Category Archives: Non-violence
Before I start, I want to remind you that what I try to do in many of my posts is give you notes on reading I think is important. This way, if you don’t have the time (or money) to get the article or book I’m recommending, you can read my notes and get the gist, including the most significant — and beautiful — quotes. In this case, the notes are long and dense, but so is the book — We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2016) by Jeff Chang — the best picture of our racial crisis I’ve seen recently. Our race problem is our key problem. If we don’t solve it, we’ll never have anything good. Economic inequality, jobs, health care, climate change, and a militaristic foreign policy are important, too, but they can only be addressed together, by all of us, undivided by race, religion, gender, or politics. As long as we’re racially divided, we can be politically manipulated by demagogues like Trump. Okay — lecture over. Here are the notes…
Beginning with what he calls the “crisis cycle,” Chang says, “We’re living in serious times. Since 2012, the names of the fallen – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the list never seems to cease – have catalyzed collective outrage and grief. In the waning years of a Black presidency, we saw a proliferation of images of Black people killed in the streets and the rise of a national justice movement to affirm that Black lives matter. Young people who grew up exemplars of post-1965 American diversity while attending schools that were dramatically resegregating have taken to the streets and the university quads to march against their invisibility and demand attention to questions of equity. Even the machines of our culture industries, which for the past twenty years have tried to assure us that our rainbow nation is a happy one, have found their gears ground down by popular protests led by people of color against their lack of access, representation, and power. After the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment has come to seem desperately naïve. Meanwhile, Donald Trump focuses the anxieties loosed by white vulnerability onto the bodies of migrants, Muslims, Blacks, women, and all the others who don’t deserve the gift of America. It seems clearer than ever that we as a nation are caught in a bad loop of history – from 1965 to 1992 to now. Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. In turn, the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial. The cycle turns next toward exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we find ourselves back in crisis.
Inequity and injustice aren’t abstract things – they impact real people. In terms of poverty, annual income, wealth, health, housing, schooling, and incarceration, persistent gaps separate whites from Black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations. And in the specific case of premature death –defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as death among persons under the age of 75 – the death rate of Blacks is over 50% higher than that of whites, and higher than that of all other major ethnic groups, except some American Indian cohorts. Only a small part of this statistic is attributable to homicide and that favorite digression of conservative pundits, ‘Black-on-Black violence.’ Rather, it’s the result of large disparities in access to quality food; regular and preventative health care; and diseases such as cancer, stroke, and HIV. A shockingly large portion is the result of an African American infant mortality rate more than double that of white Americans, triple that of Swiss citizens, and five times that of Japanese citizens. Racism kills.
Extrajudicial police shootings have been the organizing spark of the Movement for Black Lives. But the facts of inequality and death hang over us all like a toxic haze. In the United States, segregation and resegregation happen through the disappearing of the signs of inequality. Whether through white flight, the optics of diversity, or metaphorical and actual wall building, the privileged spare themselves the sight of disparity, and foreclose the possibility of empathy and transformation. Now this haze has blown into white America as well. More white Americans in their 40s and 50s, particularly those with lower levels of educational attainment, are dying prematurely. This reversal of fortune for middle-aged whites is unprecedented in American history and unique among the wealthy nations. When examining the causes, researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton found significant rises in painkiller abuse, liver disease, suicides, and drug overdoses. ‘Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on U.S. workers,’ they wrote, calling middle-aged whites a lost generation whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.’
A turn in fortune should move us toward empathy and solidarity. When a natural disaster tears apart a village, the human tendency is for one neighbor to help another, regardless of whatever feelings they may have had for one another before the catastrophe. But we live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy. David Graeber proposes that their demagoguery isn’t different from schoolyard bullying, ‘a kind of elementary structure of human domination.’ Trump, the silver spoon–fed child who as a second grader punched his music teacher in the eye, aspired ‘to be the toughest kid in the neighborhood.’ Graeber: ‘When researchers question children on why they don’t intervene to protect the bullied, a minority say they felt the victim got what he or she deserved, but the majority say they didn’t like what happened, and certainly didn’t much like the bully, but decided that getting involved might mean ending up on the receiving end of the same treatment.’ Reactionaries don’t need to sustain the belief or the anger of the fearful; they need only the silence and the complicity of the masses. The culture wars continue through justificatory innocence and willed inaction, allowing the structures that produce inequality and segregation to persist. They even generate the ideas that adapt those structures to better enforce racialized exclusion. One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we’re caught in: crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis. There are fires. There are calls for action, then a bullying politics of fear. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry someone like Donald Trump proffers, they’re demobilized by denial (‘there is no problem’) or justification (‘there’s a problem but I can’t solve it’). And then we find ourselves in another crisis. If we don’t address inequality and inequity now, we’ll continue to be drawn back into the cycle.
Trump’s supporters believe that when demonstrators pour into the streets to protest police killings of Blacks, they’re actually supporting the killing of cops. ‘Black lives matter’ isn’t a call to end state violence against Blacks, and in that way to end state violence against all – it’s hatred of whites, a premonition of racial apocalypse.”
Chang goes on to discusse the way white individuals and institutions create the appearance of racial diversity while continuing to discriminate. He also breaks down the term “affirmative action,” noting that it was first used during the New Deal, which created remedies for workers who had been discriminated against as a class, rather than racially. It wasn’t until the 1960s, “during a period of an emerging civil rights consensus, that African Americans and other underrepresented minorities who’d suffered discrimination were finally deemed worthy of consideration as a protected class. Through a series of executive orders issued first by President Kennedy and then by President Johnson, and later in the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which enjoyed the support of 70% of the country), the government response to racial justice movements took shape, first through a colorblind principle of nondiscrimination and then in the use of affirmative action as a color-conscious weapon to reverse racial discrimination and segregation. In a June 4, 1965, commencement speech at Howard University, President Johnson articulated the shift: ‘Freedom isn’t enough. You don’t wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: “Now you’re free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.” You don’t take the chains off a person who’s been hobbled by them for years, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You’re free to compete with the others,” and justly believe you’ve been fair. It isn’t enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through them.’
Beginning in the early 1960s, elite universities – including Michigan, Harvard, Cornell, and UCLA, all historically white institutions whose student-of-color populations were negligibly small – adopted affirmative action programs. At many of these campuses, students of color demanded proportional representation, but administrators opted for more gradualist programs, taking on the language of goals, and timetables. Over the next three decades, educational, governmental, and corporate institutions across the country developed and expanded affirmative action plans to open doors for Blacks and other minorities.” All this was changed in 1978, however, with the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision. “Plaintiff Allan Bakke wanted to attend the University of California at Davis medical program, which reserved sixteen of its 100 slots annually for disadvantaged students via a special admissions program. Twice, the med school rejected Bakke. The California Supreme Court ruled six to one that the special admissions program was a quota system and was unconstitutional. It also held that any consideration of race in admissions was unconstitutional.” With the court split down the middle, Justice Lewis Powell Jr. proposed to cut the baby in half, finding the special admissions program unconstitutional but allowing that the university – and, in turn, the government – had a compelling interest in seeking diversity for the benefit of the colleges and universities and for the larger society, but not as reparations or for leveling the playing field. With Powell’s decision, diversity displaced equity as the only viable defense of programs meant to address underrepresentation. In 1979, just after the Bakke case was decided, 67% of whites supported affirmative action. Now Powell had opened the door for opponents to attack it as harmful to whites. To achieve diversity, he seemed to argue, you didn’t need quotas, you just needed optics.
In the coming years, opponents of affirmative action, whether conservative or liberal, broadened their attack on all manner of attempts to achieve racial and cultural equity – in jobs, government contracts, fair housing, bank loans, executive leadership, even university canons and desegregated schools – as antiwhite. Those who study segregation now mark 1989 as the peak year of public school desegregation. That year, in City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson Company, Justice
Sandra Day O’Connor reiterated that the court was loath to weigh claims of past discrimination. So it would continue in a long series of cases and new laws that limited the scope of equity programs and accelerated the undoing of desegregation. Resegregation relied on the restoration of racial innocence, which absolved generations of their responsibility while allowing inequality to evolve and intensify.”
Next, Chang describes protests against discrimination and racial violence on college campuses, highlighting student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike at the University of Missouri in November of 2015 to force President Tim Wolfe to resign, which succeeded because the football team was prepared to boycott games to support it. “In all, during the 2015–16 school year, nearly 100 universities and colleges received lists of demands from students demonstrating for racial equity.” When the students were accused of being overly “politically correct,” Jelani Cobb pointed out that “the free speech diversion” was meant to shut down the intended discussion. “The legal scholar Mari Matsuda also reminds us that racial attacks and hate speech, as well as the ‘anti-PC’ defense of them, are proof that free speech is not a neutral good equally available to all. ‘Tolerance of hate speech isn’t tolerance borne by the community at large – it’s a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay.’ On the other hand, protest, when it comes from those at the bottom, can often be a profound proposition about how to make the world better for all. That’s the difference between the mob whipped into a frenzy by a demagogue and protesters demanding that institutions address harmful conditions that negate their very existence. One excludes, the other raises up.
I’ve written elsewhere that while we’re engaged in the culture wars, the most difficult thing to do is keep the “race conversation” going, because its polarizing modalities are better at teaching us what not to say to each other than what to say, better at closing off conversation than starting it. What I’m proposing is a way to recognize and approach the accumulation and reaccumulation of inequity, which happens along a spectrum from unintended offense to racial violence. Those whose first response to protest is to lecture demonstrators about how students ought to protest signal an utter disdain for the why of the protest. Campuses, like the country itself, are seeing rising levels of hate and intolerance, the tragic result of over a quarter century of intensifying racial inequality and resegregation and a silence over these selfsame issues. In a 1992 article, Sylvia Hurtado, a Chicana University of Michigan professor, wrote that racial conflict had become ‘commonplace on American college campuses throughout the 1980s. In 1988 and 1989 alone, more than 100 college campuses reported incidents of racial/ethnic harassment and violence.’ Student protests became so widespread that they forced administrations to react. Research universities, especially the flagship public schools, led the way in expanding multicultural and diversity programs. But a backlash formed among both liberals and conservatives, and the culture warriors’ objections cowed universities into moving away from actively addressing campus climate and racial equity.
