Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Time to be Unpopular: on riots and Ferguson

it's a really good thing I didn't get elected, because I'd talk about issues like Ferguson and protests, and I'd get my own constituents all upset.

Here's the idiotic first paragraph of the WNJ's "editorial" on the subject:
Ripples from the Michael Brown tragedy continue to spread doubts about our justice system across the nation. An immediate harm comes from the rioting and violence that erupted after the Missouri grand jury's decision was announced. Rioting is never justified. In fact, it threatens to make matters worse. It shifts attention from the tragedy of a young man's death and from the facts of what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.
Why would I call this pablum "idiotic"?

Three reasons:

1) Rioting is never justified.  In fact, it threatens to make matters worse.  This is the pious platitude that always grates on my nerves, particularly right after I teach the course in American history wherein our textbook authors encourage teachers to venerate the Founding Fathers who participated in the Stamp Act Riots, the riots after the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party ... These same "patriotic" interpreters of American history then proceed to either soft peddle, condemn, or ignore the Whiskey Rebellion, Shays' Rebellion, the Dorrite Rebellion in New Jersey, the Renter's Rebellion in New York's Albany River Valley, Nat Turner's Rebellion, the Landry Plantation insurrection, "Beecher's Bibles" in Kansas, the John Brown raid, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877,
and so on and so forth ...

We are, ironically, a country birthed upon the notion that political violence in the face of rank oppression IS justified after you've suffered and tried for years.  That's the "patriotic" message from the period 1763-1783, at any rate.

The real message is that after the Founding Fathers stopped being rebels and started being The Establishment, the idea of political violence (except as studied when they did it, in the past) as an acceptable response to oppression went right out the window and became downright anarchistic and treasonous.  It threatens to make matters worse.  Really?  For whom?

Go ahead, get hacked off, but he's
a militiaman bearing arms ...
A second unlovely fact:  my friends (and I do have them, I am not speaking rhetorically here) in the 9-12, "Liberty," and "Tea Party" movements are quick to employ the "pry my guns from my cold dead hand" and "the 2nd Amendment is intended to provide the means of resistance against government tyranny" and to praise all those armed militiamen etc. who headed out to the Bundy Ranch and drew a bead from snipers' positions on Federal marshals ...  But people rioting and looting (no, I'm not about to deny that's happening) in Ferguson cannot have principles, cannot be fighting oppression, cannot be patriotic because, because, because ... Well, let's see?

2) It shifts attention from the tragedy of a young man's death and from the facts of what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.  Wake the f**k up, WNJ!  It was NEVER actually about what happened in August in Ferguson, Missouri.  Michael Brown's death was what is called a catalyst.  If there had not been years upon years upon decades of it being acceptable for law enforcement to treat African-American lives as worth less than the lives of middle-class white people, the death of Michael Brown would have been an isolated incident.  We could all wait for "the facts" to come out. We could all tell everybody to be calm.  The blunt reality of Ferguson is that the death of Michael Brown was not a first straw, or a second straw, or even a 249th straw, but (quite possibly) the last straw.

What do Americans do when they become viscerally convinced that the system does not give a flying f**k at a rolling doughnut about them, won't protect them, will kill them, and will not even allow them to be part of the political process to change things?

If they are named RAMBO they fight back and people cheer in the movie theaters.  (How much "collateral damage" do you figure Sly did to that town, with half-drunk theater-goers all fantasizing about being enough of a bad-ass to do it themselves if the cops ever came for them?)

If they are black and live in Ferguson they are savages, animals, barbarians and, yes, niggers, who are simply showing how uncivilized they are.  They should probably first be fenced in ("Escape from New York:  African-America Edition") and then ... no, I'm not going to say it, but there are people out there who will and who are and who have said it.

3) Then there's this:  Ripples from the Michael Brown tragedy continue to spread doubts about our justice system across the nation. "Doubts"?  You gotta be kidding me.  Stand in front of a class of students aged 18-23 at DSU and ask the question about how many of them have lost a loved one to law enforcement, how many have personally been threatened or harassed by the police--listen to it year and and year out and discover ...

... they don't live in the same America that you and I think we inhabit.

(At least 2-3 times a year I will have a student on scholarship come tell me s/he have to miss class for a week to go home to NJ, NY, DC, or other locations to bury a relative who has been shot--as much as 50% of the time by law enforcement.)

It's easy, ridiculously, reflexively easy to condemn rioters and looters, to draw false moral equivalences ("nobody ever gets upset when a black thug kills a white teenager"), or to reflexively "come to the defense" of "our" police officers.

"Violence never solves anything!" scream the people whose tax dollars go, hundreds of billions at a time, to kill people all over the world for the crime of being in proximity to people our government doesn't like.

Here's the interesting part of this all:  about six weeks into the Occupy protests I remember going to an event at UD campus and meeting several of the active Wilmington Occupiers.  One of them (I will leave him nameless), said quietly that he didn't think the movement would ever go anywhere or change anything unless--ultimately--the Occupiers were willing to engage in some violence, either to protect themselves, provoke a real confrontation with law enforcement, or destroy some of the property of the 1%.  His exact quote was:  "Until somebody is willing to break something, nobody is going to take us seriously.  Even Martin Luther King got something broken--his own people's heads."

There's a political logic there that goes against the feel-good bland crap we've all been sold for many many years, and it leads to an unlovely truth:

If nobody in Ferguson had rioted, the death of Michael Brown would not today be a national story.  Because Michael Brown alive--like John Brown in 1860--was very probably an unlikeable man who most of us wouldn't want to be around.  Michael Brown dead--on the other hand--might become the lever that changes history in ways (good or bad) that we cannot yet imagine.

But I'm through tolerating "riot-shaming" for the African-Americans in Ferguson, and closing ranks behind a law enforcement system who wants this whole case to be nothing but a speed bump to a full-scale police state wherein we will all be "safe" just as long as we do exactly what the people with guns and badges tell us to do.


  1. You pegged right on the money Steve. Than you.

  2. Throughout modern history, there has never been a successful massive non-violent movement for social justice that was not backed-up by a credible and certain threat of violence against the status quo power structure. The includes both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

    Sadly, there are many examples where non-violent movements have failed when they were not backed-up by a credible and certain threat of violence when the non-violent leadership failed.

  3. Extremely well said. Perfect. It is fascinating how those who valorize the riots and lawlessness of those who brought about the American revoltion leap inexplicably to the opposite position regarding any riots that signify something is wrong with the USA now. For all their vaunted patriotism, I can't help but think that their attitude more closely resembles the pro British loyalists back then.

  4. This! 1000x this! Great blogging, Steve.