Part II — Resistance:
Judging by nationwide commentary, the following appear to be among the issues that have caused the greatest divisions in the country and turned our cultural mix toxic. Accordingly, they are the precisely the ones around which to organize and construct a restorative political movement piece by piece:
1. Guns: Always guns, too many in the hands of too many. As I mentioned at the very outset of this article, existing gun-control legislation, particularly assault-rifle bans, will be difficult to enforce. In rural areas of the country, similar to the part of New York state where I now live, there appears to be a tacit understanding between county sheriffs, most of who are pro-gun rights, and local residents who happen to own assault rifles, that no in-home investigations to determine whether the rifles are registered and properly safeguarded will be conducted. If there were, I can just imagine a patriot militia contingent from the Midwest riding to the rescue, much as they did to Cliven Bundy’s in April of last year, crying “Remember Waco.” Rural areas of the country seem most concerned with the epidemic of heroin and methamphetamine abuse that has hit their communities. I noted that this year’s election campaign for district attorney in several nearby counties centered on how tough the candidates would be in combating this problem. But that’s another issue, albeit certainly related to gun violence.
The most recent occurrence was earlier this month when the Court declined to hear a challenge to a Highland Park, Illinois, ordinance that banned assault rifles and magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition, all provisions similar to those contained in the New York law. The Times noted that this was the 70th time since 2008 that the Court had decided not to hear such a case. During this same period, i.e., 2008 to the present, lower federal and state courts have upheld gun-control statutes in 93% of the more than a thousand cases brought before them.
(Speaking of New York Times editorials, today’s (December 16) lead editorial, “Mental Illness and Gun Violence,” debunks the presumed universal causative link between people labeled “mentally ill” and gun violence, asserting that this emphasis served to deflect attention from more pertinent causes. To quote: “… Blaming mental health problems for gun violence gives the public the false impression that most people with mental illness are dangerous, when in fact the vast majority will never commit violence.” The Times editorial closes by stating that “… addressing mental health, on its own, will not solve the country’s gun violence problem.” I couldn’t agree more.)
But don’t get your hopes up too high. Thirty-two states have Republican governors and the same number have both houses of their legislatures controlled by Republicans, who will never pass any laws that would appear to diminish the NRA’s sacrosanct 2ndAmendment. Highland Park enacted its local ordinance just before a new Illinois law prohibiting the banning of assault weapons within the state took effect. Nonetheless, local and state-wide efforts to enact gun controls should continue, but their achievement by gun-control advocates will prove to be a long, hard slog. More pragmatically, their enforcement, for the foreseeable future, will depend on gun owners’ voluntary compliance. I just can’t see the five million assault-rifle owners in this country bringing in their rifles to register them, even if they had bought them legally from a licensed gun dealer. The levels of fear and hate and paranoia among most Americans are simply too high, and gun violence and mass murders will continue. Our terrorists, please remember, whether ISIL-inspired or domestic, swim in the same violent sea.
2. The militarization of the police and police violence: Yes, both go hand in hand. And when you add in many police departments’ pervasive white supremacism and the fear and hatred of black and other marginalized Americans, you get the indiscriminate killings of unarmed black men and of persons regarded as “the other”, including the poor, persons labeled as mentally ill and, in all likelihood now, Muslims and recent immigrants. In white America, lest we forget, all “others” are regarded as “niggers.”
I’ll go into greater detail below, so let it suffice to say that white supremacism is the defining cultural attribute intrinsic to all “white” Americans — and our European relatives — and carries with it the belief that to be white is to be fundamentally superior to all peoples of color as well as to those Americans who’ve been pushed out of our political and economic mainstream, the notorious “others.” This notion of superiority arrived in the early 17th century with the first colonizers to land on what would become American shores, and is now what I would call “bred in the bone,” i.e., been absorbed as an unconscious assumption into white Americans’ self-identity and into the institutional foundations of American society.
Needless to say, all our law-enforcement and criminal-justice agencies and their officers have incorporated this American way of being into their day-to-day operations, particularly since the Reagan administration began to funnel to local police agencies surplus military equipment, including assault rifles, light tanks and armored cars, high-velocity weapons and helicopters. Which practice has since been continued by every presidential administration, even accelerated under Bush fils after 9/11, and appears to have dramatically impacted how policemen view their job and how they are trained. When I was a kid and until the late 1960s and the riots that broke out in poor black urban communities, the job of police officers on the beat was to conciliate and calm neighborhood and domestic disputes before they escalated into life-threatening situations. I know that New York City cops were trained to use their guns as a last resort.
That began to change in 1965, when the Los Angeles Police Department, after the Watts riots of that same year, organized its first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to combat and control urban disorder. With the onset of the War of Drugs, which began in the early ’70s under Nixon and has continued until today, cities large and small around the country organized their own SWAT teams to ferret out and incarcerate drug dealers, whose cast of characters shifted over time to include American and European gangsters, Colombian and Mexican drug kingpins, and, always at the center, young black men selling dope on the streets. Hollywood cataloged this drug history in celebrated films — “The French Connection” (1971); “King of New York” (1990); and “American Gangster” (2007) — inevitably depicting at their conclusions heavily armed SWAT teams swooping down and corralling the bad guys. The American public was being taught why we needed SWATs.
