Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore, Ferguson, and the Hypocrisy of Pleas for Nonviolence

We interrupt our irregularly scheduled programming for something far more personal and having nothing to do with television.  I really hope you don't mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about Baltimore.  Mostly, it’s the fault of this article by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and this interview (actually from last August concerning the Ferguson riots) with historian Heather Ann Thompson.  In particular, two passages stood out to me.  From Coates:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

And from Thompson:

Any time that there is urban rebellion, the way that it is spun has everything to do with whether it's granted legitimacy. Notably, when there was rioting in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and you saw the police with fire hoses and police dogs, it was very easy for white Northerners, particularly the press, to report that for exactly what it was — which was police violence on black citizens who were protesting. Everyone's very clear about that. Sheriff Bull Connor is a racist, the police are racist, and that is why it is violent.
But the minute that these protests moved northward, the racial narrative was much more uncomfortable. "Why in the world would blacks be protesting against us good-hearted white folks in the North? And how dare they?" And what it means is that they were demanding too much, and that they were in fact just looking for trouble. So that narrative of who gets to be a legitimate protester shifts dramatically once protests move northward. It's all about violence, troublemaking, looting, and so forth.

That second passage stands out not just for its relevance today, but for its relevance to pretty much every revolution ever.  The American colonists began with nonviolent resistance before graduating to property destruction (the Boston Tea Party) and, ultimately, war.  Multiple times during the 19th century, rebel slaves took up arms against their owners.  African Americans in the 1960s, gay communities in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, black South Africans under apartheid, the rebels of the Arab Spring – all of these oppressed groups were ultimately forced into violence in order to wrest equal rights from the powerful.

So what’s the difference between these revolutions and the riotous “thugs” and “criminals” in Ferguson and Baltimore?  Well, to put it frankly, for the first time in this generation Americans are being confronted with the painful idea that maybe, just maybe, we are the oppressors.  Certainly no group in power thinks of itself as oppressive.  Running colonies across an ocean is expensive, so it only makes sense to tax those who live there.  Slave owners and Afrikaners alike believed that blacks were inherently inferior and needed the guiding hand of benevolent whites to survive. 

It is only with the distance of culture and time that we can see the unfairness of these systems and the devastation they caused to the suffering populations.  Unfortunately, we are without such gifts in evaluating our own culture.  And, much as the white Northerners in the 1960s deplored police violence in Birmingham while demonizing the “troublemakers” and “looters” in their own neighborhoods, we, today, look back at past oppressors with the appropriate level of condemnation while simultaneously crying, “No.  Not us.  We’re the good guys.” 

You can see it in the worlds of Baltimore police officials.  All week long their declaration has been “Baltimore is not Ferguson.”  After all, Baltimore has a black mayor.  A majority of its city council is black.  43% of its police officers are black.  And, yet, economically speaking, the towns are not so different.  Young black men in Baltimore (aged 20-24) are four times more likely than whites to be unemployed, and one-fifth as likely to have a college degree.  Throw in the standard insane disparities of police stops, arrests, and jail time* and it’s easy to see how many Baltimoreans can see themselves as an oppressed population being overseen by an occupying force.

* Not to mention the fact that Freddie Gray was chased, arrested, and fatally injured not because he actually committed or was suspected of committing a crime, but merely for the act of running from police.

It can be difficult to accept the idea that there is an oppressed people living within our very midst, especially when most Americans don’t feel any particular animosity toward African Americans.  But what we have is not an active racism, but a passive one in which we create laws that allow our government to discriminate covertly, all in the name of the War on Drugs and “keeping our streets safe.” 

All of this brings me back to the idea of nonviolence and whether it is a reasonable expectation in a world in which young black men are seemingly killed with impunity by police officers who, themselves, rarely face repercussions even when their killings are not deemed "justified."  Coates covered a lot of the problems with pleas for nonviolence in his essay fittingly titled “Nonviolence as Compliance,” but I think he could have expanded on one.  “Nonviolence” is the cry of the bully after his victim has finally punched back.  As Coates points out, it is a ruse, a distraction, the height of hypocrisy to breed a culture of violence in African American communities – to use violence and threats of violence to bend a people to the government’s will – and then to turn around and beg for those same people to maintain the peace once they’ve reached their limit. 

Where were the cries for nonviolence as Freddie Gray was having his spinal cord severed?  Where were the pleas for nonviolence as Tamir Rice was being gunned down in his neighborhood park?  Where were the people asking for nonviolence when Eric Garner was having the life choked out of him or John Crawford was being killed while shopping at Wal-Mart or Walter Scott was being murdered while running away?

As Coates says in his piece, this isn’t meant to argue that rioting and violence are “right,” merely that they are inevitable.  They are the inevitable result of any revolution in which the people in power refuse to realize that they are, in fact, the villains of the story.  And until we start demanding nonviolence from the powerful – our government, our police, our military – I can’t in good conscience demand the same from the powerless. 

Tyler Williams a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.