Cities On Fire: Reporting From Ferguson and Black Lives Matter
An interview with Sensei Gregory C. Lewis
Since the police murder of Michael Brown, there has been an increase in Black mobilizing and activism drawing attention to state and police violence against Black communities across the US. While the movement gained momentum after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it was not until the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri where the term #BlackLivesMatter took hold to aptly describe the struggle for Black self-determination and humanity in the face of increased state repression. Across the US, radical forms of direct action are taking place in different cities and towns. Internationally, solidarity rallies have been organized as the world has become fixated on the resistance in Ferguson and the recent uprisings in Baltimore.
Coined by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, #BlackLivesMatter is not only a political and ideological intervention, but is also seen by many as the newest wave of radical Black resistance bringing together a variety of communities across the US.
For Sensei Gregory C. Lewis, a martial arts instructor by trade and Black revolutionary living in Seattle, Black Lives Matter is also about using grassroots media to communicate the politics and resistance of this latest wave of Black struggle.
As a radio producer in Seattle, Lewis describes Black Lives Matter in the context of Black resistance historically and its connection to fighting police states around the world. You can find archives of his reporting and podcast at All Power to the Positive!
Sharmeen Khan interviewed Lewis in February and May of 2015 after his return from Mexico where he attended the World Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism.
Can you introduce yourself and describe your history of radical organizing in Seattle?
My name is Sensei Gregory C. Lewis – the title of Sensei means teacher, because I actually do teach martial arts (which I’ve been doing since I was seven). I have been organizing for 24 years in Seattle–fighting capitalism, white supremacy, and the persons, institutions, and regimes that support it, prop it up, spread it around, impose it upon people, and so on.
It is a long continuum, almost a blur, of activity ever since I first got serious about this stuff in 1992. I’ve been working on all kinds of issues: everything from political prisoner support work to forming the first Copwatch since the days of the Black Panther Party patrolling the police in Seattle with weapons.
I also just got back from the World Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism that was held in numerous Indigenous communities in Mexico. There I had a chance to actually address the families of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa.
A large part of my activism is producing the podcast All Power to the Positive! In this podcast, I give report backs on different struggles, combined with hip hop or traditional Indigenous music.
Currently, I’m involved with Black Lives Matter. I went to the first Black Lives Matter national gathering in August of 2014 alongside 16 other people from the Northwest, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington, and Portland. We drove out to Ferguson and participated in the first big national march they had there. In October 2014, I traveled to Ferguson a second time, joining the National Media Committee for Black Lives Matter, representing the Pacific Northwest (along with Donovan Smith in Portland, OR) but also participating in all kinds of different actions including a shutdown of one of the Walmart locations out there.
You can check out allpowertothepositive.info to see and hear the report backs from that.
In relation to your organizing, can you describe how you’ve connected to activist media and community radio? Why is alternative media important to your organizing?
My interest in alternative media is based on the reality that in the US, six corporations own all mainstream media. That alone is an affront to any sense of ‘democracy,’ real or perceived. National Public Radio received one of the largest fines issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for ‘indecency’ the complaint was for a story they did on cancer and women’s reproductive health. The big, scientific words used to describe a woman’s insides were ‘too much’ for some, so they snitched.Free speech really isn’t ‘free.’
You have the corporations, you have the easily offended, you have a mostly punitive governmental regulatory organization; to really reach a particular audience, regardless of genre, promotion does cost money.Without alternative media, those in power would have even more room to define reality in a direction that fits their interests and general worldview. Even if a particular grassroots media is a ‘lone voice in the woods,’ one voice versus the multiple voices of ‘business as usual’ is better than none at all.
When I started with media, I actually started with print and did that for a very long time until it got too expensive and I lost my hookups from the higher institutions of learning. The first time I ever did radio was with this pirate station called FUCC. They used to broadcast in Belltown back in the early ‘90s. I had a show there that was titled Copwatch 206. We’d copwatch on a Friday night and then Saturday morning I’d go on the air and talk about what we’d experienced, what we’d seen, and of course give people good information about what they can do to protect themselves. I’d also be spinnin’ the cuts on vinyl while I worked on another project, Free Radio Seattle. That lasted about a month and a half.
