W. Kamau Bell Interview: The Berkeley Comedian Chats Alt-Right Brawls, Trump, Season 2 Of His CNN Show, His New Book, And Why He Didn't Hug Richard Spencer 

See him this Saturday, May 6, at Starline Social Club.

click to enlarge W. Kamau Bell reads from his new book in Oakland this Saturday, May 6. - PHOTO BY JOHN NOWAK
  • Photo By John Nowak
  • W. Kamau Bell reads from his new book in Oakland this Saturday, May 6.
A CNN commercial promoting the season-two premiere of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America shows the Berkeley resident seated at a table, face-to-face with one of the most-loathed men in the country, Richard Spencer. If you’re not up to speed, Spencer is the guy who supposedly coined the term “alt right” and, last year, convened a white nationalist conference in Washington, D.C., where he shouted “Hail Trump!” from behind a podium, complete with a Nazi salute. That video went viral. As did the video of Spencer getting sucker-punched in the face by a protester at inauguration day. Anyway, in the commercial, Spencer tells Bell that he “just wants to bathe in white privilege,” to which the comedian responds with an at once incredulous and disgusted look — and zero punchline.

Restraint: It is a common sentiment during Bell’s TV series, which launched season two this past Sunday night. The comedian crisscrosses the country, meeting with everyone from Klu Klux Klan leaders to spring break bros. Some folks criticize Bell for amplifying voices that nary deserve attention. But, on the heels’ of Donald Trump’s victory, Bell argues that it’s more crucial than ever to confront these people head-on.

“People don’t realize these ideas are as pervasive as they are,” he said this past week during a phone interview.

In addition to his TV program’s second act, Bell dropped his first book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, on Monday. He will read from it and sign copies this weekend in Oakland.

Bell spoke to the Express about the AntiFa-versus-alt right brawling in his Berkeley backyard, Trump’s 100 days, the Democratic Party’s future, the Warriors, the Raiders — and why he didn’t kick Spencer’s ass.

***

W. Kamau Bell: Thanks for the love. I was wondering if I’d hear from East Bay Express, like, ‘What happened, East Bay Express, I thought we were cool?’

Express: Ha! We move a little slow over here.
I also kind of know I’m everywhere in the East Bay, so it’s like, ‘We know what you’re doing.’ [Laughs.]

You’ve got too much exposure, man.
That’s what I’m saying. I get it. I don’t take it personally. I just sort of pass [an Express newsstand] and go ‘Aw, I still like you guys.’

So … Berkeley. Are you home now?
I’m in California. And last night, I was on the phone with my wife, like, ‘Helicopters, you say? Over our house, you say?’ So, you know, I was in New York, worrying about whether my wife and family is safe in Berkeley, that’s where we’re at in this society.

For sure. I mean, you really need to move.
I know, like, really, we need to move some place safe, like East Oakland.

So, if you were an editor in a newsroom, or a station manager at TV or radio, how do you cover the Berkeley stuff, or do you report on it differently?
I think there’s sort of a narrative like, ‘Berkeley is rioting.’ And I live in downtown Berkeley, so it’s like, ‘Yeah, we walk around the riots, so I can go to the bike shop and get helmets for our kids.’ You know what I mean? I think the narrative is that Berkeley is rioting, and that Berkeley tried to push back against it — ‘This is Berkeley,’ sort of hash-tagging people having lattes and sushi and stuff. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s not the thing you want to do, either.’

I do think you want to tell the story of, ‘We’re used to this in the Bay Area.’ Specific groups starting shit. … And I think the way it’s been covered is as if it’s some sort of bigger issue than it really is. As if the whole city is behind this. And, also, covering it as a free-speech issue is also totally ridiculous.

I agree. There’s this national perception of Berkeley as this liberal haven, but for me and my colleagues, it’s kind of, ‘Wait, isn’t Berkeley, like, a bunch of rich people?’
It’s not the Sixties anymore.

