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Interview With Ta-Nehisi Coates and Radhika Jones; Interview With Kwame Kwei-Armah. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired December 21, 2020 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
This holiday season, we're bringing you some of our favorite interviews from the year.
Here's what's coming up: a special on the global reckoning on racism. I speak to Kwame Kwei-Armah, the first black Briton to head a major theater
company, "Vanity Fair"'s editor-in-chief, Radhika Jones, and guest editor Ta-Nehisi Coates about their special issue on activism and justice, and to
the civil rights campaign of Bryan Stevenson.
He tells our Walter Isaacson that America can only move forward if it faces its past.
Welcome to this special edition of the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
2020 has pushed race relations into the spotlight around the world, with protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and so many other
And so, today, we devote our program to some of the best conversations we have had on this reckoning. It comes, of course, amid a global pandemic
that has killed over a million people worldwide and disproportionately impacts communities of color.
On another part of the spectrum, the coronavirus has also had a devastating impact on the arts, especially on theater, which is crucial to driving
discussion on complex issues like racism.
Kwame Kwei-Armah was the first black artistic director of a major American theater, the Baltimore Center Stage, and he is now artistic director of
London's Young Vic Theatre, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary.
And I sat down with him to discuss how the arts are reacting to the dual crisis of racial inequality and closures during the pandemic.
AMANPOUR: Kwame Kwei-Armah, welcome to the program.
KWAME KWEI-ARMAH, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, THE YOUNG VIC: It's an absolute pleasure to be here.
AMANPOUR: So, is it though? Because here we are in The Young Vic, which is empty, obviously because we're sitting here, but because of COVID, you have
not been able to put plays on.
KWEI-ARMAH: Absolutely, absolutely.
AMANPOUR: Tell me where you are right now even in predicting when you might put theater on again?
KWEI-ARMAH: Well, you're right, actually. It's bittersweet being here.
You know, normally, this stage would be filled with people and with performers and with people creating art and debate and energy. And so, now,
we have to rely on the two of us to do that.
We've been scenario planning on sand, really. You know, everyone has been hoping and guessing and asking for support and getting support, and then
not knowing when we can open. I would say that we are possibly thinking that we may get back up on stage at April of '21.
KWEI-ARMAH: That's if we're lucky and that's today. Tomorrow it may be different.
AMANPOUR: You know, some have said, and I have done a lot of reading about theater, I love theater and I love live events, and it's the lifeblood
really of any civilization.
AMANPOUR: You know, you go back obviously to the Greeks and beyond, but nonetheless, it's indispensable.
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, it is.
AMANPOUR: And I just wonder whether you're thinking about how it might transform after this. I have heard people say, if you can't go large, like
in big theaters, then maybe you go local. Maybe theater stars go to the regions, maybe smaller groups, maybe there's more, I don't know, less
barriers to theater.
KWEI-ARMAH: Here's what I know. It will not be the same on the flip side of this portal as it was going in. We all -- not only -- we don't have to
think about our economic model, but we have to think about forms, we have to think about what people want, what people will expect. They expect of
their artists that they will find the cracks, excavate them and fill them with something different. And I think that's what's going to happen with
theater. We are going to do all of what you have just said and more. We won't even know it yet.
The day that we get a green light which says, you can come back in, we will see new forms emerging. We will hear new ways of interacting with
Audiences will demand new ways of us interacting with them, and that's just not within the context of COVID. And there also be a camera, I think,
involved in every aspect of creating theater. So, if ever we're locked down again, there is something that we have to share with our audiences.
AMANPOUR: That is vital.
In fact, some of those that were done on film have been shared and it's being greatly received. Can I ask you this, because you're suffering a
double whammy, so it's not just COVID, it is also the racial reckoning? I have heard you say or I have read you say that you're done with
pussyfooting around, you're done with shadowboxing, as you've said, versus really saying what it is, when it is now. So, what is it? What do we need
to know about this moment?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes. I mean, I describe it as kind of a triple threat of COVID, white supremacy and the insecurity of our sector financially. Waking
up every day trying to fight on three fronts is quite a thing. And I think the exhaustion that comes from that actually brings a kind of steadiness in
your soul and in your spirit. It says, what can I use my physical and spiritual mental resource for?
And some of that banned with tax has been dealing with racism and dancing around it and it's like gender. Somebody says something sexist, you go, do
I do this battle now?
Do I not? Do I leave it to later?
But, actually, where I have got to right now is a place where the diplomacy that I might have used before, or actually giving people the benefit of the
doubt, I do like giving people the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to reduce that just a little bit more so that people get to understand that
this moment of profound listening, because that's what I think black lives matter have done this time, it's allowed our white peers to listen more
profoundly. But it means we have to speak clearer, and I actually have to speak clearer. I have to demand a new world view.
AMANPOUR: Demand a new world view.
You hear people in all sorts of areas of endeavor, not just in the arts, talking about diversity. But then others of color, black people, people of
color, et cetera, saying, now, what does diversity mean? We're really talking about representation. Is that perhaps a more accurate and less
threatening, less political word to use that more likely represents what we lack, and that is a lack of representation?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, you know, I spent half of my life trying to negotiate around languages today. No, no, I don't mean quotas. What I mean is this.