In December 2010, my co-host Jacob Brown and I founded All Power to the Positive! I’ve been doing at least one podcast a week ever since, without fail, no matter what was going on as far as things that were happening in terms of state repression or the various twists and turns that occur when you’re engaged in real deal community-based revolutionary struggle.
It was Mao, and later Huey Newton who said, “politics is war without bloodshed; War is politics with bloodshed.” So, framed in this way, All Power To The Positive!, is not just a source of information and entertainment, it is also a particular type of weapon in the so-called ‘war of ideas’ or ‘culture wars.’ It is also a means of communication between individuals and groups who would not normally speak to each other, or maybe did not know the other existed.
As someone who’s been long involved with different media projects, how did you use your podcast to connect with other activists in Ferguson? How do you use your media activism to also educate younger activists?
The first ride from Seattle to Ferguson was with mostly activist types, and of the initial 16 of us traveling, about four of us had activist experience ranging from two years to 30 some-odd years in organizing. And each one of us had a different approach.
My personal approach, the way I connect with people, is through hip hop. Hip hop has played a big role in spreading this message and hammering it home to folks. It has been a fantastic vehicle for carrying that message throughout the movement.
In terms of strategy, I focus on personal relationships, shaking hands and making friends in a new community. That’s pretty much what I do any place I go if I don’t know anybody, I just listen to people. And that means that one must be both present and presentable.
So, for me, that meant small flyers (my first time out to Ferguson), business cards (the second time I went), and music from artists from Seattle related to their situation there in Ferguson. Of course I brought my recording gear with me and got all kinds of music to share with listeners.
It helps to be able to articulate who you are, where you’re from, what you do (ideally, with a short explanation of why), and what you want from the person or group in 30 seconds or less. In oppressed communities, every weirdo from the local democratic party to hustlers and cultists of all types are always at people wanting something, usually money. Sadly, there are far too many for whom activism is a hustle. And even more sad are the cults amongst the left, particularly in the US, that want your soul even more desperately than the church.
A lot of those guys in the hip hop scene are really deep in the community, they seem to know everybody. One artist I met who was like that was Kapeli. He’s not necessarily an ‘activist,’ but an emcee from the community who sees his people under attack by the state and its most rabid supporters. Between him and his friends who came and went as we talked, I learned a lot about the politics, history, demographics, local personalities, and music of the region.
When I found those folks in Ferguson, they introduced me to other activists and when those folks found out I was from Seattle, people were surprised that I was serious enough to travel all the way to Ferguson to record their struggle. And I made more connections when I told my own stories about defeating the police with my bare hands, being found not guilty (and dodging a potential 10 year sentence), and then suing them successfully.
Again, the key to connecting with people is listening to what the people have been going through – especially those living out there in St. Louis. And of course connecting with a lot of different artists out there like Prince E, Tef Poe, and Heir Jordan. For folks who are into mainstream hip hop, support is there as well. Nelly is from that part of the world and he too is on board with
Black Lives Matter.
For young people coming into this movement who are ostensibly brand new, I also make myself available through email and Facebook where many ask me what I think of certain political groups or strategies. I spend a lot of my time answering these questions as best I can with references, and other information, while also linking them to past movements like the Panthers, Deacons for Defense, and so on, often by connecting them to those who lived it.
You were radicalized in 1992 and you’ve been doing a lot of anti-police activism through Copwatch. How has anti-police activism been different with Black Lives Matter?
I think first of all people need to understand and be clear that the organizing in Ferguson is not being done by the non-profits. It is actually the people that hang out in the street doing the organizing. And their initial slogan was “Kill the Police” long before the more contemporary “Hands up, don’t shoot!” came along.
