Here is a post I wrote about Ferguson last week. It’s just going live today because I wanted to reflect on it a bit more. I’m trying to avoid sounding preachy and to avoid appropriating the events in Ferguson. So let me preface this post by saying that I recognize my privilege (as a white man in front of a computer on the other side of the country). Also worth mentioning here, I make connections between Ferguson and other geopolitical events, but I don’t mean to diminish the incidents in Ferguson in and of themselves — they are spectacular and horrifying, and worth concentrating on in and of their own right. In the aftermath of the police shooting of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, I thought I start speaking/writing, even if I still have reflecting to do. ——- I want to write a little bit about police brutality in the U.S., a topic that is at the forefront of many people’s thoughts today, given the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. If I were a better writer of fiction, I would tell this allegorically in a story titled, “A Place Called Misery,” playing on the pronunciation of the state name and the painful state of affairs in Ferguson. Except, I’m a lackluster author of fiction at best — in fairness, my blogging is not top-notch, this I recognize. What I can write is reasoned, considered, considerate prose. So, I’ll try my hand at that, and borrow from a much better weaver of tales. Near the end of the 1980 J.M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the main character and narrator, who began the novel as a fat and happy imperial bureaucrat, has been imprisoned and tortured for hindering a secret security bureau investigation (more or less), and come to realize his own complicity in the violent sins of the Empire. With his new knowledge, he confronts the now-thwarted leader of the bureau, and chief torturer with an ethical message, stating:
‘The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves,’ I say. I nod and nod, driving the message home. ‘Not on others,’ I say.
This line, which has always held resonance for me, seems even more powerful and true in light of the violent police beatings this summer (Eric Garner’s death even being ruled a homicide). It appears to be a lesson that the agencies tasked with policing and securing us need to learn, that their training and their occupation put them in a unique position — they are forced to live, breathe, and work closer to violence than most of the rest of us, but to believe they are untouched by the violence around them would be dangerous. And to think that violence should be wielded on others, because they perceive it as wielded at them, is unfair and unethical, simply reproducing the structures that promote that violence. I thought about this as I watched the news this morning, and I reflected on its relation to Gaza, and to the U.S.’s complicity in financing, supplying, and shielding Israel in that context, and I realized that to focus on the police agencies is only to treat the symptom, these events are a reflection of bigger problems and harbingers of bigger changes. (And that said WOW we must treat this symptom with grassroots organizing until legislation and oversight better protect citizens, especially citizens of color.) These are represntative of a huge divide in privilege along visibly racial, and less visibly racialized, lines, and the defensive reaction to secure privilege against perceived threats. And since, as I am learning, privilege speaks to privilege, I thought I would say something. Forgive my indirectness, I find writing about this difficult, as a person who experiences a plethora of privileges, (white, male, heteronormative, able-bodied, educated, and a sincere etcetera), I often feel, despite the urging of supportive friends and colleagues, that my speaking (or writing) up is doubly read and doubly disavowed. It is part insecurity and part truth that makes me see a divide, along many fractured lines of privilege. To those who share my privilege without recognizing it (or without wanting to relinquish it), I appear the pariah, even at times the “race-traitor”: a sorry and mangled product of “white guilt” in a postracial world, giving in to demands for “political correctness” and being foolishly caught up in “someone else’s” cause. To those who are truly suffering and oppressed, I fear as though I appear another sanctimonious, privileged fool, trying to assuage my own guilt without reliquishing my privilege. And at heart, certainly, they are both partially right, I always hope that I can make a difference or change a mind, but I am seldom willing to put myself at risk. I’m working on that. The death of Michael Brown (like the death of Trayvon Martin, and like countless others before them, though it is worth our effort to try to count and recite their names), speaks to the structures of power which function to marginalize along racial and racialized lines. These and similar incidences of violence are the exceptions that often go unnoticed or unremarked, which maintain the norm. Technology (smartphones, social media) and activism have made some of these previously occluded events more visible to us — and indeed, isn’t the Rodney King beating their analog predecessor? But technology is a tool that can be wielded in many ways, it provides us with an opening: old structures and definitions are destabilized, restructuring, we