Beginning in the 2000s, when universities should have been turning to enlightened leadership ready to tackle the challenges of a colorizing nation, they instead sought out ruthless corporate types who specialized in market positioning and cost-cutting. Nearly two decades later, universities continued to function under an austerity mind-set that focused on financial goals over educational missions. During this period, ethnic studies programs and multicultural student services across the country were frozen or slashed. Staff and faculty of color who survived told stories behind closed doors about being the last to be hired, the first to be photographed for the brochures, and the first to be cut. Despite more and more diverse applicants, universities continued to admit fewer Black and brown students and provided them with less support. In 2012, a system-wide survey of over 100,000 students, staff, and faculty by the University of California found that one in four respondents ‘had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct’ on campus.’ The most competitive Black and Latino students declined admission offers at places where affirmative action had been gutted, like the University of California and University of Michigan, and instead gathered at historically Black colleges and universities and private, elite universities that promised community and support.
The young may not speak in the language we’re accustomed to hearing. We may think them too imprecise or cavalier in their rage. But if we miss their point – for which they’ve been willing to sacrifice everything – we’ll undoubtedly be hearing it again from the next generation.”
Chang goes on to address “cultural equity,” pointing out that “culture, like food, sustains us, molding us and shaping our relations with each other. An inequitable culture is one in which people don’t have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity, making the creation of a more just society less likely. Cultural equity isn’t just about representation. It’s also about access and power. Who has access to the means of production of culture? Who has the power to shape it? By the end of the 20th century most developed countries had established modern structures to support the production of culture. Funding for the arts came through four primary sectors: the state, the culture industry, philanthropy, and the community. Before the Cold War, the United States led the world in cultural policy. The New Deal supported art and the artists who created the enduring images, stories, and songs of the ‘American century.’ Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothea Lange, Orson Welles, Charles White, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright were all beneficiaries. These artists exposed inequality in America, and forged a new national narrative that included values of inclusion and resilience against hardship and despair. The anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist campaigns brought an end to this period of rich expression.
In 1965, as an answer to Soviet soft power, President Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEA played a key role in funding the growth of fledgling institutions that made up the arts uprisings of the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak, it controlled the equivalent of half a billion 2015 dollars annually, and ecosystems of arts organizations from Appalachia to Los Angeles produced a generation of artists of color and women, queer, and avant-garde artists who would popularize multiculturalist ideas. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, right-wing moralists vowed to defund the NEA and NEH. By the mid-90s, they’d succeeded in forcing many arts organizations to close shop. Inequality in the American arts world now is more severe than even income inequality. Of every foundation dollar given in the United States, only eleven cents goes to the arts. Five and a half cents goes to arts organizations with budgets of more than five million dollars. One cent goes to arts organizations serving underrepresented communities, and less than half a cent goes to arts organizations that produce work related to social justice. Eighty-seven percent of American museum leaders, curators, conservators, and educators are white; more than half of security and facilities workers are nonwhite.
Arts produced by diverse groups of people are socially valuable because they offer us ideas, technologies, and values that help us figure out how to live together. A vital, equitable culture offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity – at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture isn’t a commodity – it’s society. We’re far from that ideal.”
In the next section of the book, Chang describes how resegregation has taken place. Though it seems to me that residential segregation has always been with us, I think his point is that we think progress has been made, and the new forms of segregation are less visible. In San Francisco, Chang says, high rents have pushed Blacks first to Oakland and then, as Oakland “became the hottest market in the country,” to outlying towns. “The same pattern has held all across the country.” Similarly, “school segregation rates have been surging back toward Brown v. Board of Education levels, especially since the turn of the millennium. From the 2000–01 to the 2013–14 school years, the number of public K-12 schools classified as high poverty and/or predominantly Black or Latino has more than doubled.
White flight is moving in two directions: to the exurban edge of big-box retail and brand-new ‘traditional’ homes, and back to the city. Americans are sorting themselves into new geographic alignments that will define political polarization in the coming decades. Cities are becoming wealthier and whiter. Aging suburbs are becoming poorer and darker, and being abandoned, policed, and contained the way communities of color in inner cities were for the past century. Nationally, we’re witnessing a process that’s reproducing racial inequality on a vast level. This matters, because where you live plays a significant role in the quality of food, education, and health care available to you and your ability to get a job, buy a home, and build wealth.
Ferguson, Missouri, a tiny north St. Louis County suburb of 21,000, is one of the places to which many Blacks displaced from St. Louis went, its story not unlike many other colorized suburbs. It was once a ‘sundown town’ where Blacks weren’t allowed after dark. Then between 1970 and 2010, it went from 1% to 67% Black. The story of how that came to be reveals much about the America that’s been hidden, and is central to understanding the conditions we face now.
The rise of the city of St. Louis had been premised on the idea that racial segregation was key to rising property values. The rise of suburban St. Louis County rested on the same logic. Of 400,000 Federal Housing Administration mortgages guaranteed in greater St. Louis between 1962 and 1967, only 3% of city loans and less than 1% of county loans were given to African American families. (In this regard, St. Louis was merely at the national average.) Government policies thus supported white mobility and suburban growth. They also enforced Black containment and accelerated urban decline. Federal public housing assistance incentivized the city to push the Black poor into public housing downtown, as prospective Black homeowners continued to face steering practices that maintained a cordon around the black ghetto. Then city officials decided to clear the ‘blight,’ displacing tens of thousands of African Americans. At the same time, new industry, housing, and shopping popped up along the freshly paved interstate highways out of the city. Ferguson was a ‘destination town’ for whites then, like 90 similar municipalities incorporated in St. Louis County.
During the 1990s and 2000s, many big cities actively depopulated themselves of people of color and the poor. They moved first to destroy the major housing projects. City leaders wanted to replace decaying low-income housing with mixed-income housing. The idea was sound: economic integration would give impoverished residents better opportunities to succeed, and establish more diverse, stable communities. But its execution accelerated resegregation. At the same time, development-minded city leaders pushed their police departments to focus on low-level ‘quality of life’ crimes – urban policing driven by a sweep mentality, in which the poor, the jobless, the homeless and near-homeless, immigrants, and youths of color are criminalized, harassed, and arrested in their own neighborhoods.
In 2010, even low-income suburban whites lived in neighborhoods that were more than 69% white, and Blacks and Latinos were 40% more likely to live in more impoverished suburbs than whites. Put another way, poor people of color tended to live in suburbs that were less white and more impoverished, while poor whites tended to live in suburbs that were more white and less impoverished. By 2014, St. Louis County north of St. Louis was more than 70% white and less than 24% Black. One in four African Americans lived below the poverty line, more than double the ratio of whites. Power in most of these municipalities remained in the hands of whites, and they reorganized their systems of policy-making, policing, and justice to exploit poor Black populations. Greater St. Louis remains one of the most hypersegregated regions in the country, alongside Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, all key nodes on the map of the Movement for Black Lives.
When the economic crash came in 2008, Blacks and Latinos were 70% more likely than whites to lose their homes to foreclosure. The highest rates of foreclosure were in racially integrated neighborhoods. Since the single biggest asset for an overwhelming majority of households of color was their home, the national wealth gap between whites and all other racial groups grew larger than ever. Between 2005 and 2009, white household net worth dropped by 16%, but plunged 53% for Blacks, 54% for Asians, and 66% for Latinos. By 2013, the median white household held ten times the wealth of a Latino household and thirteen times the wealth of a Black household. These impacts will have a long-term effect. Before the Great Recession, white and Black households of comparable age, education, and median income were projected to reach parity in home equity by 2050. In the wake of the crash, however, a study found that white home equity would grow to over 1.6 times Black home equity in the same period.
At a minute after noon on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr. and his friend Dorian Johnson were stopped by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for jaywalking. Two minutes later, a man named Emanuel Freeman posted to Twitter: ‘The police just shot someone dead in front of my crib.’ From his apartment balcony, Freeman took a photo of two policemen standing watch over Brown’s lifeless body. That started the flow of pictures speeding over the Internet. First, the young Black man, lying facedown on the boiling asphalt, blood from his head pooling and trailing down the pavement. Then the picture of his stepfather, standing silent, defiant alongside a line of patrol cars holding a piece of cardboard on which he has scrawled: ‘FERGUSON POLICE JUST EXECUTED MY UNARMED SON!!!’ And finally, the pictures of his mother asking the sky, ‘Why? Why did they do that?’ These pictures were how millions who hadn’t known him in life first came to know Michael Brown Jr.
People congregated on the grass and in the narrow shade of trees behind the police line – neighbors, family who knew him as Mike-Mike, friends who knew him as Big Mike, and many who didn’t know him at all. Tweets cascaded in real time, pictures and videos taken from balconies and sidewalks, images and words. Police placed orange cones near Brown’s upturned baseball cap, bracelets, and stray slippers. But it would still be at least twenty minutes before they covered his body with a white cloth that was quickly stained red. TV cameras arrived. Witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, told reporters that Mike had had his hands up, but still the cop had shot him dead. Ninety minutes after the shooting, forensic detectives finally appeared. Officers turned Brown’s uncles, his grandmother, and his stepfather, Louis Head, away from the young man’s body. His mother, Lezley McSpadden, rushed down to Ferguson from her job in Clayton, and when she too was told she couldn’t go to him, she paced along the border of yellow tape, holding her head, crying, and cursing at the impassive cops. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson came, took McSpadden by the arm, and walked her along the perimeter. The crowd surged and yelled epithets at the cops. She pleaded to the crowd, ‘All I want them to do is pick up my baby. Please move back.’ Michael Brown Sr. arrived. He later wrote: ‘To this day, I don’t know how or why I didn’t explode into a murderous rage when cops held up their hands to stop me from getting to Mike. “That’s my son!” I screamed over and over, as if those words would mean something. They didn’t. I had to stand there like everyone else.’ Some nodded in agreement when McSpadden gave an interview to a local television reporter. ‘You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like, “I don’t got nothing to live for anyway, they gon’ try to take me out anyway.”’ People began chanting, ‘Kill the police!’ Gunshots were heard nearby, and dozens more county and Ferguson cops, almost all white, were called. They arrived wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing assault rifles. They walked snarling police dogs up the driveways of the apartment complex, pushing people back toward their homes. Chief Jackson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar’s Ferguson resembled nothing so much as Bull Connor’s Birmingham. Smartphones and TV cameras were capturing it all, and so, belatedly, the police tried to control the flow of images. They finally draped a long black cloth over Brown’s body, and erected knee-high orange blinders. Later, officers were stationed in a circle around his body and told to hold up blue tarps as if they were curtains.