Exactly.
Along the same point, I’ve talked to the mayor, the new mayor [Jesse Arreguin]. And I’ve said to him the way that this country is going, and the way of who is in the oval office … I said this a few months ago, ‘You have the potential to be a national figure,’ because Berkeley means something to these people. The alt-right and the Proud Boys are targeting Berkeley, because it has some kind of cachet to them. And while it’s not the Sixties any more, this is an opportunity for Berkeley to stand up and claim that space, as being a progressive place, and also being a safe space.

I hope that the leaders will be receptive to the opportunity. But it feels like, right now, you know, ‘You wanna kick somebody’s ass? Show up in Berkeley on the weekend.’

It’s just, like, we’re not controlling the narrative in a way I think we could.

Speaking of which: Richard Spencer is on your new episode Sunday night.
Yes, that’s the one.

Do you kick his ass?
‘W. Kamau Bell will punch you right in the face.’ Uh, yeah, no, I don’t kick his ass. … I’m more known for my hugs, but he does not get a hug.

The thing about the episode is that the promos are giving him a lot of attention. He’s part of the episode, but the episode is really focused on the immigrant and refugee experience in this country. And I feel like you can focus on the positive stories, or just the stories of struggle. … We need to really recognize the value of this group, and what they add to this country. But by the same token, we can’t deny that the ideas of Richard Spencer aren’t holding weight with people in this country. And we know they’re holding weight, because someone who shares his ideas has an office two doors down from the President of the United States of America.

So, in response to those people saying, ‘Why are you giving him a platform?’ It’s like, ‘Hey, that platform is in the White House.’

And I think that [in Berkeley or the East Bay] as much as we think that everybody is hashtag ‘woke,’ most people, when they saw my Klu Klux Klan episode, were like, ‘I had no idea.’ You know what I mean? People don’t realize these ideas are as pervasive as they are.

You said on Jimmy Fallon that each episode this season focuses on people or groups that Trump has targeted.
It’s really, like, when you sit down and have a pitch meeting and ask, ‘Where should we go next year? What are the relevant stories?’ And you hear Trump talking about Muslim bans, and you’re like, ‘Well, we should probably talk to Muslims.’ Or you hear Trump talking about closing, shutting down, stopping immigration. And you go, ‘Oh, we should talk to refugees.’ And you hear Trump talk about, ‘I’m going to sign the pipeline in North Dakota.’ Well, we do an episode on native peoples.

It’s very clear who’s not getting a fair shot, and who’s not being heard from directly.

Is it naive for us to think that journalism and your show can break through the partisan noise?
I think I have to hope it breaks through. … I have to remind myself that, on my tax form, it says comedian. So, it’s my way of doing the work. As much as I do put a lot of time into it, and I do hope the work breaks through. I do hear from people all the time. And the biggest thing I hear is, like, families watch it together. ‘My conservative dad and me sit down and watch your show.’ And I feel like that’s the beginning. I feel that the show definitely has started different conversations, and a lot of them online, but a lot of them in people’s homes. …

And on some level, my other job is to introduce them on the show — and also through my podcast and other work — to people who have the smarts and the gravitas to actually help push, organize and activate. So, you know, yes, I’m going to talk about Black Lives Matter. But why don’t you actually Google Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. … I think of myself as a conduit, not the actual solution.

But there’s a lot of noise right now. The thing that I’m fortunate for — and, believe me, when I first got offered a job at CNN, I was like ‘Really?’ — is that it’s a huge microphone, and a huge footprint. And even if you don’t care about CNN, you’ll eventually be in an airport, sitting at your gate, watching CNN. You know?

Do you have a ‘Trump 100 Days’ hot take?
Doesn’t it feel like it’s a million days? [Laughs.] We’ve been talking about 100 days for 100 days.

Some people seem like, ‘Why hasn’t more of Trump’s constituency turned on him?’ considering what has happened to him in these 100 days. And I said after, ‘Hey, you couldn’t have told me nothing about Barack Obama 100 days into his term.’ There’s not one thing I would have bought into 100 days into his term. It took me a while to get disappointed. So, I think we have to understand it’s going to take some people a while to be really disappointed by him.

