Center for Media Justice home of the Media Action Grassroots Network

The Freeing of Black Speech and Other 21st Century Rebellions

 

 

Below is the transcript from CMJ Executive Director, Malkia Cyril’s, keynote address at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. conference in Denver, CO. June 9th, 2016. 


 

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.  I am excited to be here because of you; because I know how powerful and how necessary independent community media is to the freeing of speech. I did not say “free speech”, because as I stand before you, the speech of Black people in America is not free. Black speech has never been free.

In 1892, at the height of lynching in Jim Crow America, a reported 161 Black men, women, and children were lynched in America. Lynching is defined as the removal of a person from the custody of law enforcement to commit extrajudicial violence against them, usual murder. Thanks, in part, to the constant advocacy of those in the Black press, chief among them the fearless Ida B. Wells, tough local and state anti-lynching laws were put in place in the 1920s and 30s. These laws seemed to have a genuine cooling effect on the horrific practice, though the practice continued.

Although the kind of lynching where black bodies are strung from trees to their death is largely a thing of the past ―anti-lynching laws have remained in place. This would seem to be a good thing―except the very laws created nearly a hundred years ago to protect African Americans from violent, extra-judicial murders are now being used to persecute a young, brave woman, an activist with black lives matter who was protesting police brutality in Pasadena, California.

Her name is Jasmine Richards, [#SayHerName – Call/Response] a.k.a Jasmine Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Pasadena. Day after day Jasmine attended police commission meetings because in 2015 alone, more than 1,207 people were killed by the police. Jasmine organized for the dead, those unarmed Black people killed by Pasadena Police like Kendrec McDade and Wakesha Wilson. On Tuesday, Jasmine was sentenced to 90 days in county jail for attempted lynching. Her crime? Using her voice to protest an unjust and violent arrest of a Black woman – a stranger she happened to see after leaving a protest against police brutality.

California’s Penal Code 405a prohibits against “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer”, a felony under California state law. There were no black people on the jury that convicted her. Perhaps that’s why it did not matter that Jasmine had neither attempted nor succeeded in removing anyone from custody. Maybe that’s why it didn’t matter that she wielded no weapon and injured no one.  What mattered is that she spoke. Her voice was the crime, incarceration the consequence.  Black speech is not now and has not ever been free.

The same law once created to prevent Black bodies being carried off by white vigilante mobs to rape, torture, or kill, was used last Tuesday to imprison a Black activist fighting to stop police brutality. Today, the lynch mobs wear badges and have the law on their side. Who will have on ours?

This is the power of culture, how meaning can be remade, how disorganized truth can be overcome by a well-organized lie. We must organize truth with the infrastructure of insurrection, the vehicles of voice, a media independent enough to watch power. There are no voiceless people, only those that haven’t yet been heard. This is why we need community media now, more than ever.

The enslavement of Black speech for more than 500 years on these American lands is not simply a condition born by Black people. No, it has kept us all tied to a system of inequality from which none of us can escape. When we speak of free speech, let us not speak as if that act is done, as if free is an adjective meant to describe a condition enjoyed by all people. When my Black voice and the public voice of my kin is criminalized and enslaved, so too, is yours, for anti-Blackness is the skeleton that gives the American body politic form, shade and substance.  Our fates and therefore our futures are shared, we are tied together, we cannot escape each other. In order to save democracy from corporate empire and an ever-expanding police state, Black speech must be freed.

We need abolitionists today. As the movement for Black Lives has raised a voice proclaiming with pride that, in an anti-Black world, Black lives do matter―many, including progressives, have clamored for a return to color-blindness, in which we fail to see racism and the structural inequalities it leaves as its wretched legecy. Many have asked, “Why do you always talk about race?” “Why are you playing the race card?” “Why do you focus on Black lives, when ‘All Lives Matter?” Why are you being as divisive? And I want to ask them — as divisive as Malcolm X? As Martin Luther King? As Ella Baker? As Muhammad Ali? As Prince? It is only death that de-radicalizes our history, death that denied these powerful leaders their ability to speak for themselves and be who they always were. Truth-tellers. We need abolitionists today. Abolitionist media that defies death, that elevates the word of change even as the mainstream attempts to White wash it of its truth.

Today, we say Black Lives Matter because in 1787 an agreement was reached between white men in the southern and northern states called the “three-fifths compromise,” over how slaves could be counted for the purposes of legislative representation and taxation. They deemed Black humanity worth 3/5 of dignity. They debated Black humanity only for the purposes of preserving white power. They denied Black humanity any voice in that decision, despite a declaration of democracy.

In March of 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued a decision in a case filed by the plaintiff Dread Scott who had sued for his freedom―and lost. In the decision Judge Taney claimed, “They [Black people] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” The Supreme Court debated Black humanity, and our voices were not heard.

