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Roxane Gay, Anna Deavere Smith and Tay Anderson on the protests' hope and despair


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Let's focus more on some of the deeper issues that are underlying the demonstrations and civic unrest shaking the country.

We have three voices to join us for that.

Roxane Gay is a noted essayist and author whose work frequently focuses on race, feminism, identity, and privilege. Anna Deavere Smith, an award-winning playwright and actor whose works have explored questions about race, class and the criminal justice system. That includes "Notes From the Field," which was adapted into a film by HBO and will be rebroadcast tomorrow. And Tay Anderson is an activist in Denver who has been leading protests there. He is also a member of the Denver Public School Board.

Welcome to all three of you.

And, Tay Anderson, let me start with you first.

You are elected to the school board. You are part of the power structure, but you are also a young African-American man. What do you take away from the death of George Floyd?

Tay Anderson: First off, thank you for having me.

As a black man, every day I wake up and wonder, will I be able to go home? I have had my own fair share of interactions of being pulled over and not knowing, what do you reach for first, or do you put your hands up or put them out of the window?

And so to see that George Floyd was killed is heartbreaking. But it is not the first time that we have had to gather like this. And I hope that it will be the last.

Judy Woodruff: Roxane Gay, as you listen to the voices of those who are protesting, what do you hear? And is it what you're feeling inside you?

Roxane Gay: Absolutely.

I'm hearing and I think what all of us are hearing that are listening is rage and people saying, it's enough. Every single day, almost, a new atrocity comes to light. And people can only tolerate so much injustice and oppression.

And we're now seeing the consequences of not dealing with police brutality. And, unfortunately, the response in most places has been to respond with more policing, which is actually not the answer. So, I am frustrated, as the protesters are, and just wondering, when is it going to change? But I don't know that it will.

Judy Woodruff: Anna Deavere Smith, you have been writing about race and about social justice, about the criminal justice system for years.

What is different this time?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, there is one thing that, to me, is notably different. And that is the composition of the people in the street doing the protests.

And more than one newscaster has commented that it's not just black people. And, you know, this word allies, which I have heard from younger people, takes on a new meaning for me.

And I think it's -- actually, this is -- if there is any good news here, it is the evidence about how education, particularly in colleges, over the last two decades have increased sort of people's awareness of one another and people's awareness of black culture, and that many of the white people there and the black people out there peacefully protesting have been influenced by people like Toni Morrison and even to experience very powerful cultural makers, like the work of Shonda Rhimes or Jay-Z.

And they have experienced this together. And they expect a lot more from the system.

Judy Woodruff: And, Tay Anderson, are those some of the messages you feel are coming across? You are expressing your own rage and frustration. Do you feel some of this coming across?

Tay Anderson: Yes, we have -- in Denver, we have explicitly asked what we call allies that are showing up to please not escalate on our behalf.

But those asks have been ignored. And, right now, we are seeing our city being destroyed. And it is not in the name of black organizers or Black Lives Matter as a movement. People are taking it on their own volition. And it's heartbreaking to see that those who come out to support the cause are using the cause for their own agenda.

Judy Woodruff: Is that -- Roxane Gay, is that something that disturbs you?

You said a moment ago, it's hard -- words to the effect, it's hard to have hope. Why is it hard to have hope right now?

Roxane Gay: It's hard to have hope because there's no change. There is no productive response. There's no leadership at the federal level, because the president is the racist in chief.

And so when you see that, even in liberal states like California and a liberal city like Los Angeles, where, today, we have curfews at 1:00, 4:00 and 6:00 p.m., how do you have hope, when even the most liberal of governments is not responding with anything but reinforcing the police state?

And, yesterday -- last night, in protests in Louisville, Kentucky, a 53-year-old black man, David McAtee, was murdered by police.

And so how do you have hope when, during a protest against police violence, another black man is murdered? It is incredibly frustrating.

Judy Woodruff: And I want to come back to you, Tay Anderson, on that, because you look at what is going on, and, to some extent, clearly, the violence that is happening is causing people to say, this has gone too far.

On the other hand, there is still a great sense of injustice.

Tay Anderson: Yes.

