Revolution #280, September 16, 2012
Interviews from the NYC BAsics Bus Tour
The BAsics of Brownsville
The day started out hot and just got worse. There’s something unique about New York hot—like mid-July, temperature somewhere near 100 degrees coming together with the heat generated by 8 million people squeezed together, walking, working and living. Then put it together with humidity so high that the air seems visible and taking a walk feels like moving through a steam room. And just when you think you can’t take no more, there’s a summer afternoon rainstorm. It’s one of those special rains where the sun stays shining while water balloon raindrops hit the streets and cars with big plops and hiss as they evaporate into a layer of steam floating back off into the sky. It was a day when knowing the beach was just a train ride away made life seem so different, so good and so full of possibility—especially when you’re 16 years old and heading out with a few dozen of your closest friends.
I walked through the rain and down into the subway station at 125th and St. Nicholas looking to get the A train out to one of the far ends of Brooklyn. As I walked down the steps to the train platform I could hear a loud roar—not a train coming into the station but an angry crowd running and yelling in my direction. When I reached the platform I had to jump out of the way of a gorilla sized, red-faced New York Transit cop dragging a Black youth no more than 20 years old up out of the subway station by his neck. The roar I heard came from a crowd of the youth’s friends running after the cop, demanding their friend’s freedom. There were about 40 Black youth, men and women, African-American youth as well as many African and Caribbean immigrant youth. As they ran towards the cop an army of police—many of them New York City street cops—seemed to come out of every corner of the station. Some plainclothes cops even crawled up out of the train tracks like rats. They descended on the youth, pushing, shoving and beating them back. But the youth refused to back down. They stood face to face against the police line and shouted at the cops. They yelled about injustice to the other people waiting for a train. The youth were angry as hell and made their case to anyone who would listen. I looked beyond the crowd and saw the ruins of not just a day at the beach but all kinds of dreams and hopes—smashed Styrofoam coolers, broken radios, backpacks split open so clothes, towels and bottles of lotion scattered across the platform, shards of broken memories before they ever had a chance to form.
One of the youth came up to me to make sure I knew what was going on. His eyes were bright, his face a mix of anger and deep pain. I asked what happened. He told me they were all school and neighborhood friends. They had planned this day at the beach for awhile and everything was in place for a moment where nothing else mattered but fun and friends. They were laughing, messing around and listening to music while they waited for the train. Suddenly, a cop came up out of nowhere and decided to start pushing people around. The cop grabbed one of the youth and dragged him away with no explanation. That cracked everything open. The young brother talking with me was 17, a senior in high school. His voice trembled with rage and tears welled up in his eyes as he demanded answers, “Why did they do that? Is it because we are going to the beach? Is it illegal to go to the beach? Is it because we are Black? Is it illegal to be Black?” He turned to try to retrieve some of his belongings and then turned back to yell “Yeah, we’re Black. We’re human beings! We have rights!”
Eventually the cops dispersed the youth—forcing small groups of them onto whatever train pulled into the station and then ordering the engineer to quickly take off.
* * * * *
An hour and a half later I was in Brownsville. Carl Dix was scheduled to speak about the fight against stop-and-frisk on a street corner in Brownsville later that day. I walked down one of the main streets to get a sense of the neighborhood—lots of used furniture stores and small “Mom & Pop” corner shops. Public housing projects of different sizes pop up everywhere. In fact, public housing in one form or another is the main form of housing in Brownsville and the neighborhood has the highest concentration of New York City Housing Authority developments in the city, 18 of them at last count. A little more than 116,000 people, mainly Black, are crowded into just over two square miles of space.
Brownsville is one of those neighborhoods where everyone talks—on corners, in front of stores and on stoops. Everyone has an opinion and argues for it. When I first arrived the volunteers from the BAsics Bus Tour had already fanned out around the area getting out Bob Avakian’s book BAsics and building for actions against stop-and-frisk. Whistles—as part of “Blowing the Whistle on Stop & Frisk" were getting out all over the place. On one intersection a group of women gathered around a halfway parked car and debated each other around how to look at stop-and-frisk. Across the street a group of old-timers sat on broke down kitchen chairs with throw pillow seats and argued about the police and their role in society.
There’s something about whistles and giving them out as part of fighting the power. You can get them out all over the place and do it in a way that is almost invisible. But then, especially when the whistles are meant to be blown as part of calling out stop-and-frisk, making a way that people can stand up against this fascistic and racist assault, stand with the people being harassed by the cops and do it collectively, this invisible army is suddenly jumping out from every corner. A week after the whistles were first given out in Brownsville you might hear them any time of day or night.
