Hip-hop artist Brother Ali has never been one to shy away from social justice causes. But his participation in last night’s Occupy Homes protest and subsequent arrest are by far his boldest political statements to date.
I called up Brother Ali this morning to learn more about where he was coming from last night. As is common practice with Ali, we touched on far more than just what happened over the past 24 hours; the conversation quickly evolved into a deeper meditation on our current cultural climate.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our 30-minute conversation.
Local Current: I am excited to talk to you about this because everything I’ve heard so far was second-hand, and I’m really interested in hearing your perspective. My first question for you is why now? What happened yesterday and last night that led you to make the decision to be arrested?
Brother Ali: Well, I mean, I think the way I kind of got to this point was that I’ve always been really involved in community and have always taken a really spiritual approach. I’m a spiritual person, a religious person. And the community that I’m involved with — the Muslim community in north Minneapolis — is very engaged, very involved in the community and was really happy about the work that was going on.
I started realizing that community was trying to advocate for people. To say, OK, we love the fact that we see certain people all the time, but why are the same people constantly in need of food? How do we get to a place where people are able to live dignified lives? How do we get them the resources? How do we actually empower these people rather than just feed ‘em and feel good about it? That kind of forced me into thinking about politics and, you know, the way that power is used for good and for bad. I was one of the people that was really vocal for Barack Obama in his first election, and I think that I was that way because Keith Ellison is such a dear friend, and I saw the reality that people do — there are rare cases of people getting into politics because they want to help change things from the inside, and I saw Keith do that. And he’s continuing to do that, and I’m really proud of the work that he’s doing.
And then watching what didn’t happen [laughs] with our president with his first term – not only the things that didn’t happen, but the things that did happen, honestly – the expansion of the wars, and the expansion of executive power to arrest people and kill people. It’s very troubling to me. It really put me in a place — and I think it put a lot of us in a place, if we weren’t there already — where we realized that people should come together and act. The power right now is really in the hands of the elite people and their corporate structure, the banking industry. That’s where the real power is in our society. We are in a corporate state where the political world and the social life and everything is really at the mercy of big business. And the only way that I can see to really counteract that, or to really at least resist and try to maintain some level of dignity, is for common people to work together. And demand it in intelligent ways and dignified, classy ways and non-violent ways and really loving ways that highlight our likeness and our unity. It’s a unified situation of the common people across the board, so Occupy was really exciting to me. I went to Occupy. Loved the sentiment. Loved the idea. I was kinda like everybody else, was like, OK this could turn into something, but it needs to turn into it before I could really get excited.
A noise rally in downtown Minneapolis last night after Ali’s arrest; photo by Ben Clark
Minneapolis was the first city where [Occupy Homes happened]. A woman named Monique White, who was in foreclosure unjustly — this was a woman who made payments on her home faithfully for 10 years, had a job, did everything right. She worked in a program helping kids. They lost their funding, and she lost her job. It took her two months to get back on her feet and resumed making her payments. But the bank sent her payments back, and told her, “There’s nothing you can do. We’re not going to meet with you.” She never got a meeting face-to-face until Occupy stepped in, and what Occupy Homes is doing is just bringing pressure to bear on the bank and on the authorities to postpone things, to spotlight the situation, and pressure the bank to sit down with the homeowner and come to a solution that allows them to keep making their payments. We’re not asking for free homes. These people aren’t trying to get a handout. To sit down with the person, negotiate, and keep families in homes, and keep money going – these people are paying off their homes. So that was a victory.
We have a crisis – a foreclosure crisis, an epidemic in this country, not because millions of Americans just got lazy or just became bad financial money managers or something like that. This is an epidemic because of predatory lending, because of the economy that we’re in, because of deregulations of banks, because of banks doing these tricky deals where they give out all these bad loans, and then they sell the loans to different people. They get people to call the loans solid when they’re not. Sell them. Other people invest in them. And then they make money betting against their own loans. They make money on the interest that they charge, and they make money when they seize the house, and they sell it again. This is something that these banks have done.
And so common people sticking with our neighbors is when victory happens. Monique won her house. An elder white brother marine fought in Vietnam, and the community came together, he won his home. A Native American woman just the day before yesterday, the bank called her, the president of her bank called her, and said “I’m sorry. We’re going to renegotiate with you. We’re going to accept your payments. Please tell these Occupy people to stop calling and stop talking bad about us.”
And she said, “OK, as soon as the renegotiation is signed, the calls will stop and the pressure will stop.”
So what do you think the act of getting arrested can contribute to this?
This particular case, the Cruz family on 40th and Cedar — this is particularly interesting because they didn’t even miss a payment. There was some sort of glitch with the online payment that they made and the payment didn’t get processed properly. So whether that was a computer error or someone made an error at the bank is unknown. But that one payment is what started the foreclosure process on them. And what we’re seeing is that the banks – this problem started in communities of color. It’s become a national epidemic, but for 15 years, we’ve been hearing about and talking about predatory lending in black and brown communities specifically. And they’ve been targeted because the idea is that society doesn’t care as much about black and brown people. Society isn’t going to stand with the family – the Cruz family because some of the members of the family may not have all the [loan modification] documents that they are trying to get yet. But the reality is that they bought a home. They’re college students. They’re working. They’re contributing to society. They’re important parts of our community, so the bank came in and the Minneapolis Police Department has spent tens of thousands of dollars evicting this family from their home. This a bank that’s in Pittsburgh, this is PNC bank.
