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 reportedly 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 daily news is 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 our president. His election has intensified a number of concerning problems but after Portland, none is more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration has empowered the far-right, vigilantes like Christian, a wingnut, a denizen of those idiotic free speech rallies who would never murder someone, until he did.

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

Then there is 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 Feburary 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’ death a lynching. All of these are 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 and institutionalizes them into policy.

While these policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, they’re having an effect. Despite Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ getting overturned in the courts, visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen – declined by 55% compared with a year prior.

As reported widely yesterday, at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, were killed in airstrikes by the US-led coalition on Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news came out 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 is no surprise that the shock troops of the far-right are killing 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 huge 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 having to drop the label of ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-racist’ from his legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language of 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 this racism, whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, a 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, we push for reforms that protect our communities, and we challenge the US war machine no matter what justifications it cloaks itself in.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed from intervening to help prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man in Kansas who was shot by Puriton – he was trying to intervene. 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 I could easily walk away from. 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 attack and began insisting 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, with the man choosing to leave. If this is happening 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.

And these recent killings 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, even as we know that many of us, like those men in Portland, will continue to do so as a basic requirement of our morality?

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.

imagination is in short supply these days

Imagination is in short supply these days.

Reality may be more wide open to possibilities we never imagined – a bumbling reality television star is President! – but it feels more constrained than ever.

Which isn’t to say I’m calling for the left to create a blueprint of what the vision we’re fighting for will look like. Marx hardly ever went much further than the following:

“In communist society, where no­body has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accom­plished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general pro­duction and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

That’s about as far as I dare to dream too, and it’s not a bad foundation.

But I’ve been reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, and it’s brought into focus how threadbare our current visions are by contrast. Kelley recounts the dreams of black radicals throughout history, detailing their visions even while acknowledging their flaws. Marcus Garvey dreamed of an Africa that had never existed, but it pushed himself and his peers forward into improvements in the here and now. Askia Muhammed Toure spoke of black R&B artists as “poet philosophers,” their music a weapon in the struggle for black freedom. Aimé Césaire, too, spoke of “poetic knowledge,” which accesses truths otherwise obscured by the grinding oppression of our daily lives.

So maybe those of us without creative talents have always had trouble holding to the utopian visions that drive our daily efforts.  But these days, it feels as if more and more of us are allowing our view of the possible to become unduly narrow. Women’s liberation becomes individual empowerment. Radical debate becomes making fun of the columnist dunces of mainstream liberalism.

I fall victim to it too. As we come up against an increasingly powerful right-wing – one aided and abetted by the center, a Democratic Party that can only ever be structurally responsive to its donor class – the impulse to restrict our horizons is strong. We can barely access reproductive rights in the country’s middle, but we can embarrass the hell out of people online for being sexist. We can’t reverse the trend of ballooning police department budgets, but we can get Good Allies to donate to our pet projects. And so our goals narrow, allowing us to feel victorious without achieving anything.

And I don’t mean to single out the easiest targets among the left. I write mostly about labor, and there’s a dire scarcity of imagination there too. Unions face existential threats: federal right-to-work laws, for instance. But instead of changing their approach: moving to democratize their unions, aid in the sustainability of locals by transferring organizing skills from staffers to the rank-and-file and increasing their organizing budgets for new campaigns, most unions are doing the opposite. They’re slashing their budgets, firing young staffers, tailing Trump’s xenophobic and anti-environment rhetoric, or even worse, endorsing it entirely.

This is how a movement shrivels and dies. Not just the labor movement (although definitely the labor movement) but the left as a whole, all our movements that share an interest in improving the lot of the majority. We reduce socialism to ‘populism.’ We reduce liberation to equality. We trade-in redistribution for equity. Just as the Democrats fail to achieve their political aims by tacking to the right from the start, “negotiating” by ceding ground to their purported conservative opponents, the left undermines ourselves by lowering our horizons. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into what those at the top deem acceptable over what we know is necessary, be it when it comes to taking action on climate change, unions, or fighting racism, we resign ourselves to failure from the start.

More than anyone else, we know we can’t afford that. Carbon taxes aren’t enough to resuscitate our dying planet. Body cameras won’t prevent the police from killing our neighbors. The ACA isn’t adequate to the task of getting millions of the uninsured poor access to health care.

I don’t have answers, and this is not an argument against fighting for reforms. But what I do have is the experience of what it feels like to witness what you thought only the day before was impossible, and how important it is to help people experience that for themselves if we want to keep radical imagination alive.

It’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She writes,

“It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question “why Ferguson?” just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when “enough is enough.” The transformation of Mike Brown’s murder from a police killing certainly tipped the scales.”

When Ferguson police officers left Mike Brown’s body on the street for four hours, they pushed the city’s residents over the edge and into an uprising. While that uprising didn’t achieve all its aims, many of the people who participated in it were transformed. The streets became theirs, their friends became comrades, and their dreams of freedom broadened as they experienced what it is to demand change.

The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński describes this process as so powerful that it can set off a revolution. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution, he writes:

“The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts.”

