On my left side was a whole bunch of cops…the riot team. On my right side there was a CVS [pharmacy] burning. So we just said let’s set up right here and perform.
The above are the words of Dimitri Reeves. Reeves is a musician and Michael Jackson tribute artist whose performances on the streets of Baltimore during protests and riots following the alleged murder of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department, have led to misleading headlines calling him the “Michael Jackson Protester”. In reality Reeves had been performing on those same streets regularly for over two years, since his manager, Vaughan Mason (whose 1980 song “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” will be familiar to roller-disco aficionados) had convinced him that he should follow the examples of great artists like James Brown and Muddy Waters, who began their careers on street corners.
When the protests first broke out Reeves had been at the dentist’s. “We see on CNN, oh wow, this is really going on…We saw places we perform at all the time…I normally see this stuff on TV, movies…when it’s in your backyard it’s a whole ‘nother experience.” Reeves and his manager decided to take their sound system and hit the streets, setting up outside the burning pharmacy. “We did “Will You Be There”, “Heal The World”, and “You Are Not Alone”, and protesters came up, and looters came up, and they said keep on going, they cheered me on.”
Reeves is an effervescent, happy person who emphasizes the peaceful and “positive” forms that the protest took. He described scenes of jubilation in the street upon hearing that the police involved in the death of Freddie Gray (which had sparked the protest) had been indicted. He spoke of people praying and singing songs on the steps of city hall. “Everybody was honking their horns, screaming yelling, you know – it felt good…they were so happy…it really touched my heart”. The hopefulness he conveyed surprised me. Until this point the only contact I had with Baltimore had been moderated on one hand by black academics and activists who remained focused on the broader issues of racial inequality and repression, which obviously weren’t solved with the indictment, or on the other hand by the mainstream US and international media, who instead focused on the burning CVS pharmacy.
Of course the choice of where to focus reveals something about the agendas these huge media companies are imbued with. CVS is the number 12 company on the Forbes Fortune 500 list. It has over 7,000 locations in the US, and annual revenues of over 55 billion dollars. It has announced it will rebuild the stores that were damaged. From CVS’s point of view the property damage is negligible, a mosquito bite. Far more value could be destroyed in a single afternoon’s trading for no reason at all other than the alignment of several stock-brokers’ cocaine and hooker-fueled whims. Of course that’s ok though, it is the place of Wall Street speculators to plunder and destroy, carrying off far more than a few bottles of oxycontin.
That kind of theft, of course, would not be newsworthy. It fits completely within the system’s normal functioning: people at the top kicking down. Just like how it wasn’t a big deal when a CVS manager strangled a homeless black man, Anthony Kyser, who had stolen toothpaste from the store. The manager escaped charges – despite the medical examiner’s office ruling the death a homicide and security camera footage capturing the whole event – during which Kyser is held down and choked for an extended period by the manager while another man kicks him in the head.
An ‘Outsider’s’ Perspective
In America it’s kind of OK for white people to kill black people. In this regard it’s much like Australia where racism, including overtly racist government policy, is clawing back what influence it may have lost.
I went back and forth forever about whether to actually write this article. IC has already published work about the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, with our associate Simeon Nkola providing an African perspective on the issue, one you don’t actually hear that often, and concluding, much as I will that:
Perhaps we should not be surprised, given the genocide, racism, and discrimination entrenched in America’s DNA, its birth certificate signed with the blood of American Indians, and its growth facilitated by the bloody labor of millions of black people throughout the years of slavery and sharecropping…
…everything remaining the same, it won’t be long until America replicates the tragedy of the Roman Republic’s decline with social tensions as one of the inescapable causes of its demise.
I’m aware how frivolous another view from the outside, by a white guy from Australia who’s never even been in US airspace, must seem.
BREAKING: America Has Racists!
However since Simeon wrote in January the killings haven’t stopped. Since his January article the Black Lives Matter campaign, who describe themselves as “a national network initiated in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin” has protested over the deaths of, Tony Robinson, Meagan Hockaday, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, all allegedly killed by police. Hockaday allegedly ran at police with a knife, Freddie Gray was allegedly in possession of a blade but it is not even alleged he threatened anyone with it, and the others were completely unarmed. These are just a tiny sample of a much larger phenomenon.
These highly publicized cases, in which incriminating video or photographic evidence exists, represent just the most obviously egregious examples of the commonplace use of disproportionate state violence against black people in the United States, where black people shot by police are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unarmed.
