Throughout 2020, society has seemingly come to a stressful capstone. As a grand jury determined that none of the Louisville police officers involved in the Breonna Taylor fatal shooting were responsible for her death, National Action Network founder Rev. Al Sharpton, voiced his frustration over the outcome. “How do you shoot a woman six times and only charge one policeman for putting the neighbors at risk?” he questioned. It’s sobering events like this that have made Sharpton reflect on his experiences as a civil rights leader over the last several decades in his new book, RISE UP: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads.
In a phone conversation with BET.com Senior Editor, Madison J. Gray, Rev. Sharpton talked about the takeaways from his book, the impact of the massive demonstrations this year and why it’s important to have a clear view of it all.
BET.com: The title of your book is RISE UP: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads. Why in your view is this country at a crossroads as opposed to any other time in its history?
Rev. Al Sharpton: We are at a crossroads because there's been over the last several decades, a movement sometimes in big steps, other times in incremental steps toward opening up this country to guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights and economic opportunities for everyone. Then it led all the way up to the electing and reelecting, an African American president. Then we ended up going the exact opposite by having a backlash from those forces that wanted to keep the things in the pre-1960 mode and elected Donald Trump.
So I feel that we are now where we can choose to go back to the road that was leading towards inclusion and empowerment and fairness and justice.
BET.com: Your book talks about the continued importance of women in the political movements, inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, immigration reform and climate change and how they all relate to African Americans. What would you say is the most important takeaway in the book?
Rev. Sharpton: The important takeaway is that none of the movement that we’re seeing today is new. When I was 18 years old, I was the youth director of Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign and she was dismissed by Black political leadership men. All of that now emanates to where we have a Black woman running for vice president. With LGBTQ+, [in the book] I talk about when I was a teenager and had a youth group, and Bayard Rustin gave me the money to start my youth group. He organized the original March on Washington in ‘63. They made him step back from taking a public role because he was gay.
I talked about how all of these contradictions that we are now dealing with openly were rooted in history. That's why it's important that we have an intersectional movement to deal with which road we’re going to go in this country.
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BET.com: In the book you mention “latte liberals.” Can you explain what that means and why they are a problem?
Rev. Sharpton: There are those that have come in the movement, and they come from the “white progressive” movement, that feels that they are the ones that should decide what is going to be the whole goals of the movement, the tactics of the movement, and who should be out front. My thing is these purists who say, ‘we don't need this because we're against rappers that say certain things.’ Or ‘we don't agree with the Black church, we're not religious.’ Well, that's not up to you. What I'm saying is that we cannot let people that become our allies dictate our movement. We need allies. We don't need bosses.
BET.com: In an excerpt from the book, you said the call by demonstrators to “defund the police” was a misnomer. What did you mean by that?
Rev. Sharpton: That slogan, when it was said to “defund the police” was not saying to cut off all funds to the police, it was saying to reappropriate those funds that would be effective with community policing. We’re dealing with mental health; we’re dealing with other issues. It was not to say we don’t want police. We’re fighting gun violence in our community. We’re victimized by the inundation of guns. A month after I preached at George Floyd’s funeral, I preached the funeral of a one-year-old killed with a stray bullet in Brooklyn.
But we’re saying that to just keep having the appropriations, the funding the same way it is, militarizing the police and not dealing with mental health, not dealing with community policing, not dealing with testing these policemen for sensitivity and using the funds to do that is to be pouring in good money behind bad money. The slogan was purposely misinterpreted by those that did not want to see the movement succeed.
BET.com: In talking about legendary South African president Nelson Mandela. You speak about voter apathy among African Americans. According to a Pew Research study, only 54% of eligible Black men voted in 2016. So what can we do about getting more black men to the polls?
Rev. Sharpton: We must let them understand that it’s not about voting for Biden or Hillary, it’s about voting for yourself, who is in your best interest, and the more you complain and the less you vote, you’re just playing yourself. Why complain if you’re not going to do something about it. None of these people are safe, but if they’re your best option, you hold to that best option so that you can get some of the things you want to be done until you can get the rest done.
BET.com: The city of Louisville announced one of the largest ever monetary awards of a Black person killed by police violence to the family of Breonna Taylor and it came with significant police reform. Does this now become a model for other cities to follow? Or is each case individual?
Rev. Sharpton: It reminds me of when Johnny Cochran and I fought the case of the Jersey Four, and those youngsters settled for around $13 million only if there was police reform around racial profiling, and that’s the amount that they did in Louisville. I also say that we also should not stop until those police [officers] are prosecuted. We cannot, in any way, feel people can just pay us and walk away with killing us. They need to pay, yes but they also need to be prosecuted. That's the model.
RISE UP: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads is scheduled for release on September 29. Madison J. Gray is Senior Editor at BET.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mjgraymedia.