I remember seeing the phrase “Kill the Police” on Twitter when the first folks hit the streets and started protesting and throwing rocks and setting fire to things. These were young people, these were teenagers, most of them, and they had had enough. People want to attach all this moralistic emotional baggage to it, but it’s real simple, as encapsulated in a quote I heard years ago “A beaten dog soon turns to bite.” And they had been beaten on, disrespected, and killed outright, for a very long time. People were done.
The Michael Brown killing was worse especially the way in which it appeared to the public. How the police presented this situation, and themselves, to the public by their specific initial actions was worse: not only did they kill Michael Brown, but they let his body lay there in the street, in the humidity, and in the direct sunlight for four and a half hours. To me that’s throwback to the days when the white community would pick up weapons and go into the Black community and rob us blind, kill us, burn our houses to the ground, and then eventually go ahead and take the property and build their houses upon that property.
Just across the river in East St. Louis in 1919 the whites did that to the Black population – burned down their section of the city – and a whole bunch of them had to flee across the Mississippi river into St. Louis proper. At that time they had a liberal mayor who gave them protection and told the police to protect them from the rioters who might try to come across the bridge and attack them. That’s the history of this part of the world and there’s a whole bunch of people who are still living that history.
I saw a whole bunch of the St. Louis Rams fans with that type of mentality. I went to one of the games because actions were being organized there. It was dangerous because the rednecks wait until you’re out of the sight of the police and security to run up on you and assault you. We had grown men beating up teenage girls. It was absolutely ridiculous.
There’s a lot bound up in that, given the long history, culture, and even some of the laws that aid and assist white folks being able to act as terrorists. ‘Stand your ground’ is a prime example. They absolutely have that out there in Missouri and quiet as it’s been kept, they have that same law right here in Washington State. You just don’t hear as much about it because it’s very rare when somebody invokes that here. In the South it’s invoked as often as possible and particularly against brown and Black people by armed white folks.
What differences and similarities did you see with police brutality in Ferguson compared to your experience in Seattle?
The state powers in St. Louis really show their hand, even more so than out here in the Northwest. Here in the Northwest, they have their ‘smile-in-your-face-and-then-take-you-around-the-corner-and-beat-the-hell-out-of-you’ type of attack. Out there, they just let it be known openly that they’re fascists. One of the things that’s starting to happen is that some of the police here in Seattle are taking cues from the hardheads in St. Louis. Here in Seattle, we have Kathleen O’Toole, the grand reformer they brought in who used to be the head of the Irish National Police. She is over here trying to stamp that down and you know, even the way in which she was presented to us is a lie – as someone here to protect the people. There’s a whole large set of issues around ‘police reform’ in this town.
Due to the police reform politics in Seattle and the violence that the current generation experience, we now have Black Lives Matter in Seattle. It’s coalesced between Outside Agitators 206, Women of Color For Systemic Change, the Africatown Education and Innovation Centre, and various artists that do visuals, hip hop, and spoken word poetry – all organizing under the banner of
Black Lives Matter.
Certainly within the last 10 years I haven’t seen such a vibrant movement. People could point to Occupy, but Black Lives Matter is more crucial given that those most directly affected are involved in and leading the organizing. I’m excited about it. Like I said, I’ve been in the game a long time and so now it’s about doing all we can to keep this on a genuinely revolutionary trajectory given the material conditions that we have to work with.
In terms of being a journalist, an activist, and someone committed to the movement, how do you navigate participation and observation?
I did a little bit of both observing and interacting, depending on what was going on. I had my recorder on everywhere I went and what I used depended on how I’d interact with the crowd. Sometimes I’m asking questions, other times I’m heckling police along with the folks there. Even though I’m a journalist, I am also a victim of police terror and there are some things I can’t just let go.
Certainly being that it is the people of Ferguson’s city, it is up to them to determine the destiny of their campaign, struggle, and its ultimate outcome. They are the ones who will have to live with that outcome, so I don’t try to get too deep into the local politics. You’re not going to see me go to a local meeting, jump up and give a long speech about what residents should do. That said, if people ask me my opinion, I’ll give it to them, but I wait to be invited. Beyond that, my approach is about reading the situation and having the right conversations, with the right people.
