Black Lives Matter more than CVS laundry detergent

Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015
Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015

So I was honored to be interviewed at the San Diego march in solidarity with Baltimore and the fight against police violence (story with full video here). About 200 people came out to fill the streets and create urgency- black lives do matter, and justice for the living and the dead will come from ordinary people seizing the initiative and finding their own power.

My friend and colleague in Socialist Alternative, Bryan Kim, was also interviewed by Channel 8, and we complemented each other well. Local news incorporated a lot of voices in this event- black, brown, and white, both the organizers and regular marchers.

This one instance gave me the chance to collect my thoughts on Freddie Gray, the events in Baltimore, and the larger epidemic of police violence against unarmed people of color that has been steadily snowballing since last year. Unlike many others pouring their hearts and minds out on Twitter, Facebook, and to their friends and colleagues, I never created a long, detailed response.

Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.
Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.

The one thought I’d like to throw out comes from my own background and belief in nonviolent struggle as the way to enact social and political change. Baltimore has presented a complicated picture for people with this set of views, and the media and institutional politics has tried to put people into what I’d dub “the nonviolent trap.”

Essentially, the media performed a litmus test on everyone who claimed to be nonviolent- either denounce the looting and conflict wholesale, or be called a hypocrite. My tiny soundbite was part of the counter- if we are to talk about violence in these protests, we need to include the violence put on communities by the police and the state. The trial was about one form of violence while ignoring the other, or at the very least requiring a clear denunciation before anything else can be discussed.

Looting a CVS and killing someone like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown are not the same kind of force. They have been made equivalent by some public figures, and often shown side-by-side as equal in media reports. Capital and humans are fundamentally different. The destruction of property through riot action or looting can cause real harm- often in urban unrest the businesses who end up taking damage are owned by people of color. But a damaged storefront can be rebuilt. In the case of something like a CVS, there is no intangible value to what was held within. People are not replaceable. I find looting to be a concern, though it is a product of structural injustice rather than simple greed. But as a nonviolent struggle advocate, I think we need to see conflict as a chain of events, and avoid the quick-take of what happened today. Denouncing only the people of color who have faced economic and social deterioration is a de facto censoring of the oppressed, and in the process helps the elites who have done so much harm.

The best speech you may never have heard by Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Beyond Vietnam” and given in 1967, has a bit I really like that I used as my basis when I was interviewed. It think it strikes at the root.

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (source)

Abolitionist spirit: the role of outside agitators

An anecdote that may help stir your thoughts about what has been happening in Ferguson:

Saturday afternoon I attended a political meeting, held weekly. The planned roundtable was scrapped. M., the original presenter, instead traced the history that has led to Ferguson. It was an incredible journey, encompassing mob violence, Jim Crow, the Red Summer of 1919, deindustralization. On first glance it was incredible that our presenter could have put this together on short notice. However, as a black woman, her life has been affected deeply by these historical tendrils. White Americans have their own historical path that is second nature, but it’s radically different.

Subsequent discussion had many different threads, but the recurring one was the presence of “outside agitators” in Ferguson. I referenced an article published in Jacobin about the origin of the term, going back to how it was used to describe the Freedom Riders and those northerners who came to register voters and protest segregation.

There were some splits in opinion. I simply pointed out that a race-class struggle should not be confined to a small Missouri town, where the authorities have state and federal backing but the protestors do not. Our political group debated the usefulness and place of white anarchists, and groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who have been operating during the unrest. Do you criticize the moral stances of these groups, or just disagree about their tactics?

After a long back-and-forth among the members, M. got to close the discussion. What she said surprised me, and her point was powerfully made. This was a conviction.

Looking at the history of black people in the United States, one could say that outside agitators have been crucial to progress and freedom. In fact, she said that they were “the best thing to happen to black people.”

Oldest known portrait of John Brown, 1846 or 1847.

By far, the most deified group of Americans are the Founding Fathers. American mythology paints them as selfless, defenders of abstract ideas and promoters of radical concepts of freedom and equality.

Of course, that’s not true, and there are plenty of selfish reasons that these strata of people had for revolution. What M. said is that a much better embodiment of that commitment were the abolitionists in that period of 1820 to after the Civil War.

They too had selfish reasons for their actions, but when one looks at someone like Garrison or John Brown, you see the outside agitator in its full form. As Professor David Blight of Yale bluntly puts in in his (freely available) course on the Civil War era, John Brown was a white person who killed whites to free black slaves. The Founding Fathers never killed anyone to free blacks, but rather give them more personal power over slave policy. That has happened again and again, and let’s not just paint it as whites taking pity on blacks. It was people of all races, but outsiders none the less- be it a class difference, a political difference, or jut a geographic difference. Brown, for all his atrocities and personal faults, most likely accelerated the end of slavery. He agitated. He was an outsider. Someones you need a person to stir the pot.

