by Willie Ratcliff, publisher, San Francisco Bay View
The fiery writing of JR Valrey, then about 22, began appearing in the Bay View a dozen years ago. Introduced to us by our long time columnist Kevin Weston, then editor of Youth Outlook magazine, JR made our original vision for the Bay View reality: to inspire Black youth to build a powerful Black community.
With his stories on hot topics like resistance to police terrorism and his back page photos of young people looking good, JR motivated youngsters to take control of their lives and their destiny, and soon we were thrilled to see even grade school children reading the Bay View, taking pride in themselves.
As the Bay View’s associate editor and one of KPFA’s most popular programmers with his provocative Block Report Radio shows, JR and the youth who grew up on his empowering words and pictures are growing in influence, making a difference every day – and they’re just getting started. Check out my interview with JR.
But first, let me invite you one and all to Black Media Appreciation Night this Monday, Nov. 26, 8 p.m., at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Jack London Square to meet many of the world-shaking media-makers JR has introduced you to in the Bay View and on the Block Report. It’s a benefit for those two Black media and a time for all Black media to shine. And it’s my 80th birthday celebration!
You’ll hear the voice of the world’s most famous political prisoner, Mumia Abu Jamal, presenting an award to his friend JR – and receiving an award as well. Other honorees include KPOO, the Black Panther newspaper, Kevin Weston, Wanda Sabir, Kali O’Ray, David Roach, Kevin Epps, Davey D, Greg Bridges, Veronica Faisant, LaVarn Williams, Walter Turner, Donald Lacy, DJ X1, James Earl-Rockefeller III and jazz artist Phavia Kujichagulia, who will bring the music, along with jazz rapper Do D.A.T., Ms. Be and Bay Area rap legends Mac Mall and Ray Luv. Click HERE for tickets and more information.
Willie Ratcliff: Tell the people what motivated you to take up the cause of fighting the racism in our society that locks Blacks out of the economy, puts us in prison and allows the police to murder us with impunity?
JR Valrey: I do not see the problem as just racism; there is also a classist nature to the type of institutional oppression that we suffer under. I was first motivated by how I saw the police mistreating Black people in East Oakland in the ‘80s and learning later that that is how the police in the U.S. have always treated Black poor people.
I later met people at the SF Bay View newspaper and in Hunters Point who were activists working on the economic front. As I learned more, I was able to see the connections between how the police, the banks and the different facets of government all mistreated us.
WR: How did you choose journalism as your weapon in the fight? What impact did Youth Radio have in helping you choose a career in radio and print media? Who else inspired and assisted you to become a journalist?
JR: I chose journalism after I was part of a high school journalism program at San Francisco State in ‘95. After this program, I linked up with Youth Outlook, most notably Kevin Weston and Malcolm Marshall, who coached me to create better and better commentaries and news stories to be published by Youth Outlook.
After a few articles, I was asked to write something about my experience going to a Catholic high school in Alameda. When I did, it was picked up by the Examiner newspaper. The story talked about an interaction I had with my history teacher who made a racist comment about Black people in class.
The school tried to pressure me to say I lied, which I didn’t. When that didn’t work, she threatened to sue me, and when I had some of my journalists friends call the school pretending to be editors from the Examiner, the school backed off. When I discovered this new found power and how I can turn the light on what people were doing in the dark, I was sold.
Youth Radio came second to Youth Outlook in my career. I was introduced to Youth Radio in ‘96, after I started working with Davey D’s show, Street Knowledge. After working for a while with his crew at the time, he brought me to help out on his show at KPFA. But before that, I had to be officially trained, so Deverol Ross helped me to get into Youth Radio, where I learned a lot about radio coupled with my experiences at KMEL and KPFA.
I was inspired by a number of people to continue being a journalist, including the ones I already named plus Erna Smith, Ri’Chard Magee, Charles Jones, Gavilan, the Ratcliffs, Mumia Abu Jamal and others. These were the people who I knew and worked with in my life.
