Abolish the Police, Now!

An interview Mohamed Shehk from Critical Resistance on what we mean when we say abolish police and prisons

This interview is a follow-up to a conversation we began last week. Read it here.

For many, the idea of abolishing the American criminal justice system is about as improbable as abolishing the air we breathe. We talk to an activist on the front-line of the abolition movement why it's not just possible, but necessary.

Mohamed Shehk, is the Media and Communications Director of the organization Critical Resistance, "a national organization that seeks to abolish the interlocking systems of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance, or what we call the prison industrial complex."

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OkayAfrica: Let's get straight into it. Abolish the police. Abolish prisons. That's going to come off as a very radical statement for most people, as perhaps saying "abolish slavery" was a radical statement 200 years ago. Why abolish and not reform? "It's a few bad apples, the police are doing brave and necessary work," many will say.

Mohamed Shehk: We work to abolish policing, imprisonment, and the rest of the prison industrial complex because we believe that they are fundamentally violent and racist. While some might argue that we can fix the prison industrial complex by getting rid of the "few bad apples" or improving it through reform, we actually don't believe that it is broken, but that it is rather working as intended—to control, repress, disappear, and kill people. Our work as abolitionists is not to improve a war machine built to target Black and Brown people, but to chip away and disempower policing and imprisonment so that they have less power to function, with the ultimate goal of shrinking them into nonexistence.

Mohamed ShehkCourtesy of Critical Resistance

Let's start off with the police. Can you speak to the true function of the police. If you ask most anyone, they would respond with the usual, "to stop crime, protect people from criminals, theft, violence, etc." To "protect and serve." Though I'm no expert, it seems, from what I've read, the police don't actually do that. Almost ever. There's also my personal experience, and that of family and friends, of police literally never helping or being available in the moments where I've been a victim of a crime. They'll arrive two hours later, file a report, and that's that. In addition to studies, the consensus seems that the police are woefully inadequate as a means to stopping crime, on the local, day to day level for ordinary citizens. It rather seems that the police are armed bureaucrats, bringing violence and guns to situations that they are not needed in. Traffic citations, etc. I would argue that the police are there to protect the interests of elites, particularly their wealth from the masses of people, to ensure that capitalism functions without resistance. And when that resistance is found, in the form of protests let's say, then they come down in riot gear to make sure private property isn't threatened. Thoughts?

From its origins being closely linked to patrols capturing Black people escaping slavery to the crushing of labor struggles, the role of modern policing has been to uphold and enforce social control, white supremacy, and the interests of those in power. Put simply, policing is the front line of defense for racial capitalism. And whenever communities organize to resist their oppression and demand power, policing, as well as imprisonment and surveillance, are used to repress movements and efforts for self-determination.

On a more practical level, why are the police the first responders, or even responders at all, to people having mental health crises, getting into an accident, or to people committing the unthinkable "crime" of being homeless? At best, cops show up and do nothing, often escalating the situation or obstructing the person in need from receiving care; at worst, they harm and kill. The state and those invested in social control have prioritized policing at the expense of funding and political will for resources that might actually respond to and address situations productively.

I also wanted to get into the mythology and cult like status of the police and their unions and the immense power they wield politically. We hear about how police work is very dangerous, though, I remember reading that it's not even in the top ten most dangerous jobs list. I think transportation workers suffer more fatalities annually than cops.

Police unions wield a tremendous amount of power, and put enormous amounts of energy and resources to ramp up sympathy for cops as "victims" who need ever more support and protections. For example, Black Lives Matter grew out of the massive outrage over ongoing police killings of Black people, and the police responded by claiming to be under attack. The disturbing "Blue Lives Matter" rhetoric and legislation are a perfect example of how police and their unions deceitfully claim to be in the line of danger, when they in fact are the greatest danger to the wellbeing of the very communities they paint as threats.

Now, prisons. What is the actual function of prisons today, in our society? We have the largest prison population in the world. Larger than in China or Russia, places the U.S. routinely accuses of human rights abuse. Do we really have a bunch of crazed violent criminals running around that need to be locked up? Or are there more sinister forces, influenced by capital, that dictate the necessity of locking up such a large portion of the population, and particularly poor, working class people of color?

The primary function of prisons in our society is to control populations. The enormous growth of the prison industrial complex came as a response to two main things—the explosion of radical liberation movements and activism in the 60's and 70's, as well as the neoliberal turn that resulted in the disappearance of millions of jobs. The state needed a way to both crush the social movements that powerfully threatened the status quo of racial capitalism, and contain this newly and permanently unemployed class of people, mainly Black and Brown working class communities. The way it did that was labeling everything under the sun—from political dissent, to poverty, homelessness, and drug use—as "crime." So the specters of "rampant crime" and the figure of the "criminal" were created under a law-and-order logic to justify targeting whole communities and engaging in the biggest prison construction project in this world's history.