So, no, no. I don't mean anti-black racism, I mean diversity. And I think leading on from your last question, here's what we need. We need our cities
and our countries and our nations to look like it does demographically.
In London we are over 43 percent of the population. If I walk into a theater and it does not look like London from its audience to its
administrative team, it is not doing the job, and we have to get there. In every aspect of life, we have to make sure that every citizen is able to
fulfill their potential.
And it's not Victorian philanthropy to do that. It is actually in our best interest. The best ideas come from people when they are free, when they
feel they can walk into an institution and be their full self, not their part self.
I think what I am asking for, and I use the word demand sometimes, but I think what we're articulating is that we actually need to make sure that we
get representation, that we get diversity, that we get anti-racist environments and that the structure and equalities that our countries face,
that actually they are addressed with an immediacy so that we do not have to hand this down to our children.
AMANPOUR: I understand that you are going to open with a certain palette of plays, and you were going to perhaps bypass or drop for money reasons
one that was about black life, essentially, and black experience. And then you decided to reverse yourself.
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes. I think I'm a little ashamed of myself, actually, for having thought that.
But, in the first few weeks of COVID, when all we could see was financial devastation my colleagues and I, and we looked at the play that we thought
or perceived would be the play that would need the most subsidy, which is different from being risky in order to succeed.
And I went, do we have that subsidy to put in? Maybe, actually, we're going to have to do something that's a big boomer and gets everybody racing in.
Then black lives matter happened. And it said to me, actually, we're in the theater to be part of the zeitgeist. And we had commissioned these three
plays a year-and-a-half before which celebrated, actually, resistance, some might call it rioting or uprising, and then the results of those uprisings
in the lives of those black individuals and society.
And so, actually, what I did was run away from myself and it was then that I decided I'm doing no more shadowboxing.
AMANPOUR: It's really fascinating, because, in fact, you were been ahead of the curve.
You've been ahead of the curve most of your career. You're certainly the first black artistic director of a major British theater. I believe when
you went to the United States and you were artistic director in Baltimore, it was a first as well.
AMANPOUR: There are only a couple of black women, in fact, who are artistic directors in Europe. I know you had a conversation with them
recently about how to go forward. You were also in the United States, slap, bang, almost at the start of black lives matter, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner.
AMANPOUR: What was it like for you being an English black man in the middle of this uprising?
KWEI-ARMAH: Well, actually, rather interestingly, in Baltimore when the Freddie Gray uprising happened, I was the only person in my institution who
had lived through uprisings before. I'm old enough to have lived through the Brexit uprisings of the early '80s and in the end of the '80s, and 2011
uprisings here, the southland riots. I have literally lived through it.
So, in a way when it happened, I was able to sit in myself and say, OK, how do we lead and how do we serve the community at this time, not how do we
shut down. And it was frightening. There is no two ways about it.
But one of the beautiful things about America is personal philanthropy. And, actually, that sense of being an artistic director is not being the
director of an art house but being one of the leaders of the community, and how do you serve that community?
And so, actually, going out at night when we were on curfew and riding around Baltimore and calling artists and saying, I just want to let you
know this is what's happening outside your house, by taking art into the streets right where the uprisings were happening and saying, we feel your
pain and we share our art with you. These were instincts that I felt were necessary.
Why? Because I wasn't just the artistic director of a theater, I was a member of a community.
AMANPOUR: And yet, you experienced racism there. You tell a tarrying story of what -- an encounter on a train.
AMANPOUR: Tell me.
KWEI-ARMAH: It was quite hard, actually. I was taking a train from New York to Baltimore, and a guy sat next to me -- or actually opposite of me.
I was in the catering car.
And I saw him he was on his third beer, and suddenly he said to me, do you mind if I go get another beer? I was a bit like, yes, I'm not your dad.
Yes, go for it. And when he got to the bottom of that, he then said to me, you know -- out of the blue -- there are two things I dislike in this
world, two things I hate in this world, black men and spiders.
And so, I said, so tell me about spiders. And he kind of diverted that because I was like, yo, I don't really need to go into a race talk right
And he got really relatively violent and stood up and started like literally pointing his hands at my head and I was like, dude, I think you
need to calm down. But, actually, what was really interesting about that for me was when I got off at Baltimore -- this went on for about 45 minutes
... sat directly behind me was a young Muslim woman and a young white woman. And I thought to myself, had he not gone at me, he would have gone
And so, as painful as it was, in a way I was pleased because I'm sure they had the tools as well, but I had the tools to deal with that kind of overt
AMANPOUR: It's really shocking.
In here, even, you talk about being in the Southall riots.
AMANPOUR: Again, those were big race riots that happened here in South London. You were quite young, right?
KWEI-ARMAH: I was, 11.
And you also talk about being at school and experiencing colorism, so to speak. People telling you that you that look too dark, that your mouth was
too big, your nose wasn't narrow enough.
