“A riot is the language of the unheard” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I watch events in Ferguson, MO play out in the media, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., during an interview with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” in which he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. The U.S. Government has failed to hear that the economic plight of the American Negro has worsened over the past few years”.
It's crystal clear to the socially and politically conscious that governments in the U.S. are defending the interests of corporations, not defending or enriching the lives of all American citizens. On the contrary, poor people who want a better life often become capitalist cannon fodder. (Just think for a moment about the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.)
Once a group is socioeconomically deprived, American governments add insult to injury and compound their suffering. They treat poor people as if their poverty is the result of a character flaw, as opposed to a set of systemic flaws in American governance. They aim to punish people into developing “good character” and the affluence that supposedly follows. That only begins to explain what we see being played out in Ferguson, Missouri (with its current “misery”).
In the capitalist scheme of things, Ferguson is like that wayward child who needs to be spanked as an example for the other children. And many Americans are buying into that narrative by capitalizing on the crimes that Michael Brown was suspected of committing – theft of a $49 box of cigars and simple assault -- rather than the cop's lack of probable cause for stopping him in the first place. It has cost much more than $49 to police the Ferguson riots and neither the assaults by police nor the oppressed have been simple. We've jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the fact that it was the police who escalated the situation by bringing in K-9 units and conjuring up images of the civil rights marches of the 50's and 60's. So, people react to an unjustified execution by a police officer and more police are brought in with dogs and only serve to exacerbate and compound the original problem. Then the city police are replaced by county police, supposedly to ease tensions. Then county police are replaced with national guardsmen. Then the governor implements a curfew. And, throughout all of this, public officials seem to be clueless as to why tensions are only increasing. Or maybe they were trying to fill some for-profit prison.
In 2005 the people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina were accused of looting – even those who only took perishable necessities from inoperable businesses. Now the media ostracizes residents of Ferguson for looting. Our governments continue to guard businesses from needy people who, in many cases, are only trying to survive like the newly-homeless people after Hurricane Katrina. They invest more in prisons than they invest in education. My Marxist and Communist friends sometimes tell me that we shouldn't say that poor people are “stealing”, but that they're “taking what's rightfully theirs from the capitalists”. I would add that, if poverty breeds crime, then it stands to reason that decreasing poverty would, in turn, decrease crime and the justification for investing in more for-profit prisons where it costs much more to give inmates the necessities of life that they often receive through social services anyway.
Social media is rife with references to the looting of the world economy by Goldman Sachs and by Wall Street as a whole with the help of the U.S. Congress and Bush 43 – and rightly so. Let's not forget about how JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon legally gambled away two billion dollars ($2,000,000,000.00) in a single day and kept his job. Or how the Bush 43 and Obama administrations facilitated the gift of 1.3 TRILLION dollars ($1,300,000,000,000.00) to Wall Street, in essence throwing good money after bad by giving the poor stewards of our economy more of our tax dollars to waste.
That brings us to the crux of the issue and the gist of this post: How should we define “law”, “civil society” or “civil behavior”? For citizens? For police? For the military? For Congress? For any and all walks of life? The various decisions by cops, courts and legislators nationwide comprise a form of jurisprudence known as “legal realism” which basically means: “We make the rules up as we play the game and the “real law” is the abstract totality that emerges out of what police, judges and legislators decide over time. It focuses on how laws and rights are applied, NOT what's on the books”. To a lesser degree, we are also dealing with matters of “critical legal studies” – a school of thought that sees law as the expression of the policy goals of the dominant social group – such as the bourgeoisie or proletariat. (As people's reactions to an unjust system intensify, this latter consideration will move to the forefront and the “wealth protectors” will unabashedly slaughter the oppressed.) With that in mind, let's establish a few working definitions before we proceed (all from Wikipedia):
Jurisprudence: the study and theory of law. Scholars in jurisprudence, also known as legal theorists (including legal philosophers and social theorists of law), hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the nature of law, of legal reasoning, legal systems and of legal institutions.
Jim Crow Laws: were a number of laws of the United States. These laws were enforced in different states between 1876 and 1965. "Jim Crow" laws provided a systematic legal basis for segregating and discriminating against African-Americans.
Legal Realism: is a theory of jurisprudence which argues that the real world practice of law is what determines what law is; the law has the force that it does because of what legislators, judges, and executives do with it. Similar approaches have been developed in many different ways in sociology of law.
