The Guys Talk Politics, Basketball, Sean Bell

The Barbershop guys - Jimi Izrael, Nick Charles, Lester Spence and Arsalan Iftikhar - are all together in NPR's Washington studio. They weigh in on Obama and Reverend Wright, the latest NBA playoffs and the verdict in the Sean Bell case.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More, from NPR News. In a moment, a day in the life of the staff of Tell Me More. Now that we're a year into our broadcast this week, we thought we would give you just a little glimpse of how we pull it all together. But first, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Normally, they give us their take from shops around the country, but to mark the first anniversary of Tell Me More, they've traveled to our shop. That's right, all of the guys are here with me in Washington.

Sitting in the chairs are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor, Arsalan Iftikhar, media executive Nick Charles and political science professor Lester Spence. Our Barbershop regular Ruben Navarrette couldn't make it. Sad, I guess he's getting he's shape-up elsewhere this week, but well. I may jump in once or twice, but for now, take it away Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks so much, Michel. Fellas!

NICK CHARLES: Hey, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Hey, welcome to the shop...

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hi, what's up?

IZRAEL: From the studios of National Public Radio in Washington D.C.

IFTIKHAR That's right.

IZRAEL: What's going on?

CHARLES How you doing Jimi?

LESTER SPENCE: How's it going, man?

IZRAEL: Nick, man, you could use a shape-up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHARLES: I see you laughing, I have hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SPENCE: Hey, every gray hair is a victim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

IZRAEL: You know what, check this out. You know, Barack Obama cuts all ties to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright this week, after the good Reverend flies off the rails during a press conference on Tuesday. Michel, we got some tape on that, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. And I think that what particularly set off the senator, was the suggestion that Jeremiah Wright made, you know, the only reason he was distancing himself at all was for politics. And this is what he said on "The Today Show."

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): This is somebody who had married Michelle and I, who had baptized our children. When those first snippets came out, I thought it was important to give him the benefit of the doubt, because if it - I had wanted to be politically expedient, I would have distanced myself and denounced him right away.

IZRAEL: Wow, that's deep. You know, and the question that's not been asked enough Dr. Spence, is how is this going to affect his profile on the black community? Because you know, you and I had it out about him and the older black people. This was sometime ago on the Barbershop, about the older black people that probably won't going to feel him just because he was black, and it wasn't giving proper props to the old heads by going to kiss Al and Jesse's ring. And now he's just - his pastor. You and I both know, you know, you don't diss pastors.

SPENCE: I think he's going to lose some support, but the larger is that because Hillary Clinton's been race-baiting and using basically racist tactics against Obama during the campaign, black people basically circle the wagons around Obama as a result. So, even in this case, you know, Wright basically comes against him from another angle, I think that he's going to end up still getting 90, 95 percent of the black vote. And people will still turn out for him in large numbers.

MARTIN: Wait a minute, don't you think though, Dr. Lester.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SPENCE: That's what they calls me.

MARTIN: That this is a situation where Reverend Wright gave cause. I mean, I've gotten a lot of emails from people saying listen, we all have had moments where we've said I don't know what pastor is talking about.

Mr. SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: So however much you may respect some person, like them, there are just times when you just don't agree and then - and you really think that people are going to say my pastor, right or wrong? I mean, this is the kind of thing where he has to give like a John F. Kennedy speech, saying that I'm not being controlled by...

SPENCE: No, no, no...

MARTIN: By the Pope?

Dr. SPENCE: No, in fact I think the exact opposite. I think that this is a case where black people have already made their decision to support Obama seriously, and to the extent people are looking at Wright, they're looking at Wright like he has issues. For better or for worse, if Obama ends up going down, Wright's going to be known as the guy who shot the first legitimate black candidate's chance.

MARTIN: But Nick, you know what I was thinking about you, because you're often one of these people who talks about like the generational divide in the African-American community. I'm wondering whether this is a situation where, if Obama gets elected and this changes the relationship that the traditional leadership has with leadership?

CHARLES: Yeah, well, I, you know, I was making the point this morning with the guys. I said, if you look at the movie "Who's Coming to Dinner" with Sidney Poitier, there's a great scene in there where he and his dad have it out. And he says to his dad, you see yourself as a black man, and I see myself as a man. And this is a generation divide between Reverend Wright and Obama. Also, you have to realize Obama did not grow up in the same cultural milieu. So he's hearing things from Reverend Wright. He listened that he might have dismissed, but now it's come back to haunt him. And he is called this upon himself, because he's the one who's chided Democrats for years saying you can't be afraid of faith. So he opened the door.