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes. Yes.
AMANPOUR: Tell me about that. How did that affect you as a young kid?
KWEI-ARMAH: You know, I think a lot. I think we all want to be beautiful and we all deserve to be told that we are beautiful. And I was told that I
was beautiful in my house. But then I would walk into the outside world and the outside world would say that I was ugly.
And I remember really clearly one of my teachers saying you'll never be able to speak English properly because there is something about the black
mouth, that is the design of the black mouth, which means that the tongue is too heavy. And, in a way, that stuff sticks in your mind, and it can
either defeat you or it can make you stronger.
I would like to say that it made me more determined and made me stronger, but I have to say there is an emotional tax on dealing with notions of
European beauty being the only thing that is being articulated when you're growing up.
AMANPOUR: This teacher, did you ever see her or him again? Do they know that you've achieved so much in the king's and queen's English?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, I have, actually, I have met them again. Really interestingly, I think I met them maybe about, I don't know, 10 years after
I left school, and at the time I was doing my master's.
And I said something -- you know, and the said, so, how are you doing? And I said, oh, I'm doing well. I'm just going well and I'm just doing my
masters. She said, you always had a chip on your shoulder. I was like, yo. I mean, even after all of this time. And then I ran into her maybe a couple
years ago, and she was very proud of me.
On that day, I went back to my younger self. And I said, forgive yourself for holding the pain, for holding the anger that you had for this person.
Let it go. And in a way now, I can laugh about it. For many years, I could not. For many years, it sat in my spirit.
AMANPOUR: Was that idea of being out of sync with the white world around you part of the reason that you changed your name? Because you were born
KWEI-ARMAH: I was, yes.
Yes, it was. I remember, at 16, saying to my cousin, who was a Rastafarian at the time, I said -- and they all laughed at me. I said I'm a universal
alien. When I walk out on the street for my house, they say, go back to the jungle. When I go to Grenada, they say, go home, Englishman. And when I got
to Ghana they go, hey, Bob Marley. I was just like, wherever I go in the world no one knows who I am.
And then, actually, by the time I got to the end of doing my geological study I realized that actually I was tricultural, that, actually, that I
was Ghanaian, Grenadian and British.
And if I wanted to be, I could be from Accra, Saint George's at London. You know, it was like that sense of moving from being an alien to understanding
my place as part of the global majority came out of reclaiming my ancestral name and doing that journey.
So, yes, I would say that the England, the cold England that I grew up in, and it's gotten much warmer though a long way to go, contributed to a sense
of alienation, but I'm not comfortable having other people define me. I need to define myself.
AMANPOUR: Are you comfortable, or, rather, are you satisfied with the level of discussion and discourse that's going on around these issues and
around correct racial reckoning that needs to happen?
Are you satisfied with the level of discussion and the level of execution of change since, let's say, George Floyd?
KWEI-ARMAH: I think that it would be churlish for us not to acknowledge the profound listening that has occurred in white society around black
And, of course, there is left and right of that. But I have seen that. And now, we have to change that rhetoric to reality. And I think, by the time
we get to this time next year, we'll start looking at KPIs, right? We'll look at our key performance indicators and go, oh, have we really moved?
What that means to me is right now, here, that it's less about the talk and more about the action. We've heard now. We've listened now, what can we do
to make sure that we're not having this debate in five years' time?
And, actually, what that means is there needs to be an accelerated and sustained evolutionary growth in the way that we integrate black and people
of color into the institutions of every country in the world.
AMANPOUR: So, accelerated goes back to that word you used, quotas, which some people don't like.
But, if it wasn't necessary, then it wouldn't even be mentioned. We've seen it in gender...
AMANPOUR: ... and now we're seeing, potentially, in black and people of color, representation.
KWEI-ARMAH: I would call it targets, right?
AMANPOUR: OK, targets.
So, what do you think of the American Broadway theater initiative?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, I have.
AMANPOUR: ... that they've made some very strict demands, I think.
KWEI-ARMAH: They have.
AMANPOUR: At least 50 percent of theaters should be renamed for black actors and black performers.
AMANPOUR: I think it's something like that percentage of performers and creative teams should be that.
AMANPOUR: They have even gone so far as to say, we should cease our security interaction with the New York Police Department.
AMANPOUR: What do you think of that?> And should that happen here, naming different theaters for...
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, you know, I am very proud of my peers in America who have said, again, that they're going to stop shadowboxing, and they're not going
to have these conversations in the corner. They're now going to have it right in the center of the town square.
And so, I think, like everything, there are negotiations to be had, but I think you set your demands right up front.
Let's get some equality in this house. Let's start having the real debates. Let's understand that much of this land belonged to the indigenous
community, and let's acknowledge that on the first day of rehearsal. Let's acknowledge the role the black performers and black playwrights and admin
staff have given to American and to British theater.
Let's do that. Let's start that discussion. I think demands can always feel like it's one-way traffic, but I don't think it is. Demands are a catalyst
for the debate, and I'm very proud of the debate that they have started.
AMANPOUR: I want to go back to something you said earlier about risky, financially risky, the pallet of black stories you were going to put on.