Critical Legal Studies: is a younger theory of jurisprudence that has developed since the 1970s. It is primarily a negative thesis that holds that the law is largely contradictory, and can be best analyzed as an expression of the policy goals of the dominant social group
Inverted Totalitarianism: is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in 2003 to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believes that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and uses the term "inverted totalitarianism" to illustrate similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Now let's juxtapose two recent, high profile police killings. The 400-lb. Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer on July 17th, 2014 for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. (Al Capone was imprisoned for tax evasion.) On August 9th, 2014, the 6'4” Michael Brown was shot at least six times by a police officer who supposedly didn't even know yet that Mr. Brown fit the description of a man who was suspected of stealing cigars from a nearby convenience store. That raises some serious questions around probable cause for stopping Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson.
In both cases the men were large, one tall and the other heavy. Both men were Black. Both were killed by White cops. Both were suspected of committing “crimes” involving tobacco products. (Quite honestly, in my struggle to quit smoking cigarettes, being able to buy “singles” or “looseys” has proven helpful. With the government encouraging cessation, you would think they'd take that into consideration.) Eric Garner lost his life over a police operation known as “Broken Windows” which purportedly aimed to catch people committing petty crimes before they committed bigger ones. Ironically (or maybe not), it was the police who committed the bigger crime. Let's also factor in how four NYPD officers were acquitted for the 1999 murder of unarmed Amadou Diallo.
Taken together with the myriads of similar cases, a picture of “legal realism” begins to emerge. If you are Black, you'll be targeted by White police officers. If you are a large Black man, the police might fear you or want to prove that they can whoop you. In either instance, you'll end up dead. The government will imprison or kill you if they can't tax every bit of income that passes through your hands – every little bit. Whether you raise your hands in submission or attempt to show the police your identification, you can be killed for it and the police can be acquitted. Even after you're dead, cops might use your corpse for target practice. (Landing only 19 out of 41 shots from point-blank range is not good marksmanship, especially when you consider that most of those shots were fired after Amadou Diallo was on the ground dying or dead.) In a capitalist society, anyone who is both Black and poor has a target on their back. This is the “political realism” and the current “critical legal analysis” that Afro-Americans have to live with.
Blacks are the poorest race in the United States of America percentage-wise, though there are more poor Whites in terms of raw numbers. Homeless people are, of course, the poorest of the poor. The terms “Black” and “poor” are almost synonymous. If we are cursed with a Republican majority in both houses for Obama's last two years, then “Black” and “homeless” will soon be near-synonyms. These are our social and political realities.
I've been advocating for the homeless since June 2006. Though I've never encouraged negative behavior by any homeless person, I've met a few people who've implied things of that nature. In one instance, I saw a mentally-ill homeless man jumping up and down and spinning around in the library. I called the Department of Mental Health. I then described the incident to a lady friend, explaining that bystanders were expressing fear and uncertainty. She said, “You mean to tell me that you see how the homeless make OTHER people feel?! That's good, Eric”. In another instance, I arrived early to a meeting a couple of years ago. During some small talk, I said something about the bad behavior of a certain homeless person, though I don't recall what incident I was discussing. A man who was setting up for the meeting sarcastically said, “You actually see that homeless people can do wrong too?”
Though I've never stated any support for the wrongs committed by homeless people, I HAVE spoken out against the unprovoked wrongs committed against the homeless. All too often I'm called upon to speak to the issue of the “criminalization of homelessness” – the practice whereby many municipal governments in the United States of America outlaw the fulfilling of basic human needs like sleeping or being fed in certain public places, with the intent of making life more difficult for the homeless. I also talk about how, even though it was called torture when US. Soldiers were suspected of depriving their Iraqi captives of sleep, the police in this country often deprive an unsheltered homeless person of sleep by kicking them off of park benches and out of other public venues – even in the wee hours off the night. Some cops even wait in the alley around five or six o'clock in the morning in hopes of seeing a homeless person relieve themselves. In our system of inverted fascism, local governments go so far as to arrest and jail the good people who feed the homeless or give them money. I've spoken out against such laws and against the reduction of funding for social services even as the need for such services increases.
Some people have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that I support the homeless doing others wrong or being a public nuisance. I can't count the times that someone has pointed to a group of about 30 homeless people hanging out on a sidewalk near a 1,350-person shelter, chatting, smoking cigarettes (possibly drinking alcohol or smoking K2) and told me that I shouldn't fight for them because they don't want to help themselves. If I were to give up on them, I'd be doing them a grave disservice; as, the homeless are a disenfranchised group of people who often can't stand up for themselves without assistance – though we are 8,000 strong in a city of 650,000 people.
