The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stanley Crouch
Title: “Stanley Crouch … More of the ‘Real Deal’”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the other day I bumped into an old friend of this program I hadn’t talked with in half a decade. So naturally I invited Stanley Crouch here to tell me just what mischief he’s been up to these days and if he’s changed his mind about cabbages and kings since last we spoke.
Of course the best way to introduce my guest is once again to borrow from a New Yorker profile of this “professor of connection” as it calls him, noting that few cultural critics have a vision as eclectic and intriguing.
Well, The New Yorker profile continues, “Stanley Crouch hardly lacks for venues these days to convey what he variously calls ‘the real deal’ or ‘what’s actually going down’ or ‘how it really is’. Crouch has fashioned for himself a place as one of America’s most outspoken and controversial critics.
And the New Yorker concludes that “after years as an actor, poet, playwright, jazz drummer, professor and essayist, Crouch is a rare figure in a narrowly specialized intellectual world. He’s an independent thinker unconstrained by affiliation with any camp, creed, or organization.”
And therefore, I’ll simply begin our program today by asking my guest, these days, “what’s your beef? What are you complaining about?”
CROUCH: [Laughter] Oh, well I mean as Americans, that’s too long a line for anyone of us to actually be able to answer in a short period of time. But I would say that at this, at this moment I’m most disturbed by the fact that literally thousands of people are murdered n the United States by these marauding street gangs and that neither local nor federal government has stepped down on them the way they should be stepped down on.
HEFFNER: What kind … come on … what are you talking about?
CROUCH: Well, for instance, in Los Angeles … between 19 …
HEFFNER: Our favorite place.
CROUCH: [Laughter] Yes. My hometown. Since 1980 somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand people have been murdered in what they call gang related violence, or gang related activities. Now these gangs are Black gangs, these gangs are Hispanic or Mexican American gangs and they lord over the poorer sections where Black and Latin people live. And they murder people with a ferocity that would not be allowed if they weren’t either Black or Latin.
So, I’m on a campaign and have been on one for a few years to attempt to get the federal government to declare war on urban terrorism of this sort, that affects so many people who live in these kinds of communities. And it spreads from one coast all the way to the next.
HEFFNER: You haven’t been successful at that?
CROUCH: Not yet.
HEFFNER: What makes you think you’re going to be?
CROUCH: Well the thing is … I don’t think that you always get in a fight trying to figure out if you’re going to win. I think sometimes you have to get in a fight because you know something has to be fought for.
HEFFNER: That’s the definition of Stanley Crouch.
CROUCH: Yes. Maybe.
HEFFNER: But how do you get at this? Seriously, how do get at the urban violence that you’re talking about.
CROUCH: Well, see, the first thing is that the people who are supposedly representing these communities never really speak out seriously against those gangs.
CROUCH: I think they have a kind of a … I think they have an outdated vision of two victims. The person who gets shot through the head is a victim, and the person who shots the person through the head is also a victim. And that the real villain is something we’ve come to call over the years “the system”.
And my contention is that the person who is shot through the head is the victim, not the person who shoots the person. And I’ve talked to many, many people in these communities across the country. And they don’t see the person who shoots the other person through the head also as a victim, either. They see the person as a nuisance, as a threat, as a criminal who needs to be removed from the streets.
HEFFNER: But you’re not saying that we’re soft on crime, are you?
HEFFNER: What kind of crime?
CROUCH: Well, this is … look, let’s look at it like this, Richard. Let’s say that the Crypts and the Bloods in Los Angeles, who are responsible for literally thousands of murders over the last 20 years were White, Neo-Nazi gangs, who had decided that they were going to murder Black and Latin people in order to purify the nation and make it a better place for White folks. Under no circumstances would they have gotten to the … a number like 10,000. They wouldn’t have gotten to … they probably wouldn’t have gotten to a 100 people, if it was very clear who they were and what they were doing.
Because the civil rights establishment would have flipped out. The police departments would have flipped out, the Governor would have gone berserk. I mean every … there would have been a Crusade and even if the numbers were enormous and you know, some years ago they said, “there are about 40,000 gang members”, they still wouldn’t have cared, they still wouldn’t have been allowed to do what they’ve been doing. And so my contention is that this is … there is a soft on crime situation that is taking place. And that it’s a very dangerous one, and it continues to maintain itself.
