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You Can't Serve Us, if You Don't Know Us

by Jecorey Arthur
August 27, 2020

This interview with Jecorey Arthur, Louisville Councilman-Elect, Professor, and Musician, was conducted and condensed by franknews

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Photo by: Brizzy Rose and Emma

My name is Jecorey.

I'm also known as Corey to my family. I was born, raised, and still live in the West End of Louisville, it has the highest concentration of Black people in the state of Kentucky. I'm the eldest of 13 siblings between my father and my mother's side. 

I'm also known as Mr. Arthur, when I'm working with my little students in public schools, in community centers, at the Boys and Girls Clubs, or anywhere there's youth - the porch or the park. 

I'm also known as Professor Arthur to my big students at Simmons College of Kentucky, which is our city's only HBCU. I'm in the music department and helping lead our ADOS Center, a department for social justice.

I'm also known as 1200. I am a performing artist, a recording artist, and a composer who makes hip hop music and classical music. I'm a classically trained percussionist. I got a bachelor's and a master's by age 22 at the University of Louisville. I've performed with our city’s symphony orchestra and symphony orchestras around the world. 

I am the Councilman-Elect in Louisville, Metro Council District 4. In November, if no write-in candidates jump into the race, I will be the Councilman. I am the youngest elected metro council person in city history, maybe even state history. 

Tell us about your district. 

The district encompasses downtown Louisville, our business district, and every surrounding neighborhood. The East End tends to be wealthier with higher homeownership rates. The West End, where I'm at, has some of the poorest neighborhoods in all of the city, and, really, in all of the region. It is predominantly Black and very neglected. It [District 4] encompasses all of the issues that exist in Louisville. It is the most homeless district, the most starved district, the most segregated district, and the most dangerous district. If we fix this district, we can fix this city.

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I am curious about how you ran your campaign. 

I am Black. Beyond being Black by look, I'm Black by lineage. Meaning, I have inherited debt, I have inherited trauma from generation after generation of neglected people, of enslaved people, of Jim Crow people. That was the lens I announced my campaign from. I have been very clear from the start that my goal is to fix Black Louisville. 

And that ruffled feathers.

Louisville, I always say, is the most racist, most segregated city in America.

People often confuse Louisville as progressive and compassionate - one of our nicknames is the “Compassionate City.” But when my ancestors were escaping for freedom, they didn't stop in Louisville, they ran across the Ohio River and into Southern Indiana. 

A lot of people don’t know that Louisville had one of the largest slave ports just because we are right up against the Ohio River. A lot of people don't know that the slave named Jim Crow was in Louisville. A lot of people don't know that the Lewis and Clark expedition had its roots in Louisville and that York, the slave who made that expedition happen, lived most of his life in Louisville. And they also don't know that Harlem Bartholomew based his plans for urban planning, redlining and pushing Black people into modern concentration camps and ghettos, out of what he did in Louisville. Louisville is the worst in terms of racism, in terms of segregation, in terms of income, inequality, wealth, inequality, the racial wealth gap, the lineage wealth gap.

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When I announced that I was going to headbutt those issues directly, I was told to shut up about race and to not talk about being black. Don't talk about those issues. Don't talk about homelessness. People don't want to hear that. It will scare people. Louisville is not ready to have that conversation.

Fast forward, and a few months later, COVID hits and destroys our country. And everyone's talking about racial inequality. Fast forward beyond that, and Breonna Taylor’s story is global. Now everyone is talking about Black life. Well, we have been saying these things. I was addressing these issues before and when I announced and I was told to shut up. All of a sudden it's trendy to talk about Black issues. I was here before the protests, during the protests and I will be here after the protest doing this work. 

So now, as one of the voices of the protests, as one of the faces of the protest, I am going to be on the other side of the table on the Council and will be able to impact some of that change. 

How do you see development and planning and gentrification linked to police terror? 

Gentrification is the child of redlining, and gentrification is happening in Louisville at a dramatic rate.

A billion dollars of investment is coming to the West End of Louisville. Blocks are being purchased by our city's government and renovated. Entire neighborhoods are being completely shifted, and people being displaced. 

Beecher Terrace historic photo

Beecher Terrace, a public housing development, is being torn down and replaced with mixed-income housing. The 1,300 people who lived there are gone and not all of them can come back. Less than a third of them will be able to come back in and get an apartment in the renovated Beecher Terrace. All over the city Black people and poor people are being displaced under the guise of renovation. 

