Featured Blogger

How Not to Interview Black People about Police Brutality


Dear Wolf Blitzer:

This is the kind of thing that breaks an American poet’s heart. This from a so-called “liberal” news affiliate!

I have avoided writing to you or to any of your colleagues because I don’t think it’s smart to write while angry. But you and your peers work so hard at making the kindest of people angry, that there’s never a right time to address you. So forgive me in advance…

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

By the time of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., you were 20 years old (and Countee Cullen’s first book was 43 years old). I was not yet born, but it seems to me that 20 would be old enough to know better than some of the assumptions you make about Dr. King and some of the ways you are mistaken about his legacy. Either you weren’t paying attention, or you really don’t know. So let me help you:

Let’s be honest about white people’s attraction to Dr. King in the 1960s and your attraction to him today. If King’s mode of protest was the only protest occuring during his time, white people would not be such huge champions of him. He helped to create for you in your early adult years and for me before I was born a possibility for living in this nation without it being burned down. I think you know as well as I do that plenty of King’s contemporaries had ideas other than non-violence.

Your love of King is not a real love of him. Instead it is a fear of violence (and dare I say, of retribution). You NEVER mention his name on your show until you see the threat of violence. But as soon as someone in an understandable rage sets something on fire, you have the nerve to say “Dr. King” like he’s the token he never meant to become. Aligning yourself with King in this way in 2015 makes you an apologist for police brutality against black people, an apologist for police to murder black people and get away with it, and an apologist for a system that continues to structurally support these injustices.

Your point of view, your smug tone in this interview with Deray McKesson and other interviews suggests that Dr. King’s example of getting harassed, beaten, and arrested SHOULD be anyone's ONLY option. Don’t you think people put in dire circumstances should at least have more options than what was available to them 50 years ago?

Before we reach the age of 20 in classrooms around this country, we learn how violently the Americas were colonized, and we learn how violently our founding fathers revolted against the Crown. When are you going to bring up the fact that the violence of rebels that founded this nation is taught as justice? When will you be honest about the fact that we are free to owe violence a great debt when that violence is perpetrated by white people?

Your resume suggests that you know exactly what revolt looks like, that you know rebellion often smells of blood. The police who murdered Freddie Gray weren’t revolting, but they wanted blood anyway. Doesn’t that make them and the system that supports them more like the Crown? If we are for America, aren’t we also for violence against such systems?

If you believe the violent establishment of this nation was just, shouldn’t you be asking different questions since no one in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland means to start a new nation? They only want police in the nation we have to stop thinking of murder as a proper first response when it comes to black people. It seems to you that the condition of walking around at risk of being killed by police because of the color of my skin is a nationhood I should respect. Is that true?

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, 'Nigger.'

Also, I would appreciate it if you stop trying to bait black people into disagreeing with President Obama for your ratings, Wolf. It’s just plain trashy. You know it’s possible for us to honor our nation’s leader AND understand we will often disagree with him because we’re not the only people he’s leading. Yes, violence is a bad idea, but in this country as things are set up, it’s often the only idea available. How have things been set up for the people of Baltimore?

I would appreciate it if you stop pretending that if President Obama or you have the option of getting knocked upside the head OR knocking someone upside the head, you should ALWAYS choose the former. That may be Christian, but history tells us it’s just not American.

I would appreciate it if you stop baiting black people into saying our ancestors wouldn’t want us to riot as if some of our ancestors didn’t riot. Stop pretending that Frederick Douglass never beat up Edward Covey, and stop pretending that you don’t today know Douglass’ name better than Covey’s. So far, you and your colleagues’ questions to your guests suggest that John Brown was only wrong and slaveholders were just right.

You know good and well that we’re invested in a capitalism that makes each of us a kind of slave. Someone stealing overpriced Nikes is the least of our worries in the grand scheme of breaking the hold capitalism has over us in this country. Stealing something that represents this control over our lives is an act of rebellion. You may as well honor that since we all live it.

You are reporting on black people in Baltimore to this nation as if they are actors in a very old and clichéd play. Be honest. Be a journalist. If white people voted right now, the overwhelming majority goes to those who want no protest, whether violent or peaceful. If white people vote right now, the overwhelming majority goes to those who have yet to see the big deal about the police in spite of everything your station has been profiting from broadcasting since August.

When are you going to report that in spite of all we’ve seen since August, this is still true? When are you going to report that in spite of what police officers have seen since August, no love for their city or for black life gives them pause enough NOT to brutally murder Freddie Gray? When are you going to notice that when I say “since August,” I’m cutting the history of these so-called “uprisings” by hundreds of years?

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.

Finally, I imagine you wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t a smart man. I imagine you see yourself doing the best you can at what you do. I have to ask you, though, to please stop saying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name if you’re not going to be honest about his existence on this planet. You throw his name around like he was some sort of saint who never wanted to whip a white cop bloody. Certainly, you have to know that this would have been impossible. Restraint is the exception for any human being who lives at risk.

The non-violent arm of the civil rights movement that white people love so much consisted of highly trained men and women capable of taking a beating. While I am glad those men and women did the work they did on this planet, I am always hurt to know that’s the work they had to do. Wolf, I want you to have the sense to be hurt, too.

Originally Published: April 30th, 2015

Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), was named one...