HEFFNER: How do you change it?
CROUCH: Well, the first thing …
HEFFNER: Where do you change it?
CROUCH: Well, the first thing you have to do is that you have to, see, you have to get that idea that you have two victims out of the way. Now you and I were both around during the Civil Rights movement, we know, like most of the people who paid any attention and … that many of the violent crimes committed against civil rights workers whether the workers were Black or whether they were Northern White people who came to help during the voter registration drives, the public accommodations, you know, drives, that … well that is to say that the violence committed against these people, sometimes murder … was very often committed by Whites in the South who were from the lower class.
Now I never heard the kind of argument made for any of those Red Necks that I hear made for Crypts and Bloods, like, you know, “they’re victims of the system, they’re doing this because they lack a feeling of self-esteem”, you know. And so, you know, I mean I remember when those things were happening, fifties and the sixties, I never heard anybody make an argument for those people based upon … a class argument … based upon a lack of self-esteem and the fact that they were able to get some feeling of community by … a community, a family, a place a way to belong by joining the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens Council, whatever there was. I never heard anybody say that.
Now if you folks are saying on guys in the Crypts and the Bloods, “well, you know, I mean, these people are poor, they’re looking for something to identify with, they want a feeling of community, they want a feeling of belonging so they join these gangs and then the, you know, sometimes the initiation is very, you know, it’s very unfortunate and so on and so on, but finally we have to look at them as victims”. I don’t look at them as victims.
HEFFNER: Stanley, what would you do?
CROUCH: What would I do?
HEFFNER: What would you have done? Yeah.
CROUCH: Well I would have them … I would have them … I would have them declared … I would have those activities declared urban terrorism. I would have all of the power of the federal government to work in conjunction, put … you know, put in a situation so they could work in conjunction with local Police Chiefs, with community leaders. I would attempt to create a network in which the people in those communities that remain terrorized would actually be able to communicate who’s doing what to the police. I would make it safe for a kid, most of whom know which people have guns, who the people are who are selling guns. I would make it possible for them to, to get information and, you know, I would just … I would just get rough.
In other words, see my, my vision of things is a very simple one. See, I have no sympathy for murderers. And I don’t care what class they come from. You know, I mean, in other words, yes, they’re human beings, yes they, you know, they do or don’t like sweets, yes they are or are not nice to their little brothers and sisters. They have shown kindness to older people in the community, “they’re not all bad”, you know. But you can basically say that about anybody. You can say that about the guys who ran the death camps, you can say that about the guys who worked for Pol Pot. But that doesn’t obviate what they do …and they have …
HEFFNER: So where is the trouble? With the cops? With the police?
CROUCH: I think that … I think that, you know, special resources have to be used to focus on these gangs. These gangs have to be broken down, you know. They have to be broken down. And, you know, the … and the …illegal, you know the network of illegal firearms. You know that has to be broken down. I mean they have to go war with them like they do with criminals. You know, I mean it’s not like they don’t know how to go to war with criminals.
HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. You say it’s not as though they don’t know how to go to war with criminals.
HEFFNER: So what is stopping them? Now you can’t say that the police have this nicely, nicely attitude.
CROUCH: Oh, I think it’s the civil rights establishment hasn’t declared … hasn’t come forward and really stood up to speak for these people. See, in other words, the idea … you know, Richard, see there’s, there’s a clichéd relationship between the so-called minority community and the police, which is that there’s always supposed to be the adversarial relationship between the cops and the community because, you know, you know, in certain … certain writers in New York will still refer to the NYPD as, you know, the racist White occupying force in the Latino community, or something like that. Okay.
What I found is that’s not how people in those communities actually feel. If you talk to them, now usually what you get … the first line is you get a cliché … “we’re mad at the cops”. And you say, “Okay, you’re mad at the cops”. Then they keep talking and after a while it goes to, “we actually mad at the bad cops”. Then it gets to another point and they say, “We need to get rid of the bad cops”. Then it goes to, “We need to get rid of the bad cops and we definitely need to get rid of the criminals in the community.” In fact what we need is to get rid of the bad cops, the criminals who make our lives horrible, and we need more cops.
And that’s almost always the way it goes. Doesn’t make any difference whether its in Chicago, south side of Chicago, whether its in Philadelphia, whether its in Pittsburgh, whether its in Washington, DC. You know, whether it’s here in New York. That the community itself is not spoken for; that the reign of terror under which these people live is not made clear to the public.