Since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in front of the federal office building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 office workers and wounded another 600, and particularly after 9/11, SWAT teams grew in number to deal with the multiplying threats presented by mass murderers or rampage killers, right-wing domestic terrorists like McVeigh, and now, since San Bernardino, ISIL-influenced home-grown terrorists. The increase in threats to public safety brought to the country’s police departments a corresponding increase in more and heavier weaponry to combat these threats, and an increase in expectations that the police would use their new muscle efficiently and effectively. The police officers on their SWAT teams and in their cities’ streets were trained accordingly.
Rather than conciliation and communication, standard tools for the policeman on the street, all police officers are now being trained as soldiers, i.e., to assess the danger they might be confronting; shoot, if indicated; then assess the damage done to those posing the danger and any collateral damage to bystanders. Only then does the talking commence, to identify those shot, if any, and to determine the motives of those who presented as dangerous. In short, cops are always on high alert, easily startled and quick to act.
484 people killed by the police, with 385 killed in fatal shootings or 1 in every 13 fatal shootings committed in the U.S.;
100 black Americans fatally shot by police, three times the rate of any other ethnic group, with 32 of those shot unarmed. A total of 102 unarmed persons shot and killed by the police;
92 persons believed to be mentally ill shot to death;
in turn, 14 police officers shot and killed during the first six months of 2015. The number of police officers “feloniously killed” in 2014 was 51.
Many of the foregoing demands have been made, with some met, in the cities where the most notorious killings have taken place — Ferguson, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore and Brooklyn. They need to be made again wherever ordinary citizens are threatened by the entity whose mission, presumably, is to protect them.
The de-militarization of the police, essentially removing from the SWAT teams their most potent and damaging weapons, particularly their armored vehicles, is another matter. In this era of mass shootings with automatic weapons, Americans are probably reassured at seeing our heavily armed cavalry riding to the rescue. For my part, whatever reassurance that might bring is offset by the intimidating sight of police officers in an armored vehicle confronting the Ferguson protesters, or by the stampede of armored police vehicles charging down the streets of a Boston suburb to apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, and shooting hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the fiberglass boat parked in a resident’s driveway where he had been hiding. The possibility of so-called collateral damage seemed an afterthought.
So long as terrorism and rampage shootings remain realities, our nation’s police will remain armed to the teeth, making their contribution to the killings and fear and paranoia that assail us. We have to be alert and to protest any abuses of power that might result.
3. White Supremacy & Privilege: I’ve written at some length about this in a three-part article I posted on OpEdNews on September 6, 8 and 9 of this year, “Traitor to My Race: The Abolition of White Privilege” (2015).
The first in the series, “Origins: Bred In the Bone,” traces the evolution of white supremacy or white-skin privilege from slavery to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, whose “three-fifths” clause legitimized the practice of slavery in the new United States and essentially contradicted the principle premise of the Declaration of Independence, viz., “… that all men are created equal.” The second, “Jim Crow Re-Visited,” continues the historical overview, focusing on the Jim Crow laws enacted in the South subsequent to Reconstruction and their continued influence in modern America. The third, “Personal Transformation,” where I describe how I came to reject white privilege, addresses the subject I’ve decided to write about here, viz., the imperative for American whites, particularly white males who are the primary guardians of white privilege, to renounce that privilege and join with all Americans to abolish it.
The process to do so is straightforward but incredibly difficult, since it involves American whites significantly altering their self-identities as those who are and should be predominate in this society; and it begins with the willingness by white men to listen to what black Americans have to say. In still-segregated America, very few white Americans know black Americans well enough to engage in the kind of exchange that would allow their black compatriots to unburden themselves, to talk of the pain that white privilege has caused them. On the other hand, few blacks probably trust whites sufficiently to be emotionally vulnerable and share such confidences with them. And if you’re white and possessed of a sense of innate superiority coupled with a belief in American exceptionalism or righteousness, it will be hard to hear black Americans’ complaints, particularly if they’re directed at you and depict you as being responsible for or contributing to the harm that’s been done them. In short, that you’re part of the problem. Recent experience tells us that most whites would be dismissive, would regard the charges against them as invalid and mere inventions, designed to blame them for blacks’ own shortcomings.
This very scenario is being played out right before our eyes. It began with the rampage killing at a prayer service being conducted at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, when nine members of the church were killed and one wounded by a young white neo-Nazi, who was later apprehended and charged with murder. In the aftermath, the forgiveness shown towards Dylan Roof, the murderer, by the shooting victims’ family members moved the nation and shamed their fellow white Charlestonians. An outcry went out from blacks and their many white supporters to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds, where it flew over the state’s Confederate Memorial. Given an opening, black South Carolinians contended that the battle flag was a daily affront and should be removed to a museum, where it belonged. A month later, the state legislature voted to take the flag down.