From gentrification to racial banishment. When you update and upgrade, you displace people. It's always assumed that they have somewhere to go, but often we see that they don't, people have nowhere to go besides a prison yard or a graveyard. 

Breonna Taylor’s home was part of several no-knock warrants and one home was being acquired by the city. When you look at the history of the United States government if they killed hundreds of millions of slaves and indigenous people to get land, why would they spare Breonna Taylor's life to get land? It is one in the same.

To push that point even further with data. The 2020 census data shows that our district is currently 44% Black. Over the years it has been as high as 73% percent Black. So you mean to tell me over the past decade, we went from three-quarters Black to less than half Black?

We are vanishing from this city, and I have no clue where we're going. For a lot of us, to the grave or jail.

In your new position, you'll be wielding political power and working from within the institution, rather than against the institution. I'm curious how you view political power in the office you're about to step into and how you feel about working within the system?

There are so many issues that exist in our city, and specifically in our district. The big five are: people don't have money, people don't have housing, people are not safe, people are starving, and people are not healthy. I think we have to start with people's economic condition because that impacts all other issues. MLK once said, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger?” 

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For example, when it comes to housing, I hear people say that we need to build affordable housing. I would rather create a reality where people can just afford housing, instead of continuing to build cheap housing. It makes much more sense to me to make sure that people have the means to buy or rent a quality home.  

We don't have a system in place for communities to not be exploited. And a solution would be to implement what I've called Community Commandments - agreements between our residents and the developers who come in and want to set up shop. I live at the corner of 15th and Jefferson. There are three empty lots next to me. If I don't know what's happening, developers could drop in yet another liquor store or yet another Dollar Store. 

The developers come to our neighborhoods, but they don't necessarily serve our neighborhood, because they don't belong to it. My goal is to make sure that the community is organized and educated in such a way that we can fight back. 

You mentioned the idea of developers coming in and missing the mark about what a community needs because they don't come from there. How do you see that playing out in politics? 

I've never run a political campaign in my life, but what I noticed very quickly when we started to run our campaign is that everybody was talking about our issues, about being poor, about housing, about safety, about health, about inclusion, from a third-person perspective. I talk about these issues because I have lived these issues. There is a very different level of commitment from a politician when you live the issues that other politicians talk about.

To a certain extent, people are vetted to be politicians. I was never vetted to be a politician. I have always been one to speak out against some of the work of politicians and look at them as the opposition. But I am the newcomer, the black sheep of the Metro council, and I'm interested to see how it plays out. 

It's hard to serve us if you don't know us. And it's easy for me to know us because I am us. I have a much more direct line than we see so often.

Children Lined Up For Food at Chickasaw Park Louisville KY 1951 Univ. of Louisiville Photographic Archives

You spoke before about the failure of Black idols - can you elaborate on that?

As a Black person in America, you are 13% of the population, 40% of the incarcerated population, 40% of the homeless population, about 50% of homeless families, 40% of school suspensions and have 2.6% of the country's wealth. But when you look at our entertainers, athletes, comedians, actors, and musicians, you might think that Black people are doing all right, because of the perceived success that they cast into the public light. The issue that we face as Black People is that we don't have anything. But there is this perceived idea of us having something because we see people on social media and on TV who have something. It creates this decadent veil, a phrase I have stolen from LA Attorney Antonio Moore. 

It shields the failure to invest in Black America. It looks like we have fixed our problems because of the image relayed in the media - we are thriving, we are succeeding. 

And it's sad. I mean, Jay Z is a perfect example. When you break down Jay Z assets, some of those assets have been detrimental to our community, such as the liquor company he invested in or such as prison ankle bracelets that he invested in. When you look at Oprah, what has she done for the black community? She built a school in South Africa. Meanwhile, Chicago has been setting record high shootings and killings for the past decade. 

They project a level of success that doesn't exist for the rest of us, while largely ignoring the rest of us.

American culture is Black culture. Our largest exports in a lot of spaces – sports, film, and television, reflect Black culture.

What you just said about exports is so profound. If you look at the history of America, Black people were the imports, and made the exports. Nothing has changed. 

The people who "make it" fail to realize that when you make it out, there are still millions of people here that are stuck. So now you are a symbol, but what does that mean? What does that do for us? We're still here.