Is there a crucial or common issue that connects progressives and, say, Rust Belt conservatives?
I say two. I’m going to do the thing politicians do, I’m going to answer your question by asking my own question. But, like, when I was in Chicago talking to gang members on the south and west sides of Chicago, and in Appalachia talking to coal miners, it all comes down to: ‘We need more jobs. We want better schools for our kids.’ …

It’s not about coal, necessarily. It’s about, ‘There’s a mountain right there. I’ve been told there’s coal in it. I’m poor beyond belief. You’re not bringing any other industries here. Can we please go back into that mountain, even though I know it’s dangerous, and I also don’t want to ruin the environment.’ So, I feel like, if we really got down to those basic issue about how to get more jobs in America and how to improve our schools, now I think we’re talking about something everyone can talk about, everybody’s interested. …

But I’m looking right now — I’m at CNN headquarters, so the TV is gigantic, and Trump is about to speak to the NRA convention. Why?!

He’s gotta keep the base happy.
But what is the point of that? There are no Second Amendment issues currently. Why?! What would be the point of that? We’re making electoral politics a team sport. ‘I’m a Republican!’ … And now what? I still have no money, and my kid has a bad school.

Speaking of teams, do you have a take on the Raiders leaving Oakland? Do you care about that stuff?
The days of sports not being cravenly about money are long gone. Years ago, I had a joke about how, when you cheer for your team, you’re really just cheering for laundry. …

But I feel really bad for Oakland, losing so many teams, the identity of Oakland, especially as it goes through waves of gentrification. … When I went to the Warriors game during the playoffs, I was really surprised and heartened by how many regular people were at the game, even though the Warriors are the hottest ticket maybe in the country, you know. … I’ve lived in the Bay Area for long enough to remember when, for $20, you could get as many tickets as you could fit in your pocket. …

But Oakland’s also experiencing gentrification, being turned into a bedroom for the tech community. I really do feel bad for people who have a lot of their identity in Oakland caught up in these teams, when it’s clearly about the money.

I mean, the Warriors might as well be going to Dubai.
[S.F.] is not that far away, but who wants to deal with that traffic? And they’re putting it next to a trauma hospital. ‘This guy’s dying. Yeah, but Warriors got game seven tonight. OK.’ For me, it’s just capitalism unchecked.

In four years, will it be, ‘Beat Trump at any cost,’ and vote for the lesser of two evils again, or do liberals and progressives have to quit doing that?
I think the worst thing that the Democratic Party did is they acted like there’s such a thing as ‘your turn,’ and let Hillary Clinton just sort of run basically unopposed … because it was ‘her turn.’ And I feel like, I’m not saying Hillary should be the president, and I understand that the reason she’s not the president is because of the leftover slave math of the electoral college. But I will say this: She didn’t get vetted as the right candidate, because she didn’t have real competition, the way Barack Obama was real competition.

If I was the leadership of the Democratic Party, I would be following the model of NBA scouts. … I would be out there scouring the community activists, the community leaders, maybe there’s a city comptroller out there who’s got a good jump shot. [Laughs.] … We can’t be picking from the people whose names we already know. It’s got to be names that most people don’t know yet.

Will Trump be a lame duck, or?
I mean, we’re constantly surprised by what happens. But I really have a haaarrrd time believing that he lasts four years, or doesn’t figure out a way after four years to go, ‘You know, I’ve done everything I set out to do.’ The fact today that he said being president is ‘harder than I expected’ is just like ‘Oh no, oh no.’ You don’t want to hear that from your doctor, your barista, the person at the library. If it’s hard, please send in a more qualified person. l

“W. Kamau Bell in Conversation with Adam Mansbach,” presented by Mrs. Dalloways’ Bookstore, goes down this Saturday, May 6, 2pm, $30-40, at Starline Social Club, 645 W. Grand Ave, Oakland. WKamauBell.com.


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