The Tragedy of the Political

I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. These men – we now know them as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53 – intervened. The man who killed them, identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was yelling slurs at the women. Details are scant, but we know that Christian slit the throats of Namkai-Meche and Best, killing them and stabbing a third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, who is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

It feels insensitive to write about this the day after their deaths. All across this country, people are grieving. Tens of thousands of people are telling Namkai-Meche’s mother that her son was a hero, that she is a hero for raising a man who intervened on behalf of strangers. I don’t mean to claim I have a clever take that you must listen to; I’m grieving too.

To quote an essay written after the 2015 attacks that left over 100 dead in Paris, “If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write think pieces after Paris.” Surely the same can be said after Portland. But if so many acts of violence these days are political, Namkai-Meche and Best’s deaths feel over-determined, inflection points in a time of upheaval where our days are over-saturated, each news cycle overflowing, delivered breathlessly, as if we now exist in a present that is somehow both too fast, impossible to keep up with, even as each day stretches onward like a horizon, full of too many hours, as if time itself is at fault, offering up irresistible opportunities for horror to the world, whose villains can’t help but drop tragedies into our day.

Donald Trump is the president. His election has intensified a lot of problems but after Portland, none feels more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration empowers the far right, vigilantes like Christian, a denizen of those idiotic free-speech rallies who would of course never murder someone, until he did.

And he’s not alone. One week ago, on May 20, Sean Urbanski, a white man, murdered Richard Collins III, a black man who would have graduated from Bowie State University this week, was murdered by Sean Urbanski. He stabbed Collins in the chest and fled the scene. We later found out Urbanski, like Christian, followed the far right.

Then there’s Adam Puriton, 51, a white man accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas on February 24 of this year. At least one bystander claims Puriton shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the victims, who were Indian. Puriton is also accused of wounding Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot while trying to intervene.

These are all racist attacks. Dave Zirin was right to call Collins’s death a lynching. These are all hate crimes. The men who are killing our friends and neighbors are empowered by the election of someone who imbibes fringe far-right beliefs about people of color, then spits them out as policy.

These policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, but they’re having an effect. Despite courts overturning Trump’s “Muslim ban,” visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – declined by 55 percent compared with a year prior.

As was widely reported yesterday, airstrikes from the US-led coalition killed at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, in Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news broke the same day Christian murdered the two men who dared stop him from shouting anti-immigrant slurs on a Portland train. When Islamophobia is state policy and racism is preached from the Oval Office, it’s no surprise the far-right’s shock troops kill people in cold blood. When the leader of the United States has your back, what is there to lose?

Which is not to let the administrations before Trump off the hook: George W. Bush instituted the PATRIOT Act, putting massive resources into the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated abroad. Obama perfected drone warfare, normalizing the practice of killing civilians without it tarring his “progressive” or “anti-racist” legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language preferred by our political elites. He admits to what he’s doing and doesn’t apologize for it, emboldening his grassroots following to act on the ideas driving his administration.

For those of us who oppose racism whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, the question arises: what can we do? The answer seems more straightforward, if also more challenging, when it comes to the racism of the state: we oppose Trump’s policies, push for reforms that protect our communities, and challenge the American war machine no matter how it tries to explain away its actions.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed while intervening to prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man Puriton shot in Kansas – he was intervening. Are we to put our lives at risk to stand up to bigotry?

I wish I had an answer to that. At one level, the mode of action remains the same: you have to intervene if it feels like the right thing to do, even knowing that this could cause violence to escalate back onto you. I did this just two days ago: a woman was preaching Islamophobia at a diner, and I weighed the costs and benefits to inserting myself into a situation from which I could easily walk away. I intervened. The goal wasn’t to convince a bigot to give up her bigotry, but to make her think twice about spouting it publicly, and to show bystanders that they have comrades who won’t abide by racism. And I’d done it the night before, at a bar in Brooklyn, when a man brought up the Manchester bombing and insisted it was reason to tighten our immigration policies. Fortunately, the bartender was on my side, and told the man he could either shut up or leave, and the man choosing to leave. If this happens that often in New York, bastion of liberalism that it is, I can only imagine those in the country’s heartland are now forced to make these calculations on an increasingly frequent basis.

These recent murders may change that calculus for many of us. That’s natural. The more pressing consideration then moves to the collective level: how do we challenge the far-right as a movement, without restricting our challenges to the occasional rally or march?

That’s a question being discussed now in organizations across the country. How do we prevent racist violence without asking people to risk their safety? How do we broaden the consensus that declares the far right unacceptable, that prevents them from berating our friends and families in a way that isn’t voluntaristic or premised on a willingness to confront the right individually?

It’s a more pressing question than ever, and far be it for me to answer it on behalf of organizations or social movements. But ours is undeniably a present soaked in blood, steeped in intimidation, heavy and deluged, screaming with urgency.

No Exceptions

A young black man was shot by a private security officer last night in Canfield, the same apartment complex in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed. I don’t know the details of why he was shot – I didn’t know when I tweeted this thread decrying yet another police shooting in Canfield and I still don’t. I work far too much to keep up on breaking news 24/7. But immediately after tweeting this, the angry losers of the internet began swarming me to gloat. Apparently the man who was shot had a gun, and he wouldn’t put it down. Apparently he was an unsavory character. Apparently blah blah blah. 

But since so many people – both right-wingers and ‘hey-I’m-reasonable-but-I-don’t-get-why-you’d-condemn-this-shooting-when-it-seems-like-this-guy-was-actually-bad’ types – have asked, I’ll explain. When people on the left say that that we think it’s unacceptable that black people – and poor people of every race for that matter – get shot by the police every day, we actually believe it! People getting shot by cops is unacceptable, categorically.

