Can we all get along?
- Rodney King, 1992 Los Angeles riots
I don’t like being cynical.
Especially about the United States of America.
I’m not particularly good at that kind of pessimism, because I’m generally an optimist when it comes to my country.
And I’d like to say I’m surprised.
I’d like to say that I’m shocked.
I’d like to say that I’m surprised and shocked at the violence and the rage in Ferguson, Missouri.
But I’m not.
Of course I’m not.
I’m not surprised or shocked in any way whatsoever.
And I doubt you are either.
Oh we’re appalled, sure. Some of us are disgusted with the behavior of the rioters and the looters and the protesters. And some of us are disgusted with the behavior of the police and the various governments. Like Israel and Gaza, we’ve all got our usual suspects to blame for the conflict, our side to root for and cheer on. But still, whatever side we’re on, we’re all disturbed by the images on our screens.
But we’re not surprised. Are we?
And, you know, that’s the worst part, isn’t it? That, right there. None of us are shocked or surprised. No. This is exactly what we expect in America.
We’re used to it.
I’d like to say I’m outraged, and I am to a certain extent, but not nearly as much as I should be, because the violence, on both sides of the street, cops and protesters, is the norm and not the exception.
I’d have been surprised if it didn’t happen.
This is part and parcel of The Big Lie we Americans tell ourselves. That one about our vaunted exceptionalism. Heh, heh, exceptionalism. Riiiiight. Exceptionalism isn’t even a real word, but then that’s par for the course. Tell me, America, what’s so damned exceptional about fearing the police? About living in fear of authority? What’s exceptional about armed troops in the streets? About armored vehicles and automatic weapons on the corners, in the playgrounds, guarding the schools and the store and the police stations? About blockades and showing your papers? What’s exceptional about being shot down without trial or due process? What exactly is exceptional about dead kids in the street? What’s exceptional about tear gas and rubber bullets – or lead ones for that matter? But then what’s so exceptional about an armed population? About citizens who solve their differences with pistols and assault weapons? What’s exceptional about racism and inequality and disparity and naked hate? What’s exceptional about crime and riot? What’s exceptional about the arrest and detainment of journalists and reporters? What’s exceptional about political division that verges on civil war? These things are all too common around the world.
Come now, tell me, America.
Compare the images from Ferguson, Missouri to Gaza, to Moscow, to Tiananmen Square, to Brazil, to any of a hundred supposedly inferior Third World places we see on our TVs every single day and tell me again about our great American exceptionalism.
If you want to be exceptional, America, then you have to be the exception. Q.E.D.
The events of Ferguson, Missouri over the last week are the norm in America.
And there is nothing particularly new about any of it. From the Whiskey Rebellion to Ferguson, this is how we so often do business in America. Shoot first, ask questions later, let God sort it out.
The violence in Ferguson is the natural consequence of short sighted policies enacted out of fear, out of reflex and political laziness and a lack of national will. It exists because we are too damned lazy to do anything about it except wring our hands and blame somebody else.
The violence in Ferguson is a direct result of our exceptional inability to face the real problems and deal with them as a mature nation, as a civilized society, and as a reasonable people.
Both the initial confrontation and the resulting violence, those things really aren’t surprising in America at all. They happen all of the time. The media is daily full of similar events. We’ve watched this same scene play out over and over. Dead kids. Riots. Looting. Burning buildings. Clouds of gas. Police intimidating and almost machinelike in military gear. Enraged citizens. Bloviating politicians. Posturing pundits. A media more interested in manufacturing news than in reporting it. And, of course, as always, a dimwitted easily led American population dutifully lining up on either side each according to political affiliation like good little clockwork automatons, short on facts, long a rumor and rhetoric, shrieking and manically shaking their fists at each other.
