Listening Local BLM

GroovaLottos members Morgan James (Mwalim) Peters (left) and Eddie Ray Johnson spoke with Luke Vose about issues of race and about being Black performers on the Cape.

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota. He was handcuffed and the killing was filmed. National outrage erupted and led to protests worldwide. 

I wanted to get the perspective of local musicians of color and Morgan James “Mwalim” Peters and Eddie Ray Johnson of the Grammy-nominated soul-funk band The GroovaLottos agreed to have that conversation with me. We talked for a long time but never got any music stuff. Honestly we could have talked all day but I was working on a deadline. 

Can you tell me what you are feeling right now, today?

MP: Honestly, when people say they're "outraged,” I wonder where have they been? The source of this outrage is part of a several hundred year continuum, much of the media is presenting the protests and anger because of George Floyd, when in reality, George Floyd was the last straw the several million straws under the straw that broke the camel's back. People are out in the street because of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery... and the thousands of unarmed citizens killed by those sworn to protect us. People are tired of the dismissive, racist's talking point: “What about Black-on-Black crime?”

Black-on-Black crime is just that; "a person committing a crime. Just like they have white criminals, committing crimes against other white people, etc." How does that compare to law enforcement unnecessarily shooting and choking out people for sleeping, walking, talking on a cell phone, playing in the park, driving a car, caring for the disabled? These were some of the activities people were doing when killed by police. How do these same folks see it as reasonable that a cop can "fear for their lives" from a person who is fifty feet away, with their back to the officer, on a cell phone in their grandmother's yard? It is not law enforcement sworn to uphold and protect society. Black-on-Black crime is a criminal committing a crime.

It’s interesting that people always try to divert it to that. This is private unarmed citizens who are being brutalized by institutions that are supported by taxpayer money, much of which is supplied by people of color who own property and businesses. It’s not just the problem of "bad cops" but it’s also the problem of good cops enabling and supporting the bad cops with their silence and excuses on behalf of the bad cops. It's the police departments and towns that repeatedly rehire these "bad cops." This is something that’s been going on for decades. If you let this much anger boil the top is going to blow off the pot. When people say, “Black lives matter,” and you go, “All lives matter,” you don’t think people aren’t going to say to hell with this? When you’re watching video footage of two cops snatching up a five foot tall woman and punching her and throwing her on the ground, somebody posts it on Facebook and a white neighbor, and the parent of my son's classmate comments, “It does looks like she was resisting,” yeah—that’s gonna create anger. The same issues and conversations you’re hearing now in 2020 are the same things we were hearing in 1968, in 1965, in the ‘50s and '60s during civil rights protests. People are looking at these current outbreaks and saying, "If they could only be peaceful." First thing to understand is that the protesters are not the source of the violence or looting. The other thing is that many of these folks crying for peaceful protests were angry at Martin Luther King Jr. for leading protests in the '60s and Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee. 

When you were growing up, what were your early impressions of policing?

EJ: I watched it on TV every day from when I was 4 or 5 till now and I’m 58. In the civil rights marches we saw Black men being abused by the police and then police officers saying, “Well, they were resisting arrest.” When somebody hits you with a baton in the face you don’t have a right to protect yourself? When somebody has a dog attack you, you don’t have a right to defend yourself? When somebody hits you with a firehose, you don’t have the right to protect yourself?

MP: Putting up your hands to protect yourself, or trying not to fall on the ground is considered “resisting arrest.”

EJ: Meaning that you’re going to attack them. A policeman can shoot someone from 100 feet away who’s on a cell phone and say, “I feared for my life,” but can turn around and disarm someone else and take them down peacefully in another situation. Tell me that’s not going to create anger. Somebody with their back turned to you on a cell phone made you fear for your life? You’re going to give this as a reasonable explanation?

How long does this have to happen? I have two sons that are 10 and 15 and I have to tell them every day, “You have to realize who you are and where you are in this country. Just because your mother is white doesn’t mean that you have white privilege. You are Black to them and don’t you forget it."

My oldest hangs around with a group of 9 or 10 white boys. The police went by and the white boys were flipping them off. When they saw my wife they said to her, “There were a bunch of boys that were hassling and flipping us off. All I remember is the one that had the afro." You know who the one with the afro was? That’s my son. The only Black kid in the group. He’s the only one who they remember and he wasn’t even flipping them off.

What’s it feel like to have those conversations with your sons?

EJ: It’s a part of life. 

MP: You know how that normal talk is the birds and the bees? Well, as soon as your male Black child reaches about the age of 11 and their voice starts to change, you need to have that "other" conversation with them. It’s a conversation about police. It’s a conversation that has to do with their teachers and the principal and walking down the street. Now that my son is six-foot one and has dreadlocks and facial hair I’m afraid when he walks outside. I’m terrified. A few years back he was accosted by a Mashpee cop at a football game for not shaking somebody's hand. The cop actually tried to detain him for this.

