Fruit for Crows
If it has an Ur-Image, if it has a Defining Moment the way that the national memory switches to color after the Kennedy assassination, it is the savage beating of Rodney King by L.A. police officers in 1991. The footage seems crude, noisy, and primitive by the standards of today’s video technology, so tiny, so compact and portable, so capable of showing us extravagant cruelty in high resolution, and yet it offers us moments of shocking clarity: King, caught like a freshly caught fish flopping on the dock by filaments of electric shock weapons; Officer Stacey Koon, directing traffic, maintaining order so that everyone gets a chance to flail away at King’s flattened, bloody form; the savage kicks to the back of the neck, delivered by people who set out to harm; the way the beating goes on for three agonizing minutes, even as cars crawl past to watch the show, until King is finally deposited off by the side of the road like a piece of trash and trussed up like a Christmas goose. Of course, it was nothing new; it was not the beginning of anything, or the end of anything. What made it different was that everyone saw it, but even so, it turned out not to be a Moment, but merely a moment.
It should have meant something, coming as it did at a unique historical moment, a concatenation of American issues that included war and imperialism and drug interdiction and unemployment, political indifference and police brutality and militarism and violence and crime and the inner city, and how all those things became so much worse when they were applied to the black community. But it didn’t. All it meant was the bringing to bear of a new technology in the service of recording an injustice no one seemed to care much about; all it taught us was to what lengths people will go to doubt what’s right in front of their eyes if it allows them a moral excuse for destroying black lives; all it left behind was a riot that, somehow, became a justification for what led to it, an injustice so great that it blotted out its proximate cause. It would happen again in front of newer and better cameras, just as it had happened before in front of older film cameras showing us a black man being blown across a street by a water cannon for asking after his right to vote, in front of a still photographer as the bloated and mangled body of a young black man was fished from a river for reckless eyeballing, in front of sketch artists drawing gathered mobs of laughing, hooting white men staring gleefully up at a lynch victim who had not crossed to the correct side of the road. And before that, it would happen in memories. I got to hear a few of the memories.
The story is told pretty much the same by everyone in my family; the only difference is the tone of approval, betraying the sympathies of the storyteller. In these details it never wavers: one evening in a small mining town in Alabama, sometime in the 1930s, my maternal grandfather is sitting on his front porch, alone and angry over some perceived slight. A black man strolls past the house. My grandfather picks up the hunting rifle that is propped up next to him, aims recklessly, and fires, putting a bullet in the side of an innocent passerby who has said nor done not a thing to him. Wounded and terrified, the black man runs off, leaving a trail of blood streaming behind him; whether he lives or dies is irrelevant, as he is no longer a part of this story. He never even has a name. Who he was and what happened to him is unimportant to anyone but his own family, and who cares about them? They’re just another bunch of niggers dumb enough to be kin to a man without the good sense to avoid walking through a white neighborhood after dark. My grandfather grabs a lamp from a small table on the porch, saunters over to the largest pool of blood, and throws it to to the ground with force; it shatters and provides him with an alibi that the coon was thieving, in case it ever comes back at him. He needn’t have bothered; the black man is never seen again, and my grandfather is a railroad dick (practically a cop), and, of course, a respectable white man. When this story is told, it is about even odds whether the family will sadly disapprove of what the old man did or laugh as they tell it, placing him in the role of a roguish scamp, I never met the old man, and I’m glad.
Here are some things you must do or not do if you want to stay alive, we tell our black citizens: do not ever commit a crime, no matter how petty, any time in your life. In any encounter with the police, do your best to behave as a soulless automaton, stripped of any volition or dignity, of the very suggestion that you are a human being cognizant of your rights under the law. Do not speak, move, dress, or behave unusually or unexpectedly. Do not buy anything that might alarm a white person, no matter how legal or harmless. Do not respond to any provocation of any kind, ever. Do not ask to be treated fairly; certainly do not demand it. Do not wear a Halloween costume; do not get in a car accident; do not walk around at night. Recognize in all white people moral authority, and in yourself moral culpability, at all times. Do not go to a place where you might not expected to be, even if you are invited. Make sure you have a biological mother and father that you live with, who are married to one another, and who share the same surname. Do not look like another person of your race who might have done something wrong. Do not, ever, become upset about anything. Do not live near white people, but do not gather in groups with your own. Try to arrange it so that your actual physical body is not taller, younger, heavier, more fit, or more adorned than any white person with whom you might come into contact. Do not carry a gun, legally or not. Avoid any expression of your own culture as if it were a particularly virulent plague. Do not ever drink. Do not ever take drugs. Do not ever be loud. If you do all these things, always, as long as you live, you may feel yourself so reduced in the basic qualities of humankind that you think yourself still a slave, or worse, a herd animal, but at least there is a chance you will not be killed. If you are, though, rest assured that whites in their thousands will make a moral example of you to your people, reminding them of other things that they must not do. Then they will start a charitable drive to lessen the burdens of the man who killed you.
If you are a white person, try to imagine your life if it were demanded that you behave in such a way every day for the rest of your life, under the very real threat of death. It’s harder than you think; millions of people literally cannot conceive of it.