I'll use myself as an example. Before COVID, I got to travel the world, making music and teaching. But, it doesn't matter if I'm performing on stage with orchestras as a soloist around this country when less than 2% of orchestras are Black. There is no access for my folks in these groups that I am a token in. It doesn't matter that I am a teacher, when Black men are 2% of the professional teaching field. It doesn’t matter that I have a master's degree, which was celebrated as something so wonderful when in the Parkland neighborhood, where I am from, 0.3% of residents have master's degrees. 

Parkland is important because that's where Muhammad Ali is from. And I would say Muhammad Ali, before all of these celebrity activists, Muhammad Ali was the cream of the crop of, of a celebrity who didn't sell out. He spoke out against issues no matter what. And he was from Parkland where I'm from. I actually played him in an opera with our orchestra. Muhammad Ali was very clear about letting you know, I don't care if I'm sitting on this yacht because the people back home are dirt poor. They have nothing.

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We named our airport, Muhammad Ali international airport. And I got invited to a think tank about how we make it reflect him and his culture and what he believed in. I said, well, you already failed because you named the airport after him in a city where 45% of the Black kids live in poverty and will never step foot in that airport ever. They will never be in that airport to fly anywhere. They will live and die in these neighborhoods that Muhammad Ali spoke out about fixing.

This is almost a century-long issue, and it is multidimensional that I can't even sit here and say, "Oh we should do X, Y, or Z." It's just going to take some extensive education.

Right. How much of these issues do you feel like you will be able to tackle on a local level? 

A lot of this stems from centuries-long issues, systemic issues. We can’t fix all of it locally, specifically the racial wealth gap. We can't close the racial wealth gap in Louisville without closing the racial wealth gap in America. When you have families in my neighborhood that are making $9,000 a year, you can't lean on a city government that is already pinching pennies. The federal government needs to address this issue. The federal government needs to pay direct payment reparations to the American descendants of slavery.

Black Enterprise predicted by 2053 Black wealth would shrink to zero. By 2030 low skill jobs in the Black community were predicted to disappear by McKinsey & Company. With the COVID-19 pandemic, these dates are getting moved up. That is concerning, and it is even more concerning when Donald Trump and Joe Biden are our only two options.

We have nowhere to go, and we have no politicians that are willing to speak to our needs. 

We have paid billions and billions of dollars in reparations to Japanese Americans and Native Americans. And we've seen reparations happen overseas with our Jewish brothers and sisters who were tracked down all over the world to receive their reparations. The argument is always that we can't afford that debt, but the debt already exists, we just never paid it. I want to be very clear as we talk about solving these issues in Louisville, that these are bandaids. These are minor fixes, but what is going to transform America is direct payment reparations and a program of protections and rights and laws for the American descendants of slavery.

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I have one more question for you now. Are you encouraging people to vote for Joe Biden?

Hell no.

I'm writing in and I'm prioritizing down-ballot. I'm not encouraging people to vote for Joe Biden.

Does that feel dangerous to do?

Well, I'm 28, so I don't know everything. But what I do know is there are people, including Joe Biden, who have been in elected office for decades upon decades who have such horrible track records. People are scapegoating Donald Trump as we sit in this "divided America." Trump has only been there for a term. What about the 231 years of presidents before him that got us to where we are today? 

I get a lot of pushback online for my position. It's usually from white folks who will say, "Well, we are going to have another term of Trump." White people voted for Donald Trump at a 54% rate. Why are you telling me to fix the issue that you created? You need to call your cousins and your aunts, your uncles, and your grandparents, and tell them to vote for Joe Biden. Don't call on me to fix your issue.

I'll vote for Joe Biden when he presents an agenda of interests that's going to fix my group. Because as of now, Donald Trump doesn't have one and Joe Biden doesn't have one.

There is no encouragement for me to vote for either candidate. A lot of people want you to vote for their interests, but they don't want you to vote for your interests, especially if you Black.

Do you feel like there's a possibility he doesn't concede if the numbers aren't overwhelming? 

Well, I'm less threatened by the people who tell me who they are. I am more threatened by the people who don't tell me who they are. We know who Donald Trump is - he just laid it out. Who is Joe Biden? Who is Kamala Harris? Who are they? One day Kamala was Black, one day she's Indian. One day Joe Biden was saying that we were predators and need to be swept out of society, and then one day he's saying that if you don't vote for him, you ain't Black. They confuse me. I don't know what they believe in. I don't know what they stand for, but I know exactly what Trump stands for.

I'm more threatened by the people who pander. I'm worried about the liberals because they are wolves in sheep's clothing, whereas Republicans and conservatives are just straight up wolves.

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