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Barbershop: Police Shootings And Race Relations


So let's talk a bit more about some of the issues Sam Sanders just mentioned. We'll go to our Barbershop roundtable for that. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this weekend are Arun Venugopal. He is a reporter for WNYC. He has a new podcast called The United States Of Anxiety, and he's with us from the Radio Foundation studios in New York City. Welcome, Arun.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And also here in Washington, D.C., Ron Christie. He's an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Welcome back to you as well.

RON CHRISTIE: Good to see you.

CHRISTIE: And last but certainly not least, Jolene Ivey. She's a former representative to the Maryland House of Delegates and a Barbershop regular. Good to see you again, Jolene.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So as we just heard, this weekend has been this strange juxtaposition of emotions and events touching on race in our country. There is this - the police shootings of two different black men in two different cities and the unrest in one of those cities in Charlotte, N.C., and at the same time, this truly monumental event, the opening of this Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. So I'm going to ask you to start with that first story.

In Tulsa, Okla., a police officer named Betty Shelby was just charged with first-degree manslaughter on Thursday, less than a week after she shot and killed an unarmed black man. And as we reported earlier, another African-American man named Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed on Tuesday by a police officer in Charlotte, N.C. We're still watching for developments. This is Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney.


KERR PUTNEY: The reason for the encounter is because laws were broken. And the possession of a weapon with that law violation caused the officers to escalate their attention onto him. They were specifically looking for somebody wanted. That's why they were there.

MARTIN: So the details of these two incidents are obviously very different. I mean, for one thing, the police officer in the Charlotte case was evidently African-American. By contrast, the officer in the Tulsa case was white. But they're similar - there's some video footage, there's been a strong public response. So there's a lot to talk about here. I'm just going to ask each of you just to give me your reactions. Ron Christie, do you want to start?

CHRISTIE: Well, it's troubling. It's troubling when you see people who are in the wrong side of law enforcement and they lose their lives as a result of the encounter with law enforcement. But it's the lawyer in me, Michel, that says that we need to take a step back and not rush to judgment. We need to ascertain what all the facts are. We need to understand what led these law enforcement officers to come in contact with these individuals who, sadly, lost their lives and determine whether or not a crime was committed. My worry is that there are so many folks out there saying, oh, it's unjustified black shooting. Let's take the race out of it. Let's take whether it was justified out or not. And let's ascertain what the facts are first before enflaming what is already a very, very volatile situation in America.

MARTIN: Jolene.

IVEY: Well, it seems to me it almost doesn't matter the race of the police officer. What matters is the culture in policing. And it seems to me that there is a view that, number one, black men particularly are dangerous. I mean, you see that right away. We heard that with the helicopter footage when the person is kind of giving a step-by-step what's going on with the - I believe it was the Charlotte situation...

MARTIN: No, the helicopter situation was Tulsa.

IVEY: OK, was Tulsa - so you heard him say, oh, that's a bad dude. Well, how can you tell me it's a bad dude? It's just a big black man. I mean, he's a bad dude? So the view number one is that a black man is going to be a bad dude, number one. And then beyond that, I mean, this instant absolute obedience that if you don't get it as a police officer immediately then you can just shoot the person. And that doesn't seem reasonable to me. That seems crazy because people have a lot of reasons that - perhaps they can't hear you, they're having a medical emergency. There are a lot of reasons why you wouldn't instantly and immediately be obedient or you just feel I'm within my rights. But just to feel like you can just shoot anybody just because they didn't immediately jump when you told them to is not reasonable.

MARTIN: Arun, what about you? What does this bring up for you?

VENUGOPAL: Well, I mean, I think transparency is critical here. I do think it's impossible to separate race from this. There are so many people out there, I think, who are just growing increasingly cynical. And you have to be guarding against the possibility that they will think that the system serves no purpose, you know, the legal system, the judicial system, their legislators don't serve them any purpose. There's a famous quote by Dr. King, you know, a riot is the language of the unheard or something to that effect. And I think that's what you're worrying about is that populations of African-American youth and the like in various cities are going to think that no matter what happens, they're never going to know the full story. And transparency, I think, guards against that.

MARTIN: You know, it's an interesting time, as we said earlier, because while - just in the very same week that we're dealing with another one of these very draining and emotional and disturbing incidents - actually two - that this is when the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opens not far from our studios in D.C. Ron, I'm going to go to you again first on this because you were in the White House in 2003 when George W. Bush passed the legislation, signed the legislation to make this new museum a reality, so thank you. But...


CHRISTIE: (Laughter) You're welcome.

MARTIN: How do you feel seeing this come to fruition?