This is what happened in Ferguson, and in so many other cities across the country where we refused to follow orders from police forces that are fundamentally unjust. It’s what I felt during Occupy Wall Street, when ordinary people decided for ourselves what justice meant and in doing so, set ourselves on a path that permanently reoriented our lives toward achieving those aims.

It’s hard to access such visions without involvement in a movement or campaign. To paraphrase poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, it’s only when the clouds clear that we can know the color of the sky, and it’s only by achieving collective gains that we learn what power feels like. But we need not be in Kapuściński’s revolutionary moment to glimpse the possibilities we’re fighting for.

Take the following story of a union victory recounted by R.L. Stephens:

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.

That feeling of winning against the boss, of wresting power from those you previously thought invulnerable? That’s how our vision for the future stays alive. Become too removed from day-to-day struggles and it’s easy to  retreat into a pessimism that takes reality as it exists and reifies it into the only possible reality that could exist, seeing racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality as inexorable, without an alternative.

It’s why I tell people to get involved in organizing, even in a minor way. It’s through the experience of power, not just by talking and writing about it, that we gain access to the knowledge Cesaire thought might be restricted to poets. It’s why radicals celebrated the mass Women’s March, the airport protests, the BLM rallies. Feeling power in a collective, experiencing the moment of refusal in the face of police orders, demanding a fair share in the face of the boss? That’s the basis for radical imagination.

It’s hard – impossible, even – to hold onto that from behind a computer screen. But we shouldn’t let our visions narrow just because events of the day feel so bleak. Odds have always been against us on the left: that doesn’t mean we should restrict our visions to the possible, rather than the necessary. Don’t forget that, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise.

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.

 

Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

Baltimore and Urban Rebellions

Images via @byDVNLLN
Images via @byDVNLLN

Video of cops throwing bricks thrown by protesters back at them, launching tear gas at high school students, beating photographers, and shooting bystanders with rubber bullets: all this is going on in Baltimore right now in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder by the Baltimore Police Department.

All this makes today a day to bear in mind that it was inner-city rebellions (rebellions, not riots) in the 1960s that gave much of the world a view into the unbearable conditions in which the black population in this country exists. The result was incomplete and partial progress, but progress that would not have happened had it not been for communities acting back against their oppression. By refusing to acknowledge the authority of the state as embodied in its coercive forces, and making themselves ungovernable, these communities unmasked the reality that it is the people, not those in power, who decide when political change will happen.

At times this must take the form of an absolute break with previous reality, even if this means violence. As anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon once wrote, “from birth it is clear to [the oppressed] that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.” He goes on to specify that rather than initiated by the oppressed, violence is a learned practice, etched deep into oppressed psyches by their experience of the violence of white supremacy. As Fanon writes, white supremacy “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” While we who participate in extra-institutional  or street politics can criticize violence as strategic error, and I don’t think we can rely on violence to defeat what amounts to nearly infinite instruments of violence held by the US state (and in truth, no one I know in these movements is naive enough to believe we can win by violence alone), condemnations of political violence as immoral can only be directed at the violence of the state if we want our critiques are to maintain logical consistency. And yes, the targeting of police, corporate chains, and payday loan stores is by all means a political choice.

Dilapidated housing, bad schools, police brutality, and a lack of jobs for urban communities went from the periphery to the center of US political priorities in the wake of the 1960s rebellions. The US government poured billions more dollars into housing in an attempt to regain its footing over the cities. A pillar of their multi-pronged strategy, it was the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program that so threatened the state that the government institutionalized the idea, severing any mention of where the program came from but revealing the tenuousness of state legitimacy against the Panthers in the process. In Watts, even a former CIA director, John McCone, in his state-funded McCone Commission, found the cause of that city’s 1965 rebellion to be ” high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions for African Americans in Watts.” Similar reports with similar findings were filed for many other U.S. cities.

Freddie Gray, and hundreds of black men, women, and LGBTQ individuals die senseless deaths in this country each year at the hands of the police. Being black in the United States is a game of Russian roulette with the forces that occupy black communities (not to mention the Zimmermanite vigilantes who emulate them). Black youth are forced to be conscious of their mortality in a way I, as a white kid, never was. It is in this context that youth in Baltimore are fighting for their freedom and humanity. It’s important to support them in that – be it through sending bail money or amplifying their voices – and to turn your eyes to your city at the end of the day. While you might have to squint real hard to find them, as no one with power voluntarily acknowledges their existence, there are youth in your own backyard trying to achieve freedom too, and now’s the time to offer your support to them in whatever way you can. Not rhetorically, I mean, take on some of the risk which is currently overwhelmingly hanging over the black population every day. If they win, we all win, as the only people who benefit from the perpetuation of a white supremacist capitalist system are those at the very top. The police are one key instrument in the reproduction of that system, birthed into existence as slave catchers and forces for disciplining the poor, so to diminish their power – or disband them entirely- is to make progress. Do you have cash? Graphic design skills? A car? A law degree? A public platform? All that, that’s what you offer up. And if you read this far, I know at the least you’ve got free time to offer.