I know a guy who’s a public defender in Roxbury, Boston’s perpetually disinvested in and majority black neighborhood, and he talks about this more clearly than anyone else I’ve met. He’s black, and he says that sometimes his more “respectable” (middle class, often white) acquaintances will ask him how he, a strident civil rights advocate, can bring himself to defend clients guilty of mundane, unglamorous, or downright despicable crimes.

You know how he responds? He says look, that’s civil rights work too. My people are the people in this neighborhood. That includes drug addicts and petty criminals. I don’t care what someone allegedly did: it is an injustice to put poor black people behind bars and it is an injustice to charge them court fees and it is an injustice that they get arrested for doing what white people do but doing it in public because they can’t afford a house to do it in. It’s an injustice that they’re stopped for no reason and that makes it an injustice when police stumble across a crime too. Getting incarcerated is unjust, it doesn’t rehabilitate anyone and it destroys this neighborhood. So I’m proud to keep any and every one out from behind bars, there’s nothing shameful about it.

Right-wingers and racists will see this guy and anyone who agrees with him – myself included – as the enemy, defending the guilty. But when a country’s past, present, and future are categorically weighted in favor of the police and a broken, unjust system of mass incarceration and racial violence, I don’t actually care if a specific black person fucked up, committed a crime, or brandished a weapon. It’s correct to say ‘police, not to mention private security officers, shouldn’t shoot people.’ They shouldn’t be so trigger happy. They shouldn’t have so many guns in the first place. An apartment complex shouldn’t hire private security forces. The people at Canfield in Ferguson shouldn’t have to see another young member of their community felled by an officer. The black and poor shouldn’t be residentially segregated in the first place. I could go on indefinitely but you get the picture.

If the right-wing’s true believers have a virtue over the empty opportunism of the center, it’s a willingness to stick to their beliefs. But those of us on the left aren’t without principles either. The main difference is that our solidarity lies with the oppressed, no matter what.

 

Veteran’s Day Spirit

The counter-narratives some of my left-wing friends write on holidays like this one aren’t my thing but I thought I’d make use of the day to write about a friend of mine named K, someone who was nothing like the abstract “heroic soldier” we’re supposed to honor but was a veteran, serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He killed himself on the first day of 2014, leaving me a message to wake up to in the morning, a gift from an old friend to start off the new year. As he pointed out in his suicide note, although his death was by his own hand, responsibility for it doesn’t stop with him. For once, we’re in agreement about something.

K was from Oakland, a city that from the days of the Black Panthers to the police killing of Oscar Grant has been a damning symbol of the U.S. government’s failure to correspond in practice to the egalitarian rhetoric its representatives employ in speeches. Growing up in desperate circumstances, K chose the path he felt was predetermined for him: he joined the military. Lacking job prospects, K chose the only stable work open to him – and in doing so, threw his life into the hands of the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. As he said to me – serving in the military makes you a hero, so why choose to work anonymously for shit money instead?

After serving his tours, K tried to return to civilian life. Struggling with PTSD and without enough support from the institution that caused his suffering, he started getting into fights and legal trouble. As K put it to me, he couldn’t imagine continuing to serve in the military, but the country whose dirty work he carried out wouldn’t support him as a civilian either. Out of options, he returned to military life a few years ago, only escaping it on January 1, 2014.

While clearly a victim of an inhumane institution, K was also a product of that institution’s culture, and we need to take this seriously when looking critically at the U.S. military. I didn’t know him prior to his time in the Marines, but our friendship was riddled with violent outbursts. K made rape jokes. He relentlessly mocked Muslims. I hope he never did anything worse than make jokes at the expense of these groups but I’d be surprised if that’s the case. Riddled with anxiety about proving himself a Real Man, K was more likely to get into a fist fight than not on any given night. You could bet on it, and sometimes I did – in one memorable instance, he even managed to get into two distinct fights in the course of our walk home. I say this not to demonize him or make light of a condition that kept him awake at night, but to demonstrate that there is no sense in talking about abstract “heroic veterans” – just like any group of people, some are great, some terrible. And even more than most of us, veterans have been exposed to a toxic ideological cocktail of white supremacy, misogyny, and violence. Unsurprisingly, that makes some of them unpleasant people.

In K’s case, that makes for such a shitty person that when you lose touch with him, you never regret it, even when you wake up to his suicide note. By the end of 2013, I had cut off contact with K because I couldn’t put up with him any longer. I learned that in the final months of his life K had started directing his anger inward, talking at length to other soldiers about the people he had killed. My wish upon getting the news that morning was that K could have directed his outrage at a system that produces cities like Oakland as a necessity so that people like him will keep having to choose between signing their own death certificates to fight horrific wars abroad or working in poverty at home.

I wish that K, like the many veterans who have become anti-war leaders, had set his sights on the military itself. It’s here, with the veterans who use their status to voice criticisms of those who bestow it upon them. Here is where you find heroic acts.

I write this in part to keep my memory of K intact but more importantly to provide one example of the atrocities facilitated by glorification of the military. K knew he’d be seen as a hero for enlisting and he was right. Instead of ever working on his dangerous behavior and disgusting political beliefs, he reveled in them.

K was a friend, a largely despicable person, someone deserving of access to adequate support systems, and a veteran. None of those roles are mutually exclusive, and if we refuse to admit such complexities when we talk about veterans, than we’re giving up on an important part of struggling against war.