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'United Shades Of America's' W. Kamau Bell Talks Police Violence And Race


And now we're joined by commentator and comedian W. Kamau Bell. He hosts the CNN show "United Shades of America," which, among other things, looks at race in this country. Thanks so much for being with us this morning, Kamau.

W. KAMUA BELL: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: It's hard to know where to begin with a week like this - the events in Dallas, the police shootings of two men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. What are you thinking about now? What's the - what's the thing that's on top of your mind at this moment?

BELL: I mean, I think the thing that is on top my mind is the frustration around us not, as a nation, not being able to have sort of two conversations at once. I feel like with a lot of the media, the conversation has moved on to the violence against the police officers. And I have condolences to all of their families and feel sad about their deaths. And I think - and, you know - but I also feel like we've sort of - the conversation actually has sort of shifted away from the Castile family and the Sterling family, which means it's also shifted away from all the other black deaths at the hands of police officers. I feel like we need to be able to have both those conversations at once.

NEARY: All right. And I want to address both those conversations, but first, then, let me hear what you and your friends, your family - what are you saying right now? What are they thinking?

BELL: Well, I mean, it's, you know - it's funny you say my friends and family. It's even more than that. I've been on the phone recently with groups of activists and artists, you know, some of whom have a lot of influence who are saying, what are we going to do? You know, Carmelo Anthony yesterday put up that statement on Facebook saying he's sort of stepping up to the athletes, saying, what are we going to do? And he put up a picture of the Ali Summit with him and Jim Brown and other people.

And so I think it's really my friends and family talking, but it's also black people of influence who are saying, OK, we're going to do something. You know, we're not going - this - we can't just sort of come up with another hashtag or have another event. We have to do - we have to use our influence to do something major. So, you know, that's what the talk is about. It's about, like, we can't let this go by without - we can't wait for another black person to die to do something. We have to do something now.

NEARY: All right. And you said we have to have two conversations at once. And I know that you have tried in your TV show to have conversations about race and police conduct. And you - and you've actually said that you felt like Americans were sort of starting to talk about that. How did the shootings of the police in Dallas change that conversation? Or do they? How do they shape the conversation? How do the two events together shape the conversation going forward?

BELL: Well, I think that we've - that we've sort of gotten to a weird point in this country with police officers where - and, you know, I have police officers in my family. And I respect police officers, and I want police - I want good policing in my neighborhood and all the neighbors of this country. But we've allowed police officers to separate themselves from us by sort of creating their own community. So there's this conversation about the police community and the black community, as if the police community shouldn't be a part of the black community.

And I think that there's just - the way that we talk about policing in this country - it's police officers versus, like, a community that they are policing, like the black community. But that's not the way they police white communities. And so I feel like that's the conversation that we - that when I went to Camden and talked to cops in Camden, N.J., they were talking about community policing, which means police officers are members of the community. And I feel like if more police officers don't have that kind of model, we're going to see more and more crimes like this.

NEARY: Do you have the sense that after this week, people - that people in the black community, to use that phrase, are feeling more like police are part of the community or are feeling even more alienated from police?

BELL: I mean, yeah. Certainly, I don't want to try to speak for every black person. That's sort of an...

NEARY: Right.

BELL: That's an easy trap to fall into. But I don't feel a lot of hope, though, with the conversations I have. I feel a lot of, like, we need to do something. And I don't mean in sort of - I want to be clear about this - something productive to try to make sure that this either doesn't happen again, or when it does, that we have a faster response to help those who are victims.

So I think that we're - yeah, there's a lot of like - I mean, it's a lot of the feeling that my mom talked about the '60s - of, like, OK, we have to do something now. And that's - you know, that's what - that's how this country had such sweeping change in the '60s - is 'cause activists and artists came together and said, we need to do something big. And so I think that's the kind of thing we're talking about. I want to be clear about that - something productive that will - that will hopefully move the conversation forward and actually help people.

NEARY: Have you heard any ideas for that something big, that something productive that could do that?

BELL: You know, that's the thing. It's a lot of ideas, and then there's sort of the idea of, like, well, what's the idea? So I think that we just want to - you know, there's talk about - again, that - every time this happens, that we - you know, we sort of fall into this trap of, like, hashtagging the person's name, which is good, and it gets awareness. But then it's, like, what do we do? Like, for example, this week, comedian Issa Rae actually just immediately started a GoFundMe campaign and raised over - I think over $200,000 for the family of Alton Sterling.

NEARY: Right.

BELL: You know, that's doing something. That's, like, not waiting for something - you being told to do something or asking permission. That's doing something. So I think that's a good model for...

NEARY: Going forward.

BELL: ...For going forward. Yes.

NEARY: Thanks so much.

BELL: Thank you.

NEARY: W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and commentator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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