Since the Rodney King moment, we have seen a man beaten to death by deputies in Allegheny County, PA; a 10-year-old boy shot by police for playing with a toy in Brooklyn, NY; a man shot to death by transit police for no good reason in New York, NY; a man shot dead by police while reaching for his wallet in the Bronx, NY; a man shot dead by police for opening a door in New York, NY; a man shot dead by police for driving a car that looked like one that had been stolen in Queens, NY; a man shot dead by police while driving past a stakeout in New York, NY; a man shot dead by an undercover policeman attempting to entrap him in New York, NY; a man shot dead by police returning home from his bachelor party in Queens, NY; two men shot dead by police while fleeing a hurricane in New Orleans, LA and another murdered by the police and his body burned; a man shot dead by police for sticking his hands in his pockets in Champaign, IL; a man Tased and run over by a police car for having no safety light on his bicycle in Pensacola, FL; a man shot dead by transit police while lying face down at a train station in Oakland, CA; a little girl shot dead by police trying to arrest someone else who lived in her building in Detroit, MI; a man shot dead for wielding a cell phone in Chicago, IL; a man beaten into a coma by police in Philadelphia, PA; a man shot dead by police for being the victim of a home invasion in Brooklyn, NY; a woman suffocated by police for being mentally ill in Queens, NY; a man shot dead by police after having been falsely accused of a crime in Pasadena, CA; a man beaten to death by police nightsticks for being drunk in Lake County, IL; an autistic man shot dead by police for no reason at all in Los Angeles, CA; a woman shot dead by police while gathered in the park for a party in Chicago, IL; a man shot dead by police hunkered in a tiny bathroom in New York, NY; a man shot dead by a security guard who was harassing his sister in Atlanta, GA; a man shot dead by a ‘neighborhood watch officer’ who was stalking him home from a convenience store in Sanford, FL; a man shot dead by a homeowner after being caught underage-drinking in Slinger, WI; a man shot dead by a software designer for playing his music too loud in Jacksonville, FL; a man shot dead by police after being in a car accident in Charlotte, NC; a woman shotgunned to death after being in a car accident in Detroit, MI; a man asphyxiated by police while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island, NY; a man shot dead by police for no discernible reason in Ferguson, MO; a woman shot by police for being in the proximity of two men fighting in Bastrop, TX; a man shot dead by police after buying a toy in Beavercreek, OH; a man shot to death by police while lying face down in the street in Los Angeles, CA; and a man shot by police while delivering pizzas in Philadelphia, PA. This morning I am greeted with the news of a man repeatedly shot by a state trooper, with whom he was visibly cooperating, after being suspected of driving without a seatbelt; the only thing that sets his story apart is that he lived.
There are many differences; the victims range in age, they are men and women, they are geographically spread out. Sometimes their killers were police, other times they were ordinary citizens; some of their killers paid for their crimes in time or money, while many were not punished or even charged. The only commonalities are these: all the victims were black. All the killers were white. And none of the victims were armed. There are more than just the ones I listed, of course; so many more, I could not possibly find them all. So many more, and more every day; more than there were lynchings. And these are just the ones where the vast majority of the facts are not in dispute; it does not count any where the victim was shot during the commission of a serious crime, or where the victim was armed or fought back, or even where the police claim the victim was armed or fought back. And, of course, it only covers the stories deemed important enough to make the national news. It’s all I could list before growing tired of it all, soul-sick and frustrated. I try to imagine how it’d feel if I were black.
Always when I write entries like this, I say there is hope. I say that it is better to know than to not know, to talk than to not talk, to speak out than to say silent. But I’m getting tired. I reckon that 40 million of my countrymen, with every right under American law but born black, have been good and fucking sick of it since the day they were born. I’m tired of making excuses, and I’m tired of patches instead of fixes, and I’m tired of a new name being added to the rolls day after day and having to track the course of a justice I know will never come, and I’m tired of apologizing for nouveau-rights libertarians who blame the symptoms (bad training, militarization, police overreach) while ignoring the real cause. And what’s the real cause? The same one as it ever was, the one they precede with “lost” down South, or spell with a capital C. It’s that ugly alliance made at the founding, between the two things America has embraced like no others: racism and capitalism. I’m sorry, black Americans: we only ever wanted you for one thing, and when it happened that we couldn’t have that thing anymore, we started treating you like we never wanted you at all. Ever since then — ever since Lincoln made the understandable but perhaps questionable decision not to pursue a de-Confederatization program in the South, ever since John Wilkes Booth spoiled forever any chance at real reconciliation, and ever since the moneymen of the North decided that reparations would be far too costly to their bottom lines — it’s been a race to either recreate the conditions under which we brought you here, or just get rid of you altogether. The former tactic has seem a lot of success in recent years; the decay of the inner cities, the de-industrialization of the American economy, the death of labor unions, and the vast overreach of the Drug War and the security state have done a lot to return blacks to the state of a permanent source of nearly free labor, as have the institution of everything from payday loans to bail bonds to the disappearance of social welfare to the growth of a for-profit prison system to wage stagnation. But in a pinch, you can never forget the latter, and we seem to have learned the lesson well that you can get rid of lynching in name only by just outsourcing the job to law enforcement. The decision was made a long time ago, at a level neither I nor anyone reading this has access to, that we needed the South on our side to be a real country again, and that the feelings of all the white bigots in America were worth more (financially, of course) than the feelings of all our black people. And that settled that.
So what can be done? What hope is there? Dash cams and demilitarization? Civil suits and sensitivity training? More and more I think that those are just sops for people like me, people who don’t have a pre-made list of excuses every time a cop puts a bullet in some unarmed kid’s brain and are looking for reasons to be hopeful. For anything to really change, we’ll have to stand up to the unholy alliance of bigotry and capital, to break the cycle where we tolerate racism as long as it throws money in the right direction. And how are we gonna do that? We haven’t even gotten the minimum wage to budge in five goddamn years. All I can suggest at this point is that you hit the Lotto and move to Europe; anything else seems to be an increasingly grim and hollow joke. So good luck on them numbers; otherwise, you’re on your own.