Lambda Literary Award-winning author ( Memoir of a Race Traitor, 1994 ) and professor Mab Segrest was raised in Tuskegee, Alabama, ( Macon County ) during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
Segrest's firsthand experience on the topics of white supremacy, homophobia, desegregation and patriarchy began under her own roof as a child. In fact, her great-grandfather was a segregationist who co-wrote Alabama's constitution in 1901 to maintain white power.
Segrest told GRITtv host Laura Flanders in August 2014: "The more I thought about it, the more I saw in my family and outside of itthe more I felt like I had to get away. I didn't realize until later when I went to Duke to graduate school in the '70s, and then came out as a lesbian, that I knew in my gut that 'I can't live here.' When I came out in Durham, there was a very vibrant, political lesbian community in Durham doing all kinds of activism. I started doing feminist and anti-racist work very soon there that allowed me to go back and pick up the experiences from my childhood and make more sense of them."
Utilizing her personal history to help in constructing North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence in the 1980s to combat virulent Klan and neo-Nazi activity and hate violence, Segrest also co-founded Southerners on New Ground ( SONG ) with five other Southern lesbians in 1993.
In early September, Segrest offered her understanding of what happened in Ferguson between police officer Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown. Her information was based on reading news reports, social media and personal conversations, and she did not presume to speak for the people in Ferguson, Missouri, the recent site of racial unrest.
"As I understand it from the media, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, was stopped on the street by police in midday. They were suspicious because he was walking in the street, and an altercation ensued with the police from which he ran. One policeman shot him and apparently hit him four times in the arm," Segrest said. "At some point he stopped and turned around, held his hands up as much as he could with four gunshot wounds apparently in his arm, as the autopsy said, and walked ( or staggered ) forward, at which point the police felt either entitled or threatened enough to shoot him two more times, hitting him in the head, including the top of the head as he was falling down."
What occurred next was also troubling to onlookers who quickly gathered.
"The police left him dead in the street for four hours or more in his own blood in the middle of his community in which his family and he lived, and his neighbors. People were quite, I would say understandably, upsetthat his body was lying there, that he had been shot, and they wanted information," she said. "So that's the actual event as much as I can reconstruct it from various news reports, various investigations and autopsies."
The tragedy in Ferguson sparked community outrage.
"I think that the kind of explosion of activism and analysis and encounters between the community and the police in the next few weeks [following the killing] were the results of very deep-seeded divisions in that community that resonate nationally, particularly as it has to do with racism against African Americans and particularly young men," Segrest offered.
Had the circumstances been different, perhaps the attention would have been, too.
"If he had been the only person shot in Ferguson or Missouri or the United States who was Black and young, unarmed in an altercation with the police that decade, that year, it wouldn't have had any legsit wouldn't have gone anywhere," she said.
"The other piece to it that was very incendiary from the town of Ferguson's point of view was how rapidly these police forces were assembled armed in a way that made them look like they were in Baghdad or Afghanistan or somewhere fighting insurgents in the Middle East. I think that that was a very new element in the public perception of how since the 1990s and particularly since the War on Terror our local police forces have been so militarized," she added.
Case in point: the weaponry used in Ferguson.
"They had tanks; they had automatic weapons trained on demonstratorsnot barrels turned downwith police people who were not trained to use them, their fingers on the trigger in highly volatile situations. As the newspapers variously reported, local community governments have spent millions of dollars to buy this surplus military hardware to arm themselves in such a way that's just astounding," said Segrest.
Astounding even to a woman who has seen just about everything in her time.
"I'm 65, and these days I'm surprised to be surprised at things. That was one of those surprises that I kind of knew, but to see it played out on the ground like that…" she said. "When I think about it, if there's a million dollars at the local level going into surplus military hardwarewhich meant we didn't need it in the first placeor leftover from various military campaigns in the Middle East, buying all of that came at the expense of federal money that since the 1980s restricted for funding human needs and social services.
"So a community that has all of a sudden the U.S. Army armed to the teeth as its police force, has also been cut in these austerity moves because we ran up debts on the military side of it, with that much less money for school, for job training, for health care, for a whole range of things. That abandonment also shapes our communities."
