ABOVE PHOTO: Russell Simmons
Interview with Kam Williams
Russell Simmons has been very active as of late in the Black Lives Matter movement, and not merely as a participant on the picket lines. Whether extracting a promise from N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo to appoint special prosecutors in cases of police brutality, or defending Bill de Blasio after NYPD President Pat Lynch suggested the Mayor has “blood on his hands,” Simmons has been an outspoken advocate urgently lobbying for an overhaul of how the criminal justice system handles the prosecution of cops accused of police brutality.
Kam Williams: Hi Russell, thanks for taking a break from your vacation to talk to me. Where are you calling me from?
Russell Simmons: I’m with my kids in St. Bart’s. I’ve come here every year for the past 27 years. Kam, I wouldn’t take the time to talk to anybody else. You’re the only one I trust to get out the word accurately.
KW: I appreciate the opportunity, brother. Let me start by asking how you feel about the cowardly ambush assassination of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in their patrol car?
RS: It breaks my heart that those two innocent police officers were killed. I am really very, very brokenhearted about it. But the best way to protect both the policemen and the community going forward is by creating a system that’s just, where everyone feels safe. Of course everyone feels terrible about what happened to the policemen, but it’s terrible what happened to Eric Garner, too.
KW: Why do you spend so much time on the streets marching nowadays and previously in the park with the Occupy Movement, when you have money?
RS: Why not? Why can’t I occupy? Why can’t the rich help the poor? Why can’t I pay attention to systematic problems that disenfranchise my people?
KW: You’ve been working with the Justice League NYC, a progressive group that has gained a lot of traction as of late, and which issued a specific list of demands.
RS: I’m a little concerned about the group’s demands, all of which are legitimate, because as thoughtful as the list is, it’s still been easy for the New York Post and others to find ways to cherry pick and disparage it.
KW: Well, what would you say is your most important goal?
RS: There’s one overriding issue, namely, that we live in a police state so long as the police get to police themselves. And that is why cops go unindicted.
KW: Does it all boil down to whether or not black lives matter?
RS: I don’t like to racialize it, but it is a question of whether black lives matter. They do matter less. We know that from the news when one little white girl going missing in Brooklyn is considered more newsworthy than the 50 black kids who got shot in Chicago the same weekend. So, yes black lives matter less, but Global Grind [ www.globalgrind.com ] did follow the recent incident involving an African-American policeman who shot a white boy and didn’t get indicted. We’ll never know whether he’s guilty, because there won’t be a trial. So long as the local district attorney [D.A.] is responsible for indicting a cop, we live in a police state. I will not rest until that one flaw in the system is changed.
KW: What happened in that meeting you and Jay-Z had with Governor Cuomo a couple of weeks ago? Afterwards, you held a press conference saying that the Governor had pledged to employ special prosecutors in the future, but he seemed to simply say that the system needs to be reformed.
RS: Maybe I misunderstood him about an executive order, but he did promise to change the law. He said something to the effect of, “I promise you, I’m going to get a bill passed establishing a separate office and a separate prosecutor for the state that looks into police abuse.”
KW: You have your differences with NYPD Union President Pat Lynch, too.
RS: The police union can point all the fingers they want at everybody else, but they’re fighting to retain control. They know it’s the number one issue. But people are avoiding it, and pushing it to the side. I don’t think anybody’s going to rest until we get a separation of the local D.A. in these cases. I’ve been in all of the meetings with [Attorney General] Eric Schneiderman. The Governor would have to issue an executive order that would land on Schneiderman‘s desk, or he’d have to introduce a bill in Albany to make that change. New York may be the first state to enact such an initiative, and then it could rollover all across the country. Regardless, we’re going to fix New York State. No one’s going to rest until New York has an independent prosecutor to look into these cases.
KW: As a lawyer, it’s painfully obvious to me that these cases are being thrown, since any prosecutor could, as they say, indict a ham sandwich if he or she wants to.
RS: All of these prosecutors have thrown the cases. Normally, everybody gets indicted and is put on trial. In the Eric Garner case, the only person the Staten Island grand jury did indict was the guy who filmed the tragic incident.
KW: I didn’t know that, but I can’t say I’m surprised.
RS: I’ve spent a lot of time with Eric Garner’s son recently, and it breaks my heart to see his family grieving and to know that unless U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder steps in and brings some civil rights charges, they will never get justice. So, when I march, I’m thinking about that one issue everybody has to agree with. The Police Association is the only one that doesn’t. It’s been horrible, between all the attacks on the Mayor and the peaceful protestors.
KW: What needs to be done to reduce the tension between the rank-and-file police officers and the community?
RS: It’s the job of the head of the police union to create a dialogue and a comfort level with the community. Mayor de Blasio’s doing his best to understand the dynamic and to work out a fair plan, but it’s like Lynch doesn’t want to give an inch. It’s in his power to determine whether a cop is indicted. If a local D.A. indicts a cop, he may as well kiss his ass goodbye. That conflict of interest can’t exist anymore. If Lynch doesn’t change, then blood could be on his hands, because he has the power to support the appointment of special prosecutors, so that any inappropriate behavior and excessive force can be investigated in a reasonable way.
KW: How well attended were the marches? Did the police play down the head count?
RS: When we marched down Fifth Avenue, there weren’t just 30,000 people out there, but at least 150,000 people out there. It stretched for 35 crowded blocks full of people. I’ll send you the footage shot from a helicopter. It was a peaceful march, and if we don’t adjust the system, we will march again. Last time, I had everybody from Khloe Kardashian to Miley Cyrus to Kanye to Puffy to Nas out there. They all Instagrammed and Tweeted and used other social media to let folks know that they were going to be there. Tyrese has 20 million followers on Facebook alone. These people are all waiting for word of when we launch. So, the issue is not going away, until the state is no longer a police state where the policemen police themselves.
KW: New York sure looked like a police state when a long gauntlet of cops turned their backs on the Mayor as he walked down the hall of the hospital after paying his respects to the two officers who had just been assassinated. I realized, if they don’t feel that they have to show any respect to the Mayor, just think of the contempt they must have for the Average Joe.
RS: I would blame [Police Commissioner] Bratton. I’m not sure he’s the right person to bridge the gap. Bratton says, “It’ll go away.” He’s wrong. If he thinks it’s going away, he’s crazy. We’re not going anywhere. We’re just getting started. If we don’t get a special prosecutor in New York State, we’re going to march.
KW: What about the possibility of it inciting violence?
RS: I’ve never seen so many smart and thoughtful kids as at that 150,000+ march. The only incident involved a white, City College professor. Black people are used to the injustice, but this white professor probably got riled up because he’s white and wasn’t used to it. That was the only incident at a very diverse march.
KW: Well thanks again for the time, Rush, recharge your batteries, so you can return from vacation ready to resume fighting the good fight. We need you.