HEFFNER: You don’t have much use for the civil rights community, do you?
CROUCH: Well, I don’t have use for it if it’s not doing its job. You know, I mean, I don’t see … I don’t see how the civil rights community could, could essentially sit on its hands for 20 years while, you know, thousands upon thousands of people are murdered by street gangs in, you know, in a given place. Particularly like in LA, it’s just one place. But, but again, you see, there’s this, there’s this failure, it seems to me to really differentiate between the average, obnoxious, tasteless, dirty mouth kid of today and a murderer.
Now, okay, on the surface, right, they would seem to be the same. You know they wear the same kind of clothes, that’s been made popular by the, you know, that you know have been made popular by rap videos and all of this. That all girls and boys will say the most obscene possible things in public places around anyone. They have exceedingly bad manners. But they’re just … that’s just a normal American kid thing today. That doesn’t mean that they’ll put nine-millimeter pistols out of their coats and shoot people for stepping on their feet or for bumping into them. Or the kinds of things that kids are terrorized about.
HEFFNER: Well, now you, you mentioned the rap music. What role has rap and a lot of what comes out of Hollywood, maybe even television, played in creating a, an atmosphere that’s more accepting or more … you put it in quotation marks, “understanding” of this nonsense.
CROUCH: Well, you see, I think, I think that we really haven’t considered seriously the impact of dozens upon dozens of films in which the hero, male or female, an individual or a small group finds that the police can’t do the job. The federal government can’t do the job. The army can’t do the job. That the enemy is, as often as not, the CIA it’s not Big Business, and that … or some kind of gangsters and they commit some terrible crime at the beginning of the movie and then for the next 45 minutes they, you know, off and on like every ten or 12 minutes, they commit another horrible murder.
So, you’re actually disgusted by then … you know, and then the good guys commence to slaughter these people, scene after scene, right, with increasing sadism, and at the end the good guy or the good group of people, they sneer at the cops or whomever it is supposed to be the people in authority at the end. And then they walk off into the sunset.
And, and I think this kind of revenge driven material in which the drama is achieved primarily by people’s heads being blown off, run over by a car, set on fire, whatever it is that is supposed to happen to them … has created an atmosphere in which people … a vigilante sort of an atmosphere that ironically can make a kid in one of these gangs feel like, it’s, you know, okay …Heffner and Crouch, they did something to me, they dissed me or they said something I don’t … you know that I don’t like to my sister. Or my friend and a couple of other friends tried to jump on them and they beat them to a pulp, you know, and so therefore, we really have the right to go out, you know, to get these Uzis and go and murder them.
HEFFNER: So you do think that the media play a role, not measurable, perhaps, but a role in creating this gang life that you deplore.
CROUCH: Oh, well …
HEFFNER: This urban violence.
CROUCH: Media … gangster rap, these exceedingly violent movies … now I don’t mean bad. Now see here’s the grant irony, Richard, neither Frances Ford Coppola nor Brian DePalma had in mind the impact that either the “Godfather” or “Scarface” had on these people. In other words, if you look at … with this new release, I don’t know if it’s a 25th anniversary …
HEFFNER: Yeah, it is.
CROUCH: … DVD of “Scarface” …
CROUCH: On the second DVD, when these people start talking about how influential this movie was and what a big impact it had on how people think and the point was that this was about a guy from the street, making it up … about going to the top, about pushing way, not being held back, etc.
And you … and see I was in LA around the time that the “Godfather” came out and it had been fairly quiet for a few years, and then one of the first street gangs that came back into existence was called, with no irony intended at all, The Family. And that ethos, that, that vision that it’s the small unit of us and that civilized moral conduct need only take place within this very small unit of people. Everybody else is up for grabs. And so, so the problem is even if you and I have just said, “okay we’re going to write a screen play that’s really bashing these people down, right.” We could write a screenplay in which they were revealed as the exact monsters they that are, and if a sufficiently charismatic set of actors played the bad guys, we might have the exact reversal of what we want. There might be a bunch of tee shirts with people walking around, like let’s say the movie was, you know, let’s call it “Little Mo and his Crew” and then after the movie comes out … then, if the movie’s a hit, then you and I are going down the street one day and we see a bunch of kids getting off the train with “Little Mo” tee shirts on. We’re like … oh, I don’t know, that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
HEFFNER: So, Stanley, let me ask about your friends in Hollywood.
