Jon Stewart says police 'are a reflection of society'

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Jon Stewart talks about the Black Lives Matter protests, police reform and Trump, whom he likened to “a malevolent Mr. Magoo,” in a new interview.

Stewart promoted the June 26 release of the film Irresistible, which he directed and wrote, in a chat with The New York Times Magazine. The film centers around politics — a Democratic strategist (Steve Carell) helps a retired vet (Chris Cooper) run for mayor in a small, conservative Wisconsin town — and the former Daily Show host, of course, also waded into politics in the interview.

Jon Stewart says police officers are "enforcing segregation," explaining that they "patrol the border between the two Americas." (Photo: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“I’d like to say I’m surprised by what happened to him, but I’m not,” Stewart said of George Floyd dying in police custody. “This is a cycle, and I feel that in some ways, the issue is that we’re addressing the wrong problem. We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address.”

Stewart went on to say the police “are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community.” And police are “enforcing segregation,” he continued. ”Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.”

Stewart called police brutality “an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures.”

He said, “There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”

Stewart remains hopeful that this may lead to more accountability.

“Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood,” he said. “Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don’t even want to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing.”

He went on to call out the protests over the coronavirus quarantine lockdowns in April.

“You know, we’re in a bizarre time of quarantine,” Stewart said. “White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building,” referencing the armed demonstrators who went to the capitol building in Michigan to demand the lockdown orders be lifted, “with rifles, shouting: ‘Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I’m not going to wear a mask, because that’s tyranny!’’ That’s six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people.”

He added, “The policing is an issue, but it’s the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them.”

Stewart also talked Trump’s handing of all of it. He said what’s stood out to him amid the national turmoil the last few months is, “That the Trump administration has not changed its practices. You would have thought that somebody would have mentioned to Trump the idea of rising to greatness. Instead it’s: ‘Why don’t I tweet out that Joe Scarborough killed people?’ Would that be good in a pandemic?’’ I guess his behavior is understandable, because what’s he going to run on, his record? He’s just going to pick at scabs.”

Stewart described Trump as “a man who has suffered no consequences. His is a recklessness born of experience. He’s like a malevolent Mr. Magoo,” referring to the cartoon character who’s old, rich and stubborn with poor eyesight. “He always knows the I-beam is going to swing down and the building is going to collapse — but who cares, because he’ll walk out unscathed. That’s what he has learned.”

He added that Trump’s approach “has worked for him his whole life.” And noted that “if you just get rid of Trump, that doesn’t end this,” referring to political discord.

Nonetheless, Stewart says he “always” remains hopeful about the future.

“Because the view we get of the country is not accurate,” he said. “We get the artifice of it, the conflict of it. I’m not naïve. I don’t think that true divisions and animosities and bigotry and prejudices don’t exist. We see that every day. But fundamentally, we are a resilient and strong and resourceful nation... But our biggest problem as humans is ignorance, not malevolence. Ignorance is an entirely curable disease.”

And how does one cure ignorance? “Information and work,” he replied. “You need to talk to people. Ignorance is often cured by experience, by spending time with what you don’t understand. But I honestly don’t know. Well, you know what? I do know: In the same way that Trump’s recklessness is born out of experience, so is my optimism, because good people outweigh [expletive] people. By a long shot.”

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: