American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

Paramilitary Organization Endorses Fascist; Nation Worries

Friday brought us the most frightening news of this terrible election season:

The National Fraternal Order of Police, a 330,000-member union of law enforcement officers, has endorsed Donald Trump for president.

“Our members believe he will make America safe again,” FOP President Chuck Canterbury said in a statement. Trump “seriously looked at the issues facing law enforcement today” and “understands and supports our priorities.”

It is important to not understate the import of this announcement. The police is an armed–to the teeth, with surplus military equipment–paramilitary organization, dedicated to the maintenance of law and order; they possess a monopoly on the use of deadly force and the exertion of violence in the business of law enforcement. The rule of law is exerted against the citizenry by their efforts. They stand–like a ‘thin blue line’–between the citizenry and the depredations of criminals, and also between the citizenry and those who rule. On this latter front, protests are policed by the police; they may disperse them, arrest those who protest, and may, with varying degrees of violence, render those protesting unable to do so any more. When such an organization endorses a politician who expresses utter contempt for both the letter and the spirit of the rule of law, speaks casually about trashing constitutional protections, and hints darkly at mass deportations and reprisals against minorities, it is but natural to wonder what role such a paramilitary organization envisages for itself in the glory days of authoritarian lawless rule that beckon?

Matters look worse when we look a little closer at the particulars of the endorsement by the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has 5,000 members across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Its executive officer, Jerry Flynn, said that their groups decision came down to “What…the next president of the United States [is] going to do to unite this country in an effort to save police officers? Because it’s open season on police officers”; Flynn went to say that electing Trump was in “best interest of our members.” This mention of an ‘open season on police officers’ echoes the lowest canard consistently promulgated by apologists for the police: that Black Lives Matter and related protests against police racism, brutality, and murder, have led to, if not directly caused the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. This indicates that as before, the police remain afflicted by a ‘deadly‘ defensiveness; they remain committed not viewing their own chosen methods and tactics of policing as a problem worth protesting against.

When a nation’s police turns its self-pitying eyes to a fascist and finds succor there, we have considerable cause to alarmed. It has offered up its loyalties and made them clear: it stands against the people. With little exaggeration, this gesture looks like the self-annointment of a fascist storm-trooper outfit. As I noted in my Facebook status when I posted the above link: “They also put in a request to change the color of their shirts from blue to brown.” Goose-steppers of the world unite and all that.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

The NRA On The Dallas Shooting

The National Rifle Association has issued the following statement in response to the shootings in Dallas:

Today is a great day for the Second Amendment, that everlasting guarantee of our right to bear arms and take them up against a tyrannical government. For months and years now, we at the National Rifle Association have watched with increasing dismay as law-enforcement officers have used their firearms to shoot innocent citizens for a variety of offences–sometimes playing in a playground, sometimes shopping, sometimes running away from police. These were all bothersome, but then we learned of the death of Brother Philando Castile, who was legally carrying a gun, and was then shot dead by a police officer as he reached for his license.  Enough is enough.

And that’s not a thought that just we at the NRA had. Clearly some peace-and-justice loving fellow citizens had the same thought and decided to act on it: by using their firearms, their constitutionally protected guns, against the agents of this oppressive police state, ruled by that socialist autocrat, Barack Obama, who would like nothing better than to take away our guns. So they fired on the police; that the police succumbed to their shooting is an indictment of the police’s training, their inability to defend themselves with their guns. No more protection can be afforded to our citizens than to arm them with guns, as many, and as heavy a caliber, as possible. These the police had; they simply did not use them well enough.

The shooters did nothing wrong; they were merely ‘speaking up’ as citizens, heavily armed ones. They knew their guns were there to protect them and their communities and families from danger–just like the founding fathers intended–and so they did.

Let us not respond to these shootings with alarmist rhetoric about protests endangering lives; protests do not endanger people’s lives, people do.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.