TURN DOWN FOR WHAT? TURN UP FOR THE DREAM DEFENDERS
I write this as I sit in the Florida office of Governor Rick Scott, live from the capitol. It is 4am and I am writing to the sound of a sleeping giant. I decided to spend the night here with the Dream Defenders, a student based activist group that organized around the George Zimmerman trial and is pushing to change Florida’s legislation to reflect racial profiling and have an impact on the school to prison pipeline. Today is Day 25, they’ve spent every night here for the last month.
When I first heard Phillip Agnew from the Dream Defenders speak about his organization, I was drawn in by the way he looked and spoke. Standing there at the podium with his snapback and tattoos explaining why the Dream Defenders were occupying the capitol until their demands are met, he looked like someone who would give me dap at one of my concerts. He was my peer, not an elder or authority figure. While the rest of the world was re-trying Zimmerman in their head and trying to figure out the best way to express outrage over something that already happened, the Dream Defenders were being proactive about the future. When Phillip Agnew said “we are not demonstrators, we are not protestors, we are not trying to change the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, we are only interested in moving forward” I was all in. They get that this is not about bitching and moaning, this is about necessary action. they have put together a program of three specific goals- repeal Stand Your Ground laws, repeal Zero Tolerance, the practice of criminalizing and arresting school kids, and better community outreach from police to help with racial profiling issues. Together, they call this Trayvon’s Law. While Stand Your Ground wasn’t used in the Zimmerman trial, the Dream Defenders believe that laws like Stand Your Ground and Zero Tolerance contribute to a culture of violence and a prison industry that plagues Florida’s youth, especially those of color.
I am not from Florida. Many have asked me why are you going to Florida when there are causes at home in NY you can support. They say we should boycott Florida. Whether we boycott Florida’s institutions or not, there are people in Florida who could use my voice and I will not boycott them. Florida is on the front line of a struggle we’ve been facing for years. I need to be in Florida now more than ever.
I love Stevie Wonder and I love that his decision to boycott Florida was championed by many other artists. Good for them. Stevie has always stepped up to the plate, and I take my cues from artists like him who I grew up admiring. He is using his status to shine light on the injustices here, I applaud that. But Mr. Wonder can afford to boycott Florida, he has achieved a certain status or level of celebrity privilege. The people who live here cannot.
I have met with backlash recently for speaking about privilege. Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage or immunity that is granted or available to only a particular person or group of people. For example, education should be a right, not a privilege. We all have privilege to some degree. As an American citizen, my passport grants me certain privileges that many in the world not born here do not have. As a man, I enjoy the privileges that come with living in a patriarchal society. As a celebrity I am privileged to travel the world and have my accommodations met. I am privileged to have a platform. As someone with privilege, I have a moral obligation to use it to shed light on those less unfortunate and expose injustice in our world. To acknowledge my privilege does not make me evil, less compassionate or indifferent to the suffering of those who don’t have it. In fact, NOT acknowledging my privilege is the worst way for me to help anybody. Although I did not ask to be born a man, I still enjoy the privilege that comes with it. White people did not ask to be born white but they damn sure enjoy white skin privilege in America. It has been maintained as an American way of life by the slave trade, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex, the politics of hate of a racist legal system that was set up by slave owners. To recognize it is humane and compassionate.
Trayvon Martin had a right to walk home from the store without being racially profiled. George Zimmerman stripped him of his human and civil rights and decided that his own privilege and fear was worth more than the freedom Trayvon had to walk home. George Zimmerman liked to call himself protecting the neighbors. But when you are murdering your neighbors children you are doing the exact opposite.
I have heard young black people question the intentions of folks who stand up for Trayvon, saying that there are young black and brown people dying in our hoods every day that no one stands up for. They bring up Chicago’s murder rate. There have been charges of hypocrisy leveled against the movement from our own communities. They say that the problem of black on black violence in our communities is way bigger than what happened to Trayvon. To them the lost of this young man’s life is nothing new. Even right wing conservatives are in on the act, all of sudden quoting black on black crime statistics that they never cared about before they could be used to bolster an argument for why we shouldn’t care about Trayvon. I say to those people, you are right, I agree. But you aren’t talking about me, or the people I stand with. You aren’t talking about the Dream Defenders. You are talking about yourself.
If you find yourself saying these things, it would be hypocritical for YOU to jump on the Trayvon Martin bandwagon for a day then go back to making memes or watching reality TV or it is you do with your time. So don’t do that. Don’t be that hypocrite, but don’t use this an excuse to be idle either. Invest yourself in your community, invest in the movement. We are out here playing the long game, we are not interested in plugging holes. I have been doing this type of work in and outside of music for my entire adult life. Way before this is my responsibility as an artist, it’s my responsibility as a human being, as a MAN. This is why what Dream Defenders is doing is with Trayvon’s law is bigger than Trayvon. Remember, just because you don’t know about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The Dream Defenders started this work when Trayvon was murdered, they didn’t wait until after the fact when Zimmerman was acquitted. Harry Belafonte, who hipped me to Dream Defenders, had a meeting of like minded artists in NYC June 10th to discuss how we could create art that would shed light on the school to prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of a generation. This was a month before Magna Carta dropped AND a month before Zimmerman’s acquittal. The folks you see standing here don’t wait for the next tragedy to occur. They are constant and consistent, and that’s why I’m here.
I love Harry Belafonte and I love Jay Z. As an artist and as a man I am influenced and greatly inspired by both of them. People keep asking me which side of their feud I’m on. I am on neither of their sides, I side with the people. I know those gentleman do as well. I refuse to get caught in the distraction.
I am not an organizer. I am musician. I know how to be the voice of the struggle and direct you to those who are the frontline. But every once and awhile making songs is not enough. There are times when we have to bring our bodies to the struggle. A movement is nothing without the flesh. Online activism is only a tool for actual activism because if it doesn’t exist in real life it doesn’t really exist. This is the lesson of the Black Power and Civil Rights movement. This is the lesson of the Arab Spring. The Dream Defenders have the benefit of hindsight and the experiences of those who have done this before to study. They are cherry picking the best parts of each movement to create an unstoppable force. If you don’t get down now, you will get it later. In the meantime, we will be over here talking the talk and walking the walk. I encourage my peers who have platforms, fellow artists, celebrities, bloggers, politicians, teachers, parents, everybody, to support Dream Defenders however you can, thru donations, tweets or visits if you can make it to Tallahassee. Everybody always wanna turn up. We turn up for everything but our own self preservation. Let’s turn up for the Dream Defenders….
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