The public images coming out of Ferguson featured men and women of various shapes, sizes and colors holding their hands up in solidarity for Brown. Segrest offered her take on the visuals seen around the world. "I think [the demonstration's] intent was to give a voice to these people in their last moments. It's to also say, any of us could be shot. 'Hands up, don't shoot. I've got my hands up, please don't shoot me. You know, y'all are out of control, you're running amuck.. Don't shoot. You need to stop shooting.'"
In fact, it was another demonstration entirely that further illustrated Segrest's point.
"I went to a demonstration recently on Staten Island where Eric Garner, another Black man, was apprehended by police and killed. About six policemen jumped on him because he was selling something illegally on the street to support his family, and put him in a chokehold that cut off his windpipe. He said, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe!' and then he was dead. They didn't stop until he was dead," she said. "In terms of New Yorkers' activism around police violence and the events in Ferguson and the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin, all of these things were very present with the people at the march. And both, 'Hands up, don't shoot!' and, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe!' were frequent chants by various portions of this march to remember the last moments of the dead."
U.S. citizens often suffer from a media mind-meld, which could not be more apparent than right now in our nation's history with gun violence.
"The United States today is highly polarized and fragmented. The media is split into hundreds of channels that have niche perspectives to which people go. There's so many more media so much less common viewing experiences across communities than back when I was little and you had four channels and they stopped at 11 at night and they picked up again at 6 in the morning," Segrest recalled. "But as I understand it, many white people have read the responses of police in Ferguson as an overreaction and are supportive of the demonstrators., although many are not and have supported the officer who shot Brown Many, many African Americans understand and feel vulnerable to the same forces that killed Michael Brown, as do Latinos. But I do think that perhaps the view of that level of military in a police force was alarming across these registers."
To explain the situation in Black and white is one thing; to truly understand the situation is another.
"Nothing in this country is all one thing, never was. There are very deep, polarized and entrenched divisions that have political importance today," Segrest offered.
A voter registration booth was constructed in Ferguson following Brown's death. Only 12 percent of voters voted in the last election.
"If I start to compare Ferguson at this point to what things were like in my childhood in Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, in Macon County I recall that we had maybe 85 percent African-Americans and 15 percent white people, but it was white control of everything; all the political organizations, all the law enforcement and so forth. Gradually, Black people were getting on the voter rolls and then the Civil Rights movement broke open those struggles that ended in the Voting Rights Act," Segrest remembered. "Now in Macon County, it's predominantly a Black population, predominantly Black political structure, predominantly Black law enforcement, overwhelmingly so. And in many of the Black belt countiesthe plantation counties which had large populations of African Americansthere's a similar situation at least at the local level."
Segrest added, "In Alabama today, there are over 800 Black elected officials; mostly in the local and county level, some also in the legislature, too, but it's still very much a white-controlled state. The constitution goes back to 1901 when segregationists, including one of my great-grandfathers, wrote it to maintain white power, not only to bring in segregation, but to really hold down taxation and make all the counties who wanted taxes have to go to the legislature for approval. Activists in Alabama still work on trying to break the hold of that constitution, and haven't been able to." The situation of white political control of African Americans is similar in ways to Ferguson, Segrest said.
Voting is important, a fact Segrest goes on to discuss.
"Ferguson is 33 percent white now and 63 percent Black, and has the police force of 50 white officers and three Black officers. Ferguson is very under-registered and many African American people don't really participate, as I understand it; and now they've had a major wake-up call. With more votes they might at least gain some local control that would buffer them more with more Black voters. So people there are registering voters and doing voter education and basic citizenship lessons that people don't get in their schools because they're so busy getting those young people ready for prisons today in poor communities," she said.
"In order to change that dynamic in Ferguson, you would have to get a different city council and have a different police force," she said. But some things simply won't change in just one place. "You're not necessarily going to have a different governor; you won't have a different president. One person's vote registers at the local and municipal level, the county level, the state level, and the national level; and the further out you get, the less say you can have in terms of what difference your vote makes."
Segrest recalled voting rights in the Deep South during the civil-rights movement.