WR: In the dozen years you’ve been with the Bay View newspaper, you’ve challenged racism no matter how powerful the perpetrators and often at the risk of your own safety and freedom. Tell us about some of your encounters with the Oakland police and DA when they tried to silence your voice.
JR: The first encounter I can remember was in ‘03, when I was covering an affirmative action protest with students from the School of Social Justice, and the Oakland police started running over the students’ feet with motorbikes to discourage and scare them from protesting. My comrade Ra’Shida got into it with a lady cop who tried to grab her face. A tussle began, and by the time it was over, Ra’Shida and I went to jail and were charged with assaulting a number of cops. We ended up beating the case and both suing the OPD for a few thousand dollars apiece.
Another time, I was involved in shutting down then-mayor Ron Dellums after he refused to ask for police to be arrested days after the shooting of Oscar Grant. Dellums tried to conduct a press conference in the middle of the first day of the Oakland Rebellions. I helped to shut him down because he was not prepared to address real issues; he just wanted us to shut up and accept the status quo.
He was run off with his supporters with the mainstream news in tow, and 15 minutes later I was arrested by the OPD on a bogus arson charge, although the arresting officer did not find on me a lighter, matches or paper. At that point I was facing three to five years. I fought the case for 13 months, and due to the community support and my lawyer, Marlon Monroe, the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.
WR: Talk about the Block Report that you host on KPFA – your prime time show on Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 94.1FM KPFA, and your music and culture show on Friday nights at midnight. How do you bring such interesting guests to the air that no one else interviews? What influence can you as a Black broadcaster have on KPFA, a majority white-run progressive station with a very powerful 59,000-watt signal?
JR: I bring people to the air that I or my crew is interested in. The Block Report talk radio crew is China Ellis, the producer and I. The Block Report music crew is Ms. Be, Sauce the Boss, Big Moe, Mikela McFly, King Kosh and I. We are a very eclectic group of people from the Bay, so we have a very wide reach in the Bay Area.
On the talk radio show, I try to inform our community about topics that affect us on a local all the way up to international level. We talk about everything from health to politics to culture. It is meant to engage the minds of the target audience – Black and Brown youth and young adults – and to teach us about the world we live in.
On the music show, we play a lot of music and talk about Black music, Black culture and Black politics, but we do it in a more festive party environment that is not too intense for less politically-minded people.
I think that being a Black broadcaster at “progressive” KPFA, which is white dominated, is like a pioneering feat, because the entrenched staff who runs the union does whatever it has to do to maintain white power over key programming slots, hired positions, the news and over station-sponsored fundraisers, specifically under Bob Baldock.
I have the heart to fight injustice inside of the station as well as outside of the station, although the general manager wrote me up for “race-baiting” after I called the entrenched paid staff the White Citizens Council on the air. Somebody has to challenge the liberal racists that have the most influence over KPFA programming. For all the voting members of KPFA, SAVE KPFA is the faction that is pushing the racist agenda of exclusion rather than inclusion, so don’t vote for them.
In terms of the airwaves, I think that I have a had a huge effect on the whole spectrum of listeners and their politics specifically around police terrorism, political prisoners, prisoners’ rights, African politics, revolutionary culture and local art. I think I am waking a lot of Black and non-Black people up to what is going on around us and to important discussions that Black people are having among ourselves or with others.
WR: As associate editor of the Bay View, which runs on a shoestring, and a popular programmer on KPFA, where all your work is volunteered, you must have a hard time surviving and supporting your family. How do you see your economic outlook improving and how do you encourage Black youngsters to consider journalism when it’s such a hard way to make a living?
JR: Real community journalism is a hard profession because, in my case, I have to pay the tax of being black-balled by other media platforms who would otherwise pay me because of the stances that I have taken on issues like Gary King, Nadra Foster, Oscar Grant, Lovelle Mixon, Yusef Bey IV, Libya, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Cynthia McKinney, Mumia Abu Jamal, Imam Jamil Al-Amin and more. Taking a pro-Black stance in a white supremacists’ world, including in the era of Obama, is a hard thing to swallow for most people who would rather live comfortably instead of trying to push for a better world.