As if to prove the point that things can always get worse, this total was added to by the Charleston shooting – an overtly racist massacre of nine people, described as such by the alleged perpetrator, Dylann Roof in a detailed manifesto which overtly linked his actions to the white supremacist ideologies of apartheid South Africa and the American Confederacy, which at least half of the US media, amazingly, tried to disconnect from broader issues of racism in America.
Adopting a Precise Definition
Of course the Charleston shooting and the myriad other racially motivated murders have lead to headlines and conversations about race in the US appearing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. As usual I am almost as disturbed by the response of my fellow progressives and leftists as I am by the wingnut vitriol they confront.
Prime among my concern with the left’s response was our obsession with the term terrorism.
Refusal to Call Charleston Shootings “Terrorism” Again Shows It’s a Meaningless Propaganda Term https://t.co/CTEbJCegE2
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) June 19, 2015
In the article linked to from the tweet above, Greenwald gives the issue the best possible treatment, concluding that the term terrorism is, just like the tweet says, “meaningless propaganda,” and laments that “a term that is so easily and frequently manipulated and devoid of fixed meaning – has now become central to our political culture and legal framework.” Many of the other debates I’ve seen lose sight of this and instead reinforce the centrality of this term: devoting their energies to proving that the attacks were terrorism, because we all know that terrorism is the WORST THING EVER.
That already concedes too much ground to the fascist, racist worldview that emanates from Washington, London, Paris, and other centers of imperial power. That’s their buzzword. In one sense Greenwald is right that it is a meaningless propaganda term, it’s meaning shifting according to the needs of authoritarian propagandists. For example, during the era of the “War On Terror”, it took on the connotation of “Muslim”, since that’s the group we need to demonize most urgently, so we can kill them in large numbers without feeling anything about it. Previously it had meant, in certain contexts, Catholic, communist, or whatever it needed to mean to be useful to those in power.
However, there is, I think, a common thread regarding the usage of the word, going back to it’s origin, the state terror of the French revolution – a horror show that saw thousands killed. Many of these people were aristocrats killed by those “beneath” them in the social pecking order. For this reason – unlike the countless other bloodbaths in French history; the horrific torture, famines, and daily humiliation faced by ordinary French people – “The Reign Of Terror” or sometimes simply “The Terror”, is never sanitized and removed to a safe historical distance, but instead held up (in both fiction and history) as a vivid and ghastly reminder of the dangers of The Mob.
So in one sense, calling Roof a terrorist is a breach with the traditional usage of the word – and paints him as something he is not, a victim kicking up. Roof is a perpetrator, kicking down. Large sections of white America kick with him. By fighting over the term terrorism, as usual, we’re thinking too small. We’re frantically engaging in a whackamole tactical struggle, attacking the lies and aggressions of the right as they occur, never stepping back to properly size up our opponent and think strategically. If we did we might see this attack,for what it is: genocide. Defined at Nuremberg as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group
The definition couldn’t be a neater fit. Yet, I’ve not seen it used at all. Obviously, the labels genocide and terrorism aren’t mutually exclusive. A genocidal act of terrorism, which explicitly hoped to incite a larger genocide. Yet the G word is nowhere. I once even heard a self described leftist accuse the Ecuadorian government of “genocide” for approving oil drilling (with world’s best safety standards and so on) on land inhabited by an indigenous nation (recognized as such by Ecuador’s “pluri-national” constitution). I saw people take this seriously. Yet, people balk when I suggest the term might be applicable to Roof’s (alleged) acts, or to the broader systems of racism in America. Other potentially genocidal acts listed in the Nuremberg definition include:
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
If the United States of America has a cogent defense against this charge in relation to its black population – one that doesn’t circularly rely on appeals to America’s essential goodness – I would like to hear it. Our flinching from this term is a reminder that despite all the efforts so far, we have yet to form a clear collective picture of the nature of white power and privilege, both the imminence and historical depth of it, especially in settler states like Australia, the US, and South Africa. An incident I came across in my research which made me realize the extent to which I was still underestimating the force and brutality of US racism, now and historically, is the Tulsa Race Riot, which took place in 1921 in the neighborhood of Greenwood in the town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, Greenwood was the richest black neighborhood in the US, and was known as the “Negro Wall St.” (now people tend to use the term “Black Wall Street”). Here was a place where black people had, exactly as they are constantly being told to do, ignored the unfair disadvantages they faced, put aside their grievances with white power structures, rolled up their proverbial sleeves and worked within the system to build themselves up as individuals, families, and as a community. Then over 1,000 armed white people attacked, using military weapons including aircraft and firebombs, and destroyed nearly the entire area, killing an unknown number, estimated by some to be as many as 300. We don’t really know of course because the whole event was suppressed from history books for decades. One of the more horrific and genocidal scenes described on Wikipedia is that of a mixed race crowd leaving a movie theater, unaware that the riot was occurring, and walking into the line of fire of white gunmen, who fired on the clueless and terrified black moviegoers among them.