Hours after Brown was killed, his neighborhood resembled a war zone. On West Florissant, the street from which Brown and Johnson had been walking home, what residents would come to call ‘the tanks’ made their first appearance. County tactical operations units deployed Lenco BearCat vehicles, designed for SWAT teams to use ‘in hostile Urban Environments,’ outfitted with half-inch-steel ballistic armor, two-and-a-half-inch-thick windows, and eleven gun ports, sold at a market price of $230,000 each. Through it all, Michael Brown’s body lay under the burning sun. It would be more than four hours before his body was removed from the street. In the dimming daylight, firefighters hosed down the road and the policemen took down the yellow tape. The crowd followed Lezley McSpadden into the middle of Canfield Drive. Someone had given her a bouquet of roses. She removed the petals and gently dropped them to mark the spot where her son’s blood still stained the road. People placed flowers and lit candles.
Elizabeth Vega, a Mexican American teaching artist and counselor, was in despair. She’d been dismayed by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin the summer before, as well as by the recent shooting of John Crawford, who’d been killed by police in a suburban Ohio Walmart while holding a toy BB gun that he intended to purchase. When she saw the pictures of Michael Brown’s body, she called her friends and they decided to meet in Ferguson. Vega and two companions headed north out of St. Louis. In the parking lot of Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel on South Florissant Street, several people were gathering, including Vega’s friends from the Organization for Black Struggle, one of the area’s oldest racial justice organizations. Soon they were making signs and talking strategy about how to get answers from the police. The OBS members knew some of the demonstrators – local labor organizers, solidarity activists, anarchists. But as the crowd swelled, it looked less like an ordinary protest. ‘We were on the sidewalk initially, and people drove by and honked in support. Then some people pulled over and asked, “Why you all out here?” And somebody explain what had happened,’ Bukky Gbádégeşin recalled. ‘Many of them pulled into the parking lot, got out, and started chanting with us. When we started, we had about twenty, thirty people. By the time we finished that night, it was like two hundred people, two hundred fifty.’ The new demonstrators included mothers, grandmothers, and young people like Tory Russell and Ashley Yates. Russell, a high school football coach and a day laborer, had left his house when he heard about Brown’s death. Yates and her girlfriend had come straight from her mall job in the ritzy Plaza Frontenac. All the protesters felt as if they were being drawn into something bigger than themselves. As Elizabeth Vega put it, Michael Brown’s killing was ‘the collective snap of the last straw.’
As the evening drew on, Ferguson police came out to ask who the leader of the protest was. By then, Yates recalled, ‘it was masses of people, so no one person could lead.’ But the crowd in the lot selected Russell and a small group of others to go inside to speak to the police while they continued to hold their signs and chant. Back on Canfield Drive, a dumpster behind the apartments had been set on fire, and authorities moved in. Pushed back against the curb by growling police dogs straining at their leashes, residents and others who’d earlier gathered around the scene of the crime were now surrounded by police on all sides. Near the lamppost that had marked the edge of the yellow tape line, they held their hands in the air, chanting, ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’ One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that McSpadden had made for her son and let it pee on the flowers and candles. And after the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, but every time the memorials were torched or removed, people returned to put them up again. They were determined that this time the police wouldn’t get away with it. So began the daily protests in Ferguson against police brutality that continued unbroken for hundreds of days. It would become, as the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou said, ‘the longest rebellion in the history of the United States against police brutality.’
Two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, the Arch City Defenders, a group of progressive St. Louis–area lawyers, released an influential white paper that exposed the link between policing, poverty, racial profiling, and city budget revenues. Throughout the county, Blacks experienced stops, searches, and arrests at much higher rates than whites. In 2013 the Ferguson court disposed of 24,352 warrants – more warrants than there were residents. Blacks, who made up 67% of the city and 6% of the police force, suffered 86% of traffic stops and 93% of arrests. Court fines and fees were the second-largest source of city revenue. A single violation – whether for a broken car taillight or failing to subscribe to the city’s garbage collection service – could set off a cycle of disaster leading to eviction, loss of child custody, denial of loans and jobs, and even more jail time. If one missed appearances or payments, not only might she face compounded fees and additional court fines, she might be arrested on the spot when she came to the court window to try to pay it off. The Defenders called it a ‘modern debtors’ prison scheme.’ A Department of Justice investigation launched after the protests over Michael Brown’s killing found that Ferguson had implemented intentionally racist and unconstitutional practices in its policing and in its courts. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson’s jaywalking stop wasn’t unusual. It was routine. ‘From 2011 to 2013,’ the DOJ noted, ‘African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.’ The DOJ also stated bluntly that ‘Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.’ In one of its more stunning passages, the DOJ outlined how completely Ferguson’s system dehumanized its residents: ‘Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They’re inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.’ Black residents of St. Louis County had long lived with this.
On Sunday, August 10, 2014, inside the Ferguson Police Department conference room, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters that Michael Brown had assaulted a police officer. He added that the officer had been placed on administrative leave, refused to give his name, and suggested that he might be returned to active duty. Ashley Yates was in the crowd outside of the Ferguson Police Department. After protesting on Day One at the South Florissant headquarters, she’d returned. Black clergy had come from their Sunday services to try to calm emotions, but Yates recalled that they weren’t finding much of an audience. She said, ‘People were rightfully angry.’ Thousands of demonstrators were in the streets, including mothers and children with hand-drawn signs that read ‘Honk for Mike’ and ‘Enough Is Enough!’ From a command post up the hill on the other side of the railroad tracks, in the parking lot of the Buzz Westfall Plaza on the Boulevard, armored Humvees and BearCat vehicles, riot-ready officers, canine units, and SWAT teams rolled down the hill into Ferguson. They swept people back toward the QuikTrip, which was looted and set on fire. Newscasters focused on the burned and looted QuikTrip rather than on Michael Brown’s murder, as if property were more important than people. The only things the cops seemed interested in protecting were the vehicles they’d parked along West Florissant. After midnight, they fired tear gas volleys all along West Florissant to clear the area.
By Monday, Day Three, the canine units had been replaced by snipers sitting atop armored vehicles equipped with ear-shattering acoustic riot-control devices and groups of paramilitary police toting tear gas launchers, training their night-vision goggles, their M4 carbines, and twelve-gauge shotguns on demonstrators. Ferguson looked like a war zone. The young visual artist Damon Davis wondered if the police understood the optics they’d created. ‘They got to know this don’t look right,’ he thought to himself. He decided to head to Ferguson and found himself at the site of the burned-out QuikTrip, which had become a gathering place for the resistance. People distributed water and food and made signs. Street-theater artists performed plays. Buddhist monks prayed. Bands played. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery wrote, ‘This was their Tahrir Square, their Tiananmen Square. The place each night where they would make their stand.’ Davis recalled, ‘People was chatting, soapbox preacher dudes doing their thing. And then [over the police loudspeakers] they told everybody to leave.’ Larry Fellows and Johnetta Elzie were in the street handing out water bottles, with Wesley Lowery standing alongside them documenting the scene, when police began firing tear gas canisters in high, smoking arcs into people’s yards and at people’s cars. Over the loudspeakers, the cops told people to go home. One of woman stood on her lawn and yelled back, ‘This is my home. You’re the ones who need to go home.’ But the police marched forward through the red-and-blue haze toward the QuikTrip. Elzie felt something like a sudden sharp punch to her chest, and was breathless for a second. The advancing police had shot her with a nonlethal round.
On Wednesday night, Day Five, the street clashes reached a climax. Police were pelted with rocks, bottles, bricks, even Molotov cocktails. Cops fired stun grenades, beanbag rounds, Stinger balls that worked like flash-bangs, and PepperBalls – ammo that someone described as ‘Pokémon balls that spit out gas.’ The next morning, Attorney General Eric Holder, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, and other politicians, left and right, decried the police militarization. St. Louis Police Chief Samuel Dotson pulled his officers back from Ferguson, publicly denouncing the county police’s warlike tactics. Even military personnel were outraged. When police pointed rifles at people’s chests, one retired army officer told the Washington Post, ‘That’s not controlling the crowd. That’s intimidating them.’ The journalist Radley Balko noted that the police seemed to have lost their mission: ‘The soldier’s job is to annihilate a foreign enemy, to kill people and break things. A police officer’s job is to keep the peace and to protect our constitutional right’.” The same day, Governor Jay Nixon appointed Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, an African American resident of Florissant, to lead the command. Johnson met with Michael Brown’s family and marched with demonstrators. Thursday evening was the quietest of the week. But in the community, there was still a profound sense that police were protecting their own. On Friday, Day Seven, at QuikTrip, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson held a press conference to announce that the name of the officer who had shot Michael Brown was Darren Wilson. But before he did, Jackson described Brown’s August 9th robbery of Ferguson Market, which had immediately preceded his confrontation with Wilson.
Ferguson was now a national story, largely shaped by the people and the protesters. By the end of Friday, the Pew Research Center found, more than 7.9 million tweets had been generated under the hashtag #Ferguson. Social media fueled local and national interest, and organizing networks were forming. In the days that followed, Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, but demonstrations continued daily from morning to night. ‘This is civil rights 2.0,’ said Damon Davis. ‘It’s not suits and ties anymore. It’s tattoos and dreads and queer women of color out here.’ Community meetings drew together over fifty different organizations to coordinate planning and training. In order to accommodate the needs of the growing movement, the Organization for Black Struggle, a St. Louis-based activist organization founded in 1980, brought in leaders and organizers from Oakland, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Between August and October, they trained over 200 organizers in nonviolent direct action, and hundreds more in areas such as emergency response, medical support, crowd control, communications, and de-escalation.