There have been a few times I’ve intervened as far as correcting people on their history of the civil rights movement and Black liberation movements because that’s important, especially because a lot of those veterans are still alive and I know many of them personally.
Since your time in Ferguson, what are your thoughts on the uprisings happening in Baltimore with the police being charged in Freddie Gray’s murder?
Let’s be clear: the reason those six got charged at all was specifically because of the uprising in Baltimore, and no other reason. Riots, sadly, do work. They’re trying to put a lid on something that has been bubbling for a very, very long time. They even have a nickname for what they call it when you throw a prisoner in the back of a police van without his seatbelt: they call it a “rough ride.” There’s a history of that. That right there tells you the nature of that police department, but also the nature of the institutions that lead the police department and those that ultimately run the country. That is something that people are starting to realize very quickly and there have also been conversations about how Black Lives Matter isn’t just about Black men.
For instance, there is a case in Seattle of a young child by the named Patience who was threatened by a white parent with a knife, stating that she would, “cut her tongue out,” at her elementary school. So, when people say Black Lives Matter, we mean all Black lives matter because we are all being targeted, including and especially the most marginalized and the most defenseless.
If you’re homeless, you’re out there in the street and you’re more apt to run into law enforcement based upon how you live, regardless of whether you do drugs or not. If they keep seeing you on the street, they make sure to pull you over and it can very quickly turn into something. This phenomenon can easily apply to those who appear sucessful and those who are ‘successful’. It’s a realization that a lot of middle and upper middle class Black people are starting to have, that just because they followed the rules and they ‘made it,’ or they have a certain position in the society, they are not immune. And that’s going to be a game changer for a lot
Many of us have known this for a very long time, but it’s different when you really feel it in your body and you get that adrenaline rush every time you see law enforcement anywhere doing anything. It could be way far away from you, not even concerned with you, but there you are keeping a sharp eye on them and trying to find the nearest exit.
There are conversations happening concerning the existence of sexism and homophobia within Black Lives Matter, especially coming from the women who founded the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. As a reporter and an activist have you found significant changes or progress to those conversations or are there still consistent problems with sexism and homophobia within the movement?
I think there’s a whole lot of problems bound up in this movement. I mean, first of all, these forms of oppression are reflective of the society of which we live. I find that a lot of times when folks come into activism it’s because they see it as an escape from that reality. As someone who is directly affected by police violence, when I come into something, I come into it regardless of anyone else who is involved, speaking from a place of self-preservation.
On the other hand, sometimes people feel like that this is a “social” movement, as in for socializing. That would be nice but one of the things – and maybe this is me being jaded – is that often times when you come into something that is community-based, you are going into it with people you would have nothing to do with in your daily life. I don’t say that in a mean-spirited, hostile way; in regular life, you would not cross paths. You just would not.
One of the things I noticed is that conversations improve in so far as the most directly affected – in this case, LGBTQ* folks – assert themselves, saying “don’t invisiblize us, we also suffer, often with no fanfare, let alone a rebellion.” I’m seeing that happen more. And what is even better is seeing folks who are also of that community being challenged for their opposition to queer liberation.
I will say this: resistance starts from a place of one’s own self-preservation. You have to assert self-preservation regardless of who you are, especially if you are part of that community because of marginalization, invisibilization, and the ease with which these LBGTQ* deaths are ignored. In order for a Black male not to be ignored, we have to riot – so what does it take then for somebody who is queer or trans* who is killed by the police or by a vigilante to be acknowledged? Do we need one-two-three-1,000 Stonewalls – is that what needs to happen? I’m not opposed to that. Maybe that’s the direction things have to go in.
It does help that in Black Lives Matter there is a visible leadership that is Black, female, trans*, and queer. Not only are these folks from that community; they also demonstrate leadership. I think that’s especially important for the next generation coming up to see. All social movements are for the next generation anyway, and oftentimes children have better answers than adults do.