MARTIN: I hear you.

IZRAEL: A-train?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think for me what Reverend Wright for an F minus in, was knowing his audience. I think with both Bill Moyers and the National Press Club, he had an opportunity to explain himself to the American public. This was Joe Nascar that was watching with baited breath. On the Bill Moyer show, Reverend Wright starts talking about hermeneutics and the nuances of theology, and, I mean, I studied comparative religion, and I was barely able to hang on to what they were talking about.

Then, you had the show at the National Press Club where, you know, he's doing the Electric Slide on stage and all sorts of other things. And so, this was, I mean, to all Obama supporters, I mean, and, I think, to anyone who's trying to keep some sort of intellectual honesty into this debate, I mean, we're not talking about Iraq anymore, we're not talking about health care. This has turned into a YouTube presidential election. And it really is American politics at its worst.

IZRAEL: OK. Quickly, from right to left, can he recover? Nick?

CHARLES: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: I don't know.

IZRAEL: Lester?

SPENCE: I don't care.

IZRAEL: Well, we'll see man. We'll see. I don't know how to call it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with the Barbershop guys, Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Nick Charles, and Lester Spence. They're all here in Washington. Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, speaking of issues that we're recently called, Sean Bell the verdict came back last week. You may recall that Sean Bell was a young man who was shot back in November of 2006 by three plainclothes officers. It took about 50 or 51 bullets, and the officers were acquitted.

MARTIN: They were acquitted. It was a bench trial, no jury, acquitted on all charges last Friday.

SPENCE: Yeah and Al Sharpton, who's been counseling the family, has threatened basically to shut New York City down, I believe it's tomorrow, May 3rd, to engage in a city-wide economic boycott to try to shut the city down.

MARTIN: What do you think about that? Do you think that that's an effective way to address the anger that a lot of people feel?

SPENCE: Yes and know. I think that people feel a great deal of anger and resentment towards the police officers, and Al Sharpton works as like a release valve for that pressure. But what's going to be left are the systemic practices of the police department that Sharpton's type of politics don't ever deal with.

IZRAEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have to co-sign it all the way. I mean, I think people go to these marches for the t-shirts, and I think, I mean, I did drop a tear when I found out what happened to Sean Bell because, I mean, that could have been me. It could be my son years from now. And it's amazing how little value our lives have in this society, you know. And I'm the dude that always says, you know, I don't live my life, you know, wearing my race on my sleeve like that. You know, I can't deny I live in a world where other people don't feel that way. It's saddening, really. Go, ahead.

CHARLES: It's nice that you talk about the kind of politics that Reverend Sharpton practices that don't address the systemic problems in the police department. The problem is not him. I think he offers a release, and he does what he has to do, and it's good. People can go out and march peacefully, and say, look, we've got to do something. And people who feel that, oh, God, we have no redress can get to the street and march and say I'm not going to shop at Macy's this, on Saturday. Fine.

But, elected officials in New York City, what have they been doing since Amadou Diallo in 1991? That's the problem. The question is, if you have people, there are more black elected officials in New York City now, but what has concretely changed? Nothing because our elected officials are not stepping up.

IZRAEL: You're the civil rights attorney here, A-Train. 51 shots, you know, he wasn't read his rights or anything. I mean, what's up with that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean, you know, when I heard the verdict, the first thing, I dropped my head, and I just said Amadou Diallo. And I just want us to figure out a way where we can keep our brothers alive. Where we can say listen, we know that there are institutional paradigms in American society today that are pegged against you. Stay alive. We'll sue for wrongful arrest, but stay alive. It's important to stay alive. And it's one of those heartbreaking stories where you just, I mean...

MARTIN: Does it change anything for anybody that two of the three officers were also black?

SPENCE: Not for me.

CHARLES: It changes for me because now you couldn't bring race into it, and it emphasizes police procedure.

IZRAEL: Absolutely, absolutely.

SPENCE: Well, it becomes harder to bring it into it, but the thing is, if your analysis about racism is just about individual attitudes, then it's difficult. But if it's more systemic, and you're talking about police having to make quick trigger reactions, you've already got a population, you know, young, black men who are demonized, those people are going to make quick trigger reactions against them.