Central to the national resistance was an organization called Black Lives Matter that had been started by San Francisco Bay Area organizer Alicia Garza, Los Angeles artist and activist Patrisse Cullors, and New York/Phoenix–based organizer Opal Tometi. On August 10th, as #Ferguson exploded on social media, so did #blacklivesmatter. The genesis of the idea had come the summer before after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After the verdict was announced, Garza quickly posted to her Facebook page, ‘I can’t breathe. NOT GUILTY.’ Her feed filled with posts from people who said they weren’t surprised. ‘That’s a damn shame in itself,’ she responded. ‘I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.’ She added, ‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.’ Cullors’s activism had sprung from the brutal beating of her brother by Los Angeles County jail officers. Garza also worried about her brother, in whom she saw Trayvon Martin. That night, the two women, who’d known each other for years through organizing circles, talked for a long time about Zimmerman, Martin, their brothers, and what needed to happen. Cullors put a hashtag in front of Garza’s refrain, posted it to Facebook, and suddenly a big idea cohered. The next day, the two contacted Tometi, a friend and communications expert, and a social-media campaign was born. ‘Black Lives Matter’ articulated an impatience with the politics of respectability. Proponents of respectability politics, Randall Kennedy wrote, ‘advocate taking care in presenting oneself publicly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on Blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies.’ Such politics were resurgent during the Obama era. The president himself was both a source and a symbol of respectability politics. But the Black Lives Matter activists were pro-queer feminists who worked with those on the margins of society: incarcerated people, domestic workers, and migrants. They thought of themselves as proudly, defiantly intersectional, and offered an expansive notion of what they called ‘Black love,’ a vision of radical diversity. Garza wrote, ‘Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with [criminal] records, women, and Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It’s a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.’ Black Lives Matter challenged not only the content but the form of respectability politics – the traditional, charismatic Black messiah model that typically privileged straight male leadership and top-down, hierarchical infrastructures, such as those of the Black church. Instead, the movement drew on the methods and examples of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who led the mobilization of the 1963 March on Washington while eschewing the spotlight; Ella Baker, the woman who’d trained generations of organizers while strongly advocating modes of decentralized leadership; and Assata Shakur, the Black Panther activist exiled to Cuba who was still on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and had written the lines they adopted as their mantra: ‘It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.’
Those who opposed the movement by arguing that ‘all lives matter’ couldn’t see the cold inhumanity of their stance. The systematic denigration of Black lives was inescapable, whether in shortened life expectancy or the growing list of extrajudicial murders. In the United States, most conversations about race defaulted to a discussion about whiteness. But racism and inequality would never end if Blacks focused on easing white anxiety. Change would come only through a struggle to transform how everyone saw and treated Black lives. If Black lives mattered to all, then all lives really would matter.
The national network of organizations issued a set of demands, including the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, the ending of police militarization, and reinvestment in resegregated, impoverished communities. To further these demands, organizers agreed to launch four days of civil disobedience they would call Ferguson October. But as the start of protests neared, the area was shaken by three more officer-involved extrajudicial killings. The first, just three miles away from Canfield Green and less than two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, was captured on video. Police Chief Samuel Dotson told reporters that the suspect, Kajieme Powell, had raised a knife and that officers had shot him in self-defense. But the cell phone video he released the next day contradicted this account. Armed with nothing but a steak knife, Powell, a mentally ill man, had stolen two energy drinks from a store. He walked out, put the two cans down near the curb, and walked aimlessly in large circles, arguing with the young store clerk who’d come out to reason with him. Then a police car arrived, and two officers – who would never be named publicly – emerged to tell Powell to put his hands up. Powell walked toward them, taunting, ‘Shoot me, motherfucker!’ Then he started walking away from the police in another wide circle. When he came out of the loop to face the police, they fired twelve shots at him. He hadn’t even drawn his knife.
Then, on September 19th, 21-year-old Kimberlee Randle-King was arrested in Pagedale, a small north county town. She’d been on her way to pick up her two children at her grandmother’s house, but ended up in a group of people arguing and tussling on the street. When she was taken in, police found Randle-King had seven ‘failure to appear’ warrants for traffic and vehicle violations and prepared to take her back to a cell. The police report said that she ‘became “hysterical,’ claiming she would lose her ‘job, house, and babies.’ Kimberlee then said, ‘I’m gonna die if I go back there.’ A half hour later, Randle-King was found dead in her cell, hanging by her own T-shirt. Family and friends quickly gathered at the Pagedale jail in protest. They said she hadn’t been anything close to suicidal. Her case would soon find uncanny echoes in those of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, and helped inspire a national campaign called #SayHerName that highlighted the impact of police brutality on African American women.
The last incident occurred on October 8th, two days before the start of Ferguson October. When VonDerrit Myers and some friends emerged from a night market after buying sandwiches, an off-duty cop who was working a nighttime security job in his police uniform stopped them on a ‘pedestrian check.’ The cop identified at least one of the group as suspicious and carrying a weapon. Myers and his friends ran, and the cop gave chase before losing them. Myers went up to his apartment to eat and put on a sweatshirt, then came back down to the street, where he encountered the cop again. What happened next remains a mystery. There were no official witnesses. But when it was all over, the cop had unloaded an entire clip, and Myers had been shot seven times in the back. Police said Myers had been killed in a shootout and that there was gunshot residue on his hand to prove it. They noted Myers had been wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, a consequence of being out on bail for recent charges of unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest. The media was fed Instagram photos of Myers posing with guns. But in the days that followed, the police modified their account of the night’s events several times, talking about bushes that Myers had supposedly shot from that didn’t exist, and changing the make of the gun they said Myers carried. The officer, whose name wouldn’t be made public, refused to be interviewed by a prosecutor. Myers’s family argued that a gun had been planted on him, and that he had been executed. The prosecutor agreed that the bullets fired at him could have explained the residue evidence, and Myers’s DNA didn’t turn up on the gun that was found. Yet the prosecutor still decided not to take the case to the grand jury, stating that the evidence was inconclusive.
Ferguson October began on October 13th. In the dramatic week that followed, tens of thousands marched. Young Activists United occupied the St. Louis city hall rotunda. Bearing signs that said ‘Stop Killing Us”’ and chanting ‘Black lives matter,’ Millennial Activists United shut down the Plaza Frontenac. Protesters also closed Emerson Electric Corporation, and shut down two Walmarts and a Democratic Party fund-raiser. At the police station, dozens more were arrested, including Cornel West, the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, and other religious leaders. A student-led protest at St. Louis University led to a weeklong encampment by a group called Occupy SLU, resulting in a negotiated resolution called the Clock Tower Accords that committed the campus to more discussions about race, funding for Black student recruitment and retention, African American studies, a community center and community board committed to addressing inequality in the area, and a sculpture, designed by a Black artist, commemorating the encampment.
On October 4th, Elizabeth Vega, Sarah Griesbach, Derek Laney, and fifty other ‘Artivists’ interrupted a St. Louis Symphony performance of Brahms’s Requiem, standing throughout the hall to sing a version of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ The original song, written by Florence Reece for the bitterly fought 1930s Appalachian coal strike, included the words ‘They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there.’ The Artivists changed the lyrics to’“Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all,’ and unfurled fifteen-foot-high banners painted by Jelani Brown that read ‘Rise Up and Join the Movement,’ ‘Racism Lives Here,’ and ‘Requiem for Mike Brown 1996–2014.’ Some in the overwhelmingly white crowd applauded, others could be heard saying, ‘He’s a thug.’ Most remained silent.
One evening the Artivists carried a funeral casket covered in cracked, mirrored glass to the front of the police line on South Florissant. The sight of the coffin shook some of the cops. “Look into the mirror,” one of the protesters told them. ‘We’re human too. You’re not the only people who get to be human.’
As the St. Louis area girded for Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement of the grand jury decision, Michael Brown’s parents traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with a delegation of 70 Ferguson activists and human rights leaders to testify before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Back home, on a rainy Sunday, Tribe X, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and members of the Artivists staged a ‘die-in,’ lying down in the street to shut down traffic as other demonstrators drew with chalk around their bodies. In the months to come, this form of protest became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Die-ins were staged in major shopping malls, transportation hubs like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, 70 medical schools, and on major arterial highways.
The next day, November 17th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared another state of emergency. Public schools in Ferguson and Jennings canceled classes. Police restocked tear gas, flex cuffs, and ‘less-lethal’ munitions. The National Guard was placed on alert. Stores throughout the city and county boarded up their windows. The grand jury announcement was still a week away, and already it felt like the worst hidden secret in Missouri was a coming non-indictment.
Damon Davis of the Artivists noticed that many of his friends were showing signs of stress and trauma. He wanted to create a work that would raise their morale, and lift up their message against the violence of the state and the media’s anticipation of tear gas and fire. The result was a project he called All Hands On Deck. With the support of Global Grind’s Michael Skolnik and the Artivists, Davis created 51-inch-high posters of the hands of local Black and white organizers and activists, including Reverend Sekou, Tef Poe, Hands Up United’s Tara Thompson and Abby Bobé, MoKaBe’s Reeny Costello, an unidentified hacker from Anonymous, and Tory Russell’s son, Lucas. Davis had photographed their hands on white tables or against the snow. ‘Hands are what you do work with,’ he explained, ‘and it’s time for you to get up and help work on this if you want it to be any better.’ He printed the hands in black ink on a blank white background. Two days after Nixon’s declaration, Davis, Skolnick, and a team of other artists-activists took the posters to the West Florissant businesses below the railroad tracks, whose windows had been covered with plywood. They spoke to store owners and got permission to wheat-paste the broadsides on the boards. The state was preparing for a violent clampdown, an animus that would be confirmed by McCulloch’s decision to announce the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson after dark, during the mid-evening hours when the August street clashes had usually begun. But All Hands On Deck seemed instead to tap desires coursing across time and place – the 9,000-year-old black, red, white, yellow, and brown cave-art hand stencils at Patagonia’s Cueva de las Manos that shouted, “We are here!”; John Heartfield’s street poster, Five Fingers Has the Hand, taunting the Nazi party from Berlin walls during the 1928 Weimar election season; even the gloved hands that John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust into the air on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, their fingers closed into fists. There was affirmation, defiance, and power here, but something else too – a radical vision of community. At the root of the pre-riot frenzy was the same kind of fear that had left Mike Brown dead in the street, that had driven a century of segregation and resegregation in the city and county. But these posters transformed the plywood from enclosing shields of fear into open walls that revealed the breadth of community: a child, a preacher, a barista, an activist, and others in Black-and-white. Authority demanded submission. But when people raised their hands together, they might be demanding recognition, defying injustice, or even reveling in collective joy.