This action appeared to energize black Americans, particularly college students, who began to voice their dismay at the racist behavior, blatant and otherwise, they were experiencing on their college campuses. Students at the University of Missouri, in a September 2015 rally they entitled “Racism Lives Here,” revealed that many had been subjected to racial slurs and bigotry, had reported these incidents to university authorities but received no reassuring response. When the football team, whose players were, in the main, black, threatened to boycott their next game, the balance was tipped and the university’s president and chancellor were obliged to resign. The students also publicly complained about the daily micro-aggressions or slights they experienced as disrespectful to which they were being subjected by fellow white students and white professors. Echoing the Black Lives Matter meme that black bodies, objects of several hundred years of abuse at the hands of whites, need to be safeguarded, the black students voiced concerns about their own personal safety in an environment they often considered hostile. Predictably, their concerns were dismissed by right-wing pundits as “whining” and as rationalizations for their own academic failings.
The Missouri students inspired protests and displays of solidarity at other campuses in the United States, including Ithaca College, Yale University, Smith College, Claremont McKenna College, Amherst and Brandeis, with the dean of students at Claremont McKenna forced to step down in November. There has been, of course, the inevitable backlash. It was touched off at Yale, according to The New York Times (Nov. 8, 2015), when university administration cautioned students from wearing Halloween costumes, such as ones featuring blackface or turbans, “that could offend minority students.” What proved to be an inflammatory response was issued by a long-time professor and residence counselor who expressed her belief that students should be allowed to wear whatever costume they chose to, that kids should be allowed to be kids.
She, in turn, was attacked in an open letter signed by hundreds of students accusing her of conflating students’ free-speech rights with license to express themselves however they chose, regardless of the impact of their actions on students who found themselves “marginalized” at Yale. To quote from the letter, “To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you.” After the president of Yale met with “students of color,” whom he found to be “in great distress,” he professed himself to be “deeply troubled” when “many said they did not believe the university was attuned to the needs of minority students.” Subsequently, the university professor in question resigned and right-wing pundits, again, seized upon the issue, contending that white students were being blocked from speaking their minds, that their First Amendment rights were being denied them, by a politically correct Yale administration.
An opportunity to engage with black students and learn from and about them was lost. The courage they demonstrated in being vulnerable with whites and revealing their apprehensions and anxieties was misrepresented as a clear indication of wilting under pressure, of lacking the resilience necessary for success in unfriendly environments, so unlike white students. As has happened so often in the past, the burden of change was assumed to be the sole responsibility of the black students.
W.E.B. Dubois addressed this issue well over one hundred years ago, at the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, and at greater length in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), when he stated that “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line, the question of how far differences of race — which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair –will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.” He made it clear that the responsibility for the resolution of the problem resided in the hands of those who had created it, the white peoples of the world.
William Faulkner, in an unerringly prescient 1955 article in the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News about the killing of Emmet Till in nearby Money, Mississippi, at the hands of white supremacists, began by addressing Americans’ hypocrisy when boasting about American values to others:
“.. after we have taught them … that when we talk of freedom and liberty, we not only mean neither, we don’t even mean security and justice and even … the preservation of life for people whose pigmentation is not the same as ours … Perhaps we will find out now whether we are to survive or not … Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.” (Excerpted from Paul Theroux’s Deep South ).
The senseless brutality of Till’s death at the age of fourteen is considered by many to be the touchstone of the modern Civil Rights Movement. It appears to me that we, particularly if we are white, owe it to the memory of Emmet Till and to all Americans who struggled and died for “equal rights under the law”, embodied in the 14thAmendment to the Constitution, to pursue the discussion that needs to take place with black Americans about the urgent need to put a stop to the racial conflict that has riven this country from its inception. To not do so, to echo Faulkner, is to jeopardize our existence as a creole and unified nation that merits survival.
To begin to understand this from the crucial black perspective, I recommend to readers Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), which takes the form of a letter written by Coates to his teenaged son about the pitfalls that await him in white America and his need to protect himself and his body from harm. Unlike Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) to which it is compared — Baldwin’s book was framed as a letter to his nephew — Coates’s book concludes not on a bitter note but one that espouses resistance to oppression and is accordingly more hopeful. Talk about resilience.
In that same spirit, those of us who recognize the folly of white supremacism, and have come to understand it as the principal source of fear and hate in this country, are under considerable obligation to seek out like-minded white Americans and courageous black Americans willing to take the chance and promote conversations, in community forums, in private homes, in groups large and small, where black folks can talk and white listen, and so begin to learn who each really is, and to cross and erase the color line.
The post Fear & Hate: Seeds of Violence & Mass Murder was originally posted in its entirety OpEdNews and was written by Doctor Jack Carney.
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