What is the role of white allies or non-Black people in Black Lives Matter? How do people navigate building this movement with other communities in resistance?
A lot of people who come to a demo are hollering and screaming that they are an ally, and then quickly turn it into making themselves seen and heard at our collective expense in order to become the center of attention. This is invisibilization, paternalism, and social imperialism (on a micro level); it is essentially an attempt at reasserting white domination under a ‘progressive,’ ‘supportive,’ or ‘revolutionary’ guise.
Consider the “All Lives Matter!” slogan: well, no foolin’ professor, where you from, Harvard!? If all lives really did matter, we wouldn’t be out here marching, we wouldn’t be out here fighting the police, wouldn’t be out here catching the flash-bang and throwing it back before it goes off, and we wouldn’t be out here having these conversations.
You have a lot of people coming into this movement still holding fast to their basic American belief system and trying to claim to be allies. The US was built upon slavery, genocide, land theft, cultural appropriation, and greed. So, what makes you think that its institutions are not going to be tainted by that? What makes you think you are not tainted by that? What makes you think the whole of the amerikkkan population is not tainted by that?
What these people fail to grasp is that the majority of us in this movement, especially in Seattle, are openly and unapologetically anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist. You can go to allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com and click on “platform/program” in the right side-bar and read for yourself where I stand.
The movement’s growing and it’s diversifying. And its politics are diversifying. A lot of that is driven by the brutality and frequency of the police terrorism we’re experiencing, more so than anything any activist can say or do, or is saying or doing at this time.
How do you use media to provide a different narrative around property destruction and the question of violence? How do you respond to certain prominent Black leaders condemning property destruction or other so-called violent acts?
Those who express more concern with the well-being of an inanimate object than they do with the well-being of a child, the marginalized, or the whole of a people, are clearly fools, frauds, and fascists. Their political positions are a direct threat to the health and safety of all oppressed people and should be treated as such.
This kind of material religiosity put forward by this bourgeois moralism essentially rewards state violence and aids in the demonization (and invisibilization) of the victims of state violence. So far, this is what the net effect has been.
All these victims, all of us, along side everyone else in the US, has paid for this violence, many times over, through income tax and sales tax. If you’re a taxpayer in America, it’s fundamentally impossible to be ‘non-violent’ because your tax dollars go to bomb children in Gaza every day! And this is verifiable, the numbers are there. You can go to the War Resisters League website and they can show you the US military budget. Or you can go to Electronic Intifada and see US expenditures for Israel’s war on the Palestinians.
Death and destruction upon millions all over the world and a militarized police force that kills mostly non-white people are the direct result of your tax dollars at work; you willingly help pay for all of this, and yet here you are still calling yourself ‘non-violent’?
Many like to claim that non-violence ‘works.’ Yet these people cannot define succinctly, or even honestly, how it is ‘working.’ If that were the case, if it was ‘working,’ if it had actually ‘worked’ for the civil rights/anti-war generation, there is a greater chance we wouldn’t be here shouting “Black Lives Matter!” today and doing all the things we are doing, including this interview. Non-violence has clearly failed, so here we are.
In its popularity, Black Lives Matters has been taken up by well financed organizations and state institutions, often with a great deal of funding and resources for organizers. What are the implications of this kind of funding?
All of the various political forces you will find in any kind of colonized community are doing all they can to push Black Lives Matter and the whole movement against police terrorism in a particular political direction, from the way in which they use words to frame this struggle to who they’re receiving money from.
Many activists in the Ferguson area are getting George Soros’ money. So we have a big spectrum: from reformist non-profits getting money from George Soros, all the way to the grassroots who are trying to organize hand to mouth, nickel and dime. If you go to HandsUpDontShoot.com you can see some of the commentary related to that specific struggle around those Democratic Party machines coming in to Ferguson and St. Louis, bankrolling certain people and organizations, and then leaving the actual community high and dry.
