesale. Just like they wholesale imprison people, they need to wholesale release people. The problem with mass imprisonment is that it’s local. Very few of the country’s prisons are federally owned. So you have these whack-a-nut corporations who invest in prisons like they’re hotels. It’s a revolting, repressive, worthy-of-Nazi-thinking system that we put up in this country. It’s insane. I remember, it must have been twenty-five years ago, there was a story in the New York Times about how the United States was number one in the world in imprisoning people.

So, do you dismantle the mass incarceration system? I don’t know. Because, if you have a historic view of—and I do, I teach legal history—the laws of citizenship and race, you’ll see that, as soon as slavery is over, there are efforts to figure out how to get black people back under control. This is where you have charges of loitering;  if you’re standing around breathing, you could go to jail, and then to get out you have to pay a fine. If you don’t have enough money to pay the fine, you just stay in jail, and then people could come and pay your fine, and then take you off, and make you work.

So, in that sense, mass incarceration is just another version of this effort to re-enslave black people, particularly black men. So, we shouldn’t be able to say, “oh yeah, that’s what it is. That’s what they do.” But that is what they do.

Global Voices: Speaking of slavery, when you were in the Black Panthers, was there very much talk of reparations?

Cleaver: No. It was a talk of self-defense. There was a lot of talk of reparations by people who were into the reparations talk. There was Queen Mother Moore and a whole group of Afro-centrics—they didn’t call them Afro-centrics at that time—but there was a whole movement around reparations that is still present. But nobody in the Black Panther Party was particularly interested in reparations, because what they were really interested in was protecting the community from the police. Reparations is a long-term agenda. Two or three centuries ago, Africans were captured, they were brought here, they were made to be slaves, and they generated a lot of wealth. All of the people who suffered to generate that wealth are entitled to some form of compensation, but none of them are alive, so the compensation has to come to their descendants. That’s a hard argument. The United States has paid reparations to Japanese internees but only internees, not their descendants. And that was under President Reagan. That’s fairly recent. There may be some Native American land cases that are analogous to reparations. But we do not have a legal culture in which historical reparations play a big role. And I’m not necessarily advocating this for other people, but from my perspective, you get less results for your energy in the reparations question than if you just wanted, let’s say, to put an end to mass-imprisonment. You’ve got more luck there.

Global Voices: In your talk, you discussed how it’s a lot harder to start a movement for social justice nowadays with all these different economic barriers that have come up—

Cleaver: Maybe “start” is not the right word. Sustain. It’s much harder to sustain a movement. You can start one.

Global Voices: But a lot of people have claimed that the Internet has, and social media has lowered the barriers to this kind of organizing.

Cleaver: I don’t know about all that. The reason I say that is because I talk to people from my generation, and I ask them how they deal with people—just on the internet—who approach them. You don’t know who they are. One of these people said that maybe about half the interactions he has are with the activists, are with people he actually does know, but another half are with people he doesn’t know.

So the internet enables conversation, but it also enables anonymity. And one thing about a movement is that you cannot be anonymous. You have to participate. People have to know you, they have to trust you. I’ve been asked several times to participate in a conference, or participate in a panel, and one of them was a big deal in London. Some kind of debate they have. But they wanted me to participate online, or on Skype, and I said “I don’t like that.” First of all, I can’t see anything if you put me on Skype. And secondly, it’s not real. It’s not live. I shouldn’t say it’s not real. It’s not live. But I’m a great advocate of face-to-face interactions with people who you can evaluate. And I find it really hard to evaluate interactions online. So I don’t do Facebook. I refuse to do it, and Facebook made up a page for me, or somebody made up a page for me, and I took it down and I told them to take it down.

Global Voices:  What advice would you have for young people today who are interested in getting involved with racial issues?

Cleaver: Do it. Number one: the problems are off the chart. Number two: the participation that anyone gives to bringing about some measure of social improvement, where there is blatant, glaring, overwhelming injustice, is a good thing. It may not be effective, but it’s a good thing to use your energy and your time to try and rectify injustice so that people understand there’s something wrong with it. I mean, what is it, the Innocence Project? I love to read about the Innocence Project. I know one of the attorneys that was on it, and I’m sure if they had an Innocence Project for every state, they would get more and more people out who have been wrongly convicted. They’re still putting people to death who were improperly convicted in this country. If you did it one time it’s too many, but they do it hundreds of times. So, yes, I wish more and more people took responsibility for challenging the injustice and the racism of the penal system.

This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series