* * * * *
James lives on one of the back streets in Brownsville. His front stoop is always crowded with people, mostly family and friends. I first met James on a day when bus tour volunteers marched down his street, agitating and then stopping to talk with people about building resistance to stop-and-frisk, revolution, BAsics and Bob Avakian. The people hanging out in front of James’ house were excited to hear all this. But then, a man about 30 years old burst out the front door, yelling at the volunteers, telling them that they need to move on, that if they wanted to do something good, they should go and organize against what the police are doing in that neighborhood. This was James. He was over-the-top angry and clearly had no idea what was really going on.
Someone managed to get a copy of BAsics—opened up to 1:24: “The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people. It is to serve and protect the system that rules over the people. To enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in. The law and order the police are about, with all their brutality and murder, is the law and the order that enforces all this oppression and madness.”
James’ eyes were riveted on the page. He was deep in thought and his whole mood changed. He quietly asked how much the book cost and immediately bought a copy. James’ family and friends grabbed up whistles and I made arrangements to come back and talk with James later.
James is just about to turn 30 and has lived in Brownsville most of his life. When I first got back in touch with James, I asked him what changed him around after reading that quote from BAsics and what made him want to buy the book right away. James looked at me like I should already know the answer and said, “It was something that hit me, man. I felt like it was more in that book, for me, for people to know. And I like to send a message. I mean, like if I get something from you, I’m not gonna hold that in, I’m gonna tell somebody about it.”
He started talking about what it’s like living in Brownsville. “It's rough. It ain't easy, but it's rough. I mean, all my life, I always seen police like take advantages of the community. And they always had to blame everybody for one man's mistake. I mean, they judge you by the clothes you wear, or whether you say 'hi' or 'bye' to 'em. Now, [if] the police ride by and see me sitting here talking to y'all, they assuming that I’m serving y'all something or giving y'all something. They assume it. And I don’t think that be right, man. I think there's one nation right here and we all in it together.”
I asked James what he thought about stop-and-frisk. His eyes got angry as he talked about this. “If it ain't stop-and-frisk, it's a stop. And they've already got their guns drawn to young boys about 12, 11. They draw their gun before they even ask any questions. It's like that, man. It hardly be nobody getting hurt around here. If it do be somebody getting hurt they get to live to see another day. There probably be a fist fight, a ambulance called. But they [the police] just bring a little too much into the situation. They draw they guns too fast. They don't even know if anybody got anything, a weapon or anything on 'em. And it be more than one. They like the biggest gang in New York City. The biggest gang in Brownsville, you ask me.”
I asked James if he knew how many times he got swept up in all this. He voice gave away his exasperation. “Too much. From growing up? How many times? I really can't even count. But I could say the last few times, they just jump out and frisk me just because of I been here for too long… They lock you up for open container, riding the bike up the one-way, having a razor in your pocket even though you might've came from work. They'll lock you up for stuff like that.
“All that is just building up a young man's reputation, a rap sheet, I say. So then when god forbid that they do get caught up in a situation that they can't get out of, they gonna make it seem like he been doing this all his life. And it ain't really like that. Like you can walk around with, um, you can just be coming from work and got a screwdriver on you. They gonna make it seem like you was out to kill somebody. It ain't really like that."
James did time in prison and talks about how so many other people in the neighborhood have also spent time in prison. I read him BAsics 1:13, the quote about how the system condemns generation after generation of young Black and Latino people to oppression, misery and oblivion even before they are born. James loved the power of saying “No More of That!” But he had a hard time wrestling with the idea that this system already has a future set out for so many millions of Black and Latino people, himself included. “Nah. That's what they think, they has each and every last one of us futures figured out. But I don't think it's like that. I don't think that they—I’m gonna keep it on 'I.' I don't think they got my future figured. Like, they plan on thinking that I’m going to go back and continuously do the same thing. I’m grown. You know, I’m about to be 30 in a couple of more days. I’m grown. I don’t think that they got my life figured out. But it's like every time I turn around they try to bring me down. And only one that could do that is me.”
