They Call Him Mr. Brown: Edge of Sports Interview with the Inimitable Jim Brown.
By Dave Zirin
If there were a Mount Rushmore for political athletes, who would be carved into the great monument? For my money, it would include Muhammad Ali. It would also have to include Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. And the fourth face would belong to Hall-of-Fame football legend and activist Jim Brown. Brown, who retired from the NFL in 1965 as the all-time leading rusher in league history. His running style would punish opposing defensive players and is still a staple of NFL films. Brown has also been called the greatest lacrosse player of all time, earning multiple honors at Syracuse University. Brown retired from football in his prime, one of the few in history to walk, not limp, away from the sport. He appeared in movies like The Dirty Dozen. But Brown has long transcended the spotlight of sports and entertainment. He has devoted the first part of his political life to economic empowerment in the black community. But it's been over the past twenty-five years that Brown has waded deep into one of the most intractable issues of our time: gang intervention. In this Nation exclusive, we speak to Mr. Jim Brown about gangs, the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams and just about everything short of football.
Dave Zirin: People say, "When you talk to Jim Brown, don't ask him about football." Why do you think that is?
Jim Brown: There are so many things that are bigger, but I don't mind talking about football. But there are so many things in the world that affect us, and when we have the pleasure of playing football and we have a platform, that's the time to be able to open up and talk about those things.
DZ: Tell us about your anti-gang intervention organization, Amer-I-Can.
JB: In the sixties we had the Black Economic Union, which dealt with the economic development of minorities in this country. We started with over 400 black businesses. Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Mitchell, a lot of people like that were involved. In fact, the first black mayor of a major city, Carl Stokes in Cleveland, was one of our original members. But coming into the eighties there was a tragedy going on in America which was really gang killings, gang violence; and I decided then that I would have to shift my focus from economic development into really trying to stop some of the gang violence that was happening in the country. So Amer-I-Can was started to address gang violence and to deal with the education of our young people. Education is really part of any change you're going to make and so those two things are connected for me.
DZ: What's the state of gangs today compared to when you started Amer-I-Can twenty years ago?
JB: You get the reports from around the country, and you get the reports from the politicians and law enforcement, but for us there has been tremendous change. Amer-I-Can has been tremendously effective. We have young men all over this country now taking care of their babies. We have gang members that have turned their life around but are teaching a curriculum that we developed in life management skills to young people in their neighborhoods, taking pride in their neighborhoods. It's an unbelievable change. In fact the west side of LA right now, in the last three years, we've had a gang truce which has resulted in the homicide rate going down to basically zero! We were in the Peter Pitches Wayside jail [in LA], and we were able to stop riots between the Latinos and African-Americans, and we were able to teach them life management skills. So these young people have done wonderful things, and sometimes without a lot of help from the system itself.
DZ: When you started this twenty years ago is it true to say that the gang issue was primarily confined to the African-American community?
JB: That was basically true. The uprising was basically in the African-American community. But the Latino community quickly caught up. And when you're dealing with the gangs you're dealing with the ones that are in the communities, but you're also dealing with the ones in jail, and you talk about the Latin Kings and the Mexican mafia, and it gets very deep and very complicated. I did penetrate that culture many years ago and made a lot of great relationships, and it's really the only way that you can be effective: over the years you make a lot of relationships so that the people in the community know that you're trying to do the best thing for them. I don't want to stop gangs, I want to stop gang violence and criminal activity. That makes a big difference, you know, because if you try to say you're going to stop gangs, then you're talking about communities because communities are the ones that gangs develop in so they can claim that particular area. And if you're a Rolling Sixty, you're going to be a Rolling Sixty for life, but you're not going to be a Rolling Sixty that's going to be hurting people or creating criminal activity.
DZ: Your celebrity status as an African-American icon undoubtedly helped you make inroads into the African-American gangs. Were there more hurdles with the Latino gangs?