Louis Farrakhan would agree with me that Afro-Americans are the product of their environment, having been shaped by the social injustices of slavery, Jim Crow law, racial profiling and socioeconomic deprivation. He might even agree that a failure to afford quality education to Blacks contributes to generational poverty. Simply put, the disinvestment in quality education which is so characteristic of capitalists has come back to bite them in the ass. They like to treat people like mushrooms by “keeping them in the dark and feeding them a bunch of shit”. Well, now the mushrooms are “releasing” their spores.
That brings us right back to the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard. The U.S. Government has failed to hear that the economic plight of the American Negro has worsened over the past few years”. Sadly, what was said so many years ago is still true today. That truth lends itself to the conclusion that government is either unable or unwilling to address the socioeconomic plight of Afro-Americans. Both may be true. Neither is acceptable.
During the aforementioned interview, Dr. king advised against resorting to violence. That, of course, was before he was gunned down. Gandhi also preached a message of non-violence and met the same fate. In both instances, people began rioting after their leader was killed. Though the British no longer control India, the situation of Afro-Americans is worse now than it was in the 60's. I'm forced to conclude that these messages of non-violence didn't work for Dr. King or Gandhi and failed to get through to their followers.
The mistreatment of Afro-Americans has only evolved but never dissipated. The fact that socioeconomic deprivation is more subtle than slavery or Jim Crow law makes it considerably more difficult for us to make the case for America having a grossly unjust system. America's “inverted totalitarianism” results in citizens losing interest in politics and leads to politicians being given full run of the house to do as they please while not having their constituents' best interest at heart. America's “inverted fascism” results in local police becoming the “wealth protectors” who harass the homeless and kill unarmed poor people who were poorly educated by the public school system – all in the name of capitalism and the bourgeoisie agenda.
It stands to reason that, if Black Americans were to become completely non-aggressive, then the fate of the poorest – the homeless – would become the fate of the entire race in this country. We'd be doomed to perpetual socioeconomic injustice. Yet public officials including Barack Obama insist on people calming down in order to have their demands met. So, even as these supposed leaders failed to see how they were escalating a volatile situation on August 10th, they also fail to see how counter-intuitive it would be for the oppressed whose demands have not been met during anyone's lifetime and who are reacting to mistreatment by government to now meet government's demand for calm so that government can tell Blacks what it will do for them. We calmed down 46 years ago, right after the 1968 riots, and we have nothing to show for it. Why make the same mistake again? While it can be argued that Blacks shouldn't approach the oppressor for redress of grievances anymore, the fact remains that, for the moment, that's our only option.
So, while I REFUSE to add to the calls for peace, I'll offer some advice. Blacks should learn how to “sublate”: to create our own new system within the old until we outgrow the latter. If and when that new system matures, we'll be able to completely throw off the old. It behooves the “peacekeepers” to encourage conversation about the new system that Afro-Americans want and how they might begin to create it in spite of government, rather than these “peacekeepers” wasting their time telling people not to fight back against their attackers. (How do you “keep” what you've never had, peace or otherwise?) After we've followed this new path long enough, we'll also eliminate the need for Blacks to depend on their oppressive governments anymore.
Those who've been paying attention know that, throughout this post I've pitted our capitalist government against Blacks. I've made no mention of other racial tensions. But in closing, I'll give a couple of lessons learned from the Occupy Movement to the non-Black Supporters out there:
During Occupy DC I heard Blacks asking Whites, “Where were you for the past 50 years that Blacks have been enduring so much social injustice? Why did you wait until you couldn't find a job or pay off your student loan before you decided to start a movement?” (The short answer is that many of the occupiers – Black and White – were only 20 to 25 years old and had only earned enough trust from their parents to leave home unattended less than 10 years prior.) We eventually got past those tensions and people of all races marched together. The lesson that can be learned here is that non-Black supporters may need to show patience and an ability to listen as Afro-Americans vent their anger and frustration.
During Occupy DC Afro-Americans also complained about how Whites were trying to lead them again. They mentioned how that, during slavery and Jim Crow, the White man told Blacks what to do. I often tell Blacks how that, when they clamor to get into predominantly White schools, they send a message to the White man that what Whites have created is awesome and we imply that Blacks can't do as well or better. In any instance, you get the picture. There's a big power differential at work here. The solution to this problem is simple:
Let the Blacks lead this movement.