AMANPOUR: I just want to ask you out and out, if I say Chadwick Boseman?
Chadwick was a beautiful spirit and a beautiful soul. And he did with his art what we all tried to do, to incrementally bring the world to a better
I get emotional about Chadwick. I didn't post anything, because he was a very good friend of one of my best friends in America. So, it's even less
about what he did on screen, which was magnificent, and more about the man he was to the people that knew him.
It's a great, great loss. However, I think life is not just about what you can see but what you can feel. And we will feel his art for decades and
centuries to come.
AMANPOUR: And he and the "Black Panther" team proved that black stories put bums on seats.
KWEI-ARMAH: End of story.
AMANPOUR: End of.
KWEI-ARMAH: End of story.
AMANPOUR: Drop the mic.
KWEI-ARMAH: Let's not have that debate. It's just there.
AMANPOUR: Kwame Kwei-Armah, thank you very much.
KWEI-ARMAH: Thank you. It's a real honor.
AMANPOUR: We turn now to one victim of police violence in particular.
Breonna Taylor became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter protests gripping America after she was shot eight times by police during a raid on
her home in March. A grand jury indicted one of the three police officers involved for wanton endangerment. No charges were announced against the
A portrait of Taylor became the cover of the September issue of "Vanity Fair," which was dedicated to art, activism and power in 21st century
Few contemporary writers have deconstructed racial injustice like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who guest-edited this issue.
And he joined me, alongside "Vanity Fair"'s Radhika Jones, who's made diversity her priority as editor in chief.
AMANPOUR: Radhika, let me ask you first, what made you decide that this was going to be your September issue? I mean, I don't know, could you have
known that George Floyd and Jacob Blake and -- I mean, you decided this a long time ago, right?
RADHIKA JONES, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "VANITY FAIR": No, actually.
In terms of the usual amount of lead time for a magazine issue, we did this pretty quickly. What happened was we had been speaking with Ta-Nehisi about
a different story.
We were in dialogue together and the George Floyd murder happened, and the protests began to spread around the nation. And our dialogue turned to the
September issue and we thought, how can we capture this moment, which is obviously radiating back into history and radiating forward to the
desperate need in America for justice?
How can we capture it and capture the urgency of it? And so, we set to work in early June and produced this issue of "Vanity Fair" which we wanted to
address everything that's happening in country right now.
AMANPOUR: Well, this is really remarkable painting cover and we're going to in a second.
But let me ask you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as guest editor, what were you laser- focused on?
You know, obviously, we've said that the issue is about art, activism and 21st century America. What did you want your message to be?
TA-NEHISI COATES, GUEST EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": I wanted to make something in partnership with Radhika, the staff at "Vanity Fair" and all the writers
and artists that we had assembled that would endure.
I wanted to make something -- I mean, this may sound overly ambitious, but that 100 years from now, when people look back at 2020, a period in which
we had a plague that was killing upwards of 150,000 Americans, when we had officers of the law who were shooting African-Americans down in their back,
when they look back and try to understand what exactly happened, my hope would be -- I think all of our hope was that this issue of "Vanity Fair"
would figure fairly prominently in trying to understand.
AMANPOUR: Let's just talk's just talk about the image first because in their back, in their beds, Breonna Taylor was shot, I believe, in her bed,
certainly in her home.
And, as yet, there has been no justice and no accountability for those who did that.
So, I first want to ask you about the image. I'm calling it a painting, because it was a painting originally, and it's done by Amy Sherald, whose
first commission was to paint first lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian, and this is her second commission.
Talk, both of you, first of all, you, Radhika, about her story. She's very determined and specific about what she was looking for and what she wanted
JONES: You know, you're right, it is a painting that Amy made.
And the reason that I thought of her for this work was -- of course, I remembered and so admired her painting of Michelle Obama, and I also
remembered the reaction to it. In particular, I remembered a photograph that went viral of a young black girl looking at that painting and
connecting so purely to the figure of Michelle Obama.
And I think Amy's art has the power to create that kind of emotional connection, so that you're really seeing someone's life and their power and
their purpose. And that was the spirit that we wanted this cover to have.
So, you're right. She was very determined and specific in her desire. We spoke to her about the process of making the painting, and there is a story
in the magazine about it, and one thing she said that really resonates with me is she talks about Breonna Taylor's gaze. Her gaze is strong. She's
seeing you. She sees you look at her. And that the power of her presence and her gaze was very important to us.
AMANPOUR: And, Ta-Nehisi, you talked to her mother, right? A huge long interview in the magazine is your conversation with her mother. You called
it a beautiful life. What resonated with you about the story of Breonna's life?
COATES: Well, I think, unlike with Jacob Blake, unlike with George Floyd, unlike with Tamir Rice, so many of these cases of the Black Lives Matter
movement has organized around had been because the video is so appalling.
And there was no video of the death of Breonna Taylor.And I was very struck when they released the police report that the police report was blank. And,
to me, what it kind of amounted to, taken all together, was the fact that, many times, if we can't see things, we have trouble believing, you know,
that they were as horrible as people actually report them to be. That was one thing.
