Legendary sports icon, activist, and educator Dr. Harry Edwards discussed Ferguson’s “absolutely appalling” military response in an interview with POPSspot Sports Radio, and believes that we are possibly “one more incident” away from an equivalent of an “Arab Spring” or an “American Summer” without adequate leadership.

Dr. Harry Edwards is an Emeritus Professor at UC Berkeley (UCB) best known for co-engineering the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” in the late 1960’s that included organizing and leading The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) which made three central demands, and ultimately evolved into the famous fist protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. In 1971 Edwards earned his Ph.D. from Cornell and became a sociology professor at UC Berkeley. While there he developed the field of race and the sociology of sport.

While best known for his roles in activism, athletics, and the academy (see fuller bio here) few are aware that he was born in East St. Louis and grew up not far from where Michael Brown was killed. The interview took place on Monday while I was in Ferguson to view the military trucks, helicopters, canons, and tear gas for myself. Part 1 of the interview is below in written form.

Chuck Modiano: Dr. Edwards, thank you so much for being with us…  When you are looking at the situation in Ferguson with Michael Brown, what are your general reactions from what you are seeing?

Dr. Harry Edwards: Thank you very much for having me…Well my reaction is the same as it was in 1966 when a 12-year-old kid by the name of Tyrone Guyton was shot off of his bicycle in Oakland, California by police officer and really sparked the creation of the Black Panther Party for self-defense in the community.  I was a member of the Black Panther Party for a period of time when they were providing preschool services, breakfast, hot breakfast for kids who otherwise would have been going to school hungry, after school programs and so forth.  So, I have the same reaction today that I have back then.

And point of fact, there have been literally countless cases that are the same, the most recent of course being Trayvon Martin. Of course you have the gentleman who was supposedly selling loose cigarettes in New York City, two days after the Michael Brown case [Eric Garner].  There was another young man shot to death in Los Angeles California [Unclear whether Ezell Ford, Jr., Dante Parker, or Omar Abrego – all killed by LAPD in August].  So this kind of thing is endemic. In point of fact, I do not think there is anybody who is surprised when it happens.  It is just that we have not yet figured out a coherent and cohesive, in the sense of everybody getting in together on the solution to resolve the situation.

Tyrone Guyton Rally, Oakland 1973

Chuck Modiano: Dr. Edwards, you have mentioned some history and you refer to Eric Garner’s death, who died because of a chokehold by police… What do you see has changed and has not changed, as you look back from the 60s with regards to police brutality?

Dr. Harry Edwards (4:26):

Well, there have been a great many things that have changed.  No one can deny that.  I mean we are sitting here with an African-American family in the White House, but the general perception of the human status, the human rights status of African-Americans, I am afraid have not progressed at a phase commissioned with the civil rights gains.  We can vote, organize sufficiently to have an African-American family in the White House, but when it comes down to the human rights of African-Americans, I am afraid that those kinds of changes have not penetrated what are oftentimes entrenched of solid walls of historic tradition in terms of cultural and racial perceptions of black people.

I mean, I have a Ph.D., four Super Bowl rings, 32 years on the faculty of the University of California in Berkeley, a championship ring with the Florida greatest basketball team, a lecture series named for me at the University of Texas and all of the rest.  The only reason that I was not lying on the street where Mr. Brown was lying was because I was not there.  I was not in that situation. So, these kinds of things, we have to simply face up to and begin to deal within a very, very fundamental level.  This is not a matter of just changing law.  This is a matter of changing perceptions, changing parts of man and that is a much, much more difficult challenge even in this so-called Christian nation.

CM: …In [today’s Washington Post] poll stated, it showed that only 33% of whites said that the reaction went too far [more poll analysis here].  What do we do about, how do those perceptions change?

Dr. Harry Edwards (6:44): Well, we have got to first begin to deal with some policy issues before we begin to deal with the perception and so forth.  Anytime you have the Pentagon as the Defense Department turning over what are essentially military materials to people who for practical purposes are non competent in terms of their demonstrable competence and capability to even frame the problem such as your police chief there in Ferguson, we have a major issue here.

Without training, without oversight, without monitoring, these materials, I mean essentially tanks and personnel carriers and other instruments of war with a 30-caliber machine guns manning on top and they are turning these things over to people who for all practical purposes have no training and administrative capability in terms of this war materials.  These are not just put in place for use against terrorist attack.  I do not think Ferguson is in line or have value target in terms of a terrorist attack.  Even if you are going after drug dealers, you would not go in with tanks and 30-caliber machine guns and armored personnel carries. 

So, we have a major issue in that regard, and in point of fact, the Pentagon and the Defense Department are turning these materials over to some 1700 law enforcement agencies across this country without monitoring, without training, without oversight. Then the National Rifle Association which has been the traditional bogeyman and bad guy in terms of the proliferation of weapons in a country where you have 300 million firearms in the hands of a 180 million people armed against themselves.