Most people have been conditioned to think like that by the elite who run everything through the banking system; basically the message they hammer into our heads in their school is “worry about yourself and you’ll be all right.” I’m glad that our great ancestors did not think like that or we would still be picking cotton. They sacrificed today to see a better tomorrow.
I see my economic outlook improving if I can help to educate Black people and our allies on how to directly support Block Report Radio with their hard earned money on a regular basis, if they like what we are doing and they think that is unique and essential. They can do that by pushing the donate button on the website www.BlockReportRadio.com. I don’t think that that is too much to ask considering people already do it for Netflix and HBO.
People have to support the media institutions and the media-makers that support them, because you cannot expect corporate Amerikkka to do it. The corporate elite don’t want you to be truly educated to the fact that you can create your own media and, more importantly, your own destiny.
If you don’t outright want to donate, you can buy one of our many DVDs, books or T-shirts which are on the site. By doing that, you help to fund my work directly.
WR: Why are you willing to make the sacrifice to work in Black media? What is the significance of Black media in the struggle for Black liberation?
JR: Black media has played a part in our struggle for self-determination in the U.S. since we were fighting slavery – with the first Black-owned newspaper being The Freedom Journal, an abolitionist paper, and another being The North Star, which featured the writings of Fredrick Douglas. Ida B. Wells was the newspaper writer and owner who was most responsible for raising the issue of lynchings and putting it on the international stage.
Marcus Garvey wrote in his paper, The Negro World, a lot about the importance of Black community economics among other things. And Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton were two journalists who spoke a lot about police terrorism in the Black community, which was a non-issue in the minds of most non-Blacks in the country at that time.
The corporate elite don’t want you to be truly educated to the fact that you can create your own media and, more importantly, your own destiny.
I have made a lot of sacrifices to be in the Black media because I was taught early on the importance of being able to define my reality as well as being able to educate my community through a media venue. Without journalists like myself and others, the Black community in the Bay would be easily led astray, because as it is, it is hard to get important, valid info on our community locally in a timely fashion.
Without real Black media, we will be left to be the victims of anybody who is savvy enough to market something cleverly to us, whether it is a product or an idea or a perspective. I want for people in our community to be educated to the extent to where they will be able to recognize our collective political, economic, social and moral interests.
If we, the Black community, lose the Black media that we have in the Bay, which is the fifth biggest media market in the country, because of our failure to invest and subscribe to it, we will only have ourselves to blame, and we will pay a huge social, political, moral and economic consequence for our negligence.
WR: You’re the main organizer of Black Media Appreciation Night. Why should people come and what sort of outcome do you think the event will have?
JR: I think that people should come to Black Media Appreciation Night because we have a lot to celebrate and a lot to talk about. We are celebrating that the Black media is still in existence in the Bay, and many of its power-brokers are still standing.
We have to take into account that you recently turned 80, Kevin Weston, owner of the Globe newspaper, contracted leukemia, and we were told that he was on his deathbed, but luckily he bounced back considerably, as well as I was recently shot. Then KPOO needs over $25,000 before the end of the year. So although 2012 has been rough, we are all still standing, and that is in itself worth celebrating.
We need to talk and inspire people in our community who benefit from Black media to spend more money with the journalists and outfits they support. We need people to respect and fund the media that supports them and that they think is valuable.
If we don’t, we very well can wake up one day very soon where there won’t be any media or pro-Black journalists in the Bay, because we didn’t provide a way for them to eat while providing this valuable service. I hope we don’t have to see it to believe it. Get your tickets now to Black Media Appreciation Night and save $10 from the $40 at-the-door price.
Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 671-0789. Go to www.sfbayview.com and click on the banner at the top of the page for tickets and more information on Black Media Appreciation Night at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Monday, Nov. 26, at 8 p.m.