But the second thing was also that her life would be erased. You know, When Tamika Palmer, Breonna's mother, when she thinks about her daughter, she's
very happy that she's become a symbol for the movement.
But that is her daughter. That's a life. That's -- you know, Breonna is not a slogan to her. She's an actual person. You know, she's somebody she gave
birth to, somebody who she taught how to ride a motorcycle, someone who she prepared a special, you know, chili receipt with, someone who was, as she
said, the glue for the family that got everybody together.
And it's so important to remember that, when these cops kill people, that they kill actual people, that they're not piling up numbers, that these are
not digits. These are actual lives, people, children who folks have put energy into, who are complete erased off of the face of the earth.
And so what we were trying to do was -- forgive the terminology here, but was to resurrect for a moment, so that folks could remember that this was a
life that was taken, that was erased off the face of the earth for nothing.
AMANPOUR: Humanizing, I guess, is another way to say it.
But, listen, you have talked about creating a space for conversation and wonder because now you have -- you know, you have expanded your
contributors list. I think Ta-Nehisi is going to remain as a contributor, not just as a one-time guest editor.
Tell me about space for these conversations. And we heard this week from NBA as well. They created a space for a moment while they stopped playing
for people to think about what was going on.
And we understand they're going to have all their basketball arenas turned into voting places in November. Talk to me about the space for this kind of
JONES: I think it's the most important contribution that we can make, those of us who have platforms to use. To edit a magazine really is to
bring together a community of voices and artists and illustrators, photographers.
And Ta-Nehisi and I, I know, are so proud of all of the contributors to the September issue. And I want that spirit of community to continue.
AMANPOUR: Ta-Nehisi, I want to ask you about one of the articles. It's called the great fire facing the truth and it's inspired by a poetry book
of 1990. But in it, you have this passage, whiteness thrives in darkness. It has to because to assert itself in full view is to have one's own
manners and morals degraded. And so, evil does its business in the shadows, ever fearing not the heat of the great fire but the light. To clearly see
what this country has done, what it is still doing to construct itself is too much for any human to take. Talk to me about that.
COATES: Yes, that piece is inspired by my good friend, Eve Ewing, who also contributed to the issue taken from her book of poetry, "1919." But that --
what you just read specifically is, I would argue, inspired by one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who -- you know, as I write in the
piece, was never more persuasive and never more sublime. When he was articulating the burden of enslavement upon enslavements, and his whole
point was the act of enslaving is actually degradating to the enslaver, (INAUDIBLE) would echo this point years later.
But that when you have to torture somebody, when you have to beat somebody, when you have to do all of the horrible things you have to do to keep
somebody them in their place, you in turn become a monster, you destroy your own humanity, and you pass on that self-dehumanization to your kids
and they practice the same thing. And so, it has effects.
And so, I think it's not so different than to be a citizen in this country with a certain amount of privilege. To watch George Floyd be tortured to
death for eight minutes and say, yes, I'm OK with this, that's fine, that works for me, and I'm OK with that, and that's the price of keeping me
safe, that's an assault upon your humanity. You have gone somewhere. You have lost something. Some part of your heart and your soul has been taken
if you can watch that video, and be OK with it.
And so, I think like -- you know, that's always been, you know, key to the African-American struggle. You know, As I'm write, from the time of the
slave narrative to the time of the cellphone, from John Lewis, you know, on the bridge and why that, you know, footage had such effect, to Emmett Till
and an open casket funeral, of why that had such effect, it's very, very hard for people to witness what racism and white supremacy actually is,
it's violence. It's force, and do nothing about it.
Now, the flip side of it is, when people can hide it, you know, when they, you know, can commit those acts and not allow them to be seen, people are
OK with it then.
AMANPOUR: And, I mean, you talked about the light. And, of course, what happened to George Floyd happened in full daylight. What happened to Jacob
Blake was in the daylight, and, you know, that it's discouraging, that.
I just want to ask Radhika. You know, you weren't overly political when you -- we talked -- when you took over "Vanity Fair." We talked about your
heritage. We talked about your diversity priority, but you were, you know, hesitating about being overtly political, whether about racism or sexism or
whatever it is. Have you changed? And do you believe that your magazine should actually take a political point of view? I mean, obviously, this one
has. But do you think that's what "Vanity Fair" is going to do more of?
JONES: I think it's hard not to be political in this day and age. And I think about everything that's happening right now in our country. And, you
know, we have come to a point where, in the middle of a pandemic, to wear a mask is apparently a political act, to declare that black lives matter is
apparently a political act. If that's political, then yes, please, I am political. And I think it's a magazines role and even responsibility to
advance arguments and ideas that open people's minds.
AMANPOUR: Absolutely, especially for the for this time.
Ta-Nehisi, lastly to you, there's another piece in this issue where it's talking about the abolition movement. And it says, from colonial times up
through the civil war, the largest police force in the country wasn't primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the
slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized.
