Works of Justice Podcast: Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
CAITS MEISSNER: This Works of Justice podcast is embedded within our rapid response series “Temperature Check, Covid-19 Behind Bars. At the date of recording on June 3rd 2020, the United States is boiling at the intersection of, as our guest Gloria J. Browne Marshall so clearly names it, “two Insidious and terrorizing diseases the pandemic and white supremacy.” We cannot talk about the impact of the coronavirus on incarcerated people without explicitly naming and centralizing the rampant racial Injustice that has created our country’s shameful problem of mass incarceration. What you’ll hear today is our Prison and Justice Writing program manager, Robbie Pollock, with support from our intern Brookie McIlvaine, in powerful conversation with Gloria J. Brown Marshall, a valuable member of our Prison Writing Committee who holds an extensive biography that includes being an award winning civil rights attorney, highly regarded author of numerous books, articles and plays, a sought after legal commentator and professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In this episode Gloria contextualizes the long history of systematic murder of Black Americans at the hands of the law, puts into perspective the history of policing in our country, and offers a holistic and inciting call to action around reconciling white privilege and being in right allyship with Black americans in this critical moment and beyond. Litigation, legislation and protests are the ingredients for change that Gloria extends to include the role of the artist. As colleagues, friends, and family grapple towards contribution and understanding in this global call to action, to witness and dismantle the pervasive anti-Blackness that riddles every aspect of our lives in America and has invaded our psyches, I invite you to listen with a close ear to Gloria’s wisdom and message and to share it widely. You’ll find another of Gloria’s many contributions to our work in next week’s, “A Stronger Desire to Live,” a highly emotional and affecting podcast performance featuring incarcerated writers’ work that she both helped to curate and to voice on air. Join us on June 11th at 5 p.m. EST to listen in partnership with Haymarket books. I am Caits Meissner, PEN America’s prison and Justice Writing program director, and I’m honored to turn this conversation over to such critical leadership in forwarding both a continued and long overdue conversation.
POLLOCK: Gloria Browne Marshall, thank you for being with us today. I feel like a weird sort of reverence, you know, just for you and your presence in the world. I saw you on CNN and there you are standing there, proud and beautiful and Black with the African cloth behind you. And I was just like, you go, Gloria. I don’t even know. I just have to say that. Like, honestly, I felt really just, I dunno, stunned by your, your, your beauty and your awesomeness. So I think you’ve also signed on to be, in addition to all your amazing work in the world you have contributed heavily as a member of the PEN Prison Writing Awards Committee, which we feature a lot of work from on this podcast and on our website and our Temperature Check. And I would just want you to know we’re grateful for that.
BROWNE-MARSHALL: You’re welcome. Thank you. I thank you first for doing this. I mean, I appreciate the opportunity to use different platforms, to get the word out, to put ideas into the marketplace of ideas. So I really appreciate this opportunity.
POLLOCK: Well, thanks again.
So what’s really interesting for me lately is a lot of the work that we’re putting in the world through our blog and podcast is focused on COVID 19 in prison, and its impact on both the writers we know, but also everyone in prison across the country. Uh, and part of what we’re seeing is this intersection of COVID and the larger conversations about race and class disparities in this country.
So one of the, one of the things I really wanted to ask you, I’ve heard a phrase being floated around sort of characterizing our country as being in the middle of two pandemics, both COVID 19 and the pandemic of systemic racism. And like, I’d love to hear your thoughts in response to that statement.
BROWNE-MARSHALL: Well, I believe we’re in two diseased states: one disease being COVID 19, the other chronic disease being racism and racism has plagued this country from the root of its beginning and the colony of Virginia. And we know last year was the 400th commemoration of the arrival of twenty Africans into that colony in 1619 and those laws put in place by the house of Burgesses that was also established in 1619, coincidentally, were put in place in order to satisfy the greed of those Englishman who wanted to have perpetual labor without paying for it. And so those Africans were then subjugated and oppressed by law. And one of those laws was a law of 1669 which gave the Englishman the right to kill an African without it being a felony.