On November 24th, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Darren Wilson. In the long hours after the decision, the state and the media got exactly the clashes they wanted. Televisions ran hi-def split-screen images of President Barack Obama urging calm in the streets as police teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters on West and South Florissant. In St. Louis, organizers and activists gathered at a bustling café at the edge of Tower Grove Park, not far from where VonDerrit Myers had been killed. Owned and run by a white radical named Mo Costello, MoKaBe’s had long served as a gathering spot for activists from the Occupy, queer rights, and Black Lives Matter movements.. Two weeks before, Mo had announced on Facebook that she would keep the spot open 24 hours a day for activists. That night, the intersection at Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s filled with paramilitary police and armored vehicles. Police issued clearance orders while the crowd mocked them. Protesters backed onto the sidewalk and filled MoKaBe’s. Dozens, including Amnesty International observers, parents, and children, were gathered inside, drinking free cups of hot chocolate. When windows were broken along Grand, police quickly moved to clear the corner. They fired rubber bullets at people on the sidewalk. Then they fired smoking tear gas canisters directly onto MoKaBe’s patio and through the café’s front door. Gas filled the interior, and dozens of choking patrons fled into the basement. As the stricken were treated with eye drops, riot cops marched behind the coffee house to fire more tear gas into the residential neighborhood to prevent patrons from leaving. After the smoke cleared, some ventured back out to yell at the police, who dropped more tear gas canisters from their armored vehicles. St. Louis University professor and civil rights lawyer Brendan Roediger negotiated with the police for a way for the patrons to leave. Finally, they filed out of the café one by one with their hands up, and walked slowly away from the police line down the block to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The next evening, police would return to form riot lines in front of the café.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou had been at MoKaBe’s on the morning of the 24th to attend an urgent meeting about preparations for the grand jury announcement. The young organizers had received him with a warmth and deference that they showed only a handful of other members of the clergy. Back in the earliest days of the protests, mainstream clergy positioned themselves as brokers to the white elite. But when it became clear to the protesters that some of those same clergy were negotiating away their rights, they’d chanted, ‘Fuck the clergy!’ When the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came to town, they received the cold shoulder from the street activists. In October, at a massive interfaith gathering at St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena, the same activists grew tired of the empty talk from church and civil rights leaders. They began chanting to let young people speak. When Tef Poe took the stage, they cheered. ‘For us this isn’t an academic issue,’ he told the leaders. ‘Y’all did not show up.’ He told them he trusted the shirtless, bandanna’d boys and the young girls who’d gone truant to be at the protests more than the elders. ‘This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,’ he cried. ‘Get off your ass and join us!’ The small group of church leaders who’d gained the respect of the protesters included Reverend Sekou, who wore long dreadlocks and a rough beard and he cursed like a hardcore rapper. On the day Michael Brown was killed, Sekou was a scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, working on a book on the relevance of King’s work to the present. When Sekou saw the news, he decided to come home and follow the lead of the twenty-somethings, especially the queer Black women who were leading protesters to nonviolently face down the police. On the night of Tuesday 11-24, when he heard that hundreds of police had again massed at the corner of Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s, Sekou came to the café. Police had already issued dispersal orders and seemed prepared to gas MoKaBe’s again. Sekou mounted a table and quieted the crowd. ‘My first thing is I need you to be safe,’ he said. He asked the people to lock arms. He was improvising, he admitted, and a palliating laughter rippled through the crowd. And then Sekou took a leap of imagination or perhaps, he would say, of faith. ‘We have already won,’ he said as he pointed back to the cops across the street. ‘They don’t do that when we’re losing. When they bring that out, that’s because we’ve won already.’ He asked the crowd, ‘What does a heartbeat sound like?’ Someone said, ‘You mean the way it’s going like boomboomboomboom right now?’ The crowd roared. ‘On a normal day, Sekou said, ‘your heart goes…’ And he hit his chest twice with his hand. He asked the crowd to unlock their arms and they joined him, pounding their hearts into a rhythm that could be heard across the street. The air itself seemed to change. He turned to face the police now. ‘You are on the wrong side of history, and we have already won,’ he told them. ‘We are peacefully gathered here in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Gandhi. This multiracial gathering is possible because of nonviolence. And that is the heartbeat of democracy that you hear. And so whoever your captain is, stand down. Go home,’ he said. ‘We’ll be alright.’ All along the police line, stiffened backs seemed to wilt. Then the cops turned to the left in file, turned again, and marched silently away down Grand Street.
Into the new year, a shocking but steady list of names filled the social media scrolls – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald. Deaths of people of color were nothing new. A Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report in 2012 had documented that every 28 hours a Black person was killed by police, security guards, or vigilantes, ‘self-appointed enforcers of the law’ protected by state codes like the stand-your-ground laws. But with personal and surveillance technology and social media, Ferguson activists and the Movement for Black Lives now had the power to reveal what those statistics looked like. As the winter drew on, the growing list sparked public mourning and rage, filling the streets and highways and train stations and bridges with protesters.
At dawn on Sunday, August 9, 2015, over a hundred people gathered on Canfield Drive for an interfaith prayer. On this ground history had been made, but the price had been dear. Dozens of families had left or been evicted. Pastors, rabbis, imams, ministers, residents, and visitors formed a large circle, the same circle that had been enclosed a year before by yellow tape. In the middle, the community’s memorial to Michael Brown Jr. still stood, and someone had left a single burned and tattered American flag where Michael had lain. After the service, the skies darkened, a loud rumble of thunder echoed over Ferguson and St. Louis, and a sudden, hard rain fell.
Mike, age 18, hadn’t finished his credits when he posed for his high school graduation picture, but he was eager to finish, worked hard through the summer, and received his diploma on August 1st, a proud moment for his family, especially his mother. On Monday he’d start attending Vatterott College, a for-profit vocational school that advertised on late-night television. The college, partly owned by one of Mitt Romney’s private-equity firms, was known to federal investigators as a problem school whose business plan was built off student debt. Its former director of enrollment had pled guilty to federal financial aid fraud. Mike, knowing none of this thought it seemed like an opportunity to land a decent blue-collar job as an air-conditioning tech.
In mid-July, Mike began going back to church. But he still brooded over his future. On the day they celebrated his high school graduation, he argued with his father. He announced he was becoming a rapper, but Michael Brown Sr. told him, ‘That’s all fine and good, but you’re gonna stay in school and you’re gonna stay focused.’ Mike responded angrily, ‘One day, the world is gonna know my name. I’ll probably have to go away for a while, but I’m coming back to save my city.’ Days later, on Tuesday, August 4th, he spoke again with his father. His stepmother had just been diagnosed with chronic heart failure, just months after their house had burned to the ground. Mike said he thought she was going to die. Upset, his father hung up on him. Two days later Mike called another family member with a message for his father: ‘Pop’s mad at me. Tell him I said what I said because I’ve been having these visions and images of death. Tell him I keep seeing bloody sheets.’ He posted a cryptic message on his Facebook page: ‘If I leave this earth today, at least you’ll know I care about others more than I cared about my damn self.’
At the store on August 9th, things got strange, Dorian said. Mike asked for a box of Swisher Sweets, and handed it to his friend. Then he grabbed a smaller pack of single cigarillos, turned, and started for the door. The clerk ran to the door to stop him. Confused, Dorian put the box back on the counter and turned to see Mike shoving the clerk aside and walking out with the cigarillos. ‘I stared at him for a while, because the times when I’d met him before that day, he didn’t strike me as a person who would do anything like that,’ Dorian told the grand jury. I said, “Hey, I don’t do stuff like that. What’s going on?” Mike laughed and told him to be cool. Dorian knew they’d been caught on camera, and when a police cruiser approached he started worrying, but it passed them by. There were no cars coming or going, so the two crossed into the middle of Canfield Drive to the median line – Dorian walking in front, Mike right behind. Mike was carrying half the cigarillos in each hand. It was a Saturday in August, approaching high noon. They were almost home. A white Chevy Tahoe marked ‘Ferguson Police’ was just around the bend.”
Chang ends his book with an analysis of the film Beyoncé made to go along with her album “Lemonade,” which he describes as “a story of infidelity and promises broken, the journey of one Black woman from grief over her boyfriend’s betrayal to reunion and redemption.” Chang doesn’t think the album and film can “be heard or seen separately from the exigency of the Movement for Black Lives.
The film is set in the South, a geography that looms large in the American imagination of slavery and segregation, life and death. ‘What are you hiding?’ Beyoncé asks her unfaithful guy. ‘The past and the future merge to meet us here.’ She tries to purify herself as if she were a Yoruba iyawo, reaching for a communion with higher spirits – wearing white, fasting, abstaining from sex and mirrors. But her pain is inescapable. In ‘Hold Up,’ Beyoncé appears as Oshun, whose province includes affairs of the heart, (self) love, (re)birth, creativity, community, and childbirth. She rises from the river in gleeful catharsis, taking her ‘Hot Sauce’ bat to muscle cars, store windows, and surveillance cameras. All around her explosions go off and the corner boys gape. ‘Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy!’ she taunts on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself.’ And yet Beyoncé is still reminding her lover that their fates are intertwined. She sings, ‘When you lie to me, you lie to yourself.’