Here’s what will happen in Ferguson: Eventually a handful of rioters will be prosecuted and found guilty of property damage or public disorder or some other equally convenient charge. Soon thereafter the police will be exonerated of any wrong doing, though the chief will talk about how they could maybe do things better and how they’re gonna hire themselves more police of color, because, heh heh, you know. Violence will erupt again, briefly, when it becomes apparent, again, that there really is no justice to be had despite all the promises. But this time the police will be ready and it’ll all peter out into sullen rage and renewed cynical resentment.
The lessons will be reinforced: Black and white, Right and Left, Rich and Poor, and Fuck the Police.
By then, of course, America will have long forgotten about Ferguson, Missouri.
And we will go on as before.
And the problems that cause this will remain. Unaddressed. Unsolved.
My cynicism and the violence in Ferguson, they’re both symptoms of a much larger problem. A problem that’s been simmering and bubbling for decades – hell, centuries – and every once in a while it boils over. We get scalded, sure, and it’s terrible, and we all scream, why? Why doesn’t somebody do something? Why can’t we all just get along?
But we never turn down the heat. We never fix the real problem.
We just put the lid back on and hope it’ll be different next time.
Then we forget about it.
Until the pressure cooker explodes in our face yet again.
Last Saturday, a unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white police officer. The shooting occurred around noon in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, as Brown and a friend walked down a street.
That part is not in dispute.
But nearly every other detail of the event is.
Police say that Brown was shot during a struggle with the arresting officer when he tried to grab the cop’s gun.
Other reports say Brown was killed while kneeling in the street with his hands up.
Of course there’s no video of the event. We’ve got a billion gigabytes of cats and boobs and rednecks doing stupid shit with guns, but somehow the important stuff never gets recorded, does it? All we have is the cop’s word. And the conflicting words of supposed witnesses. Brown, conveniently, isn’t around to defend himself.
Barring the ability to travel through time, we’ll never really know what happened. Not really. Not indisputably. We’ll each believe what we want to believe, whatever best suits our own viewpoint and perception.
But, ultimately, what it comes down to is that an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white cop. Again.
As I said up above, there’s nothing exceptional about this scenario. In America, it happens all too often.
At its core, this is about racism – both the individual and the institutionalized kind.
Yes, it's about race. Yes it is. That is the very crux of the matter.
And don’t try to pretend that it’s not. Race and how we view race in America from our various perspectives always shapes how we perceive incidents like this. Everything, the inevitable violence, the mollifying empty promises, the gravid media analysis, the openly racist comments, the subtly racist comments, the contemptuous dismissal of the race issue, everything that always follows this kind of event depends from this basic fact: In America it’s always about race.
Ignoring that fact or pretending that it’s not so in order to avoid dealing with it is precisely why it continues day in and day out.
When the police refer to the black population as “animals,” on record, to a reporter, it’s about race.
When the population is predominately black and the police force is predominately white, it’s about race.
When the dialog focuses on the dead teenager’s appearance, his clothing, his friends, his school record, his family, his habits and haunts and hangouts, when the media publically debates whether he was a “good son” or a “thug,” it’s about race.
When the media openly speculates about the victim’s possible drug use or criminal history, it’s about race.
When your perception of the dead teen’s guilt or innocence is determined by which political party you belong to or which political pundit you listen to, it’s about race.
When you attempt to justify the death of a black teenager because other black people smashed windows and lit shit on fire in protest, it’s about race.
When you attempt to dismiss another dead black teenager at the hands of the police by quoting statistics about “black on black” crime, it’s about race.
When you’re more outraged about the unconstitutional arrest and intimidation of white reporters than you are about the unconstitutional shooting of a black teenager, it’s about race.
When you’re more concerned about the militarization of white police than you are about the fact that those same police gunned down a black teenager for no apparent reason other than he happened to be walking down a public street while black, just like any of a hundred other black teenagers gunned down by those in authority, it’s about race.
When you suggest with a knowingly raised eyebrow that a black teenager ought to be smart enough to immediately submit to police authority without any trace of resentment or risk summary execution, but you think a bunch of white ranchers are patriots for defying the government and pointing assault rifles at federal agents, it’s about race.