"In Alabama 50 years ago, Black people were systematically shut out of voting. In Macon County, sometimes the board of registrars held registration in the bank vault so that they could control who came in. Macon County had the Tuskegee Institute, which had a very educated professorate and citizenry, but literacy tests would deny a vote to a Black PHD and give it to an illiterate white person. So there were profound ways to distort and limit the degree to which being able to vote and having a democracy operated," she said.
How is the voting process different today?
"Of course there are changes. But there are disturbing similarities as well. Today, there are new efforts at voter restriction and gerrymandering that have profoundly impacted the ability of people to have their vote count. Republicans did a brilliant job of gerrymandering up to 2010, so that they have the U.S. House of Representatives really nailed down, and the Tea Party folks there can just stop business so that the ability of the federal government to actually govern and pass laws has been severely limited. It's like they're putting a wrench in the works. "Those Tea Party people within the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can stop everything. That's a form of minority control that feels to me a lot like the 15 percent white people that controlled the 85 percent Black people in the county I grew up in. We're the most powerful country in the world; we're an empire, and concerning our capacity to govern ourselves, we're shooting ourselves in the headnot in the foot, but the head. We're in the danger of becoming a failed advanced industrial state, and it's quite remarkable."
Segrest added that campaign financing has as much to do with it as the rest.
She recalled Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the 1959 Supreme Court decision that originated in Macon County and brought together racial discrimination with political representation and gerrymandering. "This many years after 1959, we have these gerrymandered districts. After the Citizens United Supreme Court decision we have huge presence of private money in the electoral process because the Republican majority on the Supreme Court said that financial contributions from corporations are their free speech and should not be iimited by campaign finance reform: the wealthy can put as much money as they want to into affecting political races,. Super rich and conservative people like the Koch brothers can outspend almost everybody else and often control the electoral process. I don't call it the democratic process anymore, in terms of voting, but it's the electoral process that is supposed to point to democracy, but it just doesn't anymore. I mean, we still have to use it, but it's really been rigged and we need to fix that."
"When Republicans vote in super majorities, as they are in many places, particularly now five southern states, then they can do whatever they want. North Carolina, where I lived for 30 years, is certainly a state in point," she said.
Adding, "North Carolina, for a southern state, had in the twentieth century a very progressive wing and a very progressive tradition for supporting infrastructure and education. In the 1980s, Jesse Helms came to represent the North Caroiina electorate for so much of the country and the world; but 40 percent of the people in North Carolina loved the man and thought he could walk on water; 40 percent hated him , thought he was the anti-Christ; and then there was a swing vote, and it always came down to only 3 percent, sometimes 2 percent. So we could never get the 50 percent plus one to get the man out. He got in on a very narrow margin and he ruled in the most extreme way. And that's kind of a template for Republican politics now. When they get in office on however slender a margin they use power in very extreme ways that feel very familiar to me from having grown up living where I did."
Segrest further explained the current temperature in North Carolina.
"In North Carolina now they have a Republican Governor and a Republican Senate and House, so they have passed the most repressive legislation that right-wing think tanks have been breeding in the petri dishes of state and local campaigns. , Whether it's reproductive rights and freedoms, or turning down Medicaid, or the Affordable Care Act for hundreds of thousands and across the south millions of poor people, to limiting voter participation, to gutting school budgets, to gutting any kind of budgets, It's the most extreme form of governing, and it pulls so deeply on white Southern roots, and yet it also has national implications and it's not just happening in the South," she said.
There are distinct means in which the United States can put the train back on the track, according to Segrest.
"Democracy has got to be taking back our institutions, building coalitions, being as smart as we can at all these different levels, and realizing that just because we have an election does not mean we have a democracy," she said. She pointed to the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina that has brought increasing numbers of people out to protest and be arrested in response to extreme legislative actions. This North Caroline movement is broadly coalitional and collaborative. "Like organizing in other places, the movement in North Carolina shows that we don't give up our rights or our minds or our communities or our fellow human beings to the governing of the new ruling class. I mean, they just don't have the authority to act within the positions that they achieve in all of these nefarious means."