After the release of anger, she descends into apathy and emptiness. She wanders through Southern mansions that don’t feel like her own, that remind her of what she hasn’t gotten and who she isn’t. At the end of “6 Inch,” a house goes up in flames. Riots, we were reminded after Ferguson and Baltimore, are what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the language of the unheard.’ Beyoncé stares coldly, her face lit by the fire’s flicker, obscured by smoke. But as a sample of Isaac Hayes’s version of ‘Walk On By’ swells to its climax, she can be heard in a broken voice, crying out against her abandonment: ‘Come back!’ There are also images of support and healing. Then the music suddenly drops out into a Malcolm X speech: ‘The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.’ As he speaks, we see everyday Southern Black women of all ages – at the gas station, in their neighborhood, along a busy street. Their relaxed, smiling faces break up a narrative of pain. They seem to say, ‘We’re here, we are surviving.’
After a visit into Beyoncé’s past (‘Daddy Lessons’), her self-interrogation continues. ‘Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why are you afraid of love?’ Love seems to be the most impossible option. We see her crying as she lies on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome. She’s returned to the same place where she once short-circuited her Super Bowl halftime show, where eight years before, tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Katrina, denigrated by the media, and treated as animals by federal and local authorities, sought refuge and comfort. On this Southern ground, she’s seen the power and tragedy of humanity. When the breakthrough comes, it happens in a kind of a baptism. We see her wading into the bayou waters at the head of a line of nine other women dressed in gauzy white dresses. Her moment of release comes when they look into the sun and raise their joined hands. She now has the power to break the curse, to return to her lover not as victim, but as redeemer. ‘Show me your scars and I won’t walk away,’ she sings. He must learn how to see her anew.
The climax of the film begins quietly – a gathering of beautiful young women for pictures and a feast. ‘So how we s’posed to lead our children into the future?’ an elder asks. ‘Love.’ Then a procession of powerful images begins: young women holding pictures of men who may be their fathers or grandfathers; the mothers of the fallen – Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown – holding pictures of their sons. A young girl in a Mardi Gras Indian suit rattles her tambourine as she circles slowly round two empty dinner tables, a ritual to honor the ancestors. Finally, Beyoncé turns to Jay-Z’s grandmother Ms. Hattie White, who is speaking at her 90th-birthday party, to reveal the importance of working to transform the sour into the sweet: ‘I was served lemons and I made lemonade.’ No set of images from Beyoncé – not even her standing in front of a screen that reads ‘Feminist’ – better conjures a notion of Black women as bearers of legacy, protectors of justice, caretakers of boys, men, each other, than these.
If we are to undo resegregation and racialized exclusion, some of us will have to work harder than others. All of the forms of refusal, denial, and justification that preserve the structures of privilege will have to be undone to make room for the most marginalized. We often think of revolution as something to be won in bloodshed through war and the violent seizure of power. But as Grace Lee Boggs has put it, the next revolution might be better thought of as ‘advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social and political responsibility.’ Her revolution would require us to move away from finding new ways to divide and rule, and instead move toward honoring and transforming ourselves and our relations to each other.
Beyoncé’s freedom dream is not about turning the other cheek. She riots through borders, breaks chains, ‘runs in truth.’ Her tears become flames. ‘I need freedom too!’ she cries. But her freedom is won not in bitterness and revenge, but through deep love. In the chorus of ‘Freedom,’ it almost sounds as if she were singing, ‘Women don’t quit on themselves.’ In the end, they celebrate around the table with the gifts of the garden, the antidotes discovered in the kitchens of nurturance, the recipes passed down generation by generation. The chorus of the album’s penultimate song, ‘All Night,’ suggests that the prize of reconciliation is hot makeup sex. But the verses take the song in another direction. She becomes the light to her lover’s darkness, a minister baptizing his tears. ‘Trade your broken wings for mine,’ she sings. ‘I’ve seen your scars and kissed your crime. They say true love’s the greatest weapon to win the war caused by pain.’ In granting redemption, she frees her oppressor. But forgiveness frees her too, allows her to heal from her trauma: the self-hatred, destructiveness, and suicidal depression. Her torturer is not the remedy, he’s a remedy. As the song concludes in a bloom of strings, she whispers, ‘Oh I missed you my love.’ Of course she has missed her lover. But she has also found herself. The ‘my love’ she names is also self-love.
We need to be roused to the inequity in our neighborhoods, our schools, our metro areas, our justice system, and our culture. Ending resegregation is about understanding the ways we allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity of others. It’s about learning to look and never stopping. The film concludes with a tapestry of diverse couples in love and families at play. The South, which has been strip-mined for its real gothic horror, its brutal and violent racial ordering of life, its drama of division and death, has now transformed into a place of grace. As the Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper put it, ‘Beyoncé’s South is hot sauce, postbellum swag, and grandmothers who remind you that you gon’ be alright.’ Yet it doesn’t feel exactly like a happy ending. As Beyoncé wanders the ruins of the war fort in her kente dress, looking and singing directly to us, we wonder about her transformation. How easily could her newly won sense of self-love be undone? Did her lover deserve her generosity? Had she simply folded? Or is this indeed grace at work? James Baldwin’s most revolutionary and misunderstood idea, notes the intellectual Robin D. G. Kelley, was that love is agency. ‘For him it meant to love ourselves as black people; it meant making love the motivation for making revolution; it meant envisioning a society where everyone is embraced, where there is no oppression, where every life is valued – even those who may once have been our oppressors.’ This didn’t mean that Blacks should capitulate before whiteness and systemic racism, but exactly the opposite. He wrote, ‘To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us.’ Each of us is left with the question: Can we, given all the pain we’ve had inflicted upon us and that we’ve inflicted upon others, ever learn to see each other as lovers do, to find our way toward freedom for all? Redemption is out there for us if we’re always in the process of finding love and grace.
Analyzing what’s happened and what’s happening as close to correctly as possible has always been essential to creating effective political strategies. Now, with our country teetering at the threshold of authoritarian fascism, it’s even more important than ever.
We can’t afford to waste our time and energy on propagandistic wild goose chases like the charge that Russia hacked the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the presidency and the Republicans gained control of Congress for many reasons, including an undemocratic political and electoral system that offers no good alternatives, profit-driven mainstream media that fails to keep the public informed, and voters who either stay home or vote for wild cards out of desperation. But one of the reasons for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was that she was the wrong candidate for the occasion. People wanted change, not more of the same, and the Democratic Party’s current strategy of blaming the Russians rather than acknowledging their mistake leads us down a false trail.
Back Bernie Sanders’ efforts in Congress and elsewhere if you want to stay in the mainstream. Read my recent posts on how to improve the system, if you want to go further.
It’s critical that we do this work now, while we’re still at the crossroads. When supposedly democratic political systems fail to address the people’s needs, they have two main options: populist authoritarianism or populist revolution, with many permutations in each category. Juan Peron of Argentina, Adolf Hitler of Germany, and Benito Mussolini of Italy are various “flavors” in the first category. In the revolutionary category, change can be sought violently or non-violently, with the non-violent option tending to be more democratic in outcome, since the means are the way. Cuban leader Fidel Castro led a violent revolution with democratic goals, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam started on the peaceful path and ended up having to use violence and dictatorial methods. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was a democratic populist who was also a typical Latin American “strongman” and at times a demagogue. The lines between all these “flavors” can be subtle, but the key questions to ask at every step are: Are people at the grassroots level well-represented? And does change come from the bottom up for the benefit of all equally?
Donald Trump fits the prototype of an authoritarian fascist leader. He’s a liar; a sexist; a racist, or at least a person willing to collude with racists; a nationalist at a time in our planet’s history when national borders should be obsolete, and at the same time a global businessman willing to put corporate interests above those of the nation. He’s a demagogue who threatens groups and individuals who disagree with or oppose him, and will soon have the power to use the greatest military, police, and judicial power on earth. He will also have the power, since the Democratic Party failed to oppose the Republicans’ illegal failure to approve an Obama-nominated Supreme Court Justice, to bring the third branch of government under his control.
This is a dangerous time, and we need to think clearly, outside the box, using reliable sources of information to create strategies to meet it.
You know what your values are. Hopefully, they’re similar to mine: preserving the vibrant life of Earth and all its life forms and protecting the right of every human man, woman, and child to clean air and water; basic nutrition, education, and health care; physical and emotional safety; and a say in every decision affecting their lives. The supposedly liberal Democratic regimes now behind us didn’t create or adequately safeguard these things, and the new Republican regime of Donald Trump actively threatens all of them. Act accordingly, without the need to respect the rule of unjust laws. But, most of all, base your actions on well-thought-out and researched analysis and strategy. I’ve given you some good sources in past blog posts, and there are book notes and other resources on my website www.wegotthenumbers.org. Start there, or forge your own path. Connect with others. Don’t waste time on false propaganda or too many feel-good actions that accomplish little else.
We may not be able to avert (further) disaster. But we can certainly give it our best shot.
As Aislinn Pulley wrote on July 8, 2016 in an op-ed on Truthout.org entitled “The System That Killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Cannot Be Reformed,” the main role of the police in our society is to contain the unease produced in poor communities “disenfranchised by high unemployment, lack of access to quality education, health care, and affordable housing.” This is being accomplished by aggressively and violently patrolling predominantly non-white neighborhoods and by racial profiling elsewhere.
Trying to reform the police, city by city, will accomplish little or nothing when it’s the unequal racist and capitalist system that causes these crimes and his oppression to continue. “Proposed solutions that exclude envisioning a world without police and their accompanying violence, terror and murder must be challenged,” Pulley says. “What sense would it make to ask for a kinder slave patroller when the problem is slavery itself? We must challenge ourselves to connect the role of police in society to the system” that uses them to maintain itself, “and then ask why [it] requires such violence in order to exist. [Innocent] blood will continue to be shed until we are able to answer these questions collectively.
Having a Black president isn’t enough; we can see that now. What’s needed isn’t an increase in Black politicians; we now have the most Black representation in power in US history. It isn’t Black cops either, as Freddie Grey’s death shows. And it isn’t body cameras, which didn’t save the life of Alton Sterling. It’s a question of power and who has that power. Police kill because they’re being [asked] to kill.” And they’re killing black and brown people disproportionately because “Black life is disposable.