When those things, all of those things, are what determines in the court of public opinion whether or not the dead kid deserved what he got or whether he was a victim, well, folks, then it’s about race.
When a white cop shoots dead an unarmed black teenager, it’s about race.
In America, it’s always about race.
Where were the up-armored police forces when it was the Bundy Ranch? Where was the tear gas? Where were the journalists being dragged away in handcuffs while police confiscated their cameras?
And the real question is where were the bodies of those who refused to submit to lawful authority?
That’s what I asked on Twitter.
The responses were … educational.
Take Dante DaDemonkiller for example:
Ah, paramilitary white secessionists of the Bundy Ranch, armed and organized (heh heh) are good then, right?
I have to wonder what Mr. Demonkiller and those of his Libertarian persuasion would say if Black Panthers, organized and armed with assault weapons, had shown up in Ferguson to defend the black population from white police officers?
Visualize it, visualize your TV screen full of angry defiant black men in paramilitary clothing coming from across the nation, carrying assault rifles, standing shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, facing down the police. Go on, picture it. What do you see? Patriots? Do you see patriots? Is that what you see?
Don’t make me laugh.
Oh certainly, I’m speculating here. Perhaps Dante the Demonkiller would cheer when Nation of Islam soldiers took up arms against the government of Ferguson.
But I suspect not.
Tell me it’s not about race, go ahead, I’ll try to keep a straight face.
Why do I compare the two events?
Why do I invite division?
Oh yeah, it’s me. I’m the one.
It’s not the fact that once again police shot down an unarmed black teenager. Noooooo, that’s not it.
It’s me, I’m the one inviting division by asking why it’s okay for white militia to come from across America and point guns at the government without so much as one single arrest, but an unarmed black kid can’t walk down street in his own neighborhood without risking a death sentence?
Yeah, it’s me.
If you think questioning the status quo is what causes division, there’s nothing much I can say to you.
The events in Ferguson are, to some extent, about the line where rightful protest becomes wrongful riot.
But what gets lost in that discussion is why the protest began in the first place – and the riot, for that matter. When people feel they’ve been treated poorly, when they have no hope of anything better, when their very lives and the lives of those they love can be taken without consequence, then they tend to fight back via any means available. Yes, black people riot in America, true, and so do white people and yellow people and red people and it turns out that violent riot isn’t the exclusive domain of any one race. If you think it is, if you think white people smashing windows and beating the shit out of each other after a sporting event is just “boys being boys” but black people reacting in rage on the streets of Ferguson is how “animals” behave, well, folks, as I said, all you’re doing is proving me right.
Riot is wrong. It’s criminal and illegal and dangerous, counter-productive, and worse, it distracts from the real issues. But here in America, what distinguishes riot from protest is very, very different depending on race, affluence, neighborhood, and political affiliation.
Much of the hand-wringing during this last week is over militarization of America's police force.
Yes, our police forces are growing increasingly mechanized and more heavily armed.
Social media and the news are rife with discussions about government programs to distribute surplus military equipment to police departments. Our screens are saturated with pictures of cops, insectile and menacing in military style armor, scowling impassively at the camera from behind the gaping muzzles of their heavy weapons.
But what’s missing here is the counterbalance.
While it’s true that our police forces have up-armored, so has the civilian population.
We’re armed to the fucking teeth, we Americans.
Or did you miss those Tea Party rallies, the gun shows, all those militias, or those pictures from the Bundy Ranch? And the gangs and the criminals toting semi-auto armor piecing weaponry. Guns fill our stores, our homes, and our streets and a loud vocal well funded fraction of Americans wants more guns, more more more.
And what? You think cops should face that armed populace with their trusty old .38s and a smile? C’mon.