CROUCH: My friends, yes. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Don’t they have some sense of what you’re saying? Don’t they have some sense of that impact?
CROUCH: Well, Richard, I think the only time those people in mass media ever really, really, really take any of this seriously is when it contains anti-semitism. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen them take it seriously. In other words, like there was an argument before this guy, Professor Griff(CHECK SPELLING) appeared …
CROUCH: … in “Public Enemy” … “well, we don’t really know if, if these … if this material influences people. I mean calling people these names, and this and that, we don’t that these words … we don’t know that this has anything to do with how people act, right?”
Now as soon as “Public Enemy” had this recording in which a Professor Griff(CHECK SPELLING) starts to go back to that good ole … that ole time religion of explaining things in terms of the Jew who does something bad to you, then suddenly, the issue of content became a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that the Professor Griff (CHECK SPELLING) disappeared out of that group. You know, and then he just kind of floated off into the war with … with Steven Coclea(CHECK SPELLING) and …
HEFFNER: So explain that.
CROUCH: Well, what I think … what I think is this. I think, I think that there’s no parallel recognition of the relationship of images on the mind of the public and the … see, in other words … those people, many of whom are Jewish, know from what happened to their families and stuff they read, etc., etc., that people depicting them a certain kind of a way, repeatedly in a particular place between 1933 and 1945 led to something catastrophic.
I don’t know that they really have been able to see that this thing right here is exactly the same kind of thing. Although you know, you have some … a guy like David Geffen … runs a group called The Ghetto Boys, they had this material which was about coming into people’s homes and cutting their throats and slicing their stomachs open, pulling their intestines out and stuff. Geffen sent them back their product, and he said, “I really wouldn’t feel comfortable putting this material out, you know.”
So I think … but you see, it’s all complicated because on the one hand you, you have this enormous Black audience, right … for this.
CROUCH: Then you’ve got these Black people who will argue, inside the companies, right, which they did initially … you know, because the word I got was that initially the White guys … you know, Jewish or not … didn’t want to put any of that out. They didn’t want to put something out with people calling people bitches and ho’s and niggers and this and that. And the, the tale I was told was that the Black executives said, “oh, no, no, no, they will buy this. Don’t worry. There will be no protest.” Right.
And so, you have another thing. You have another pure American story. You put this out, you become successful, you build an empire of a sort, right … then other people start defending you outside the business because you’re a successful Black man or woman and you’re, as the term went for years, and you’re putting Black people to work. You know, you know they’re on the video crews, they’re working for the, for the, you know, for the labels, and you know, and of course, they’re also walking around in those horrific outfits that they call “ghetto fabulous”, you know, which can impress some teenagers. So it’s a big mess. But it’s not a mess that we should accept, that’s what I’m saying.
HEFFNER: How …what do you do in, indicating your refusal to accept.
CROUCH: Well, I think you just have to do …you have to do what … you have to do two … first thing is these kids have to be educated. I went to a school called Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change just yesterday on 135th and St. Nicholas in Harlem. These kids are being essentially civilized in the manner that school was supposed to civilize before … not with some kind of gulag type of approach, but that, you know, the teachers are serious. They … one of the things that the principle … Sandy Johnson said, she said that one of the things these kids have to be given is, is a, is another moral basis for how you deal with other people. You know and recognize that they’re responsible to other people, they’re responsible to their community and the community is responsible to them. And that, you know, and a number of kids who came in and were like serious knuckleheads a few years ago, they make these testimonials before they graduate and often times they will say that, you know, they have essentially become, you know, better people because they’ve come to this school.
HEFFNER: Stanley, our time is up. But it’s such a damn shame, it’s such a sad thing to recognize what it is that you’re saying and then there is that light shining, not at the end of the tunnel, but in the midst of all this … talking about this particular school. So I guess you say, like it or not, what we have to do is teach, teach, teach, teach, teach. Would you ever control what comes out of Hollywood in the 20 seconds we have left?
CROUCH: Would I?
CROUCH: I don’t know. I think all I would do is, all I would do is I would say this, I think I would tell them, “imagine that the people whom they are depicting, who deserved to be murdered in this movie, were people you know”.
HEFFNER: Good way to end the program. Thank you, Stanley.
CROUCH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.