On the Front Lines of Fighting Police Terror in Washington DC

During the recent Black is Back Rally and Teach-In in Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of interviewing Kenny Nero, one of the original organizers of the #DCFerguson movement. The group has organized marches with 300-700 participants that have shut down major economic thoroughfares in DC from Chinatown and H Street, to U Street and Georgetown. These demonstrations provided the impetus for DC Council member Tommy Wells to organize hearings on police brutality, harassment and terror in Washington DC.

Kenny Nero, Jr. is a librarian at the Howard University Health Sciences Library and a community organizer by night. He worked on the DC Jail Library Coalition initiative to make a library in DC’s jail a reality. The initiative’s successes include the mayor’s allocating $300K for the library to support: a full time librarian, to be hired in October 2014; a part time library technician, and job readiness and digital literacy programs.

Kenny provides insights into a broad array of issues, the philosophy and framework for the #DCFerguson Movement. I hope by sharing this information, other movements across the country can learn and benefit from #DCFerguson’s mobilization experiences.

What are the mission and goals of #DC Ferguson?

Our first march was in Chinatown, Washington DC at the end of August, 2014. Our demands were strategically simple and broad as a means to mobilize the masses:

  1. The demilitarization of the police force.
  2. Arrest of Office Darren Wilson, the executioner of unarmed 18 year old African-American student, Michael Brown.
  3. The establishment of a legitimate citizen review board with indictment & firing powers.

Over time, we conducted teach-in/building sessions on the Sundays following our Saturday marches. As a result, and to resonate with our immediate community, we added a fourth demand: An investigation into the 24+ extrajudicial killings by the Metropolitan Police Department (DC’s Finest) since 2004. We became aware of these significant extrajudicial killings in Washington through a FOIA request by AFRO newspaper journalist and DC Ferguson supporter, Valencia Muhammad. That FOIA report is incomplete in that they left out some victims’ names that we are aware of. In mid-September, after our third demonstration, we decided to revise our initial list and #DCFerguson is now demanding the following:

  1. A legitimate citizen review board with indictment and firing powers. Currently, the review board in DC can only make suggestions/recommendations.
  2. Real community policing; a percentage of the police that patrol a community are to be required to live in that community.
  3. Any officer who fires upon and causes the death of an unarmed civilian should be fired, arrested and convicted.

Our mission, coupled with our demands, is to seize the momentum of the time and revolutionize the police department by lifting our voices and mobilizing the people into action. We realize a black man or boy is murdered every 28 hours by a policeman, security guard or vigilante—like George Zimmerman. We’re building a movement and not a moment. We will continue to fight until substantive changes are made.

What is the political “end game” for DC Ferguson?

This answer depends on how one defines politics. If we are to define politics as most Americans do then we simply want our goals met. The local power structure in Washington, DC has been responding to our demands through city counsel hearings, including the testimony of the DC Chief of Police, Cathy Lanier. From that perspective, I think we are moving in the right direction. To see that direction to its end, we will need the Washington, DC power structure to implement policies addressing our demands. If we define politics as meeting the basic desires and needs of the people, then #DCFerguson has a much more difficult battle, because then we’re talking about revolution.

What is your vision of a society based on justice?

A society based on justice is a civilized society. America isn’t civilized and it never has been. This means we will have to change America. George Bernard Shaw said America doesn’t know justice. It’s the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without going through civilization. The challenge of my generation is to revolutionize society in order to experience civilization.

Why did you decide to get involved in DC Ferguson?

It was late August when Eugene Puryear, At-Large candidate for DC Council, Kymone Freeman, co-founder of We Act Radio and Salim Adofo, national vice chairperson of the National Black United Front and I decided—shortly after attending a march and rally in Washington, DC—that we had to respond to what was happening in Ferguson. We decided to organize a long-term social movement to address injustice. For us, DC Ferguson is a movement and not a moment. We decided on the hashtag DCFerguson to underscore, as noted by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s study Operation Ghettostorm, that a Michael Brown-type murder happens nationwide every 28 hours by the police, security or vigilante. We wanted to stand in solidarity with the victims of violence in Ferguson while standing in solidarity with victims of police brutality, harassment, terror or other misconducts. I got involved because this is bigger than me; no matter how much relative peace I may be experiencing, my brothers and sisters at large are being murdered and locked up with impunity in our neo-liberal, so-called color blind, white supremacist world. As individuals, there’s little we can do. But when organized, the people have the power. #DCFerguson became a movement that inevitably built coalitions with many other local organizations currently expressing the power of the people.

