Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A man must have a code

So there you are, sitting in front of your laptop and watching from another continent as the events unfold in Baltimore. The incident is new, the story all too familiar – another black man dead at the hands of the police. After more than a week, the Baltimore PD either do not know or do not care to say how Freddie Gray's spine got 80 percent severed at the neck and his larynx nearly crushed while in police custody.

You're seeing a trend, right? Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford – and those are just the cases we know of. As someone who values social justice and equality, you feel like you have to speak up, what with silence implying consent and all. At the same time, though, you've never been to Baltimore and everything you know about the city comes from "The Wire", so it's not as though you have anything compelling or insightful to add. The last thing you want to do is be yet another privileged white person lecturing the oppressed on appropriate ways to express their displeasure with the status quo. What to do?

One idea would be to listen to those who know what's going on, both in terms of the city and its racial politics. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a former Baltimore resident and one of America's leading voices on race. Coates is rightly dubious about people in positions of power and privilege calling for non-violence after the bell has rung.
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.
Meanwhile, there are plenty more examples of what not to do.

David Simon, one of the creative minds behind "The Wire", wrote up a blog post of his own in the wake of Gray's killing, telling those who took to the streets to "go home" and that they were an affront to Gray's memory. Maybe – more than likely, in fact – this was well-intentioned. Simon has love for Baltimore, after all, having worked at the Baltimore Sun for 12 years.

But Simon wading into the situation can be filed squarely under "not helping". The last thing the people of Baltimore need is a wealthy, middle-aged white man telling them they're doing outrage all wrong. Shutting up, staying in line and putting their trust in politicians and the police has hardly worked out well for them thus far – about as well as the days of peaceful protests following Gray's murder that the media couldn't be bothered to acknowledge.

Another good idea for well-meaning white folks would be to quit invoking Martin Luther King when condemning "looters" and "thugs" who are "ruining their own community". If for no other reason, they should do so because King was a far more nuanced, complicated man than the sanctified, socially acceptable American narrative portrays him. Defending apathy and the status quo is most definitely not what King had in mind, and those who use his words to do so are, at best, being disingenuous.
This blood-lust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized "death toll" that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, an unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target, property.
I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons, who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.
The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro's attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy.
Also – all the grace King showed under the most adverse of conditions? All his patience, eloquence and understanding? It didn't stop him from becoming one of the most hated people in America, and it certainly proved ineffective at stopping the assassin's bullet that ended his life.

A question for the "violence doesn't solve anything" crowd: If that's the case, how do you explain the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Stonewall riots and the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States spends on its military every year?

But back to the matter at hand – what to do? If you're not going to listen to the voices of the oppressed or try to put the goings-on in Baltimore into some context of how it got this way, the very least you could do is show the same indifference to property damage in the affected neighborhood as you did to Grays' death. Unfortunately, a great many people can't even manage that. When supposedly respectable people are willing to come right out and say they value the well-being of a CVS over your life and those of others like you, it's hardly surprising when a marginalized group comes to the conclusion that the system isn't broken – it's working precisely as intended.

Do yourself a favor. Stop for a moment and educate yourself on what's happening. Pay attention to not only what's being said but who's saying it and how they're attempting to control the narrative. All these "isolated incidents" are part of a larger pattern that is too important to ignore, and as someone who believes in justice and equality, you owe it to yourself to stay informed.

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