So when we start thinking about how long this has been going on with the murder of people of African descent with impunity. It’s been going on since the Virginia colony. And so there’s been progress made in every area of African American life. And that’s why I don’t want people to say, Oh, we’ve made no progress. Yes, we have. We’ve made progress in politics and in education. We’ve made policy, we made progress in corporate America and the arts and sciences, we’ve made progress in every area. Except criminal justice, and we’re still dealing with the segregationist laws and the oppression that was put in place in the Jamestown settlement of the Virginia colony. We’re still dealing with slavery type mentality within the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, we’re still dealing with Jim Crow segregationist justice from the 1900s, we’re still dealing with murder with impunity. We’re still dealing with this, and so it’s so deeply embedded in this country that it takes something like this to shock the conscience of not just Americans, but around the world. I have friends in Paris and London. I had a Brazilian radio station and other television stations asking me about this, people in Canada. This has shocked the world. Because it’s happening on two fronts. One is happening from the standpoint of you know, just a horrific thing that takes place. There have been murders and other countries of people of color, but this country sets itself up to be a shining light on the Hill of democracy. So you don’t set yourself out to be exceptional, and they talk about American exceptionalism, and then at the same time, subjugate people, oppress people, murder them in plain sight, and with such ease and arrogance as this officer displayed.
And this is something that didn’t happen with just George Floyd. And it didn’t happen with Trayvon Martin. It didn’t happen going all the way back to the 1960s and the riots that took place in Newark, New Jersey because of a black man being shot by police. It doesn’t go to Emmett Till. It goes all the way back deep into the root of colonial Virginia.
And so we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to be what we consider quote unquote, a civilized nation. But I’m concerned because even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of a pandemic, we couldn’t even just be Americans joined together in our misery against that common foe COVID 19.
We couldn’t even be a part of that. Even within the pandemic, we are, you know, subjugated to such oppressive, horrific means as this. And so it’s such a sad time. The disease is so rampant, it’s chronic, it’s ongoing. And I don’t think, you know, since this is America’s original sin, that and the subjugation of native Americans for their land, I don’t think it will ever go away, but we can do better than this.
POLLOCK: Thank you.
I hear the central cry of sort of looking back to the original sin, the founding of the country and the principles that it’s founded on, and it reminds me of the 1619 project, so praised and critiqued in the New York Times. Uh, I was, it just made me think also about the role of education and history. How has the separation of, from your experience have you seen in black and brown students or people of color, a separation from education about their own history and the history of the country?
BROWNE-MARSHALL: Well, when you have States that, for example, Arizona and a fight against actually including in K through 12 education would happen after the Mexican American war, and the movement of the, the line of the border between Mexico and the United States that left so many people who were earlier Mexican with property as Americans without property. When you start to realize that education deprives people in this country from knowing the true history, and then in, instead they’re fed propaganda.
And so that propaganda is not just in their educational system this propaganda is in their informal education of what I call, what people have called, others have called the power of white privilege. And unfortunately the power of white privilege is based in murder. And I actually wrote a poem about white privilege and it’s pretty, you know, a dastardly poem. I go there, I go deep as they say with that poem, because white privilege is based in murder. We didn’t, you know, give away our, our, our land and our labor. It was taken by murder. White privilege is based in, if you don’t do what I say and give me what I want, I’ll kill you as we see with George Floyd.
This is what white privilege is. So even when I hear white people, white people throw that phrase around, Oh, I’m sorry, I’m using my white privilege. They don’t even understand the phrase because the education has not even gotten to the point where they realize how much blood is on the hands of each generation of white people.
And this is what I like about the protests, the diversity of the protests we’re seeing in this George Floyd case, because these white people, especially the young ones with some of the older ones are saying, not in my name. I don’t want this blood on my hands and this is what we must do, we must say, because if they, if you don’t stand up, the blood is on your hands.
And we can’t escape it just because, oh, I didn’t learn about that in school. You can watch it on television. You can see it in the news. Don’t act like that didn’t that wasn’t Eric Garner, you saw getting killed time and time again on the news and you sit there and I’ve heard so many people, “well you see if only he would have…” And I said, well, if only he would have been white, it never would’ve happened. So I think, education when people say, I didn’t read about that in school, nobody taught me this country has so many books and so much access to information. If people want to know, they can know, but it’s easy through the privilege of escape to just say, I can’t deal with that.
So I think education has this role K- 12 the governments have to stop denying the history of this country and living in this vacuum bubble that makes them feel content in their oppression. And their benefit of their oppression. People have inherited wealth based on oppression, all of that. If you want the wealth, fine.
You know, we can’t go back and change the past, but take the guilt that comes with it. Don’t, don’t take your wealth and don’t take your benefits from, you know, segregation and from oppression, and then believe that you are supposed to get it guilt-free. You can’t have it that way. And so I think education, K through 12 education as I have with my students in my race and law classes, my constitutional law classes.
Gender and justice. I try to remind people why this country became wealthy, how it became wealthy, and so that they began their education there, but continued education for a lifetime.