Let me explain something when it comes down to local police: unfortunately, I can only name one police force on Cape Cod that I’ve had only positive interactions with: Provincetown. 

Can you give me an example of one of those positive interactions?

MP: Certainly. We were playing out in front of a spot. You know you have street performing in Provincetown but the guy who owned the space didn’t have a permit to have performances there. The police very respectfully came up to us and said, “Guys it sounds great but he doesn’t have a permit so we unfortunately have to close it down." That was how they handled it and as they saw us unplugging they got back in their car and left and there was no hassle, no difficulty and it was with complete respect. The gentleman called me "sir." 

Very different from my experience 11 years ago when I was leaving Mashpee pond around the time they are closing up. I’m putting my toddler in his car seat and I have a cop  jump out of his car and get in my face to tell me, “It’s time to go. Hurry it up!” Meanwhile, white folks were quietly loading their cars at their leisure and getting ready to leave.

You have a number of police on Cape Cod who will criminalize you no matter what the situation. There have been times when I’ve gone to a police station as a citizen in search of assistance and was treated like I was there in handcuffs. This has happened in Barnstable, this has happened in Brewster. I’ve been pulled over in every town on Cape Cod. I’ve not been ticketed but I’ve been pulled over with them flashing lights in my car. I’ve been pulled over when the guy has his hand on his gun as he’s coming to the car.

EJ: I’ve been pulled over when the cop says, “You’re Black and you’re a musician. We know you have drugs in the car,” and I’m talking about when it’s raining out. I have a $15,000 professional drum set and they’re making open the cases in the rain and leave them out. That was in Truro.

MP: I do have to say the Truro police have been sensitized because our last interaction with them, when we were just looking for directions, was markedly different. But the automatic assumption that if you’re riding around with an instrument, it must be stolen. All of the sudden possession being nine-tenths of the law has left the equation many nights driving home from a gig. They even had the audacity to ask me if I had a receipt for that keyboard.

EJ: My family moved to Wareham August 14, 1964. My dad was in the military. Five years ago I worked at KFC/Taco Bell. My fiance worked from 5 pm till midnight. I’m on my way to meet her because she’s a woman walking by herself down the highway. I’m at the end of the road when a cruiser cuts me off and the officer jumps out with his hand on his gun and wants to know who am I? Where am I going? And where am I coming from? I said to him, “I’ve lived in this neighborhood since 1964 and I don’t understand why I’m being treated like this.” They said,  “We’re looking for someone who’s on the run and you sorta fit the description.” I said, “I’m on my way to meet my girlfriend who got out of work at midnight and I’m walking her home.” Less than 300 yards later another cruiser pulls me over with the dog and wants to know who I am and where I’m going. I said, “Officer I’ve already been stopped once tonight. There’s my fiance coming up the hill right there. That’s the woman I’m supposed to meet,” He stops, turns around and looks at her. She’s waving her hands like, “Stop, stop what has he done?” He jumps back in the cruiser, puts it in reverse and pulls back onto Cranberry Highway and flies down the road with the lights on.

MP: I’ve had cops question me while I’m sitting on my front porch because it’s 2:30 in morning and I didn’t realize I wasn’t allowed to enjoy my private property whenever I felt like it. When I question them they say, “We were concerned about the safety of the property owner,” and I’m like, "I am the property owner. Did I make a call to the police saying there's someone on my porch that I’m concerned about (laughs)?” 

EJ: One time last summer Morgan had gone in and out of his house and tripped the alarm so he called and told them it was an accident. So his son, my son and myself are putting stuff into the vehicle when the cruiser pulls up. They jump out and come walking down the driveway with their hands on their guns. There’s a 15-year-old, 14-year-old and myself. They said, "What’s going on here?” I said, “Why what’s up?” They said, “Oh, the alarm went off and we’re here to check it out.” Morgan's son says, “I live here,” and they are like, “Where’s your dad at then?” Morgan just happened to come out the door and the cop is standing there with his hand on his gun and I told my son, “Don’t move. Just stay completely still,” cause as far as he’s concerned we’re stealing.

MP: I’m like, “What is going on?” cause I’m still on the phone with the police station.

Another thing is if you don’t believe there is racial profiling in terms of traffic and driving, go the Falmouth traffic court a Tuesday or a Wednesday. What you would have to believe is that only people who speed, the only people who cross a line, the only people who don’t wait at a stop sign long enough, the only people who have a tag that might be expired by a day or two, are people of color. When you go to the traffic court and you look at the non-people of color who happen to be there, usually it’s a legit, no-way-around-it violation, but you ask some of the folks of color you think, “Does this really require a ticket?”