That sentence is pretty profound, but I want you to reflect on it in terms of what has happened in Wisconsin, this 17-year-old white boy, you know,
who's now charged with homicide, I believe, the first-degree, intentional, for allegedly killing two people, and videos that we haven't been able to
confirm ourselves, but apparently show him and others with long guns walking past the police in Kenosha and being greeted, having water thrown
at them, these white militia vigilante groups.
Can you just talk about that, please?
COATES: You ask such a great question. Just to take it back to the quote that you mentioned, it's difficult to get one's head around how much of
policing actually has its roots in enslavement. But the sentence is literally true, to live in the South during the period of enslavement meant
that you lived in a time of slave patrols, where ordinary white men who, you know, either owned slaves or did not were basically deputized to patrol
the roads for runaway slaves.
But, more than that, it basically meant that the entire white population had the power of arrest, of punishment, the power of just taking control of
the body of any African-American, in fact, often very -- either free or enslaved. That is the earliest form of police power in this country, and it
stretches back to our very beginnings. And, you know, as we argue, as, you know, the writer, Josie Duffy Rice argues in the piece, we have never quite
And you can see the ghosts of it right in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where you have a 17-year-old white boy, who is not, you know, part of the police
force, but is actually treated as though he were, as though he were an extension of the police force, shoots three people, walks down the street
right past the cops, keeps going. And the cops keep going as though he did nothing, because, at least in his mind, he's one of them.
And I think perhaps more important than the action of the video, which, as you mentioned, you know, we haven't completely verified yet, is the
statements of the head of police in Kenosha the very next day, when he speaks of the shooting in the passive voice and attempts to equate the
people who were protesting and were shot with the actual shooter. And it's the exact sort of passive voice language that you hear all the time when
chiefs of police are often called to speak upon shootings that their officers perpetrate.
And so, it was almost as though that boy was an officer, and that's not a mistake. Whiteness and policing have been deeply intertwined from, you
know, both at earliest beginnings in this country. And to this very day, we're still paying the effects of it.
AMANPOUR: And, meantime, according to his father, Jacob Blake is in hospital shackled to the hospital bed.
AMANPOUR: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much. Radhika Jones, congratulations on the September issue. Thank you for joining us.
And now, our next guest has spent his life addressing the fundamental causes of racial injustice in the United States, Bryan Stevenson is a
leading civil rights lawyer who made his name saving dozens of wrongfully convicted inmates from execution. And he joined our Walter Isaacson not
long after the murder of George Floyd to talk about solutions from rethinking policing to the vital need to embrace truth and reconciliation.
WALTER ISAACSON, CNNI HOST: Bryan Stevenson, welcome to the show.
BRYAN STEVENSON, FOUNDER, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE: Thank you.
ISAACSON: Bryan, when you watch that video of Mr. Floyd getting killed with the officer's knee on his neck crying out, tell me your emotions. Tell
me what go into your head.
STEVENSON: Well, it's frustration and anger, because we have seen this kind of violence for decades. And it's frustrating to me, because, five
years ago, I was part of a task force that was convened by the White House, motivated by too many of these incidents of police violence, that attempted
to create solutions. And we spent months going around the country. We held hearings. We had police chiefs and activists and academics and experts and
community leaders all come together. And we have 40 pages of recommendations that I believe would make it less likely that we would see
the kind of violence that we see in that video.
ISAACSON: What happened to those recommendations?
STEVENSON: Well, they have been completely abandoned. You know, the new administration came in, retreated from implementing any of those reforms,
didn't create the financial incentives for communities to take up these recommendations. And the infrastructure in the Justice Department largely
disintegrated, so that we don't have that kind of pressure, that kind of effort.
The Justice Department withdrew from lawsuits that have been made against cities that have engaged in problematic behavior. And the environment
shifted in a way that didn't create and sustain the pressure that was created.
ISAACSON: Well, tell me about some of those recommendations. Give me a couple of them that you think we should be doing.
STEVENSON: Sure. Well, I mean, it's all about changing the culture of policing. We have too many police officers in this country who are trained
as soldiers. We teach them how to shoot. We teach them how to fight. We teach them how to restrain people. We don't teach them how to help people
in a mental health crisis, how to interact with people who are psychotic.
We don't teach them how to de-escalate confrontations. They don't know how to manage, with the skill that they should manage, complex situations when
people of color and others have been provoked. And because that orientation has reinforced a mind-set where police officers too often think of
themselves as warriors, rather than guardians, what we saw in Minneapolis. And then, of course, we have got to get community engagement. We've got to
change the role of community members.
Policing is seen as this distinct fraternal order, with a few government officials implicated. It's like the police belong to the police, not to the
community, and it doesn't have to be that way. The cities that have made progress on these issues are communities where citizens and community
leaders have a direct role in the hiring and the development of policies and protocols. When that happens, you have a partnership between
communities and police that's not only good for the police and the community. It's good for public safety.
That's how you promote public safety.
ISAACSON: You try to put all this in the context of history. I go to your Equal Justice Initiative website and sign up for things. And every day,
there's a listing of today in history, where things happened involving racial equity.