Greenwood, as a commercial hub was destroyed. One hundred ninety-one businesses, a junior high school, several churches, and the only hospital in the district were destroyed. Additionally, 1,256 houses were burned (according to the Red Cross) with another 215 being looted but not burned. Approximately 10,000 people were left homeless. There are people still alive who lived through this event.
No direct compensation has ever been paid. I would wager a majority of Americans remain completely ignorant of it ever having occurred; the campaign of suppression and censorship worked. The success of this campaign allows most of those criticizing the property damage committed by those on the fringes of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Baltimore and elsewhere to do so in blissful ignorance of America’s recent history.
Most of you will remember the “Two Girls One Cup” phenomenon of 2007. For those of you who don’t, it was centered on the trailer to a Brazilian scat-porn video, featuring – actually my editors told me a detailed description isn’t necessary. You can find out if you want to, but I don’t advise it. For some reason it became not only socially acceptable to view this, but a kind of bizarre obligation. I remember a discussion I had with a friend of mine about the video, which I had seen and he hadn’t. Nothing I say, I said, can prepare you for just how gross it is. It is impossible to over-hype. No matter how ready you think you are, you’re not. You will be shocked.A few days or a week later he messaged me telling me I was right. Even my warnings-are-inadequate warning was inadequate.
A serious look at racial issues – and the hypocrisy that surrounds them – in the US produces much the same result. You think you know, you think you’re hardened to the horror-show, but you’re not. You’ll be shocked. You’ll be so shocked you’ll look away and try and gather yourself, attempt to assimilate the knowledge, then look back, and be just as shocked again. I was, anyhow.
Layers of Stubborn Ignorance
As part of research for this article I spoke to an activist named Blake Simons, from Berkeley’s Black Student Union. Like many, I had always thought of The University of California’s famous campus as a kind of progressive enclave – an oasis of forward thinking in the desert of American redneckery. I thought I would be talking to Simons and his fellow student unionist Lauren Butler about their substantial direct actions, and Baltimore, which Butler had just visited.
Instead we spent most of the time talking about the – to me shocking – racism on campus at Berkeley. The black student population of Berkeley is just 3 percent (the US population is 12 percent black). Simon’s didn’t know the racial percentages of the professors, but described them as “very very white,” pointing out that his department – political science – had not, in 2015, ever, once had a black professor. Simons described encountering the widespread use of the “N-word” by white frat-boys and professors alike, as well as having the epithet carved into the wall near his dorm room soon after he arrived for his freshman year.
His fellow student unionist agreed “100%” with Simons’s stark assessment of their campus, describing the problems she faced there as a “miniature version of the bigger systems,” that dominate American life.
In Butler’s anger was mixed some hopefulness, as she had, at the time of our interview, just returned from Baltimore, where protests following the murder of Freddie Gray had led to an indictment of the police involved. She described images of members rival gangs coming together: “It wasn’t gang signs. Everyone was throwing up the black power fist…” and of a community coming together in outrage. What struck her especially were the youth, by which she doesn’t mean college students or even teenagers. “Now when I say youth”, she said, “I mean six and seven year old girls, they were leading the chants as we marched from city hall. They were on the big horn, that was bigger than their heads…’no justice no peace’.”
While she also expressed sadness over the fact that children that young even had to come to grips with such injustices, there seemed to me to be a taste of the heady optimism that comes from participating in a successful protest movement.
Another of my interviewees, Chanelle Helm, an activist from Louisville, Kentucky agreed that this was, in some ways, a more hopeful time, as, due to (among other things) the proliferation of camera phones and social media, police were more frequently being held accountable for their violence toward people of color. Helm told me that she was herself a “victim”, or rather (she corrected herself), a “survivor” of police violence:
I was assaulted by six officers, and then I say eight, because two watched. In my situation there were no cameras, cell phone cameras were new so a lot of people couldn’t get those and it was hard for us to even find surveillance video…It’s awesome that we’re getting this on footage, and we’re seeing this first hand…people victimized by the police, or killed by the police…
However, and here she cuts to the heart of what is so striking about the most recent spate of high profile police murders, even when there is proof, and widespread public outrage, it often doesn’t matter: “We saw Eric Garner in New York, and he was killed literally on camera, from the beginning of the altercation to the end.” Yet the police officer who killed him walks free.