Have you been the victim of police violence, injustice? Provide examples.

I’ve experienced police injustices of the harassment variety. I’ve been stopped and pulled over at a rate much higher than my white peers. This only stopped when I sold my car. I didn’t own one for about 5 years.

Have you known other black men who have been the victim of police violence, injustice – provide examples.

I grew up in a predominantly black and brown neighborhood and as a consequence lots of my friends coming up experienced the dehumanizations of being subjected to sitting on a curb, hands cuffed behind their backs while reactionary police aggressively searched their vehicle.

What is the strategy behind “taking over the city” to dramatize and call attention to police brutality?

Malcolm X once said: “The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.” We sought to shut down major economic thoroughfares for precisely this reason—to educate the people, wake them up, mobilize and galvanize the masses into action. Washington, DC, along with the rest of the nation, is experiencing a revolution of the conscience.

How long have you been an activist?

Although I’ve only seriously been putting work in since around November 2013, starting with the DC Jail Library initiative, being politically active runs in my family. My late cousin S.T. Nero was an activist who struggled for freedom with his community in Mississippi. He was acknowledged for his activism in Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s, We Will Shoot Back. Moreover, my father, a native Washingtonian of the Petworth community, drove his 1965 Pontiac to the 17th St NW and U St NW Black Panther Party chapter to deliver their newspapers. Struggling for the people is in the Nero genes.

What triggered your passion to become an activist?

What triggered my passion was probably a strong desire to do something. While the DC Jail Library initiative was ultimately a success, it did not directly address the systemic racism and institutionalized privilege that feed the prison industrial complex. I decided to link up with organizations involved in the long-term, protracted struggle against the system.

What college or grad school did you attend? What was your major?

I took the scenic route after high school. I first went to UMBC and removed myself due to poor grades and study habits and went to a local community college; Montgomery College. I majored in Criminal Justice thinking that I could do some good, which I now realize was an act of complete ignorance to the nuances of the systemic racism and institutionalized privilege inherent in the system. After that, I went to the University of Maryland (UMD) and received a BS in Psychology and eventually went to the University of Pittsburgh and obtained a Masters in Library and Information Science. I’m currently working as a Librarian at Howard University.

Do you think the present system can meet the demands of the African-American community? If not, what is your vision of a society that is based on justice?

While I don’t know for sure what a just society is, I do know what it isn’t. I do not think the present, capitalist system can meet the demands of our community. It has become more devious in modern times as it introduced the notion of a world of “color blindness” that has fooled the masses into thinking that anything outside of an overt racist statement or action is otherwise not racism. This system has tried to project racism as a thing of the past; conquered vestiges of the more turbulent times of yesteryear. In reality, the system has traded plantations for prisons quite literally as read in the so-called re-constructionist 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. Our imperialist nation has traded colonialism for neo-colonialism and seeks to extract resources from every corner of the planet at the expense of human life, liberty and pursuit of happiness all in the name of profit. This capitalist system cannot know justice, as mentioned earlier, because it has never known civilization. A just society is an egalitarian society. A just society will be one where mass incarceration of black people is fiction. These are just a few examples of what I think a society based on justice is and isn’t and the only way to achieve it is through revolution.

Why did you decide to organize and participate in a protest demonstration at the September 24, 2014 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Weekend?

The purpose of this rally was to draw national and international attention to the Congressional Black Caucus, a bourgeois entity that continues to betray the interest of the people they claim to represent.

Here is what they support:

  1. continued U.S. funding to Israel and its slaughter of the people of Gaza/Palestine
  2. Its vote against net neutrality, and
  3. continued funding to militarize the police in African-American communities.