So what happened was the Cruz family with some of the organizers went to Pittsburgh to try and have a meeting with the bank. They went to the bank yesterday morning in Pittsburgh with the help of Occupy Pittsburg and Occupy Philadelphia, and they said “We want to sit down with somebody important, a decision maker at this bank, look at my paperwork, look at this case, and look into my eyes and tell me that you are evicting me from my home. And if you can do that, we will walk away.”
But, they wouldn’t even meet with them. They scheduled a meeting and they had a PR person come and say “There is nothing we can do.”
And so what happened was, we were ready to go in 18 different cities across the country in solidarity with this one family in Minneapolis. To say, if you won’t even give them the respect and show them the dignity of even sitting down at a table with this family to hear what’s really going on, then we will have a national day of action. And that’s what we did. And so there were actions in, like I said, 18 cities. In Minneapolis right there at the home, 13 of us made the decision to take the arrest. Our voices have been in this for a long time. And all we have is our voices, our bodies. And so we made that sacrifice to make that statement of solidarity, that we are not going to sit quietly while these institutions destroy our communities, our neighborhoods.
Brother Ali’s arrest; photo by Adam DeGross
So we’re standing up for our communities, we are standing up for each other, we’re standing up for our neighbors. It’s a very grassroots thing. There’s no big money coming from anywhere. Nobody has appropriated this. This movement isn’t attached to any of the political parties. The thing about this is that these are common people organizing, working together, to bring that power of collective grassroots action.
This is the real thing. I’m not just going to jump in with anything because I don’t need to. I don’t have to. And honestly? I have difficulty traveling. My “Uncle Sam Goddamn” song — I was contacted and had to register with the Department of Homeland Security. I’m monitored or at least have been at one point or another. You know, with the arrests — and who know if there will be charges or not, we all go to court together in July — but there’s a potential for this to put some strain and extra challenges for us to travel. Canada is really tough. We tour Europe and we tour Australia and we toured Asia. I traveled in the Middle East. So these are real sacrifices we’re making and I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think that this is the type of action that we’ve been wanting to see. I’m really excited about it, really honored to be a part of it. Our protest yesterday was very calm. Very friendly. Between the protesters and the police was very friendly. I was the first one to get arrested, last one they let out.
We have a video up on the blog of you getting arrested. It is almost eerie how quiet and calm everything is.
Yeah! You know, I didn’t need to make a speech. It’s pretty public how I feel about stuff, you know? [laughs] I figured the statement of actually being arrested was the biggest statement to make. There were about 50 cops in front of the house. It was actually a female officer who took me into custody. And you know, it was very polite and very friendly. And then I got around to the back and there were about 50 more back there – cops and paddy wagons and all kind of equipment just in case. They were prepared for it to be bad, but our intentions were to make a peaceful statement. So I got around to the back and said, “Aaawwww why’d you arrest the famous guys first?” And they were kinda teasing me: “You sacrifice yourself for the cause, huh?” And I said “Yeah and you guys are just doing your job, right? You’re protecting us right? You’re just protecting and serving, right?” And it was kind of a sarcastic moment. And I said, “You know, honestly? Everybody’s back there ready to protest. Honestly we know you guys are out here doing your job and we’re doing what we feel is right. And so there’s no reason for this to be ugly. There’s no reason for this to be venomous in any way. You’re doing what you feel you have to do. We’re doing what we feel we have to do. Let’s all just do our job.”
And it’s very different being in jail when the police know there’s 100 people outside the jail. There was 100 people outside and they stayed out there until they released me. They didn’t release me until 1:30 a.m.
I was there for part of that, actually. I was there until about midnight.
Nice. Nice. Yeah they stayed out there. Those brothers and sisters stayed out there until 1:30. Until I got out.
Citizens at a noise rally outside the Hennepin County jail; photo by Ben Clark
Making a lot of noise, too..
Yeah! And it was very different. So in that sense, you know if you’re just picked up and you’re just some lady or some guy on the street, who knows how they’ll treat you? But the fact that they knew that all of us were in there together and that somebody was outside keeping track of everything — we got a certain kind of treatment. I mean, we were in the general holding tank with everybody else. It wasn’t like we were segregated or anything like that. But it definitely was a lot of politeness on their part. They clearly were doing their job. And we were doing ours.
It sounds like a very human experience. One thing that I was really struck by when I was talking to one of the Occupy workers, Ben Egerman, he said he was really impressed with how you had been participating in these events. You’re not just coming in as an artist and saying ‘I’m a celebrity, I’m using my celebrity to make a statement,’ you’re approaching it as a citizen.
Yeah. I think our whole approach to the way we make music and the way we present ourselves [is that] we’re underground, independent artists. We don’t have a huge media machine behind us. And so anything that we present that isn’t sincere is going to be rejected. So I wouldn’t have said anything publicly about this stuff unless I was ready. I’m really trying to be involved and trying to participate. I would say guys like Ben and Anthony Newby and Nick Espinosa, they are in a situation to dedicate their lives, their day-to-day lives to organizing and to making sure that things are thought out and strategic and classy, and that the message is very clear. We’re here to stand with these people, but let’s make it about the people we’re standing with. Let’s not make it about ourselves. We all have different issues that bring us to this. Racial justice is what’s close to my heart, but that made me focus on dignity for all people, seeing people being robbed of their dignity or that attempt being made along racial lines is what made me have to really focus on human dignity. Every person deserves to live with a certain amount of human dignity.
We’re really realizing that we’re all together and the focus and the priority is for human beings to be valued again. For human beings to say that you don’t need to have a certain identity to qualify for full dignity and full respect, that basic dignity is a human right, and that we’re going to keep track of human dignity on a group level. Man. It’s such an amazing time we’re living in.
Brother Ali at Occupy Homes last night; photo by Adam DeGross