JB: It would seem that celebrity plays a big part in it, but what happens when you're dealing with real life, with violence and with the streets there has to be a thing called real. You have to be dedicated and consistent, and you have to have a reputation of speaking the truth. That goes so much further than celebrity because celebrity might get you in the door but in that particular culture it doesn't really count. It is about how you live you life and what you're known for. I always brought gang members to my home so they could share my life on every level, and that made a major difference for them to be accepted as human beings and for me to listen to them. What I found out is that most of them wanted to change their lives, they just didn't know how. When you give them an opportunity to become educated on how to change their life, then most of them will try to do that. But we live in a "lock up, throw away the key" society, so law enforcers are always pushing for incarceration and gang sweeps. You catch a lot of very innocent people. I don't criticize law enforcement, but sometimes they want to be the only ones out there. They think their methodology is the only one that can bring change. I prefer that human interaction and education.
DZ: You started Amer-I-Can back in the eighties, and in the nineties we saw an explosion in the prison population that hit the African-American community very hard in terms of nonviolent drug offenses. We're warehousing a whole generation of people in prisons across the country. Is that something you would like to see reformed?
JB: Well, that's a very profitable business, warehousing. A lot of our prison guards make well over a hundred thousand dollars. We didn't know that, did we? If we stop crime and stop incarceration a lot of businesses would go out of business. So we have to be careful with what we think is going on. I'll give an example: in California, the departments of corrections and education came up with a concept of re-entry to help inmates re-enter society, get a job, get an education and become less violent. The prison guards' union told [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger no, we don't want that, and if you deal with it you're not going to get reelected. Well, they're one of the most powerful unions in the country, and the re-entry program was shelved.
DZ: You stood up for Stan "Tookie" Williams [founder of the Crips gang] in the run-up to his execution. You took a lot of flak for that. Why did you do it?
JB: Because the only way you're going to get rid of the problem is when people on the inside, like Tookie, take the stance that he took. I don't know if he committed murder or if he didn't, but he said he didn't. He wanted to do something for other kids and also tell them about the problems, about the terrible aspects of gang life. He reached out and he affected a lot of young people because of having changed from a notorious person into a human being that would have compassion for his fellow citizens. I felt that knowing all the gang members that I know that have changed their lives and how effective they are with helping out kids in their own community, that this man being alive would mean so much, would save so many lives and would have such an impact on our society.
DZ: Do you oppose the death penalty?
JB: Absolutely. I do not understand how you convict a person for murder and then twenty years later you kill them. To me that's just a murder on another level, man. That satisfies nobody. Twenty years? You've got an old man and you take him to the electric chair. It's sort of barbaric, really because the power of being civilized and being so-called human beings is forgiveness, understanding, learning how to submit. It is the opposite of revenge. These examples don't work because they basically don't deter anyone from doing anything bad.
The rules do change. For example, Amer-I-Can has been able to stop riots in jails, we have been able to create peaceful communities, we have brought grade point averages up. The mayor of Los Angeles just came out with six organizations that he is going to finance this year. We did not get a mention.
DZ: How do you explain that?
JB: It's very hard to explain, but that's politics, right?
DZ: Do you think it's because your organization is based on humanizing people as opposed to punitive measures?
JB: Our methodology is not approved of by the police. William Bratton is his police chief, and they get most of the money that comes down, and then they can dictate to the organizations that they feel are just going to be information givers on gangs. They want you to form an organization, get all the information and turn it into the police. So in essence you become undercover agents. All they want are those reports, so in other words you keep tabs on everyone in the community and then you report it. But when you deal with the human aspect of that, when you deal with the fact that gang members are human beings and can turn their lives around, there's basically no interest in that.
DZ: On a very different note, have you met Obama and if so what are your impressions?
JB: No I haven't. I've done something for him in Cleveland, and some people in Chicago with Amer-I-Can know him. I'll meet him. I'm not that anxious to get on his bandwagon or anything like that. I just love the humanity that's in him and the intelligence. I think the character of the man is just good for all of us. I wouldn't normally say this about a politician, but I think that he's just brought something to the table that's been needed, and it's based on our human needs. And I mean all human beings because anything that we get behind has to be something that's applicable to all human beings. That's why I'm not of any one religion or one anything, because goodness is goodness, character is character, integrity is integrity.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]