POLLOCK: That’s such a powerful answer. I agree wholeheartedly. Our, our prison writing program. As you know, it has a mentorship component, which is sort of like education. I think a lot of people think of it as akin to education, although we look at it as much more connective. So the prisoner learns from the mentor, but the mentor also learns from the prisoner through the exchange. That also brings me around to this concept of allyship. None of these questions are planned so just forgive me I’m like literally just kind of going off the cuff, but I’m wondering what you see as the main challenges to allyship white allyship with people of color as a struggle for justice?
BROWNE-MARSHALL: Well, African Americans are powerful. We are creative. We’ve gone through what I say, 400 years of perseverance. We’re resilient. And we are worthy allies in search of worthy allies. We’re not a project. We’re not an empty vessel for someone else to pour into. We come fully formed. And so because so much of what other people who are non-African-American, non-black know about us is from a position of pity and sympathy. Sometimes empathy.
But usually it’s not a level playing field as though we come with nothing. And that concerns me because we don’t have to be married, but we do have to have common ground that lasts during an alliance. That alliance has to be based on mutual respect and, and some since of the empathy that we have for one another.
I feel sorry for some white people because they’re so disconnected that when you do tell them the truth, when they are educated about it, it really messes them up. I’ve had police officers tell me they decided to leave the police force when they read my book, “Race, law, and American Society” because they had no idea that the police department began as slave catchers and militia to put down native American uprisings. They had no idea the history and the blood on the hands of police officers, generation to generation what white Irish police officers did in order to become American. There are books on this, and so in order for us to understand what an alliance means, we need to know that we’re coming into this, both sides with something to offer.
And that our history binds us in a lot of different ways and we’re all growing. African Americans are not perfect, far from it. But we need to understand that we’re being bound together in this country based on a mutual history that has given and taken on both sides. The emotional and psychological damage done to white people in this quest to maintain a superiority they never had in the first place.
That was all an illusion has, has created a level of mental illness. And I remember talking to Andrew Young, the former ambassador, and he told me personally, he was like, he said, you know, when he worked in civil rights on firsthand, on the forefront with Martin Luther King, I said, how did you do that? He said, because he looked at them as mentally ill.
Why would you believe that somebody could be less than you based on just the pigment of their skin? He said that’s how he was able to do it ; he just saw them as mentally ill. So I think the alliances will be formed. They don’t have to be permanent, but they have to be there based on mutual respect and a common goal and vision for the country.
POLLOCK: Thanks, Gloria. I’m reminded by your comment about the foundations of police forces in this country to your comment, uh, on Anderson Cooper 360, where you talked about three examples specifically of how, I think you referred to it as the reasonable standard for the way the police approach a suspect is completely different for black people and for white people. I was wondering if you could talk some more about that, because I remember feeling flabbergasted as you laid it out so clearly.
BROWNE-MARSHALL: When police officers encounter a suspect there is a reasonable standard. That’s the legal standard on how they’re supposed to comport themselves. And so when we think about the reasonable standard as applied to the Boston bomber who killed and maimed, terrorized Boston in the vicinity and was tracked down and found.
And they had the infrared showing that he was hiding in this little boat and they talked him out, arrested him, and he stood trial and was convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death. He was not shot down. They could have gone in and just blown up the little boat. They could have shot it full of holes.
They could have done any of those things. And they did not, um, in the shootings, the horrible shootings in the dark, in the theater in Aurora, Colorado, that man went in and just shot everyone that he could find: the dead and the dying and the living. He was arrested and tried before a court. And, and when we look at Eric Frein, and this is what really gets me. Eric Frein who executed a state trooper and shot another one, executed him, intentionally walked up to kill because he wanted to start a revolution. That’s what he said later, to do this, he’s part of a whole group to kill a police officer. There have been many police officers, white killed by white people who want to start a revolution or anti-cop anti-government. They are the true anarchist, if you think about it. And he led the police in New York state and Pennsylvania state on a manhunt for weeks.
There were like, wanted posters out for him. He was finally caught. He was not shot. Even though he was known to have done this, he was brought in, they roughed him up a little bit. He had one bruise by his eye and they questioned the police officers. Did you beat him up? He stood trial and was found guilty of a capital offense and you know, went through the whole process and those were horrific, atrocious crimes committed intentionally.
And those people live to stand trial. On the other hand, we have George Floyd, who was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, which is a federal crime, it’s not even for local police officers to do anything with this, this is federal. We have Michael Brown and Ferguson who was thought of to have stolen a box of cigars. Once again, what is supposed to be the reasonable comportment of police officers and when, when you think about this, you just go from one to the other with Eric Garner, he was thought based on the word of someone in a store to be selling loose cigarettes on the street and we have arrest. None of those cases should have involved an arrest because there was no evidence outside of the word of one non white, one non-black person. I’m assuming a white person, but one non-black person who says this person committed this act. These are not capital offenses. These are, there’s not even enough evidence to foreign arrest. You can’t go arrest somebody based on the word of one person. And yet this is what we have: people who not only were arrested but arrested and then did take the life of that person based on that arrest.
