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JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
The systematic repression of black or African descended people is a common theme in many countries around the world, from the US, to the UK, to the Caribbean, to South America, and beyond. It's everywhere. It is constant, and as constant as that repression has been and is, the acts of resistance of black and African descended people to that oppression are just as constant. But too often, these acts of resistance are not framed as such. What does it mean for the people affected when society frames their acts of rebellion and resistance as a riot?
Here to talk about this today are Joao Costa Vargas. Professor Vargas is a teacher, a professor, at the University of California at Riverside. Welcome Professor Vargas.
JOAO COSTA VARGAS Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And here in the studio with me is Eddie Conway. Eddie is a producer here at The Real News Network and a former Black Panther. Eddie, thank you for joining me today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: All right. I want to start with you because you have a particularly interesting story, I think, that ties into this history of uprisings among poor and black communities in the United States. What was it about what happened in New Jersey a few decades ago that changed the course of your life a little bit?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I actually had signed up to re-enlist to go to Vietnam. I was in the army at the time in Germany. I was a sergeant, I had been in the army for about three years, and I was going to go to Vietnam to fight to make the world safe for democracy. I woke up one morning and I looked at the Stars and Stripes, and I seen on the front page 30 or 40 black women in the streets of Newark, New Jersey, protesting, and you could see they were angry. And in the center of that street was an armored personnel carrier with a 50 caliber machine gun on it with a belt of ammo running through it pointed at these women. And behind that 50 caliber machine gun was a soldier. And I looked at my uniform and I asked myself like, "What in the world is armored personnel carriers with machine guns doing in the heart of the black community in America?"
And so as I read the story, I found out that they had locked up all the black men in the community and put them in stadiums and holding places and so on. They had went through the black community and they had ransacked the houses, kicked the doors in, tore stuff up, and the women were out there protesting about the treatment that they and their children had received after the men had been locked up, and wanted to know who was going to make it right. It was that act, Newark, New Jersey '67, that made me decide not to go to Vietnam and to come back to America and see what the problem was. Because obviously there were riots going on all across America in the black community and people were resisting the kind of oppression that existed, and it wasn't getting publicized that much. In local areas it was publicized, but nationally and internationally it wasn't receiving that publicity. And so we were over in Vietnam dying and didn't know that this was happening to our community.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Wow. You were in another country allegedly fighting for freedom and did not know that on the streets of the United States of America, our people were fighting forwell, American people were fighting for freedom against the same military apparatus that you were using to fight for freedom in another country. So the imagery of a tank, a military tank, on an American street was present in 1967.
Professor Vargas, that brings us to the recent imagery of military hardware on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, on the streets of Baltimore, on the streets of Detroit during the 60s, and New York City and Watts. You know, when the media has covered these eventsand usually it's an excessive police presence is brought in to quell the so-called violencewe see the military apparatus being brought in to bring peace and to bring things under control. What is it about these incidents that we are not told about, the narrative that we don't get, when the media comes in?
JOAO COSTA VARGAS One of the narratives that we don't get is the experience of black folk both in US and in Braziland I would say in the diasporais very much related to the hatred that exists in society against black people. And this hatred is manifested in many different ways. So it's residential segregation, it's police brutality, it's incarceration, it's low education facilities, and this narrative is not part of how black resistance in these places is covered. The example that I'm familiar with is the Brazilian example and is very similar to what you just described. Black neighborhoods, black historical areas, known as favelas, have always resisted. They have invented ways of keeping their safety, they have many times isolated themselves from a society that frankly hates them, and these acts of resistance are often interpreted by the media and by those in power as riot, as irrational, as actions that need to be quelled often by the military. As is the case as we speak right now in Rio and other cities in Brazil.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So right now the military is active in favelas in these predominantly black, predominantly poor, neighborhoods in Rio, in Brazil, under the so-called auspices of bringing peace or confronting crime. But really what you're saying is it's another manifestation of society's response to quelling uprisings and rebellions of black people against the conditions they're living in. Is that what you're saying?
JOAO COSTA VARGAS This is what I'm saying, and I'm saying that in places like Brazil, it's in society's DNA, this fear and the hatred of black people that we can trace back to the days of slavery. So there's this idea that slavery was an event that didn't generate tension, and this is very common in Brazil. We tend to think of slavery as this institution that benefited black people when in fact black people resisted slavery at all times. There are several historical documents, there are several books, there are several works of fiction that show how black folks in Brazil were constantly rebelling. They were constantly finding ways to push back on the system that dehumanized them.