There’s a whole lot of frustrated people in Baltimore right now. Not without reason either, it’s been a pretty frustrating few weeks. Adding to this frustration has been another group of people who aren’t particularly frustrated but have taken it upon themselves to tell the frustrated people that they have no good reason to be so frustrated. Assuming the role of the exasperated father dealing with an angsty teen, these self-appointed step-dads keep feeding out the same old lines; “Everyone needs to calm down” or “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill”, or my own personal bugbear, “Let’s just agree to disagree”.
How about let’s not agree to disagree. Let’s keep examining this case until its detractors admit there might be a valid concern here and commit to finding a solution. All these appeals to just “drop the whole thing” – however well intentioned they may be – are good for, is the entire conversation. You start seeing a shift from “How do we fix this obvious problem?” to “Is there actually a problem at all?” (I’m looking at you Andrew King!). Needless to say, the people with legitimate grievances find this pattern of response to be more than a little annoying, likely because this particular issue isn’t really up for debate. If whole this many people are collectively angry about a singular single issue then of course we have a problem on our hands even if the only problem is the anger itself.
So what exactly is the big deal then? Why are we all in a tizzy? Short answer: some authoritarians keep doing whatever the hell they want and appear to be exempt from any consequences. I’m emphasising “some” here to avoid the inevitable backlash of “This doesn’t apply to me! They’re just the bad apples!” that tends to follow statements like this. In Baltimore, as it was in Ferguson, the issue revolves around institutional racism and the over-representation of black Americans in police shootings and in the federal prison system. I’ll be talking mostly about this but the core of the issue permeates into other social dialogues too. A sort of proxy to this is ‘rape culture’, the bane of the modern feminist movement. Gone are the now ridiculous archetypes of the Jim Crow apologists or the anti-Suffragettes that seemed so easy to bowl over in hindsight. Racism and sexism never truly went away, they just got a whole lot better at hiding.
So when people start piping up about the Baltimore riots and now inside of a week we have pundits here in New Zealand talking about arming the police force, my spidey-sense starts tingling. Almost immediately we’re seeing these arguments emerging again. I’m quickly going to try and deconstruct three points that I keep running into when it comes to debating the issue of racial discrimination in America:
1. “Black civilians kill more blacks than anyone else/Some of the cops that killed Freddy Gray were black!” OK, we’ll just assume this doesn’t come from a place of deep-seated racism and give you the benefit of the doubt here – surely you’re just being a diligent statistician. So yes, black people kill black people, and yes it’s a tragedy, but the difference is that these murderers then typically go to jail for the rest of their natural lives. Nobody is trying to claim that black people never commit crimes, we’re just wondering why so few people are upset about the seemingly unjust due process that follows some of these murders and the obvious correlation when the murderer happens to be rich/white/a cop/all of the above. An example in recent memory, do you remember that 73-year-old rich, white hobby cop who shot an unarmed black teenager? Did you know he’s currently on vacation in the Bahamas?
2. “Well of course Neo-Nazis will always exist but it’s only a niche issue among a vocal minority” This isn’t about the KKK these days. Sure the average black male no longer has to worry about suddenly being lynched for touching a white woman – quick reminder that there was a time when he did! – he does however have good cause to wonder why that job he applied for never called him back. Instead of being in-your-face, now the problem has become pervasive and insidious in nature. That is, until more overt instances start showing up in places that should be bastions of objective decision making. Take a look at the fairly damning review of the Ferguson police department carried out by the DoJ. Look at the mass resignation of officers on the very same day that Parma, Missouri elected their first black mayor or the city of Kinloch in the same state, where police officers simply barred their new mayor from entering City Hall on her first day at work. These two women aren’t criminals, they’re elected government officials. Which leads to point number three…
3. “These shooting victims aren’t really innocent are they? They were dealing with police after all” Even if that was true it still wouldn’t be relevant, innocent people have run- ins with cops all the time. So why mention that Michael Brown might have a petty theft rap? Teenagers shoplift all the time, there doesn’t yet appear to be a direct correlation between this and assaulting an armed police officer. Yet we always hear in these cases that the officer was attacked first and people seem fine with that answer even in cases like Michael Scott where video evidence completely debunked that version of events (NB: Don’t click this link if you aren’t looking to see a person die today). This isn’t even touching on the fact that, criminal or not, a driving infraction, small-arms charge or cigarette resale racket are not crimes typically punishable by the death sentence, be that by shooting, asphyxiation or having your spine broken in eight different places.
It’s not just some kind of victimhood complex. It’s not about trying to get special treatment. Some people simply have it better because of the colour of their skin. If you don’t believe me then listen to comedian Louis CK telling it how it is.
This bit is funny in that perfectly uncomfortable way because we know it’s true. The most painful part though is that this constant back and forth of denial and then having to re-establish that the problem exists often infuses an element of despair into those fighting for change. For those in the thick of it, it can feel like it won’t ever get better while others looking from the outside can end up with a type of emotional fatigue; we do what comes naturally and start glazing over when the subject comes up because it’s hard to care about everything all the time. Whenever something truly shocking manages to shake people out of this apathy it diminishes the impact of the next incident. People become so used to being appalled it stops feeling so appalling.
So of course these things keep resulting in riots. Why would the people of Baltimore not be angry? They spent four days in peaceful protest before violence eventually broke out and only then did the world start hearing about it. They’re trying to talk reasonably and the only people really listening are the “bleeding-hearts” who are already on their side. Meanwhile, the exact same oppressive groups just continue with their patronising diatribe about how the problem isn’t real until somebody gets fed up and breaks a window. Then suddenly everyone tunes in, horrified onlookers say “Well look at that, they’re so violent! Undoing all that hard work with this nonsense!”. Just remember that people said the exact same thing about slave uprisings and the storming of the Bastille, consensus history is written by the winners after all.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in the light of the Harlem Riots of 1964 that “a riot is the language of the unheard” – to save you looking it up, yes, it was in fact related to a police shooting. It’s a quote that’s been doing the rounds again lately since it’s as relevant today as it was back then. MLK Jr., champion of nonviolent resistance, was later assassinated for the same cause they’re still fighting for now, fifty years later.
All this isn’t to say that rioting is a perfectly acceptable response to an outrage either, but I’m saying we shouldn’t be surprised by it when it happens. When every other means of legal recourse is met with the chirping of crickets; when the concession to the status quo is really just a veiled victory for those currently in a position of power; when a problem is so endemic, so deeply ingrained in culture, that it feels like it might never see a resolution, that’s when even the most unreasonable solution starts to make a whole lot of sense.
It’s not going to stop either, not until the conditions in which these riots are born undergo some pretty major reforms. I wish I had a solution to this, I don’t, I just hope we can stop wasting time arguing about the existence of the problem. If you’ve skipped to the last paragraph hoping for a summary or just want to ruin somebody’s day then go ahead and check out this link: http://killedbypolice.net/. The next fatal police shooting is not a question of “if” but “when” and the next riot is only an extra-judicial killing away. We can take some comfort in knowing that it won’t be in New Zealand because it will happen long before any police armament legislation is even floated in the Beehive, I only hope we have the good sense to then ensure it can never happen to us.