The organizations Helm is involved in are working, for this reason, to highlight the broader systemic issues that surround police interaction with people of color: the courts and juries, police training, and so on. “‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t stop with people in the street,” she summarizes, explaining that “we the people” need to be involved in policy debates and apply pressure at all levels to achieve change. She even says that her group has traction with some policy makers and other figures inside the political establishment, due in no small part to their protests and direct actions including those which disrupt lucrative high profile events like the Kentucky Derby. She seems, like all my interviewees, remarkably calm, like she’s able to maintain an emotional distance from the issues, which, I imagine, makes it easier to grapple with them on a daily basis. Hers, like that which the Berkeley-based activists mentioned above, is the perspective from the trenches.
However, for the rest of us it might be worth stepping back for a second, and trying to look through the details, and seeing if we can catch a glimpse into the nihilistic violent abyss that lurks just below the surface of American society, shielded from the light by a layer of stubborn ignorance.
The Bedrock of American ‘Liberty’
Yes I know, Americans are constantly talking about race, or so it seems from the outside.
However, perhaps these conversations have so far been mostly beside the point, or even counter productive, failing to dig deep enough, to truly confront the enormity of the issue. Perhaps they – subconsciously or otherwise – fear that such excavations could upset the very foundations of their society.
How many Americans generally are aware that their most celebrated founding father George Washington (famous for his bad teeth) had dentures made in part from slaves teeth?
How many of those viewing the accusations of racism against the police who keep killing unarmed black people know that many of these police departments had their origins as slave patrols?
This long suppressed history is beginning to re-surface. Not least due to the work of academics like Gerald Horne, one of the five interviewees contacted for this story.
His work goes beyond simply cataloging such barbarity – instead using these historic facts as evidence in his case against the currently predominant narrative that the US’ “founding fathers” were motivated by a love of liberty, from which the racism of slavery was a horrible contradictory aberration.
He dismisses the flowery rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence completely.
It’s a cover story. It’s Orwellian double speak. Total. Fucking. Bullshit.
He identifies another motive.
In our interview he said:
Rather than being some kind of grand revolt and a step forward for humanity, the reason that slaveholders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and all the rest revolted against British rule in 1776 was because Britain was moving toward the abolition of slavery, and was envisioning a different role for the population of African descent. And rather than going along with the abolition of slavery these slave owners revolted. In that sense the United States should be analogized, for example, to Rhodesia, which in November 1965, in the nation now known as Zimbabwe, you had a so-called white minority government that rebelled against Britain rather than capitulate to the idea of one person one vote, or African majority rule.
My interaction with Horne’s work should not be overstated. I’m yet to read his 2014 book on the topic The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, but have ordered a copy. However by the time of our interview I was already very taken by his version of the story, as presented in various interviews and talks I’d seen.
The feeling I came away with after these conversations was similar to experiences I remembered from high-school maths, when I’d worked on an impossible seeming problem from every conceivable angle, filling whole pages with my workings, and getting nowhere, then be shown by the teacher or a smarter kid how if you just worked methodically from first principles without getting thrown by the curly bits, you could get to the solution in just a few elegant steps.
You could start with the idea that these “Founding Fathers” had a profound love of liberty and a belief that “all men are created equal” – something pounded into the minds of children not just in the US but all around the globe, and then learn that they had held slaves, committed genocide, and so forth, and spend forever attempting a complex moral algebra in which the first vision of these men could be made to equal the second.
We factor in the early misinterpretations of Darwin – the confusion in people’s early modern minds between species and races – and we take into account the insurmountable inertia of an economic system dependent on this racism. We might let our mind’s eye soar far and wide for ways to preserve our assumed initial condition of the goodness of these men, whose laws and guns and chains and whips turned people into things. We might look with a forgiving eye on what we imagine to be their self deception, and think wistfully of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, where he wrote:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We might, in such a spirit, see these two portions, their “greatness” and their terribleness, as two sides of the same coin and, retreating into a pseudo-Buddhist amorality, view it with a kind of serene moral distance rather than judging, and merely revel in the cinematic drama of it all.
We could and, raised on a narrative of Essential White Goodness, many of us do.
In Horne’s terms we could “relativize” the historic crimes of these conquering, enslaving brutes, where the crimes of others are presented in stark, absolute, terms, without an accompanying rationalization.
Alternatively, you start with the fact that these men were genocidal colonists and slave owners, ignore their luminescent statements about loving freedom as bullshit – just the kind of thing people in politics say – and there you go. Done.
And fuck Walt Whitman. He was a racist too.
In that context all their actions make perfect and immediate sense. The US was just another manifestation of the European Imperial Project, inseparable from white supremacism; indeed it’s fissure with its European roots came about because in Europe, racism and support for slavery were waning (though mostly for cynical and strategic reasons).