In 1864, the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for a crime.” Slavery continued for those convicted of committing what is called a criminal offense. From slavery and Black codes to Jim Crow and the mass incarceration of the 21st century, where more Black people are in jail and under the control of the American judicial system than were enslaved in 1850 —whether fugitive or freed –Black dissidence has always been a crime.

From Hip-hop to the Hood

From the campus to the corner, from hip-hop to the hood, Black speech remains under systematic attack. A 6-month investigation by the Department of Justice found that police in Ferguson, Missouri routinely deprived Black people of their first amendment rights, making arrests for offenses referred to as “contempt of cop,” in which people are taken into custody for “talking back” to an officer, recording public police activities, or lawfully protesting perceived injustices―all activities protected by the Constitution.

In Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and more – millions of dollars in grants are being funneled to police departments to beef up surveillance technologies that chill dissidence, and throw speech in a freezer. From Stingray cell phone interceptors and license plate readers to body Worn Police Cameras and facial recognition software technology is being turned against Black political speech.  

Meanwhile, police are receiving increased protections by the state.

A few weeks ago, Louisiana Governor John Bell Edwards signed the Blue Lives Matter Bill into law, making Louisiana the first state in the nation where police are considered a protected class under hate crimes law. Not to be outdone, a Chicago alderman has introduced a similar city ordinance.

Black speech is not free in hip-hop music―where prosecutors are increasingly using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials

It was not free in the South Carolina high school where white police officer Ben Fields body-slammed a Black female high school student for refusing to put away her phone.

It was not free on the corner where Eric Garner was choked to death for “talking back” and “non-compliance.”

It is not free on college campuses where Black students are targeted for physical abuse and educational discrimination, and then held in contempt for talking about it, for protesting against it.

No, Black speech has never been free, and it is this legislative and cultural enforcement of Black silence and the criminalization of Black speech that makes your work more important than ever before. More than ever, we need rebellious communications that stand up and say Black Lives Matter. And not only that. We must also say Justice for Arabs, Not One More, Trans Rights Now. We need media institutions that counter the false juxtaposition of free speech vs. racist hate speech. We need abolitionists today!

We need media that is more than local, it is liberating; more than independent, it incites insurrection against the status quo.

Because today, less than 200 years after the legal end of slavery, the consequences for Black dissidence are still deadly.

As media makers and activists, we are born inside the history of this country, where Native Americans were murdered en masse, their children kidnapped and sent to boarding schools in which they were stripped of their language and re-educated. Latinos were prevented from speaking Spanish by English-only laws in cities that were once Mexico. Black people were denied the right to read in order to maintain the system of slavery, and future segregation. Our speech has never been free.

And yet, the Internet has emerged as a tree of possibility, decentralizing what had been consolidated, decentering incumbent corporate power.  But even without the Internet — we have always been here, resisting. Even during slavery, there were 30 to 40 Black newspapers that preached freedom. Before commercial radio, amateur black stations flourished throughout the country.

My friend Joe Torres, who works at Free Press, likes to tell a story about Jesse Blayton who, in 1949, became the first Black commercial radio owner in Atlanta. He tells this story to demonstrate how important radio was for the Black community. Martin Luther King’s offices for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were located on the floor below Blayton’s station. When King wanted to make an announcement, he would take a broom and bang on the ceiling. The radio announcer would cut into the program to say that Dr. King has an important message for the listening audience.

During the civil rights movement, Black DJs were the voice of the people. In Philadelphia, the legendary Georgie Woods, known as “the guy with the goods,” introduced audiences to Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and a young Michael Jackson, but he also covered the latest news from the civil rights struggle.

We have always been here, resisting. Putting the community in media. And just as we fought for the resource of radio in the 50’s, public TV in the 60’s, and ethnic media in the 70s, we must fight to keep the Internet open now.  We must keep fighting to make our community media outlets the radical visionary alternatives to mainstream hegemony they were always meant to be. We do not exist merely to inform, we exist to incite!

Because, knowledge is not power―it is power’s potential and pre-requisite.

It’s why I co-founded the Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network―to build a powerful cross-sector movement that ensures under-represented communities a seat at the table and a voice in debates on the future of media. It’s why we fought for net neutrality rules, for fair phone rates for prisoners and their families, and for low-income broadband access, without zero-rated substandard service. It’s why we’re fighting to unlock set top boxes to make room for innovation, and why we are working with groups across the country to counter high tech racial profiling, discriminatory policing and mass surveillance.

It’s also why we must use our independent media infrastructure to redistribute free speech in a way that is truly equitable. Just as we organize to redistribute wealth, we must also organize to redistribute ideological power.