The whole build up of the non-profit industrial complex was part of the larger counter-insurgency program to destroy the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, anti-war movements, and all related organizations and sister organizations in other communities. Here’s the thing: getting this money basically prohibits you from saying or doing certain things that need to be said, or even working openly with certain people.
Some of those things you can’t even speak of, yet they need to happen. One of the ways that can happen is through the folks who are catching the money quietly doing a little side-pass to the folks on the street who are making things happen. That’s one way to use the money. The right wing has been doing that in this country for a very long time.
The other thing is simply to be honest with your membership as well as with the people around you. Just say, “This is who we are and this is what we do.” Don’t sit up here and make these fiery speeches at the march and the demo and put these fiery articles out on your website and then we come to find out you’re just a puppet for the local Democratic Party machine or sectarian cult of fools and/or frauds. You’re taking the money, which means you’re limited in the things you can do without risking that funding being cut off or being charged with ‘misappropriation of funds.’
Remember, that’s all corporate money. And let’s remember how George Soros makes his money: fooling around with the currencies of other countries, often devaluing those currencies, and getting wealthy off of the debt and its residuals.
Again, this is all bound up in the struggle around political direction, and that itself is bound up in questions of class amongst the colonized themselves. Who is the majority and who benefits the least under this system? That’s what we’re looking at. I’m saying this within the context of living in a First World country where the whole of the population owns around 15 percent of the world’s wealth.
Through warfare, neo-colonialism, and theft, we take the resources of the Third World and bring it to the US as consumer goods, use people of low paid or slave labour, and sometimes even prison labour if they’re eventually caught without papers and so on. All kinds of corporations grease their bottom line by using prison/slave labour.
I say this in order to show the interconnection of this movement internationally, and to caution activists on becoming provincial and/or amerikkka-centric in their analysis and activities. Black Lives Matter means all Black lives matter – from those in the Third World, digging out those raw, toxic materials with their bare hands for less than $2 per day (US), all the way to the brother from down the block who is working in some prison industry for free so he can have more time outside of his cell.
What do you think is the future of Black Lives Matter?
It’s only going to grow and evolve, possibly into a whole new movement. Or, it will be crushed. The growth of this movement is tied directly to the brutality and terrorism that law enforcement continues to dish out and to our ability to keep ourselves alive long enough to see revolution in our lifetime.
When thinking about Black Lives Matter as a national movement and thinking about those people who created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, keep in mind that they, and those of us who answered the initial call to come to Ferguson, got the ball rolling. Now it rolls all on its own.
A lot of people have taken up the hashtag, a lot of people have taken up the colours (black and yellow), and the whole thing that binds many of us together politically are the demands and the threat to life and limb that we face each day. And those demands, both national and local, are pretty baseline.
For those of us who have an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist perspective, we are able to look at those demands and say “ok that’s a good beginning.” In the city of Seattle, many of those demands have already been met, at least ‘officially.’
Yet, we still have the police doing things like they did this past May Day 2015 where they crashed into an individual with a bike and then all the other cops jumped on him, and then after that they attacked the crowd with the flash-bangs. This was caught on video from two different angles, prompting Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harell to state publically that he believes the police started this year’s May Day riot.
Recently police in Lakewood and Olympia, two smaller cities south of Seattle, have shot and killed unarmed people. And the inquest for Malcolm Eliott, the King County Sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed Oscar Perz-Giron in March of 2014, just concluded. That’s the fifth inquest I’ve been to. The jury has, once again, found in favor of the officer. The case now goes to the prosecutor to make a final decision on whether or not to charge the officer with a crime.
Black Lives Matter is much bigger than just the founders, the demands, or the numerous factions involved. Black Lives Matter is the start of a social revolution, in amerikkka and in the world.H
1. To read this account in its entirety, see https://outsideagitators206.org/blog/how-i-survived-police-terrorism-and-lived-to-tell-about-it-part-1/
2. For more information on Kathleen O’Toole, please see http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Former-Boston-Police-Commissioner-Kathleen-5483966.php