This, this is what we’re talking about when it comes to actions of reasonableness. When there is a black person and when there is a white person.
POLLOCK: And when you say that, it fills me with just all the feelings. I think about how deeply black kids growing up in the hood, internalize these messages and —
BROWNE-MARSHALL: And internalized communities, you know, that’s, that’s the thing, when you think about Jordan, you know, in Florida who was shot in his car because a white man said his music was up too loud. When you think about all of these things that would give rise to a white man putting his knee for almost nine minutes in broad daylight with three other men on top of him with somebody taping it and not caring and putting his hand in his pocket and not caring. That’s where we are. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood, it doesn’t matter what social economic status, it doesn’t matter what education, it doesn’t matter what job title. This is the deeply embedded racism in the criminal justice system in this country.
POLLOCK: I’m so glad you frame it with such clarity. It’s been a really tough bunch of days and I think about, um, just the value of having clear thought on all of these things. And it brings me kind of to my next question. Like as a playwright and as an educator at John Jay, I wonder what you think the role of writing is in creating the opportunity for change?
BROWNE-MARSHALL: I think writing is essential to change. Um, when it comes to social justice. I’ve always said litigation, legislation and protest are required to make change in this country. But one thing that’s unstated in that is the need for the artist. And there’s always been a need in social change for the artist, for the writer, the playwright, for the sculptor, for the poet, the dancer.
All of those creative outlets are necessary and in, I’m concerned because I really don’t see the artist’s role in this the way it should be. And I hope it’s rising up. I remember playing music by Wynton Marsalis, after his father died, and you could feel the emotion in the music. We need to have the musicians. We need to have those people who can speak to the soul and spirit and heart of what we’re going through. And I’m hoping that we have a national or international memorial. That gives us a chance to grieve, to cry, to have our, our emotions expressed. And that’s what the artist brings to the table. As we go through social change, we’ve got to have the artists there, and that’s in every realm of art. And I look forward to seeing how this plays out.
POLLOCK: Brookie, I’m wondering if you’re there and you also have anything, any questions to ask?
BROOKIE MCILVAINE: Yeah, I am here. I added some questions to the Gloria conversation doc, but I can also just read them out loud if, um, if that works too.
POLLOCK: Whatever feels more organic. Gloria, thank you again just for taking the time to talk with us. It feels like healing for me at the end of a very long day.
MCILVAINE: You’ve already kind of touched on this Gloria, but one of the things I admire most about you is how you wear all these different hats and contribute to the conversation and movement in so many different powerful ways. Um, I was curious if you felt that one of these roles suited you more than the others and why, um, whether that changed, um, as cultural context changed over time.
BROWNE-MARSHALL: use the platform, what’s presented to me. If I could sing, I would, but you don’t want to hear me sing. You know what is so funny, because I used to say, if I can sing, I’d be dangerous. But, but I think, um, I remember as a child watching television and seeing this little skinny black man with big eyes talking on a talk show. And I was a precocious child myself. So I used to watch the talk show Dick Cabot and the rest of those talk shows, and I heard him talking about race and he was so clear and so eloquent, and I said, in my mind, I want to be like him when I grow up. And I’m going to tell you right now, it still gives me chills when I remember it. And that was James Baldwin. And the more I thought of what he did, and I thought about the platforms that he used to do it as a playwright, as an essayist, as a teacher. Of course as a novelist in a, and then as a civil rights activist, all those things, it then opened the floodgate for me. It didn’t happen all at once, but it gave me permission to say, yes, I can do all these things too, because James Baldwin did it. And every time I think about people telling me no, or they’re uncomfortable with my advocacy when I’m a, you know, civil rights attorney and they dont want me as being a playwright and they don’t understand why I do this and I have to choose, I don’t have to do anything except stay black and die, sometimes pay my taxes.
When you think, you know, people want to put limits on other people and you know, I’m like though, I’ve got to do these things now. If you can’t handle it, I’ll see. I’ll tap it down so you don’t have to deal with that when I’m in a particular arena. But, um, I’m going to do, what I’m going to do is, as Stephen Biko said, “I write what I like.” I write what I want and so that’s what I do. Um, as far as social change goes there, what, what we’re missing in this aspect of social change? Two things. It may be a third, but two. One, we’re not causing any consequences until now. This is what happened: Martin Luther King gave people consequences when he had, um. bus boycott. That was an economic consequence. When he had a sit-in that he led, those were consequences to those stores. Those were consequences to those, the Woolworth and those other like eating establishments and what was happening up to this point, we didn’t want to hurt somebody economically, socially, politically, shamefully, and now you can see when you give people consequences, it doesn’t have to be violent consequences, but there has to be consequences.