must seize the moment and help to shape the world in a positive way, rather than sit idly as the inequities of the past reproduce themselves ad nauseum, with greater efficiency and reach provided by these same new technologies. I don’t read facebook much these days, I get too angry seeing all the unmeasured, unthinking rants, many of which come from positions of privilege and prejudice (and no, I am not referring solely to racial ones, though they are prevalent). I’ve posted numerous comments and status updates recently about the need to think about our position, privilege, and relation to others before speaking/writing/acting. I think knee-jerk ideological reactions are perhaps the most common and most dangerous in politically heated environs. This is sad, this is damaging, this can easily be solved with a culture of accountability and relationality, which, I admit, is much easier to preach than practice, much easier to outline than teach. In my sparingly allotted time on facebook today, though, I saw something that — as usual — stuck with me, it “stuck in my craw,” as a professor I had in college liked to put it. Someone whom I was close to in the past, but have very different political views from today, was sarcastically bemoaning the political unrest in Ferguson. It struck me that this individual, and many others in my facebook feed, had no idea what it felt like to be persecuted, to be harried, to have loved ones, friends, and acquaintances that have been harrassed, arrested, beaten, killed, while their persecutors go unpunished, or suffer only symbolic punishment. (Indeed, my own experience of all this is limited to a series of events in my youth in Chicago that emphasize both, the petty cruelty and harrassment of some police officers — like those playing odd games with scared teenagers much like the parodic reprsentations of police in Super Troopers — and the generosity and care of other officers of the law, as well as the privilege I at times experienced. But this isn’t a blog post about my life, this is much, much bigger than me. This is about being blind to privilege, being blind to the perpetuation of the structures of oppression and our own complicity in them.) Another line from Waiting for the Barbarians could be instructive for all those that feel their comfort threatened, that think people are overreacting to police brutality, that shrug off the extremely uneven rate of arrests, stops, searches, and beatings along lines of race (and class, which is still highly racialized), of those that think what is happening in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Syria is a distant and unrelated political event. In Coetezee’s novel, the narrator eventually recognizes is own complicity in the violence and torture perpetuated by “Empire,” seeing his role in maintaining the structures of power as a fat, happy bureaucrat, as complementary to those of the head of the State police, Colonel Joll, the man who beat, and tortured, and killed:
I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.
As long as we continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering, pain, and oppression of our fellow Earthbound beings, we are living the lie that maintains the structures of oppression. The world and the U.S. are only postracial in the sense that race alone is not the dividing function, now class, nationality, occupation (or lack thereof), ability, and many other facets of appearance and manner are racialized — they become heuristics, mental shortcuts to preconceived notions or conclusions based on experience and socialization. The only problem is that these mental shortcuts, snap-judgements that help us to think quickly, categorize people, and decide how to approach them, are also the definition of prejudice, and our socialization reflects our position of privlege (or lack thereof), so that implicitly, these categorizations favor the status quo. Édouard Glissant advocates for a “Poetics of Relation,” and Rosi Braidotti calls for a radical nomadizing of the subject, a “becoming imperceptible;” at heart their ideas speak to one another, and tell us that we need to begin to understand ourselves not as discrete individuals, but as embedded bodies in a web of global relationality. To those unfamiliar with critical theory or philosophy, this might sound a bit hooey, but the more I see contemporary geopolitical and environmental events unfold, the truer it rings to me: we must understand our relations to one another and to other peoples, nations, and to the planet itself, or we condemn ourselves (and all others) to suffer a privative, foreshortened existence. We need to recognize our privilege, understand where it comes from, on whose backs it was produced, and do our part not to reproduce the inequity and violence that have likely put us in a position above other people. I hope that this message reaches those people who need it most, and think they need it least. I’d like to close by saying that I acknowledge my position of privilege allowed me to write this — and I mean that in a number of senses — and I have much, much more work to do in understanding and acknowledging my own relationality and privilege. What I am saying is that this is no holier-than-though sermon, it’s a measured and meditative call to action. I am certainly guilty of prejudices, I certainly take my privilege for granted, but I’m working on it. Please, work with me.