James and I wrestled over what it meant that the oppression of Black people is systematic and systemic and how one of the ways it’s expressed is in things like stop-and-frisk and the pipeline to prison. I asked what he thinks is going on with all this. He thought hard on that. “Since I was young, since I can even remember, I been seeing the same thing go on. And on and on and on. It's like a revolving door, man. And like, even if you go and serve your time for your mistakes, you'll come out thinking that you gonna go the right path, but they still drag you in…
“And like I said before, they catch people up—if you ain't got a ID that say you from here, you trespassing. They taking you to jail. If you ride a bike up the wrong street way, you going to jail. Whatever. You can get caught smoking a cigarette near the park, you're going to jail. And there's a lot of stuff that if you do, that I don't feel like you should be able to go to jail for. But they got it in their head that you're going to jail. And that's how they give us a rap sheet. And they fill our rap sheet out when nobody ain't got no crime, no conviction. And then you get the rap sheet and never been convicted of none of this. But they done got your rap sheet looking like you a mastermind of a whole bunch of stuff—like you meant to do this or knew not to do this and still did it.”
I asked James if he ever dreamed about being able to live in a different world. His eyes lit up. “Everybody done dream! I want a life where there's no dying, no killing, like everybody just living. A life with nobody dying, no robbery, no murders, no rapes. I believe everybody can get along. I mean, just to make this nation even better.” I told James that I think we need to get rid of all nations and build a whole new world—and especially this nation that is slaughtering people and poisoning the planet every minute of every day. He thought about that for a minute and came back with this: “But then we gotta add up—some people need to be molded, man, 'cause if we do change the world, there's some people changing as well.”
We kicked that around a bit as I looked for BAsics 3:17. We talked about how people have to be transformed as they change the world and in order to really change the world. James liked that but had some doubts. “It ain't but much you can really change about a human being, a person, period. You can change the thinking process, but you know that always that stinking thinking gonna come up. Even if there's no wrong way to do nothing right. So you really gotta—you really gotta be dedicated to the change. A lot of people don't dedicate theyselves to the change.”
I read James BAsics 3:17: “People say: ‘You mean to tell me that these youth running around selling drugs and killing each other, and caught up in all kinds of other stuff, can be a backbone of this revolutionary state power in the future?’ Yes—but not as they are now, and not without struggle. They weren’t always selling drugs and killing each other, and the rest of it—and they don’t have to be into all that in the future. Ask yourself: how does it happen that you go from beautiful children to supposedly 'irredeemable monsters' in a few years? It’s because of the system, and what it does to people—not because of ‘unchanging and unchangeable human nature.’”
James considered the quote deeply and then said, “I’m thinking right now. I feel you gotta change the surroundings, people, places and things. 'Cause everybody don't think the same. I don't think nobody think the same. But some people be on the same page. Some people they be on the same page and some of us don't. Some of us ain't looking for no change 'cause they might feel that they embarrassed of a change 'cause they been doing this since they known life itself.” I asked James if he thought we could make a revolution in a place like this and he answered, “The more the merrier. We overpopulate all the negativity, I figure we win and they lose.”
We had been talking for quite some time and James had to split soon. I reminded him that all of his family and friends who were hanging around his stoop on the day we first met were now wearing whistles as part of the “Blow the Whistle on Stop & Frisk” campaign, and I wanted to know what he thought about this campaign. James talked while he walked back towards the sidewalk. “Yes, see, with a lot of people, because I seen a lot of people blowing the whistles. They been blowing the whistles when police stop-and-frisk for no apparent reason. And they blowing them just to make other people aware of what's going on, so they won't be left there by theyself. I feel that was a good thing. It was a good thing. You know, you got some people that blow them just when they see police saying something to somebody, get to blowing them…”
We started to say goodbye and I turned to James and said humanity really needs this revolution we’ve been talking about, really needs this movement. But before I could finish James interrupted with, “Yes, we do. 'Cause it's too many young Black men getting hurt. It's just a little bit too much. And they getting away with it. And some of them don't even be having a record or court appearance about nothing. And they just judge us wrong.”
I told James that this revolution is still small and not strong enough and if he really means what he’s saying he needs to be part of making this real. James smiled and said, “I’m there. No questions asked. From the book [BAsics], the book is a good book. I didn't really go through too much of it, but everything I went through in the book, it made me think about a better life tomorrow. Yeah, I had people reading the book the other night and I seen it in their eyes and everything that they was reading, that they was thinking, because a lot of the stuff that's going on in that book is true. A lot of it is true. And all I do is just sit there and think. I have a open mind, you know? And stop thinking about self. And you think about the bigger picture, like the bigger picture is us, and we all we got."
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