MARTIN: Can I say something, though, about this? Because you probably all know that I come from a police family. I have six police officers in my family who are both men and women, right? Yeah. In New York. And one of the things that seems to have come out in this is that both of them were afraid of each other. Both sides were afraid of each other. In the testimony, it emerged that one of the reasons that the men in the car didn't stop Sean Bell and his two companions is they thought they were being carjacked.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: And that the police officers were afraid of the men in the car because they thought that they heard that there was a gun. And so, to me, what do you do with that when you have both sides who are afraid of each other?

CHARLES: That's a deep, deep discussion about how basically you have is two groups of folks, young, black men and now you have a lot more young police officers of color because there are a lot more Latinos and blacks on the force, and you talk about the whole idea of racial profiling. The question was would this have happened if this was Scores in the city of Manhattan, and these white guys came out drunk, and you know, everybody's trying to be tough when their drunk...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Scores being what a bar near the...

CHARLES: Scores being a strip club in Manhattan that's well known...

MARTIN: Oh, excuse me. I'm sorry. I thought it was like the Four Seasons or something.

IFTIKHAR: For Nick, it is.

CHARLES: Arsalan, come on man. People like Derek Jeter go there sometimes. But the thing is, would it have happened at a place like that? And this is where also the analysis of class comes into it.

IZRAEL: You know what, that really for me begs a broader question that A-train touched on. It's like, you know, how do we stay alive anymore when we can't even walk to our cars? We can even reach for our wallet. Certainly our best wishes go to Nicole Bell at this time.

Well, you know what, let's keep it moving forward, and, you know what? 'Tis the season, gentlemen, for NBA basketball as the fight to dominate the playoffs is in full swing now. You know, I'm not much of sports guy, but we know who I roll with. I roll with LeBron and the Cavs, and I'll probably be rolling that way until I die. Dr. Spence, talk playoffs to us.

SPENCE: My team is Detroit, but the interesting stuff is going on in the west. Avery Johnson's been one of the best - I think he's got the best regular season record as a coach in NBA history, just got fired for - because he couldn't take Dallas Mavericks past the first round.

Phoenix's coach, I think his name is Mike D'Antoni, just got - I think he's supposed to get fired for not taking Phoenix past the first round, and they're killing folks.

Over in the east, you've got Boston doing work, well, supposedly. You've got Detroit doing work. And then Cleveland and Washington are in like kind of a shoot out. We'll see what happens.

CHARLES: Yeah, I don't know. I'm a Knicks fans so, you know, actually, I'm dead cause I'm a Knicks fan. You're til you die, I'm already dead. We love Zeke. My thing is, at this point, for me it's good basketball. As much as I'm loathe to say it, the Lakers are playing great basketball. The addition of Paul Gasol is incredible, and Kobe is actually learning how to pass the basketball or has learned how to pass the basketball. The Spurs prototypical great basketball team. Pick and roll, if you like watching pick and roll, that's like watching art.

In the east, you know, since I loathe the Celtics, I refuse to give it, this is because of my best friend Chris Messiah (ph) who is a crazy Celtic fan, I will give Detroit the edge because I think one of the greatest basketball players I've ever seen is Rasheed Wallace who, on any given night, can be the best player in the league and can be the worst player in the league.

IZRAEL: A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: NBA play offs. 40 games, 40 nights, winner go home. For the west, Spurs over Lakers in seven. In the east, Celtics over Pistons in seven. In the NBA finals, too much Kevin Garnett, KG, too much Paul Pierce, and too much Ray (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

IFTIKHAR: The Celtics hoist the 17th banner to the rafters with Public Enemy's "He Got Game" Bumping in the back.

SPENCE: You been drinking that green Kool-Aid.

IZRAEL: It sounds like he's been talking with his bookie, that's what it sounds like. Michel, are you following the contest at all?

MARTIN: You know, it's just, we here in Washington, you know, it's just like fingers crossed both of the please let's just stay alive, please. That's how I roll.

IZRAEL: Well, you know, I've got a prayer out there for the Cavs. The same Cav prayer I say every year. You know, can we just get one more LeBron, please? And you know what? I'm thinking, that's looking something like a wrap for this anniversary edition of the Barbershop, live from the NPR Studios here in Washington, D.C. I have to kick it over to that one and only baller, the lady of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: Why, thank you, Jimi. It's funny. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for TheRoot.com. Nick Charles is the vice president of digital content at BET.com. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and contributing editor for Islamica magazine. And Dr. Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. They were all here in our Washington studio. Thanks everybody.

And to see the Barbershop guys in action, you can check out our website at npr.org/tellmemore. There you can see an exclusive video of the shop guys in our studio and see what goes on behind the scenes when they get together. It's spicy.

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