Now to the rebuttals of abolishing the police and prisons. "But, but, who is going to protect me from the criminals that the locals news goes on and on in a near frenzied state about?" I mean we kind of touched on that above but will the country descend into chaos and warlords as most people would hypothesize? I remember not too far back, police were angry with Bill de Blasio in NYC, so they had a work slow down, and crime dropped dramatically. What would you say to those that would call the abolition of police a crazy idea that could never work? Are there historical examples/models that offer alternatives?

Those in power work very hard to make us believe that imprisonment and policing are natural, but we know the opposite to be true. These systems had to be put in place, and must be constantly reinforced and legitimized to the point that we are made to believe that our society will descend into chaos if they don't exist. In reality, the prison industrial complex is responsible for the chaos that many people experience through separation, destabilization, and state violence, especially in Black, Indigenous, and communities of color.

Communities past and present have long used practices of resolving harm and conflict without relying on punitive measures, like caging or policing. There are many communities today who by default address conflict themselves because they simply don't trust the police—for good reason. More and more people have been exploring and practicing restorative and transformative justice models to hold people accountable for harm committed, many of which are inspired by Indigenous and non-Western practices and values. Harm and conflict predate cops and cages, will outlive them, and communities ultimately will continue to have creative ways of addressing and overcoming them.

At OkayAfrica, we are trying to imagine what a revolution would bring and we'd like to think it can bring an end to oppression and exploitation, a world of love and cooperation, not of profit and hate and White supremacy. It seems that the police and prisons are huge detriments to achieving such a goal. What would that world, one without police and prisons possibly look like?

The simple answer is that a world without police or prisons would be one based on self-determination and mutual care. It would mean that people would have access to the resources that would allow them to thrive. For example, think about the fact that we have more empty houses than homeless people in this country—there is unprecedented levels of wealth and resources in our society, yet the vast majority of the population doesn't have access to it. What's stopping homeless people from moving into all the vacant homes? The cops (and the consequence of imprisonment). One way to think about policing and imprisonment is that they are used to control (and restrict) access to certain resources for certain populations; without these violent systems, people would be able to live healthier, more stable, dignified lives.

Insofar as the prison industrial complex purports to keep us safe, a world without it would mean people dealing with harm not punitively, but addressing it in ways that actually gets to the root of the issue.

Ultimately, it would mean living and relating to one another in ways based on our potential for humanity.

How can folks get involved in the abolition movement so as to help in making this future of "Black Revolution" a reality?

People can support and get involved in organizations, fights, or efforts that are challenging policing, imprisonment, and surveillance. Many people are fighting the construction or expansion of their counties' jail systems, seeking to divest from policing and fighting to invest those funds into community resources, working to reduce the scope of policing in our lives, struggling to shrink and eliminate the state's capacity to surveil, and supporting prisoners organizing for their human rights. In our daily lives, we should be practicing ways to reduce our reliance on the prison industrial complex, and thinking about ways to spread those practices. These are all worthwhile and powerful efforts, and can be replicated everywhere.

Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

Courtesy of Universal Music Group.

In Conversation with Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas: 'This isn't a Black Bonnie and Clyde film—our stories are singular, they're ours.'

'Queen and Slim' lands in South Africa.

Melina Matsoukas and Daniel Kaluuya are everything their surroundings at the opulent Saxon Hotel are not—down-to-earth and even comedic at times. Despite the harsh lights and cameras constantly in their faces, they joke around and make the space inviting. They're also eager to know and pronounce the names of everyone they meet correctly. "It's Rufaro with an 'R'? Is that how you say it?" Kaluuya asks me as he shakes my hand.

Matsoukas, a two-time Grammy award winning director and Kaluuya, an A-list actor who's starred in massive titles including Black Panther and Get Out, have every reason to be boastful about their achievements and yet instead, they're relatable.

The duo is in South Africa to promote their recent film Queen Slim which is hitting theaters today and follows the eventful lives of a Black couple on the run after killing a police officer. It's a film steeped in complexity and layered themes to do with racism, police brutality and of course Black love.

We caught up with both of them to talk about just what it took from each of them to bring the powerful story to the big screen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Fatoumata Diawara played a mesmerizing show in New York City over the weekend.

The Malian singer, songwriter, guitarist and actor had The Town Hall swaying to a selection of songs from her latest Grammy-nominated album, Fenfo, as well as other classic cuts.

Fatoumata was joined on the night by a four-piece backing band that followed her every word and guitar riff, as she showcased her special blend of traditional Malian music and striking Bambara vocal melodies with elements of modern rock, funk, R&B and afrobeat.

"I didn't want to sing in English or French because I wanted to respect my African heritage," Fatoumata has mentioned."But I wanted a modern sound because that's the world I live in. I'm a traditionalist, but I need to experiment, too. You can keep your roots and influences but communicate them in a different style."

Fatoumata's main message, one which she stated throughout the show, is one of hope for the future of Africa and of female empowerment. It's "about the world, peace, how Africa can be a better place, especially for women, because I am one, and I am a survivor," she says. "I want to encourage those who have lost hope."

Browse through pictures from her show at The Town Hall, which was opened by Guatemala's Gabby Moreno, below.

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