EJ: Or when you get stopped for non-payment of excise tax and you’ve already been to the clerk in Barnstable and you have the paper and it’s stamped, but the state trooper tells you, “My computer says this is no good. You have to go to jail.” Then you have to pay the bail. Then you have to go to court the next day and miss a whole day of work. All to find out, “Sorry, the paper was good.” You have to pay the victim and witness fee, plus the bail you don’t get back, plus the job you missed because you had to go to court. You have to explain to your boss that they dropped the charges on you because you were absolutely correct. 

MP: Police have the discretion of letter of the law, spirit of the law, and it’s always interesting to see when and how they exercise which.

With all the national attention on these issues now are there tangible things you would like to see in the immediate future?

MP: Maybe training cops that they don’t have to approach people of color like women and children with their guns unholstered. They did that a couple weeks ago to some Wampanoag women and children who were herring fishing. The cops came up on them with their hands on their guns.

I’m sorry, you said they were fishing?

MP: They were fishing, exercising Aboriginal rights. There happened to be some white people fishing further down and the cops didn’t even talk to them.

There has to be a certain kind of deprogramming. Let’s look at the language of America and recognize that Black and Hispanic people are criminalized linguistically and imagewise and that is a constant. If we get dressed up we look like pimps or gangsters. We can’t just get dressed up and look like ladies and gentlemen, we look like gangsters and hoes. That’s part of the language. There’s the whole fear factor of, “Oh there’s a Black man. He wants to rob me, rape me or kill me.” The whole perpetuation of that. This mentality becomes normalized as do completely irrational actions. I’m like, "if you’re afraid of someone from a hundred feet away with their back turned you have no business in law enforcement. You need serious counseling." Immediate change would be an actual community approach to policing. One where it’s not automatically hostile and brutal. One where it’s not automatically rude and demeaning. 

EJ: My thought on why the violence is continually in motion is that many of the people who are on the force now have been in foreign conflicts as soldiers and they have post traumatic stress disorder. So when you’re at war and somebody’s coming at you in a matter of life and death you put you knee of their neck and hold them down. A man who is handcuffed with two other people around him, you do not need to put your knee on his neck.

MP: It’s a combination of a life-long, white supremacist indoctrination and post traumatic stress. Let us remove the general term of racism and call it what it is: white supremacy. So when you combine post traumatic stress disorder with a white supremacist mindset, that’s what happens, and you will have a bunch of people who seem otherwise intelligent seeing that as reasonable. When I say criminalized, I mean everything you do or say is painted as criminal. You wear a suit, you're a gangster or defendant in court. You drive a nice car, you probably stole it or bought it with crime money. Carry this over to someone killed with a knee on his neck and people are saying, “Oh, but he has a criminal record.” Well, that has nothing to do with what’s going on right then and there. They didn’t drag him out of the car because he committed a crime 15 years ago. They dragged him out because he was a Black man and that was how they saw fit to treat him. When you see the cops taking Black people into custody, the level of brutality displayed is identical to the description of slave catchers catching runaway slaves.

What do you envision a just America looking like in a perfect world?

MP: People living as people, as their best selves. I was going to buy a recording studio that was closing down. Everything was in place, good to go and the only thing that was left was the lease application with the property manager. I show up and for some reason there’s no application waiting for me and the property manager informs the current studio owner, “If you’re giving up your lease we don’t know what we’re doing with the property, and please tell Mr. Peters not to come by our office again.” Complete and total change and what was the only thing that was different? A Black man with dreadlocks showed up.

Where was the studio?

MP: It was in Cedarville, and because of the nature of this area I already saw that as a possibility and I had a backup plan for a different location. My partner, who is Asian, couldn’t believe they wouldn’t rent to someone based on their race but I was prepared for that. 

I think a big part of the path forward is economic independence. A really unfortunate and unintended consequence of the civil rights movement is that a lot of Black-owned businesses went by the wayside. People said, “Why start my own insurance company if I can go work for Liberty Mutual? I don’t need my own diner. I can go open a chain restaurant for McDonalds." The independent Black businesses disappear and there is no economic base. We need an economic base. That’s part of why I’m opening a recording studio. Do I keep spending my money at someone else's place to produce albums, or do I use that money to buy a studio where I can get what I’m doing done and make it available to someone else? 

Mr. Peters plans on opening Polyphonic studio this fall. For more info on the GroovaLattos go to Mr. Peters is a professor of English and Black Studies at Umass Dartmouth as well as an author. His most recent book "Land of the Black Squirrels: A Bronx Boheme Novel" can be found at all major book retailers.

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