There are, it’s true, kinds of contradiction and complexity that add depth to a person – character, even. Mostly though, when people contradict themselves it’s because they’re hypocrites.
One thing clear about Professor Horne is that his worldview, one that had thoroughly discarded this myth of Essential White Goodness, is solidly consistent. The more he talked, the less distant this past seemed.
The slave patrols that were inaugurated in the United States after the formation of this country, in many ways they form the foundation of urban police departments in southern cities like Atlanta, Charleston, Savanah etc. … [D]uring the days of the slave patrol, a black person seen out and about was subject to being questioned, interrogated, or worse, if they did not have some sort of proper explanation as to why they were walking through a certain neighborhood. That kind of system, to a large extent, still exists today. It’s one of the reasons why when a dark-skinned person like myself goes into a department store, I’m usually followed around. It’s one of the reasons why black preschoolers, we’re talking about kids who are four years old, are suspended at a higher rate from preschool than any other group…
He mentions incarceration rates, the bias toward sending black convicts to death-row, infant mortality, life expectancy. He could go on. In this context he described the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore as a “prototypical incident”, before rattling off recent, similar incidents; Michael Brown, Walker Scott, Tamir Rice (the 12 year old with the air gun). He says he thinks these incidents are becoming more common, before once more suggesting we “step back into history for a second”:
The United states, I should say in all fairness, when it was founded in the late 18th century, did represent a step forward from the religious conflict that had been rocking Europe…But the United states replaced that religious axis with a racial axis…those defined as white versus those not defined as white. That’s the new divergence for the United States, which is one of the reasons in my book I call it the first apartheid society. That apartheid society began to retreat in the 20th century, not least because of the class project. Particularly the organizing of unions, since black people are disproportionately working class, actually disproportionately proletariat – that is to say working in transport or factories or on the docks, etc. And with the rise of unions, being assisted by union movements abroad and also assisted by socialist projects abroad, this lead to a retreat of the apartheid society. But we all know that globally and domestically the class project has suffered debilitating blows in recent decades. And it’s no accident in my mind that as the class project has retreated domestically and globally, you see a recrudescence of religious conflict as we see with the rise of ISIS and Boko-Haram and Al Shabaab, but we also see the recrudescence of racism, not least in North America because the class project had operated as something of a restraint on the ruling elite and on US society as a whole. Therefore I argue that now you’re seeing a resurgence, because of the decline of the class project and a return of the US to its origins, and to its roots.
Is this fundamentally racist national project redeemable?
It depends what you mean by redeemable. I think obviously radical surgery is called for, and unless radical surgery takes place I’m afraid we’re always going to have the snuff film of the weak, you know, some poor black person being shot down by police and then uploaded to Youtube.
Professor Horne’s talk of radical surgery reminded me of another quote, also calling for a drastic, discontinuous rupture in the continuum of American society. It was from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered at the 11th Annual Convention Southern Christian Leaders Conference, in Atlanta, on 16 August 1967. The speech deals extensively with class and income issues, and engages intellectually with Marx (embracing his dialectic approach but rejecting his materialism, saying that “maybe Marx didn’t follow Hegel enough”):
And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.’ He didn’t say, ‘Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery.’ He didn’t say, ‘Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.’ He didn’t say, ‘Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.’ He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, ‘Nicodemus, you must be born again.’
In other words, ‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, America, you must be born again!
It is clear that even the election of a black man to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring about this rebirth. Indeed there is a good argument to be made that exceptions like Obama, examples of black success, serve mostly as cover for the rule, which is that the median white family is 13 times richer than the median black family, and the gap is growing. The American system of racial division has moved back from the overt, and by blurring its edges has deepened its hold.
Of course any change of the scale that the activists I spoke to will be, in large part, generational, as those who grew up in an era when racism was not just ubiquitous (as it still is now) but blatant and defended as moral in mainstream discourses, die off.
Millennials, the data shows have a strong if somewhat simple belief in racial equality. They are, or were as the most recent data I could find is four years old, also the only age group of Americans who have more positive views of socialism than capitalism. The same data also shows blacks are substantially more likely to favor socialism than whites, dovetailing nicely with professor Horne’s emphasis on their proletariat skew. They are coming of age in an America where economic and racial inequality are being pushed to the fore of the debate by dedicated activists. Perhaps in their lifetimes (or the lifetimes of those children from Baltimore that Ms. Butler mentioned, the ones leading chants at six years of age), and hopefully as part of a global shift toward new and better systems, America will see this grand rebirth, and begin in earnest to fulfill its rhetorical promises of equality, justice, and freedom.