See, over centuries of expansion and consolidation, capitalism maintained and organized its dominance through agencies of information and culture―like schools and universities, churches and other religious institutions, official news media, and arts and entertainment. This is what the 20th century Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci meant by hegemony.

When Gramsci talked about working-class or organic intellectuals those who embrace culture to put it in the service of all, not just the few, his vision was not of individuals sitting alone in an Ivory Tower thinking great thoughts. Yet, for many communities of color and poor communities in the United States, that is often how we experience community media, as if the word community has been forgotten, as if we are not part of that community.

Some believe a digital world will fix it, make it possible to reach a scale previously unimagined. It’s true the Internet is changing the way we communicate. Mobile telephones are helping community radio broadcast remotely, while any internet connection can strengthen programming, expand audience reach, and connect listeners to one another in ways never seen before. The Internet has made the Black voice possible through Black blogs and news site that could not exist offline, it has done the same for Latinos, for Muslims, for poor whites.

But the Internet can only serve democracy to the degree it is democratized. Despite the growth of the Internet, the right of free speech and press continues to be hoarded by the powerful. Its’ lack alienates the rest of us. Without question, the Internet is one of the most disruptive and powerful communications platforms the world has ever known. But the Internet, too, is subject to the dynamics of capital. Whoever controls it will wield meaning. The only thing stronger than capital, is you.

Change will require a million small rebellions.

Are you ready to fuel a small rebellion? Are you ready to make your community media outlets institutions of insurrection? Are you ready to drive the expansion of political imagination? To restore our collective and distinct selves, to take us both deeply and broadly into a vision for the future grounded in history and context? Cause the time is now, and we can’t wait.

Radical media has always existed to foreground the hidden transcript, to juxtapose with such nuance as to draw out both humor and irony, both blood and tears, from the stone cold politics of racism, patriarchy, militarism, capitalism. These are the enemy of community. You are the vehicle for community. It’s as simple as that.

Through the infrastructure of community media we have the opportunity to battle geographic and demographic isolation, partisan politics, issue fragmentation and all the things that separate us and consolidate power for the ruling class. We have an opportunity to experiment with democracy in ways our two-party system does not allow today. Are you ready to be better together?

Are you ready to free the Black shining parts of our nation, our world, and our selves – that beautiful dark dissidence that demands defense from those who would hunt it down? Conferring the right of free speech does not distribute it. You need cultural infrastructure and power to do that.  Are you ready to build power?

I’m talking about the kind of power strong enough to counter to the cultural hegemony that convicted and jailed BLM activist Jasmine Richards for lynching. I’m talking about the kind of power that drops the word illegal from media reports about migrants. I’m talking about the kind of power that does not allow police departments their toys or to kill with impunity. Are you ready to build that kind of power?

I am. Our movement for media justice was not born from private interest, it was born from public necessity. A policy adopted in 1945 reserved 20% of new FM frequencies for non-commercial and educational broadcasting. I was proud to fight alongside many of you to expand it in 2010 through the Community Radio Act.

Policy and innovation has made community media possible, but people make it powerful. And if you are truly ready to be better than ever before, I believe that we can win.

I believe winning our public voice is not science fiction, it’s not just a dream for the future. I believe we can and must make real headway in our lifetime. It will require a longer vision than many of us are used to.  It will require that we reject empty reforms. It will require that we focus more on civil rights than civil liberties, more on human rights and dignity than profit. It will require that we make changes not only in the interest of our field but also in the interests of our communities. It will require that we are more whole, more rigorous in analysis, better allies, better leaders, better followers.  It means we must join with movements for Black lives and immigrant rights and justice for Muslims and freedom for transgendered people. It means we must partner with the movement for worker rights to create a new media workforce with skills and jobs, and unions.  It means we must ally with the climate justice movement, to hold tech companies accountable to the land.  And through these alliances, we can expand and diversify a willing and committed base, a powerful audience and constituency for change—because there are no voiceless people only people who have not yet been heard.

But, one thing is clear.  They can cut off our water in Flint or Detroit, deny us internet access, close our schools, misrepresent and stereotype our families, or even end our lives, but you can’t turn off our power.

We are the meeting of culture and power.  The meeting of policy and innovation.  We are the job creators, the cultural workers, the producers, and we must change meaning at its point of production. Be willing to go where our stories live. Our communities, our future, and in some cases our lives, depend on it.

We need abolitionists today, ready and willing to free Black speech, and in doing so free all speech. If you are ready to stand with all the people on the side of free, say I! I believe! I believe that! I believe that we will win!

Thank you.

 

About the Author

Malkia A. Cyril is co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ). For more than 20 years, Malkia has organized social justice coalitions, resources, and advocacy for media rights, access, and representation across the United States. You can follow Malkia on Twitter @CultureJedi

Website by Radish Lab.

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