Q&A: Black-Puerto Rican activist talks social justice before Tacoma’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration

Longtime activist and community speaker Rosa Clemente knows what it’s like to have a gun pointed at her by police officers.

While peacefully participating in a community march this summer in Ferguson, Missouri, Clemente found herself face down on the pavement with guns pointed at her back.

Reflecting on the incident in her writings, Clemente described it as “the most terrifying moment in my life” and her 20-year career of community activism.

The self-styled “Bronx-born, black Puerto Rican woman” will speak in Tacoma Tuesday. Her local talk comes five months after she was in Ferguson in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Clemente went to the epicenter of nightly clashes between police and the community to connect with youth and report on what she saw.

She has been involved in social justice activism since the 1990s, advocating on issues such as increasing voter engagement among youth of color, promoting immigrant rights and standing up to police brutality. She was the 2008 Green Party vice-presidential nominee and currently teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.

Clemente will be the keynote speaker at the University of Puget Sound’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. She spoke with The News Tribune about how King’s message translates to social and racial issues today.

Question: Racial tensions have made national news with the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers this summer. What can future leaders, including those you’ll speak to at UPS, do to stop this from happening in the future?

Answer : This is not going to stop happening. But part of what will make change permanent is the organizing has to be sustained and you have to be consistent.

Social justice is not a trend, it’s not something you just do in college. That’s an actual value you carry with you, and a principle to live by.

Q: How do you exemplify social justice as a way of life?

A: If you’re walking home and you see something happening in your neighborhood where young people of color are being harassed or detained by police, you have a choice: You either walk home and do nothing, or you stop and say something or record it.

Joining organizations and being part of movements and getting involved is important. That is how you walk your talk; you have to “do” as well. It’s not hard. I think sometimes people would rather be complacent in their complicity.

People have to be very purposeful and make those choices, and people are doing that.

Q: Where are we today in continuing Martin Luther King Jr.’s message?

A: The Civil Rights movement is essentially an act of legislation. The goal of the Civil Rights movement was to change public policy, and in many ways, that has been achieved.

Today’s activism is not looking to reform policy. It’s not a new Civil Rights movement. They’re looking to reform society.

What is being done today (with the Black Lives Matter movement) is different than any contemporary movement that we’ve seen. The question at the end is, will it sustain?

The questions being raised now are more radical and progressive.

In history, it always takes a moment that spurs action. The transformative moment happened when they let Michael Brown lie out there for four hours. That became the tipping point. Since that day, there is a sustained action around the larger Black Lives Matter movement and the humanity that it calls for.

Young people are doing something to disrupt the norm, the comfort and the complicity of a lot of people. We have not seen that since the late 1960s.

Q: In Tacoma, you will be speaking at a university with a majority white population. Do you change your message based on the racial demographic of your audience?

A: I don’t. Most of the colleges I speak at would be called PWI, or predominantly white institutions, because that is what exists. I never change what I talk about.

I’m coming at them from my experience. People may be uncomfortable, but we need to push them.

Q: What will be the focus of your message Tuesday?

A: Black and brown lives matter.

We have seen an entire new wave of youth organizing. I believe someone like me, who is 42, and those who are older than me really have to support these young people. We really need to empower them and give them a path so that they become very skilled leaders.

Dr. King’s message at the end of his life was radical. It was beyond the voting and beyond the bills getting passed. He was organizing the poor people's campaign and speaking out against Vietnam and all at the cost of him being marginalized by those that supported him.

Dr. King sacrificed, really sacrificed his life, in a very purposeful way because he knew that what was done was good, but not good enough.