This is nothing new. Back in the 1870’s following the Civil War, former soldiers, some Union but many former Confederates, terrorized the West using surplus military equipment and tactics. You’ve maybe heard of the James Gang, right? The Youngers? The Daltons? The Wild Bunch? Eventually the various police forces and private security companies used military tactics to hunt those criminals down and restore order. In the 1930s, during the heyday of Prohibition, gangsters roamed the streets of America, robbing banks and blazing away with Tommy Guns. You’ve heard of this, right? Seen the movies maybe? Sure, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly. And again, eventually the G-Men got themselves some Thompson submachine guns of their own. And armored cars. And surplus war equipment. And they set up road blocks and id checks and tapped phones. After World War II the same thing happened. And after Vietnam. And here we are.
So, yes, we’re giving surplus military equipment to local police forces. Of course we are. Because otherwise we have to leave it in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or we could let that equipment rust on military bases across the nation because we don’t have the funding or forces to maintain it, or we could dump it over the side of the transport ships into the sea like we did coming home from Vietnam.
Those MRAPs and armored vehicles cost us, you and me, a very large fortune – and that’s a bill we and our children are going to be paying on for a very long time. Those machines were designed for a specific role in a particular conflict and they came too late to be of much use. So what the hell do we do with them? We do what we always do, we hand them out in some forlorn hope of recouping maybe just a bit of the massive cost of war. This is nothing new. Our national guard armories are full of WWII field pieces, and Korean war jeeps, and Vietnam era helicopters.
And so the national guard and the police find themselves with obsolete armored trucks that are in large part prohibitively expensive to operate and not really very useful for much of anything other than starting conspiracy theories.
The body armor and the assault rifles? Well, hell, folks when you’re facing militia in body armor and armed with assault rifles, what the fuck do you expect? That’s what happens with escalation, one side up-armors, so the other side up-armors, so the first side up-armors more, which means the other side has … well, you get the idea.
Which, inevitably leads to the “well, yeah, but see, the [citizens/government] started it! We’ve got to react, man, got to! We can’t let the [citizens/government] get the upper hand! Fascists! Nazis! Mobs! Revolution! Blah blah blah, round and round, in a perfect case of the self-licking ice cream cone.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t be discussing the limits of law enforcement and its role in our communities? No, of course not. Obviously we need to talk about it, and take action, and watch closely. Of course. But that isn’t the point here and that discussion is part of the larger conversation we should be having.
There’s no damned point in patching up law enforcement if the laws and the society they support aren’t just and equal to begin with.
And now we’ve drifted far, far from the real issue.
The violence in Ferguson, and in Sanford, and Los Angeles, and Watts, and Selma, wasn’t caused by militarization of the police force. That was most certainly a contributing factor, but it’s not the cause.
The violence in Ferguson wasn’t caused by the current occupant of the White House, or the previous one for that matter. Nor was it caused by illegal immigrants, or Benghazi, or the IRS, or NSA, or 911, or UFOs.
The violence in Ferguson sure wasn’t sparked by the arrest of white reporters. It wasn’t caused by the media or the pundits or social media, though all of those things certainly fanned the flames.
The violence in Ferguson wasn’t caused by liberals. It wasn’t caused by conservatives. It wasn’t caused by republicans or democrats or the goddamned Nazis.
It wasn’t caused by any of those things. Those things are side effects.
Allowing ourselves to be distracted by side effects blinds us to the real causes and therefore to actual solutions.
The violence in Ferguson, Missouri is about race.
Everything that’s happened begins from that simple point.
And until we deal with that, that right there and all the myriad complex problems that depend from it, the centuries of social inequality, the lack of justice, the us and them mentality, the poverty, the drugs, the guns, the politics, the lost potential and opportunity, and especially the rage, until we face that head on and actually do something about it in a fair and reasoned manner, then scenes like Ferguson will continue to play out on the evening news.
I don’t like being cynical.
Especially about the United States of America.
I think we’re better than this.
I think we can be exceptional.
But I’m not holding my breath at this point.