ISAACSON: And coming up in a few days on the show is Juneteenth. That's on the calendar. Tell me about that. And what was the legacy, the narrative
coming out of Juneteenth?
STEVENSON: Yes, well, I do think it's important, Walter, to kind of emphasize that, when we talk about this police violence, we also have to
talk about who have been the primary targets of this violence, who has had to bear this burden. And black Americans have been disproportionately
targeted and victimized, and that has to do with this larger historical narrative. It has to do with this legacy of racial injustice that we have
And you're right, in a couple of weeks, it will be the 155th anniversary of when emancipated black people celebrated the end of slavery on Juneteenth.
And those formerly enslaved people believed that their rights, their dignity, their humanity was now going to be embraced, that they were going
to be welcomed as full citizens in the United States. And, instead of that happening, we saw the opposite. They were denied the right to vote. They
were denied the property that had been promised. They were actually targeted and victimized.
And we have never reckoned with that problem, which is why I do think we will not see meaningful change until we start this process of truth and
justice that has been long delayed in America. The great evil of American slavery wasn't the involuntary servitude and forced labor. You know, slave
owners and slavers needed a narrative to justify the brutality of slavery.
And so, they came up with this fiction that black people aren't as good as white people, that black people aren't evolved, that we're not human, we
can't do this, we can't do that, black people are inferior, and white people are superior. And that ideology of white supremacy, that was the
real evil of American slavery. And even though we ended involuntary servitude and forced labor with the 13th Amendment, we never acknowledged
this problem of white supremacy.
We didn't address it, which is why I have argued that slavery doesn't end in 1865. It just evolves. Because of that doctrine, Reconstruction fails.
The effort to protect black people, with the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote and the 14th Amendment to equal protection fails, because
we're still committed to this doctrine of white supremacy. And Southern white militias violently take control over these states with large black
populations and subject black people to conditions that are oppressive.
ISAACSON: Are we acknowledging that ideology of white supremacy enough today?
STEVENSON: No. We -- and I think, until we know this history, we won't be able to. That is, I think we have done a terrible job of acknowledging the
history. Most people don't know anything about the mass lynchings of black people during Reconstruction. They know too little about what happened in
the first half of the 20th century.
We act as if we have been -- we dealt with this problem of racial bias a long time ago. I'm not 100 years old. I was born at a time when black
people couldn't go to public schools. I started my education in a colored school.
I couldn't -- black people could not marry anybody they wanted to. We were restricted by interracial -- bans on interracial marriage. We haven't
repaired or remedied many of the problems that was created by bias. You know, and you see it in the voting context. We told black people, you can't
vote for 100 years. And rather than trying to remedy that problem, we said, OK, maybe we will stop blocking you from voting through law. Maybe we will
let some black people go to public school, as if that's a remedy. That's an insufficient remedy to a century of disenfranchisement, in the same way
that we're seeing these problems manifest in other areas.
But, more than that, we need to commit to truth and repair, to truth and restoration, truth and reconciliation. And the first step is the truth-
telling. I think people make a mistake when they try to get to the reconciliation conversation or even the reparation conversation before
knowing what the truth is. And the truth is, is that we have done a lot of damage to black and brown communities for a very long time, which means
that we're going to have to do a lot to repair and remedy much of that damage.
ISAACSON: What would you recommend for a truth and reconciliation process in the United States?
STEVENSON: Well, I think the first thing begins with valuing the construct. You know, I'm a person of faith. And in my faith tradition, you
can't just walk into church and say, I want all the benefits and gifts of being a member, I want all of the fruits of salvation, and I'm not going to
say anything about anything bad I have done.
The construct requires that there be repentance. That is that you create an environment where people can actually acknowledge wrongdoing, so that there
can be the opportunity for recovery. And I think we need to do that. And we begin to do that by affirming the wrongfulness of enslavement, which you
can't do if you celebrate the architects and defenders of slavery. You begin to do that by creating opportunities for people to reckon with what
they have done.
We do markers. We put up markers at lynching sites all across the region. And when we do these markers, I actually would love for police chiefs and
sheriffs to show up in their uniforms. And I think it's appropriate for those individuals to stand up and apologize that the people wearing those
uniforms 80 years ago, 100 years ago failed to protect black people from terroristic violence.
And I think it's appropriate for them to say, the people wearing this uniform failed you, and I want you to know that now I'm wearing this
uniform and I don't want to fail. I want to commit to protect you. I want to commit to serve you. That doesn't take money. It doesn't take a budget.
It doesn't take a lot of time. It just takes a willingness to acknowledge this history. And nine times out of 10, we can't get that police chief
there. We can't get that sheriff there. And that has to change. We have to be willing to have the courage to reckon with this mystery.
You know, I'm hearing from people now who come to our museum whose parents participated in the beatings of Freedom Riders, whose parents participated
in violence directed at nonviolent protests. And they have never been required to think critically about the wrongfulness of that. And you see a
lot of emotion in our sites. So, I think we have to create that space. And truth commissions, truth-telling begins with being honest about how we got
ISAACSON: Part of the history that you try to have us confront are the 4,000 or so lynchings, hanging, burnings, brutal murders that happened
post-Reconstruction up until the modern era. Do you think that those lynchings, in some ways, there's a direct line, or at least a symbolic
line, to people feeling they can put their knee on Mr. Floyd's neck, the way officer Derek Chauvin did?
