‘It’s really a revolution’: Ja’Mal Green on protests taking over Chicago and the nation and what’s next for the movement

In an interview with The Chicago Reporter, the local organizer explains why ongoing mass demonstrations in response to the police killing of George Floyd are different from those about Laquan McDonald five years ago.

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Community advocate Ja’Mal Green has been protesting across the city following the police killing of George Floyd.

When protests broke out across Chicago following the 2015 release of video showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, Ja’Mal Green was on the frontlines demanding changes in the city.

Five years later, he’s back at it following the death of yet another black death at the hands of police.  Since then, he’s run for mayor, been a surrogate for Bernie Sanders and become a radio host for Soul 106.3. Nowadays, he’s got a bit more political capital and the mayor’s ear.

Green spoke with The Chicago Reporter to discuss the current protests, where this movement is headed and what’s going down on the ground.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Since it’s not Mayor Green, what is your title?

(Laughs) The mayor. The mayor without the title and salary, but community advocate is fine.

What is your relationship with Mayor Lori Lightfoot?

We’re pretty close friends. And I advise, if she needs it.

For those who don’t know your background, how’d you get into this? What’s your first memory of organizing? 

It was actually about 10 years ago when I was about 15. I was going to Phillips High School. It was a turnaround school so they didn’t have folks that did anything with the young people. They allowed me and my history teacher to do all the organizing for young people in the school. Essentially, what ended up happening was we organized our first peace march that went down 47th and King Drive to 63rd and King Drive and demanded peace. It was my first march. I was 15 and I organized hundreds of young people, lots of politicians, and some of everybody was there. That was probably my first taste of real organizing and then from there, going around the country. 

What are the current protests about? 

The current protests started because of George Floyd. This man was kneeled on by a police officer with the help of three other officers and killed in Minneapolis. The protests, now, is a spark from all the cases, not just George Floyd. He created the spark and made people start protesting in 50 states against police departments that brutalize the communities and brutalize the schools all around this country. What people are stepping up and saying is that they’re tired of this racist system that’s been oppressing them for so many years and now it’s time for a change. 

It’s really a revolution. You’ve never seen people step up in 50 states all with unified messages and that is the case now. So it started with George Floyd and sparked around the country.

What have you seen in the streets in the last week? What is the media missing?

Most of the protests, I believe, were peaceful. But when you got people that are fed up, you got folks who are going to act out in other ways. It’s a small group of people, but somehow they’ve taken up all the media.

Riots have always been the language of the unheard. Riots have been here since the beginning of time, since the Boston Tea Party on down. People riot and loot for less reasons like the Cubs winning the World Series. 

Folks here are arriving because they don’t want to see another black man die by the hands of police. Then you have those who have taken advantage of the situation. They have just literally went in and was filling things and not being a part of the movement. You have a few different groups of people. 

How does this feel different from the Laquan McDonald protests?

What’s different is that this was something that was enough for folks to just be fed up. This is that fed up moment. It took a long time for a case to make people fed up. We watched a lot of videos, but now people are at a point where they’re just tired of seeing these videos. They already got PTSD waiting on the next one. At the end of the day, they’re just tired of seeing these videos. This was that spark that made people step up all over the country, instead of folks just looking at one city and seeing what they do about it. They said ‘we gone get up, we gone do something as well and be in solidarity.’ 

What are the demands? What would have to happen to end the protests?

I don’t know if you can end these protests with demands, but there are definitely demands on the table in all cities.

The bigger demand is to defund the police department. We’re giving billions of dollars, here in Chicago, billions to police each year. One-point-six billion just for payroll, $165 million for police misconduct, $33 million for the schools, $10 million for the park districts. They got contracts everywhere. We got $2 billion that we’re giving police departments. What folks are asking for is to defund the police and move that money to more preventative measures. We can’t police our way out of anything. All it is causing is more brutality in these communities. 

For example, one of the demands that they’re talking about today is they want CPD out of CPS schools. Minneapolis was the first to do it. Basically, we’re spending $33 million on policing our kids. We should be spending $33 million on counselors, clinic staff members and programming for our young people that we don’t have. The majority of schools on the South and West sides don’t have one person in the school to deal with counseling, or a clinical staff member. So how do we deal with mental health in these schools? We are not. 

Instead, we’re policing them, which causes black and brown young people especially those with disabilities to be referred to law enforcement for adolescent behavior, more than any kid. 

It’s better to spend that [money] on preventative and restorative measures for the schools, instead of policing. That’s a demand here, to defund the police and put the money where it should be so that we can reduce crime, educate better and create better citizens.

What do you tell the folks who may be angry and may want to act out? 

We shouldn’t look at this and say ‘looting should stop, but killing the black man is horrible.’ We have to flip and prioritize correctly. Black men have to stop being killed by police. We know the looting is horrible, but we got to focus on human life. We can’t focus on property; it can always be rebuilt.

There are some who are acting out … not in the name of the movement, but taking advantage of the movement. We’re going to hold them accountable. What’s important is that we stay focused on this racist system, and what’s happening to folks like George Floyd, Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald and get them to understand the message and the narratives. 

Let’s not forget about white people doing it: looting and rioting and burning stuff down and knocking stuff over for something far less. People have acted out all over this country for many years. Don’t allow this protest to make you look at a different message because essentially what it will show is that you have racist intent.

It’s just like folks who looked at Colin Kaepernick when he kneeled and turned it into the flag and America. It was just about police brutality and they never talked about it. Folks only did that because they did not want to talk about the realities of America. Realities that are happening in these communities.

I need folks to understand that privilege. I need folks to listen, try to be allies and support. 

Who are the young leaders on the ground that folks should be paying attention to to understand the moment?

There are a lot of young people that are on the ground and are doing some good work. You got GoodKids, MadCity doing good work. I got a couple mentees in that group. You got folks like Assata’s Daughters doing some good work as well. 

They’re a lot of younger activists who are just stepping forward and fighting folks like Diego Garcia, Jalen Kobayashi and Alycia Kamil

You were also on the ground in Pilsen and Little Village, where tensions between black and brown folks are running high. What was that situation like?

They try to take the focus off of the movement by putting Latinos and black folks against each other and that’s a problem. What I wanted to do was show up and basically say, listen, right now we got to fight together, okay? And at the end of the day, we don’t have time for beef. We don’t have time for black folks to brutalize these communities. We just don’t have time for it. At the end of the day, all of our problems are the same so either you guys can get behind us in this movement so that everybody can win or not. But right now, we got to cease this beef for the community and make peace. 

There’s still some work that needs to be done because you got some knuckleheads who just do their own thing, but we got to keep pushing the message of what this is about and keep controlling our narrative. 

Where do we go from here?

It’s gonna be a long haul. You just got to keep fighting all the way until we get some sort of justice. The young peoples now stepping up, let them lead.