CHRISTIE: This is a very emotional day for me. My second day in the White House, the vice president asked me to look into this and to reach out to Sam Brownback and John Lewis and the other co-sponsors of the bill and see whether or not this was something that the administration could support. And then a couple of years later, standing in the Oval Office with the president and John Lewis and so many other folks who have fought for the struggle since 1915 to open this museum, and to be there today with President Bush, with President Obama - overwhelmingly emotional for me. And it's just amazing that an effort that has gone on for a century, we now finally have come to fruition of opening this wonderful museum.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? What does this bring up for you?

IVEY: Well, for me it's a few things. One, my dad was a history teacher, and I know how important this would be for him, if he were here. But also, when I think about the history of our country, this isn't exactly reparations, this museum, but it's kind of validation of what we've been through. And it seems like we have all of these Confederate monuments that we're discussing in the news these days. Some of them - or all of them, in my opinion - need to come down. But we don't even have hardly any monuments at all. So thank God for this museum that'll serve to validate all of our experiences so that there is a place we can point at and take our children to and they can take their children to. And it won't be so unusual that we are celebrating what black people have brought to this country.

MARTIN: Arun, your children are a little younger than Jolene's. I mean, Jolene's kids are - well, they're not really barely - they're barely kids anymore, that they're all, you know, adults who or close to adults. So - but what about you? Your kids are younger. Do you envision bringing them, and what do you think you'll tell them about it?

VENUGOPAL: Well, I mean, yeah, my daughter, she's 15. And we've started discussing - my wife and I, we were talking yesterday about when are we going to visit the museum. I was lucky enough a few weeks ago - I was in D.C. for the National Association of Black Journalists Convention. And myself and a friend - she's Latina, I'm South Asian - we went over there, and we wandered around the museum. It wasn't open yet, but, you know, it was striking, it's beautiful.

And even though I'm not black, it's - this is emotional for me, too. You know, this means a lot for me to - you know, my dad and my mom could not have come to this country if it weren't for the civil rights movement in terms of the opening up - that struggle did for people around the world who are from cultures - not Western European culture. This museum - you know, what I want to do is be able to take my daughter there and say, like, you know, this is, I guess, long overdue. It's about a people who want to - a community wants to be able to, like, you know, control its own story, its narrative, to have a greater say in, you know, what's beautiful, what's ugly, what's meaningful. I think all of us who are - you know, come from communities of color, we understand what that means and when you're trying to just say, like, this means something to me and you didn't necessarily have that opportunity in prior eras.

MARTIN: Jolene, what are you most looking forward to seeing when you do get a chance to visit?

IVEY: Well...

MARTIN: And it's going to take you a while because you need a lot of tickets. And there's a backlog since you have six kids.

IVEY: Yeah, my family kind of pissed because - I'm sorry - but I'm actually going on Thursday with some girlfriends, so I'm excited. But we'll bring the family in December, when we could get a lot of tickets.

MARTIN: What are you looking - what are you most looking forward to seeing?

IVEY: I actually - I'm just going to be so overwhelmed by the whole experience. I do want to go in from the bottom as I hear about it and see the things like the Middle Passage part, that - I want to see that. And it's going to hurt. And I'm going to bring tissues, but I'm going to do it. But then to get through that and to get to the top where the beautiful things are, I'm looking forward to it.

MARTIN: You seem like you're already a little emotional about it.

IVEY: I'm a little choked up.

MARTIN: A little choked up about it. Ron, what about you. What are you most looking forward to seeing?

CHRISTIE: Well, I have to say for having been there this afternoon and seeing the Tuskegee Airmen airplane hanging up and then talking and visiting with the surviving Tuskegee Airmen today was emotionally overwhelming for me. And they were so excited. And I heard time and time again today, I can't believe I lived long enough to be here for this day to see this. And it just - I mean, even now John Lewis's speech just put me in tears. It was - it was so emotional just to see so many people so happy and yet so cynical to think that this day would never come. And it has, and it's meant so much on an emotional level for so many different people.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I have some - actually some sad news to report. Speaking of a person who's taken a place in the culture, according to the Associated Press and director Spike Lee and others, Bill Nunn, a veteran character actor whose credits ranged from the "Spiderman" franchise to the Spike Lee films such as "Do The Right Thing," where he played Radio Raheem, has died. He died just a little while ago at the age of 63. And I mention because Spike Lee, a very significant figure in the culture, well-represented in the museum. So Radio Raheem, Bill Nunn, is going to be missed. And I want to thank Ron Christie, Jolene Ivey, Arun Venugopal. Thank you all so much for joining us in the Barbershop today.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

CHRISTIE: Pleasure to be with you.

VENUGOPAL: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: See you at the museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.