Of course, M.’s opinion is her own, and that doesn’t mean it’s a popular one. The example of abolitionists is electrifying for me. It is a unique way of defending the outside agitator.

Ferguson: will This Time Be Different?

If you follow a good media Twitter like Danny Wicentowski you’ll know that things have escalated since the death of Michael Brown in St. Louis. Protests have intensified, as people feel that the institutions in this crime are going to do their historical dance of talk but no action.

Alderman Antonio French has been arrested, as have several journalists. Once again we see police that are increasingly indistinguishable from military units. What is depressing to think of is how any abuse doled out by these riot police will be subject to the same inadequate review and regulation as the shooting of Brown.

I have great, deep faith of activists and those that want to see justice done, but this is against the inertia of so many past crimes that have gone unpunished. One can work, and hope that This Time Will Be Different.

“I’m not racist…”

Reading through a history of film textbook, the third chapter included something that pops up quite often among white people- and it’s a terrible and invalid excuse when it’s trotted out.

The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith, is as a historical marker important. Prior cinema tended to be short- less than half an hour, and had a fairly inert camera. Birth introduced film to the scale, length, and cinematography that would define the next hundred years. Children are taught “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” but not shown the Disney film it came from (Song of the South, here’s the song complete with offensive Uncle Tom character). Similarly, Birth is given much space within the book, but would be very difficult to watch. The pro-Ku Klux Klan message and cringe-inducing black caricatures  bury it in cinematic history.

Griffith didn’t understand the hostile reaction to what he had made. It was a huge financial success, yet met an avalanche of criticism from the large amount of the American public that didn’t buy into the Lost Cause mythos. He didn’t think see it as racist, and sunk a huge amount of money into Intolerance, a movie created solely to show how not-racist he was.

It reminds me of the defense made from many people in many places. The UK Independence Party has several recent examples- members say racist things, then dispute that they are racist, or that they don’t “understand” how people would be offended. It’s grouped with a faux-apology- “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” and its ilk.

White people, especially white men, seem to think this sort of dodge is acceptable. Being ignorant of how racism affects other people isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make one’s actions not-racist. Too often those who make a racist comment attempt to explain and justify it. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding. But sometimes it’s a privileged person ignoring public opinion. What people say or what they write and create can be deeply offensive. Just because there isn’t a rigid, natural structure to recognize and understand hate speech doesn’t mean it’s excusable.It’s better to educate yourself out of ignorance than create a fortress and defend the indefensible to the grave.

The truth is far wider than an individual’s perception. Personally each year I learn new things from new people- what offends them, and where does it come from? I don’t show up thinking I know everything about society. If I did, my ignorance would be all the more inexcusable.

Within ochre skin

The story of all people

is sealed within ochre skin.

Those pale, with skin of soft moonlight

drive the histories published

in great volumes –

ruling with the sword and lance,

 and with time more subtle instruments,

now grand but incorporeal.

But all justice, mercy.

peace, and solidarity

is bound with ochre skin.

And the stories they contain are the

most essential.

Hate is societal, not genetic

Hate is societal, not genetic

This photo was taken at a Klan rally on September 5th, 1992 in the town of Gainsville, Georgia on September. The rally was the usual fare for modern-day white supremacists- a few people trying to rile the town up, a huge amount of police, and the media looking for a story.

Todd Robertson took the photo, as the backup photographer for the local daily. It was a late addition to section B of the paper, and though it was never published widely, it has endured. The Southern Poverty Law Center resurrected it for a booklet about combating hate, and it’s finally gained currency on the internet. Though it will never the kind of legacy that MLK pulling a burning cross out of his lawn or other iconic photos of the 1960s, it has a clear and immediate visual message.

The young boy, who was “Josh” according to his mother, embodies how hate is passed down through generations of social reinforcement, not a “bigotry gene” or such. A young child is not a racist nor a chauvinist. They are not a Christian nor an atheist nor a Muslim. They are not libertarians nor paleo-conservatives nor communists. These identifiers are formed over the course of a lifetime- by parents, the community, the church, the school. Some are raised by Klan members, others by tolerant and open-minded individuals. The path to being accepting and embracing diversity is not the same for everyone. While some people are raised and educated in a way that makes such behavior natural and easy, others have to break through years of lies and vitriol.

The journey is a park stroll, or a marathon. And where you start is just chance.

A path forged in blood and struggle

A path forged in blood and struggle

As the nation is meditating on the Voting Rights Act, and what the status of racial discrimination is in the United States it’s important to note that the original efforts to register blacks in the Deep South had a body count. People died to empower others. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney are only the most famous- the fights before, during, and after racial integration were violent and their effects long-lasting.

Regardless of whether the VRA is needed in the present, it should be considered in context with the past.

(courtesy of the civil rights era digitizing effort of the University of Southern Mississippi)