STEVENSON: Yes, I don't think there's any question that we have created an American narrative that the victimization of black people is not as
serious, is not as important as the victimization of white people. We have actually created a tolerance of violence against black people that is
evident in so many of these acts. And we're about to issue a report in a couple of weeks on the level of lynching and -- during the Reconstruction
era, when some thousands of black people were murdered, sometimes on the streets, and the federal government did nothing about that.
And what that said was, it's not a big deal if you kill a lot of black people, that we have been focusing on the pandemic, Spanish Flu pandemic of
1918, as if it happened by itself. We have ignored all of the violence at black people that took place in 1919, the Tulsa massacre, violence in
Elaine, Arkansas where hundreds of black people were killed by white mobs. And the federal government did nothing.
When you constantly see this sort of violence with no repercussions, where there is no accountability, from the early days of lynching, to the murder
of Emmett Till, to police violence in the '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s, you send a message that, if you're going to victimize someone, if you're
going to be violent, and it's a person of color or a black person, you don't have to worry so much about the repercussions.
And that's at the heart of this thing. I mean, police differently in affluent communities. When the police go into an affluent white community,
they don't run over people's lawns. They don't pull people out of their homes. They don't throw people down on the street, because they know that
those people have access to judges and prosecutors and mayors. They have power to hold those officers accountable. In poorer minority communities,
we don't have that same power. And the violence that you see is the result of that.
ISAACSON: This current, latest crisis on police brutality and police killings comes amid a perfect storm of things for the African-American
community, including coronavirus hitting the African-American community much harder, the collapse of an economy that really penalizes wage earners
far more than people with wealth. What do you make of this incredibly weird, dangerous period and how can we get out of it?
STEVENSON: Well, it's unquestionably a very challenging time, for all the reasons that you cite. I think, for me, what's important to remember about
this, I think there's been a lot of indifference, that, somehow, we were in a better place than we actually were. And I'm hoping that this moment
galvanizes a kind of awareness that we still have a lot of work to be done.
I am worried about the economic consequences of this pandemic for poor and minority communities. I am worried about the continuation of this police
violence. I'm worried about the structural problems that we will have a hard time overcoming. But I'm -- I live in Montgomery, Alabama. I stand on
the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less in the 1950s and '60s. I am the heir of a generation of black people who would put on
their Sunday best and go places where they knew they'd be bloodied and battered, and yet, they went anyway.
I'm the great-grandson of people who were enslaved. And my great fore- parents found a way to overcome and survive enslavement. And my grandparents found a way to overcome and survive terrorism and lynching.
And my parents overcame and survived the humiliation of segregation.
And so, no one gets to say that things are so bad right now that we cannot find a way forward. We have more resources, more capacity, more
intellectual and political opportunities than we have ever had before in this country.
And so, it's a question of will. Will we use our capacity to create more justice, to create more equality, to confront political institutions that
do not value the need for equality and justice, that continue to perpetrate policies and institutions that are biased and bigoted? That's the question.
We have had -- we have more capacity now than we have ever had before. The question is, do we have the same conviction, the same commitment, and the
same resolve to eliminate bigotry and bias?
If we have that, then we will actually move toward a time -- I'd like for another generation at some point in the future to not be having these
conversations on television about the continuing legacy of these problems. But to get there, we have a role -- all have a role to play.
ISAACSON: You just got invited back to Harvard Law School to give a type of commencement speech in this crazy period. And you told them that hope is
their superpower. Explain how that fits in to the optimism that you're trying to express.
STEVENSON: Well, yes, I just think we cannot succeed if we become hopeless. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. I think injustice prevails
where hopelessness persists. And it's why I reject violence. I think violence is kind of rooted in a kind of hopeless despair. I think we have
to be hopeful. Hope is what allows us to believe things we haven't seen.
I have been practicing law for 35 years. We have gotten a lot of people off of death row. We have gotten a lot of people wrongly convicted freed. I had
to believe that could happen, even though I hadn't seen that happen before. I never met a lawyer before I went to Harvard Law School. I had to believe
I could be something I hadn't seen. I just think hope is what empowers you to do the things that have to be done. You know, hope will get you to stand
up when other people say, sit down.
Hope we will get you to speak when other people say, be quiet. If I learned anything from Rosa Parks and the generation of extraordinary people who
lived in this community, E.D. Nixon, Johnnie Carr, is that you have to be hopeful about what you can do, even when you don't feel like you have a lot
to do it with.
ISAACSON: Bryan Stevenson, thank you for sharing your hope and your exhortations. Stay healthy. Stay well.
STEVENSON: Thank you so much.
AMANPOUR: Hope is indeed a superpower. And that is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media.
Thank you for watching this special editor of Amanpour and goodbye from London.