We must move forward with an honest assessment of why this country requires Black death as a part of its functioning. We must question the roots of US capitalism, which for 400 years has used Black subjugation to build and maintain its wealth, even with a Black president in power. As Martin Luther King Jr. instructed us [almost 50 years ago], we must question the very foundation of this society: ‘One day we must ask the question, “Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” When you begin to ask that question, you’re raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. More and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about this whole society.’
Our goal,” Pulley says, “needs to be ending the structures and systems producing needless death, misery and pain – from cash bail, to prisons, to global warming and pollution, to high-priced health care. Police violence and mass shootings are symptoms of a sick society. We must imagine and create a new one in which the full human potential of all of us can be nurtured and realized, and where violence is eradicated [planet-wide]. This requires, at minimum, living wage jobs, full education, and a society free from violence and senseless killings – a society not organized around greed and profit, but around caring for people and the Earth. We get there by remaining steadfast in our conviction that justice is on the side of the oppressed, and it is through this fight [and others, as Naomi Klein has said of addressing climate change] that we make it possible to create a society which enables liberation for all.”
As the Truthout website indicates, “Aislinn Pulley is a lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago, founding the chapter as part of the Freedom Ride to Ferguson in August 2014. She is an organizer with We Charge Genocide; a founding member of Insight Arts, a cultural nonprofit that uses art for social change; as well as a member of the performance ensemble, End of the Ladder. She is also a founder of the young women’s performance ensemble dedicated to ending sexual assault, Visibility Now, and as the founder and creator of urban youth magazine, Underground Philosophy.”
Thanks for focusing our attention where it needs to be, Aislinn!
In addition to Frans de Waal’s books on this fascinating relative of ours (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2014), I’s like to recommend the book I just finished: Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods, 2010.
Woods, whose book is an account of the time she and her husband, primatologist Brian Hare, spent at a bonobo refuge in the Congo, writes that “six million years ago, our last common ancestor with apes split into three different lines, which would eventually become chimpanzees, bonobos, and us. Along our journey, something extraordinary happened. We grew big brains. We tamed fire. We started to talk. But all that would have been for nothing if not for one simple thing – tolerance. Tolerance is what allowed us to cooperate, and every one of our great accomplishments comes from sharing ideas, building on the thoughts and concepts of others.
In our first experiments, we found that chimps could cooperate, but only after we controlled for tolerance. Intelligence wasn’t the problem – they were smart enough to know they needed help, but their emotions got in the way. Tolerance isn’t something we always excel at either. We know that chimps have an involuntary physical reaction when they hear or see a stranger, and, to a certain extent, we have the same reaction.” Bonobos don’t. Perhaps because they’re endowed with “incredibly high testosterone,” even as babies, they’re able to use sex (the “bonobo handshake”) to create mutual tolerance – a behavior that’s absent in chimpanzees, for whom sex is part of the dominance hierarchy.
Woods says that in experiments bonobos readily share food with strangers, humans are somewhere in the middle of this scale, and chimps share the least.
“So, if bonobos are more tolerant in some ways than humans, why did they never develop our level of intelligence?” They didn’t need to – they always had everything they needed, while humans often needed additional food and other resources, and fought with strangers and predators. “Most of the time, bonobos have no hunger, no violence, no poverty,” Woods says. “And for all our things, bonobos have the most important of all possessions – peace. That’s why they’re important – because they hold the key to a world without war. If we lose bonobos [who are endangered, living in one forest in the Congo], we’ll never learn their secret. And even more tragically, because they share so much of what makes us human, we’ll never understand ourselves.”
In the epilogue, Woods says, ‘When bonobos get angry, they hug,” and “together, bonobo females [who rule the roost] are strong.”
In the acknowledgements: “The orphans of Lola ya Bonobo survive because of the generosity of people like you. If you would like to sponsor a bonobo or make a donation, please visit www.friendsofbonobos.org.”
In Further Reading, “Sara Gruen is writing one of the first fictions about bonobos, tentatively called Ape House.” Ape House, a great novel, was published in 2011.
Woods’ website is www.bonobohandshake.com.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), a letter to his teenage son Samori, begins with a discussion of “race” in America, the book’s primary subject… “Race is the child of racism, not the father. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I can’t call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was achieved through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. The new people are not original in this. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.
I write you in your fifteenth year, because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It doesn’t matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction or originates in a misunderstanding or a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they’ll receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this has long been common to black people. No one is held responsible. There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or this moment. They’re merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. Racism is a visceral experience that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, and breaks teeth.”
Talking about a TV interview in which he’d participated, Coates says he tried to explain all this “as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about ‘hope,’ and I knew I’d failed. Outside the studio, it was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets with infants, raised to be white, bundled in strollers. I was sad for these people, as I was sad for the host and for all the people watching and reveling in a specious hope. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream, one I’ve seen all my life. It’s perfect houses with nice lawns, Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways, treehouses, and Cub Scouts. It smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake. I’ve wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket, but this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
How do I live free in this black body? I’ve asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with friends and family members. I’ve searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, but this confrontation with the brutality of my country has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.
I’m afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I’d seen this fear all my young life, though I hadn’t always recognized it as such. It was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their jewelry and full-length, fur-collared leather coats, their armor against their world. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear; all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched and cut away.
I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their lives, their streets, and their bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words. ‘Keep my name out your mouth,’ they would say. I’d watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, and Reeboks on.
I saw it in my own father. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that’s what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and wouldn’t hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and begun to turn their lives around. I’d hear it in Dad’s voice – ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I can’t say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit. What I know is that fathers who slammed their teenage boys for sass would then release them to streets where their boys employed, and were subject to, the same justice. Mothers belted their girls too, but the belt couldn’t save them from drug dealers twice their age.
Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge. To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness isn’t an error or pathology – it’s the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law didn’t protect us. And now, in your time, it’s become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body.
It doesn’t matter if the agent of those forces is white or black. What matters is the system that makes your body breakable. The revelation of these forces, a series of great changes, has unfolded over the course of my life. The changes are still unfolding and will likely continue until I die. I was eleven years old, standing out in the parking lot in front of the 7-Eleven, watching a crew of older boys standing near the street. They yelled and gestured at…who?…another boy, young, like me, who stood there, almost smiling, gamely throwing up his hands. He had already learned the lesson he would teach me that day: that his body was in constant jeopardy. Who knows what brought him to that knowledge? The projects, a drunken stepfather, an older brother concussed by police, a cousin pinned in the city jail. That he was outnumbered didn’t matter because the world had outnumbered him long ago, and what do numbers matter? This was and would be a war for the possession of his body. I stood there for some seconds, focusing on a light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes. He was scowling at another boy, who was standing close to me. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade. School had just let out. What was the exact problem here? Who could know? The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. He stood with the gun brandished, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could in an instant erase my body. That was 1986. That year I felt myself to be drowning in news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often didn’t land upon the intended targets, but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children – fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain. I knew this in theory but couldn’t understand it as fact until the boy with the small eyes stood across from me holding my entire body in his hands. The boy didn’t shoot. His friends pulled him back. He didn’t need to shoot. He had affirmed my place in the order of things. He had let it be known how easily I could be selected.
I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children didn’t regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television in my living room, and in the evenings I would sit before it witnessing dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens. Comparing these dispatches with the facts of my native world, I came to understand that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You haven’t yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder all around us. Before I could discover, before I could escape, I had to survive, and this could only mean a clash with the streets…The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed. The heat that springs from the constant danger, from a lifestyle of near-death experience, is thrilling. This is what the rappers mean when they pronounce themselves addicted to ‘the streets’ or in love with ‘the game.’ I imagine they feel something akin to parachutists, rock climbers, BASE jumpers, and others who choose to live on the edge. Of course we chose nothing. And I have never believed the brothers who claim to ‘run,’ much less ‘own,’ the city. We didn’t design the streets, and we don’t fund or preserve them.
In other cities, indeed in other Baltimores, the neighborhoods had other handles and the boys went by other names, but their mission didn’t change: prove the inviolability of their block, of their bodies, through their power to crack knees, ribs, and arms. You can approach any black person raised in the cities of that era and they can tell you which crew ran which hood in their city, along with the names of the captains and an anthology of their exploits. To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned a language of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather. And I learned that ‘Shorty, can I see your bike?’ was never a sincere question, and ‘Yo, you was messing with my cousin’ was neither an earnest accusation nor a misunderstanding of the facts. These were the summonses that you answered with your left foot forward, your right foot back, and your hands guarding your face, or by breaking out, ducking through alleys, cutting through backyards, and bounding through the door into your bedroom, pulling the tool from under your mattress or out of your Adidas shoebox, then calling up your own cousins (who really aren’t) and returning to that same block, on that same day, and hollering out, ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’
You have some acquaintance with the old rules, but they aren’t as essential to you as they were to me. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with the occasional roughneck on the subway or in the park, but when I was your age, each day fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body. I don’t long for those days, nor do I have any desire to make you ‘tough’ or ‘street.’ Any ‘toughness’ I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price, somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. I think I felt that something out there, some force, nameless and vast, had robbed me of…what? Time? Experience? I think you know something of what that third could have done, and I think that’s why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did. You’ve seen all the wonderful life up above the tree-line, yet you understand that there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me. You’ve seen so much more of all that’s lost when they destroy your body.
The streets weren’t my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. The laws of the streets were amoral and practical. You rolled with a posse to the party as sure as you raised an umbrella in the rain. But the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline? To be educated in my Baltimore meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, and never offered excuses – certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology, and English weren’t subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines. All of it felt so distant to me. Why was I sitting in this classroom? The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools weren’t concerned with curiosity – they were concerned with compliance. I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so we wouldn’t see, so we didn’t ask.
Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month couldn’t pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? Back then all I could do was measure these freedom-lovers by what I knew. Which is to say, I measured them against children pulling out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, against parents wielding extension cords, and ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’ I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion. How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you’d be suspended and sent back to those streets. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. An unceasing interrogation of the stories told to us by the schools now felt essential. It felt wrong not to ask why, and then to ask it again. I took these questions to my father, who very often refused to offer an answer, and instead referred me to more books. My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers – even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined.