The Defense Department and the Pentagon make the National Rifle Association looked like a mom and pop, five-and-dime selling BB guns. the kids might shoot at us. 

I mean, so, we have to look at some very fundamental things here.  Why would the Police Department in Ferguson have access to that type of weaponry which is in roll out, unmonitored, unsupervised, untrained against citizens who are exercising their right to protest for their rights?  There is something fundamentally wrong with that and it goes all the way up to the top in this country.

CM: There was a lot of love here [in Ferguson], and there was a lot of peace today and there were people from all over the world… and almost at 9:00 p.m. it was like a light switch and everything changed.  Police put their gas masks went on, and then when tear gas came out… So what will we have to do to stop this militarization of the police force?

Dr. Harry Edwards: (10:13):

Well, I think that United States Congress has to hold hearings and find out under what auspices these weapons of war are being distributed and disseminated to local police departments where they are mostly likely to be used not against terrorists or drug traffickers invading the country but against the citizens of the very communities that are paying the salaries of the police officers who are going to be charged with using them.

And you know I came home from [49ers] camp, and I just happened to turn on the news and when I saw this, I guess it was Wednesday of last week, when the first time they rolled them out…  I thought that I was looking at something going on in Syria or Iraq, you know, but I said, wow!  I said, I guess the President decided to put booths on the ground over there after all and then all of a sudden, I looked up and they are using tear gas and I know that going back to the Vietnam War that gas has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

I said well Barack would not go into using teargas and I kind of stopped and that is when it dawned on me: It was not Syria, it was not Iraq, it was Afghanistan, it was Ferguson, Missouri and the targets were American citizens and that to me is absolutely appalling.

CM: Absolutely, and you know last night it felt like it went from Woodstock to Baghdad.  As we take a look at the police and the militarization of police, what can regular people do to help combat this police brutality throughout the nation?  What can the common person do?

Dr. Harry Edwards (12:05):

Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that especially in a diversified [nation]… without the law, we have nothing.  Without the law, we have absolutely nothing.  It turns into a situation of savage against barbarian, of the powerful against the powerless.  It turns into a situation of dog eat dog, unrestricted, without restraints or consideration of anybody’s humanity. 

So the first thing we have to understand, is that we are a nation of laws and irrespective of how far off kilter any one sector of this society might become, we still have to abide by laws, but that has to be a commitment on the part of everybody that we are not going to assault each other.  We are not going to kill each other.  We are not going to throw bombs at each other in order to deal with our civic and civil and political problems. 

The second thing that has to happen is that there must be a greater responsibility exercised by those who are in charge of these various oversight committees, who are in charge of these various materials that our tax money paid for.  You cannot turn around and give these kinds of materials to untrained people whose basic commitment and understandings are limited to say the least.  So, I think with the development of local leadership coordinating with national leadership, we can begin to make some inroads into at least settling the situation down.  Until we get to that point, where we can at least agree that in the face of all of this, the only thing that we have to enforce is the law, then we are going to continue to have problems.

During next 30 minutes of interview, Dr. Edwards discusses growing up in East St. Louis, Michael Brown’s Case as a continuing Human Rights Struggle, and the roles of athletes, sports media, and educators in relation to that struggle. These subsequent interview parts can be heard on POPSspot Sports Radio interview and will be will be posted next week in written form. Dr. Edward’s closes with the immediate need for leadership.

Dr. Harry Edwards (42:26):

I think that — in terms of this situation, without adequate leadership, I think that we are one more incident such as that anywhere else in this country, before we have the equivalent of an “Arab Spring” right here in American society.  We have one more incident like that situation and I think we are facing the possibility of an “American Summer” because this thing in Ferguson has been so ineptly handled, so incompetently dealt with that it has galvanized the outrage of people all over this country and so now, the fuse is there and it takes one incident of a similar nature somewhere else before that fuse is lit and we have a problem. 

So I am hoping two things; one, is that that the justice department can begin to show evidence of judicious inquiry and movement towards justice, and the other thing that I am literally praying for is that we do not have another Michael Brown type incident anywhere else in American society between now and at least the time that school starts where you have kids and young people off the streets.

CM: Thank you.  It’s an honor and privilege to be speaking to sports history. We really appreciate all the work that you have done and thank you so much for being on the show.

Dr. Harry Edwards: Oh thank you very much for having me.  It has been a privilege.

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One Response to Dr. Harry Edwards on Michael Brown & “Absolutely Apalling” Military Response

  1. […] unrestricted, without restraints or consideration of anybody’s humanity. –  Dr. Harry Edwards, POPSspot Sports Radio Interview, August 22, […]

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