We understand that there is a great sense of injustice. And it is heartbreaking to see us continuing to gather like this. But we heard this morning that the family of George Floyd, they're asking us that -- to please be peaceful.

And so that's one of the things we're asking here in Denver, is just please be peaceful and respect our ask.

Judy Woodruff: And is that -- is that being heard?

Tay Anderson: By some, it is, unfortunately not by

And we're hoping that, if you claim to be an ally, that you will start listening to the asks of the black community, at least here in Denver, Colorado. Now, organizers in different cities and different states may be doing different things, but, here in Denver, we are asking people to please keep the peace.

Judy Woodruff: And that brings me back to what you said a moment ago, Anna Deavere Smith, because you said you see -- there is a sense of progress you see in the makeup of who is protesting and the message that is coming out.

And yet we just heard Roxane Gay say there's -- it is hard, because it just keeps happening over and over again.

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, no, I mean, I see a direct line in terms -- from lynching to this, right?

Lynching is, I think, defined as extralegal execution. And that's really what happened, right? Chauvin was working outside the bounds of what was acceptable.

And I was in the courtroom in Los Angeles for that second trial after the riots there. And I saw how hard it is to bring police officers to justice, how hard it is to put them in jail. We thought that second treatment was also going to have them all walk. And, as you may recall, two did, and two did not.

And, of course, I was in Baltimore right after the beating and killing of Freddie Gray, and again. You know, so I understand the frustration. In my citing the peaceful -- the peaceful crowd and the makeup of that crowd giving me some hope, it is also a callout to education, quite frankly, right, is the power of education and the power of art to, you know, increase empathy and just teach people more about the world.

Judy Woodruff: What is it going to take, Roxane Gay?

I mean, I come back to what you said a moment ago. And I reread what you wrote in The New York Times on Sunday. You said, "Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people continue to wait, despite the futility of hope for a cure for racism."

It's bleak.

Roxane Gay: It is pretty bleak.

And I don't even know what to do with that, because we can't say there is no hope, because, otherwise, what are we even telling our children and what are we telling ourselves about how we're going to live out the rest of our lives?

But we need systemic reform. And I don't know that we can expect the police to reform themselves. Like, the institution is corrupt. And so I think reform is going to have to come externally, and we're going to have to really expand our imaginations to reimagine what law enforcement might look like, if racism didn't underpin it.

I don't know where to begin, but I do know that we need to start having conversations with our elected officials. And they need to start doing more than simply reinforcing a police state in response to these kinds of uprisings, because the protesting is not going to stop until someone acknowledges why the protests are happening in the first place.

And it has to be more than just a speech about, we support peaceful protests. Peaceful protest is important and necessary. And I agree with what Tay said. It's really frustrating to see people ignoring the black organizers who are saying, please, stop, because it's not helping our cause.

Like, it's a bunch of kids from the suburbs and anarchists and probably white supremacists coming in and creating these problems. And it just further -- and shows that, like, we're not going to be taken seriously, because, even when we try to advocate for ourselves, white people come in and try to ruin it with their own nonsense.

So, it is frustrating.

Judy Woodruff: And, Tay Anderson, back to you.

Do you have a sense that your generation is going to have answers that our generation, the older generation, clearly has not had?

Tay Anderson: I think our generation needs to, one, understand the importance of voting, because a lot of the change that we want to see is held at the ballot box. And we have to be able to go out there and seek the change that we want to see.

I think our generation is waking up. But I also think that there are people in this generation that are using this moment and this movement for a trend on Twitter, for TikTok video, or to go viral on social media, which is disgusting.

We shouldn't have white kids coming from the suburbs, throwing stuff at police officers on our behalf to be cool for a nice trend. That is not what we have asked for. And it's hurting us more than it is going to help us.

And so, hopefully, what I'm planning -- I plan to see in the future is that we are able to start coming together and actually start understanding that Black Lives Matter is not about asking for special privilege. It's just saying, black people just want to be seen as human.

Judy Woodruff: Well, we have to leave there.

But, for now, Tay Anderson, Roxane Gay, Anna Deavere Smith, this is just one part of a conversation that continues. And we thank you all for being part of it tonight. Thank you.

Anna Deavere Smith: Thank you.

Tay Anderson: Thank you.

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