And I think that was a difference in social change and other leaders understood this. And for some reason it wasn’t understood in this arena until now. So I’m hoping that people will grasp this. And also the second one, I said, there needs to be vision. And I go to Proverbs and it says, “without vision, the people perish.”
And if there’s no vision, that leads us working together with litigation, legislation and protest with a vision of how we want to be treated, a vision of what the country should be doing, how the law should be enacted or changed. I mean, the prosecutor’s power is corrupted. Because there’s no consequence to what they’re doing. The police have been corrupted because there’s no consequence. So I’m looking for the vision, I’m looking for the consequence. And the last one, I’m looking for the alliances that will allow us to have a vision of a country that has everyone working together. Because by the year 2050 this nation is going to be majority people of color.
And I’m afraid that we’re either going to go into an apartheid state or we’re going to be living as a community? And Martin Luther King’s book title says it best: “Where Do We Go From Here?” Chaos, or community, chaos, or community. So we need to understand we’re at a crossroad. Where are we going to go from here? And that’s the question.
I think that’s up in the air right now that everyone fears.
MCILVAINE: Yeah. I have another question that actually segues well with what you were just saying, and I really appreciate that answer. According to the Mueller report, the attack on cyber security has most impacted the Black vote. Um, and of course, it’s not something that anyone can really control right now, but how would you advise to combat that and how do you see this impacting the Black vote in the 2020 election?
BROWNE-MARSHALL: I’m so glad that people are still talking about votes. I wrote a book, The Voting Rights War, and I wrote the book, The Voting Rights War um, at the end of Obama’s second term, because I said, people are going to want some type of spiritual experience when they go vote. And it was never meant to be that, you know, so this anomaly of voting for a black president that gets everybody so excited, you can’t get that with their reelection. You don’t vote for the school board for a spiritual experience. And so, uh, this um year is the 150th anniversary of the black man gaining the right to vote in 1870. It’s the hundredth anniversary of women gaining the right to vote with the 19th amendment in 1920. But it’s also the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Spanish flu, as well as a census year. And it’s the year after the 1919 red summer was the hundredth anniversary of a year after that, so I want us to understand what we’re dealing with now has been dealt with before. A hundred years ago. What did we do then? We kept our eyes on the prize, so as Russians and cyberspace, I mean cyber attacks and all these things are undermining our vote. We have that now. A hundred years ago, we had the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society. We had oppression. We had sheriffs and the poll tax. We had literacy tests. We’ve always had people attacking the average American vote. Because it’s a powerful tool, and so we need to understand that attacks will continue to happen, but our eyes should be on the prize and we should be using our cohesiveness and our alliances to make sure that we don’t forget this as a national election year.
POLLOCK: Yes. Yes, Gloria, it has been a pleasure. I appreciate your, your time, your vision, your effort, your volunteerism, your education. I can’t say it enough. Um, are there any final words that you want to add?
BROWNE-MARSHALL: Um, we need to reform the prosecutorial system. We need to, um, hold police officers accountable. We need to read more about how we got in the situation in the first place.
And we need to go beyond the emotion of this moment to maintain our alliances. I’ve been here before. And I’ve seen things dwindle and go away and people make excuses that we have to have these drastic murders of people of African descent in order for white people and other non-black people to believe in the oppression in the system while we’re in a country where people are here because either their generation or generations before them came here because of oppression filled in other countries that look just like this.
And yet they get here and get amnesia about what oppression looks like, and this is troubling, so we need to understand that people know what oppression is. If they don’t, they should read more and don’t fall away when it becomes uncomfortable because I’m going to still be black then too. There will still be black people here when too many white people fall away. I’m tired. I don’t want to march anymore. I don’t know. But he really was guilty, but he had a gun. You know, I’ll be black even when you get tired. So, and we need to get the black middle class to stop hovering around the edges and jump into the fight. There are too many educated black people there. Too many people who have skin in this game who are pretending like they don’t because of the privilege of escape. So, that’s why I just want people to, you know, look at this moment, remember it. But this too shall pass. And then where will we be?
POLLOCK: Gloria Browne Marshall, thank you for joining us. Brookie McIlvaine thank you for your input and we really, really appreciate it. Um, have a wonderful night.
MCILVAINE: Thank you so much, Gloria.
POLLOCK: Awesome. Thank you for all you do.