A Threat to Justice Everywhere
When I went to sleep last night, Ferguson, Missouri was on fire.
The (highly unusual) decision of a grand jury not to bring Officer Darren Wilson up on charges stemming from his killing of a young black man named Michael Brown was, while not unexpected — one could, indeed, infer from its timing as well as the decision to ramp up security to a ridiculous degree before the announcement that the state almost wanted there to be riots — highly unpopular. Protesters of varying motivations took to the streets all over America, including a brief shutdown of the interstate in my own lily-white home of Seattle.
The killing of a black American by a law enforcement officer is so common as to be, well, tedious. When Brown was killed, I set about to make a post here on this site cataloguing the number of unarmed black men and women shot, beaten, or otherwise slain by the law just since 2001, and I stopped before I even got to our present decade because the job was simply too extensive to handle. I began to blur their identities together, these people who had been my countrymen, who were human beings no different from myself except that they had been born with the physical mark of America’s grotesque legacy of racial slavery; they began, in Stalin’s soulless calculus, to become statistics rather than tragedies. There were just so many of them. (Luckily, other people have been better suited to the task.) Just in the days leading up to the announcement, a young boy was shot by Cleveland police for wielding a toy shotgun; he died the day the grand jury’s decision was announced.
Of course, once a social phenomenon, even one as bloody as the routine murder of black citizens — transformed fully now from lynching by citizen vigilantes for nebulous assaults, rapes, and reckless eyeballings to shooting by ‘legitimate’ agents of the law for acting in a menacing fashion — becomes this common, it gains its own script. At first there is the shock and outrage; soon someone will suggest that it is symptomatic of a entrenched and symptomatic racism in American society, for which they will be rewarded by being called ‘race hustlers’ or ‘phony civil rights pimps’. There will immediately follow a period in which the dead person — the victim of the crime of murder — has their life posthumously upended in the attempt to prove that, as do we all, they bore some moral stain and thus deserved to die, while the shooter — the perpetrator of the crime of murder — is rallied around, given every benefit of the doubt, and often as not, has a huge amount of money raised on their behalf. Finally, there will be an announcement, preceded by much more slandering of the victim in every possible media outlet and open scorn for those who demand justice for the murder, and usually that announcement is that no measures whatsoever will be taken against the officer who did the killing.
Sometimes there will be a riot. This will happen, usually, if the killing was especially egregious, or if the response to it, as was the case in Ferguson, was exceptionally contemptuous or incompetent. (I don’t wish to dwell too much on the specifics of Michael Brown’s case here. Although it was marked by particularly gross excerpts from the working scripts for such extra-judicial murders — the brutal behavior by militarized police against peaceful protesters, the utter lack of transparency of the investigative process, the attempts to paint the victim as a rampaging monster*, the closing of ranks by law enforcement, the racially charged response in the media, the ludicrously implausible testimony of the accused, and, finally, the decision that the killer will not be punished — to pretend it was unique to Ferguson is to ignore that Michael Brown’s death was unusual only in degree and not at all in kind.) So there will be those –some, no doubt, outside agitators looking for a fight, but others unquestionably merely frustrated locals infuriated by yet another slap in the face by authority — who spill out into the thoroughfares, scream their rage at a system that reduces them to nothing, hurl invective at the law that abuses them and kills their children, smash windows and take what they want.
Whenever this happens, the scolds come out. Of course they are largely from the right, people who expect blacks to “act like animals” and express only the mildest surprise when their bigotry appears to be justified; but worse, in a sense, are their allies, people on the left who agree that an injustice has been done but cannot help but fall back into the trap of respectability politics whenever someone does anything but talk. In particular, the name of Martin Luther King Jr. is invoked to plead with blacks not to tear up their communities; “WWMLKD” becomes the watchword as everyone whose only skin in the game is the kind that comes from wagging their fingers ask everyone else to accept with magnanimity another black man dead on the street and no one held responsible. This is an odd conjuration just on its face; MLK, whatever else he was, was a man who was constantly hounded, harassed, and abused by the white authorities, and who was ultimately murdered by a white racist. The subsequent riots over his assassination did much to get the Civil Rights Act passed. He was also, while certainly a man who advocated for pacifism and lawfulness, for non-violent resistance, for not giving in to hate, a man who understood that, in his words, “a riot is the language of the unheard”.
What does that mean? There are many voices being raised today in contempt of those who forestall real progress (what progress?, comes the response) by turning a crucial moment for peace and understanding into a violent spree. There are many more being raised in scorn at those who turn what is alleged to be outrage at racism into a contest to see who can steal the most stuff before the sun rises. But try to understand: here are a people who were born oppressed. They are the literal legacy of a racially selected slave class, and their suffering is something experienced by their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents, going as far back as the first of their (false) name to be forcibly abducted to America. They do not need to be made to understand racism, for they experience it every day of their lives. Most of them are poor, and they survive on scraps; the help they receive from the government that tolerated their repression for centuries is meager, forever in danger of being taken away, and at risk of earning them the resentment of people lucky enough not to need it.
All of them, all these people, know the falsehood of assimilation, the big lie of respectability. They all know men and women of their race and class who studied hard, worked hard, and always strove to keep up with the rules forced on them by their white masters and bosses; some of them escaped their ruined environment and made good, but many died poor with nothing more to show for their attempt to play another man’s game than did the ones who gave themselves over to drink, to drugs, to criminality and despair. They all know people who have been on the receiving end of a cop’s nightstick, who have had a gun pointed in their face for nothing at all; frequently, those people are themselves. Most likely all of them have seen a friend or relative sent to prison on dubious charges, or killed for no reason. For them, the police are antagonists and not protectors; the courts are places of punishment and fear, not justice; the government exists to frustrate them and hold them back, not serve them; and the law is just one more thing they can’t afford to buy.
Every day, they experience some frustration at the hands of America and their fellow Americans that most of us would find intolerable. Their financial situation is always shaky, their education never enough, their moral character always under suspicion, and their own narratives forever in dispute. Any encounter with authority can mean their end. And far too often, they are asked to contend not only with the death of their friends, their family members, their children, but with the presentation of that death as something for which no one will be punished, for which no justice will be done. How many times can one human being be asked to accept such provocation with no response? How many buckets of shit can they be forced to eat without spitting back some in the face of the people doing the feeding?
I am still deeply torn about the efficacy of violence; while I think it is an awful thing that very easily spins out of control, I believe there are times where it is the only thing that will force a positive change. I also don’t believe that it will advance any particular cause to steal shoes and television sets during a riot that started in response to a great injustice; but I also believe that looters understand all too well that for once in their shitty lives, the people in charge are being forced to listen to what they have to say, are being made to pay attention to their frustration and anger. I also believe that they’re taking advantage of an already bad situation to get something that might otherwise be unobtainable to them on the subsistence wages the bosses pay them, and that if a stolen TV is the price they extract for a lifetime of abuse and disrespect and the lives of their children, the country should count itself very lucky indeed. If blacks were suddenly to think like whites, and demand the kind of vengeance white Americans demand for the lives of their lost, they would be happy to trade back those looted sneakers for the mounds of dead that would appear.
Until such time as we are prepared to show true justice to our black citizens, and to cease the outrageous provocations that cause them to occasionally erupt in a fully justified rage, we would do well to remember the meaning of the language of the unheard, and to consider it our great good fortune that looting is the worst they do when we insist on pushing them too far.
*: As if it is acceptable to openly gun down an unarmed man even if he is a criminal.