Some things were clear to me: The violence that undergirded the country, so flagrantly on display during Black History Month, and the intimate violence of ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’ weren’t unrelated. It was of a piece and by design. But what design? And why? I must know. I must get out…but into what? I devoured the books because they were the rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world, one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the Dream.
This was the early ’90s. I was approaching the end of my time in my parents’ home and wondering about my life out there. If I could have chosen a flag back then, it would have been embroidered with a portrait of Malcolm X, dressed in a business suit, his tie dangling, one hand parting a window shade, the other holding a rifle. The portrait communicated everything I wanted to be – controlled, intelligent, and beyond the fear.” Coates says he listened to tapes of Malcolm’s speeches. “‘Don’t give up your life, preserve your life,’ he would say. ‘And if you got to give it up, make it even-steven.’ This was a declaration of equality rooted in the sanctity of the black body. You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s, because your blood was as precious as jewels, and it should never be sold for magic, for spirituals inspired by the unknowable hereafter. You don’t give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs or to the insidious gravity of the streets.
Malcolm was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. If he hated, it was because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver. He wouldn’t turn the other cheek for you. He wouldn’t be a better man for you. He wouldn’t be your morality. Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination. I identified with him. I knew that he’d chafed against the schools and almost been doomed by the streets. But even more I knew he’d found himself by studying in prison, and that when he emerged, he was able to wield some old power that made him speak as though his body were his own.
Perhaps I too might live free. Perhaps I too might wield the old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X, and speak – no, act – as though my body were my own. My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration. Perhaps I might write something of consequence someday. I’d been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life.
My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while you walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there – a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm.
When I was at Howard [University], ‘the black race’ was real and mattered. My working theory then held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original names and our majestic Nubian culture.” Coates says he wanted to find our how “Europe underdeveloped Africa. I went into this investigation imagining history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected. The smokescreen would lift. And the villains who manipulated the schools and the streets would be unmasked. But there was so much to know – so much geography to cover – Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, the United States. And all of these areas had histories, sprawling literary canons, fieldwork, ethnographies. Where should I begin? The trouble came almost immediately. I did not find a coherent tradition marching lockstep but factions, and factions within factions. Had we retained any of our African inheritance? I felt bound by my ignorance and by Howard itself. It was still a school, after all. I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I couldn’t match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just true for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power. The discomfort, the chaos wasn’t an alarm, but a beacon. It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that wouldn’t award me my own special Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. Perhaps there had been other bodies mocked, terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah. I had accepted the invention of racecraft, yet I knew that we were a tribe – on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real. I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder; maybe I would take another’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.
I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university. I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings. I had editors – more teachers, the first white people I’d ever really known personally. They saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed. And they gave me the art of journalism, a powerful technology for seekers. I reported on local D.C., and found that people would tell me things, that the softness that once made me a target now allowed people to trust me with their stories.
I wanted you to claim the whole world, as it is. And yet even in this cosmopolitan wish I felt the old power of ancestry, because I had come to knowledge at The Mecca [Howard] that my ancestors made, and I was compelled toward The Mecca by the struggle that my ancestors made. The Struggle is in your name, Samori – you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body. He died in captivity, but the profits of that struggle and others like it are ours, even when the object of our struggle, as is so often true, escapes our grasp.
There was also wisdom in the streets. I think now of the old rule that held that should a boy be set upon in someone else’s chancy hood, his friends must stand with him, and they must all take their beating together. I now know that within this edict lies the key to all living. Whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that was the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our own bodies or the bodies of our friends. And that is the deeper meaning of your name – that the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. You must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This isn’t despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
The birth of a better world isn’t ultimately up to you either. I love the world more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and must be responsible for your body in a way other boys can’t know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but don’t forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Coates goes on to tell how Prince Jones, a fellow Howard student, was shot to death by a Prince Georges County, Maryland sheriff at a traffic stop. “At the
service for Prince at Rankin Chapel on Howard’s campus, I heard several people ask for forgiveness for the officer who’d shot Prince down. The need to forgive the officer didn’t move me, because even then, I knew that Prince wasn’t killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and the fears that have marked it from birth. At this moment the phrase ‘police reform’ has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear. The abuses that have followed from this country’s criminal justice policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, and the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will. So to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities into the Dream.
The officer who killed Prince was charged with nothing, punished by no one. He was black, as were the politicians who empowered him to kill. I called and questioned them, and was told that citizens, black and white, were more likely to ask for police support than to complain about brutality. According to this theory ‘safety’ was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school!
Our family arrived in New York City two months before September 11, 2001, and I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts, or lost in conversation with each other while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.
When I got off the train and came back to my hood, Flatbush Avenue or my Harlem, it was the same boys, with the same bop, the same ice grill, and the same code I’d known all my life. I found myself, on any given day, traveling through several New Yorks at once – dynamic, brutal, moneyed, sometimes all of those at once.
Perhaps you remember the time we went to see “Howl’s Moving Castle” on the Upper West Side. You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, ‘Come on!’ I turned and spoke to her, my words hot with the moment and my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, ‘I could have you arrested!’ I didn’t care. I told him this, and the desire to do more was hot in my throat. It was only controllable because I remembered someone standing off to the side there, bearing witness to more fury than he had ever seen from me – you.
I have never been a violent person. Even when I was young and adopted the rules of the street, anyone who knew me knew it was a bad fit. I’ve never felt the pride that’s supposed to come with righteous self-defense and justified violence. But more than any shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you. ‘I could have you arrested,’ he said. Which is to say, ‘One of your son’s earliest memories will be watching the men who sodomized Abner Louima and choked Anthony Baez cuff, club, tase, and break you.’ I had forgotten the rules, an error as dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. I’m ashamed of how I acted that day, endangering your body. I’m not ashamed because I’m a bad father, a bad individual, or ill mannered. I’m ashamed that I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more.
There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened ‘at the hands of persons unknown.’ To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it’s always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It’s still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that’s your work – it must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. They were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state.
In America, it’s traditional to destroy the black body – it’s heritage. Enslavement wasn’t merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it isn’t so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. So enslavement must be include the gashing of heads, brains blown out as the body seeks to escape, rape so regular as to be industrial, and the thrashing of kitchen hands for the crime of churning butter at a leisurely clip. Black bodies, pulverized into stock and marked with insurance, were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer home in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, these bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. Without the right to break you they must fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they’d have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.
I’m sorry that I can’t make it okay, that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives aren’t inviolable either. And when their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, and their armed society shoots down their children, and nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they’re shocked in a way those of us born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. I wouldn’t have you live like them. You’ve been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you don’t have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Ghettos are an act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. Both the killing of Prince Jones and the murders attending these killing fields are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people – a legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream.”
Thinking about time spent in France, Coates tells Samori, “we will always be black, you and I, even if it means different things in different places. We weren’t enslaved in France. We aren’t their niggers. Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street and the venom with which they were addressed. Remember the Algerian cab driver, speaking openly of his hatred of Paris, then looking at your mother and me and insisting that we were all united under Africa. We were all aware that the forces that held our bodies back at home weren’t unrelated to those that had given France its wealth. We were aware that much of what they had done was built on the plunder of Haitian and Wolof bodies, on the destruction of the Toucouleur [a Malian kingdom], and on the taking of Bissandugu [Samori Touré’s capital].
The Dreamers are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and they’re are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting in nonviolence for the weak and big guns for the strong. When each time a police officer engages us, making death, injury, and maiming possible, the Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came redemption for the unrepentant South and reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”
Coates writes that when he went to speak with Prince Jones’s mother, “she told me that she was born and raised outside of Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a fear echoed down through the ages.” Hearing her story, Coates thought about the black church and his “distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something – some notion of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my physical perception of the world that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that moment, because something beyond anything I’ve ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life. She went to college on full scholarship. She went to med school at Louisiana State University. She served in the Navy. She took up radiology.
She said that Prince had gone to private schools all his life – schools filled with Dreamers, making friends wherever he went, in Louisiana and in Texas. I asked her how his friends’ parents treated her. ‘By then I was the chief of radiology at the local hospital,’ she said. ‘And so they treated me with respect.’ She said this with no love in her eye, coldly, as though she were explaining a mathematical function.
Dr. Jones’ sharp brown eyes welled but did not break. She held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her Rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less. And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best – it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, another component of the Dream. They’ve forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They’ve forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the Dream and force them to live down here with us, in the world. I’m convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than free. In the Dream they’re Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they’re an empire of humans, built, like all empires of humans, on the destruction of the body. It’s to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
Dr. Jones alluded to ‘12 Years a Slave,’ saying of Solomon Northrup, ‘he had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.’
After I left, I sat in the car. I thought of all that Prince’s mother had invested in him, and all that was lost. I thought of the loneliness that sent him to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, couldn’t save him, how ultimately we can’t save ourselves. I thought back on the sit-ins, the protestors with their stoic faces, the ones I’d once scorned for hurling their bodies at the worst things in life. Perhaps they so willingly parted with the security and sanctity of the black body because neither security nor sanctity existed in the first place. And all those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, weren’t shameful – just true. We’re captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they’re white, to think that they’re white, beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you can’t arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief, our bodies too precious. And you’re here now, and you must live – and there’s so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home. The warmth of dark energies that drew me to The Mecca, that drew out Prince Jones, the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable.
Even the Dreamers, lost in their great reverie, feel it, for it’s Billie they reach for in sadness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha the last sound they hear before dying. We’ve made something down here. We’ve taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at The Mecca, we’ve made a home – as do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials, and hopscotch squares; black people dancing at rent parties; enjoying family reunions; toasting with cognac and German beers, passing blunts, and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores. That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power isn’t divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything – even the Dream, especially the Dream – really is.
I’ve heard predictions all my life from Malcolm and his posthumous followers, hollering that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. But I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they’d sown, we’d reap it with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction, and the people who authored the death of our ghettos and the mass rape of private prisons, then engineered their own forgetting, must keep going. Cheap gasoline enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. It’s freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans, but the body of the Earth itself. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.
It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It’s the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, the automobile, is the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
I don’t believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. But still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. Don’t struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them, pray for them, if you’re so moved, but don’t pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they’ve painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”