Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Don't Save Us From the Flames

When the U.S. Launched an offensive in Indochina during the 1960s, it thought it was fighting a war against Communism, just another piece of the cold war paradigm.  However, to the Vietnamese, theirs was an anticolonial battle for independence that had been going on for centuries, far preceding Western involvement.  The country rejoiced as Ho Chi Minh recited parts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and announced that Vietnam was now a democratic state, but they also held no illusions about what it would take to maintain this sovereignty.  To put it unbelievably simply, the U.S. thought it would be running through a quick bout of dominoes, when it was actually entering an impossibly long game of chess midway through. 

An outsider view of the situation in Baltimore is similarly myopic.  The city has been ravaged by years of class warfare, corruption, and police malfeasance.  So, to look at a rioter or a looter and think “how does this achieve their goal?” is to misconcieve the grievances of a whole city (and a whole race) as an ill-strategized cause-effect power play.   It denies both the agency of the mass movement, now culpable for every peripheral and tangential force that shares its anger, and the agency of the specific individual transgressing a given social barrier.  The tension and intentions from one rioter to the next need not cohere to a common formula, nor do they need to have any specific endgame in mind at all.  A riot always happens, only happens, at the moment when goals are dismissed, when intention is silenced or ignored, when action has failed, and when tension has nowhere left to reside.   

It’s easy to look at a situation like Baltimore and say, “Well, the protests started.  Then there were riots.  So the protests brought the riots”, but this simple causal fallacy neglects to consider that Baltimore was not a body at rest and the protests were not the friction needed to set it in motion.   This lets the very thing that sparked the protests in the first place- the murder of Freddie Gray while in police custody- off the hook, as well as the egregious and unsustainable conditions in which something like that can occur. 


Consider the man in this picture.  He meanders about holding items he assumingly just lifted from a local pharmacy chain, slightly baffled about how he even came to be here or where he’s going next.  The items he holds are a couple of chips, sweet tea, and a packet of diapers (which any parent can attest are damned expensive and cause a considerable dent in the  household budget).  His child needs the diapers and nobody in the neighborhood is going to work today.  The paycheck at the end of the week will be lighter because there’s no sick days. Or maybe there’s no paycheck at all because no one’s hiring. Unemployment affects black men at a far higher rate than their white counterparts

Does he need the chips too in the same way he needs the diapers?  Perhaps not.  But he glances behind him and the city’s on fire.  The city’s always been on fire.  The indignity, the stigma of paying with food stamps because the jobs aren’t coming in.  The debt from the day’s, week’s, month’s pay going towards the prescription pills at that chain pharmacy store.  The cameras lining the streets that never bothered to record as gunshots kept his baby up at night.  Maybe, he could forgive himself a little snack.  After all, tomorrow they could throw him inside a squad car and beat him to death without having to ever explain themselves or find someone else to pay for his child’s diapers.   At the end of the earth, at the end of the world, persistently at death’s door, in the dust of this planet, who gives a fuck about some Pringles and Arizona Tea sold at a place with a $25 billion gross income?

Everybody who has lived in any major American city knows that Baltimore is not unique.  In my five years in Philly, not a day went by where I didn’t consider that we were only absent two or three specific triggers that would have the streets erupting into chaos.  This was apparent because the streets were already a battleground. People stabbed each other over parking spaces regularly.  The bodies stacked more numerous than days of the year.  Politicians bought their way in and out of city hall only to funnel taxpayer money to Comcast.  All it would’ve taken was for someone riding that thin blue line to give so little a fuck about the importance of their own job protecting the masses that the lingering autonomous sense of sentient dread would have no choice but to reciprocate this institutional disdain and direct it towards the controls that had kept it inarticulate and disparate.  For a riot is not the emergence of a new anarchy, but rather a concentration of all existing, permissible forms of state-sanctioned everyday anarchy- street violence, theft, vandalism, et al., the kinds that go unaddressed in communities deemed unworthy of attention or appeal.

When I say state-sanctioned, I’m not suggesting that the police or government desires or even likes these things.  But the fact that they persist with such regularity while resources are allocated towards sports stadiums, corporate welfare, fighting imaginary terrorist threats, and the like, means the state has devalued the communities that find themselves terrorized daily by these occurrences in favor of what it views as more useful endeavors.  And an institutional body that lets its major cities burn does not get to turn around and ask “why do they burn their own city?” Looking for logic in a riot is a bit like looking for mercy in a firing squad.  The stage has already been set.  This can only end one way.

It may seem to be the default station of the powerless to sit back and judge.  Indeed, many white people must think that all they can do is express pity to those whose windows were smashed, whose stores were robbed, and whose communities were desecrated by intimidating faceless hoards.  This makes them feel helpless and scared.  But sitting in this position is actually a throne of some note that allows us to set these exact state expectations listed above.  Not only do we create a value ratio that privileges property violence over lives ended by state violence, a violence whose roots in dehumanization and lynching can be traced back centuries, but we pursue conditional relationships to violence that through omission forgive far more often than they condemn.

The core tenet of white consternation over riots is that black lives matter only when the city, the infrastructure, and the status quo is also threatened.  It’s only then that by any means necessary becomes a worthy rallying cause, but not to end state violence, to instead perpetrate it- line the streets in riot gear, disperse tear gas, forcefully wield batons- “what did they expect would happen?” 

Onlookers see a car smashed and identify their own car in the rubble, but it’s not their vehicle.  This is not the automobile hounded by repeated unjust parking violations that drags its owners into years-long struggles with payday loans.  It is not the used vehicle whose regular expenses prevent its owner from purchasing the good diapers or paying the rent or the payday loan on time.  It’s not the car that smacks over the same pothole and hits the same fixable traffic patterns everyday on the way to a job that’s far more precarious than typical white collar work, and would gladly terminate someone for a pattern of lateness.  It’s not the car that makes the city air less breathable and puts your child at high risk for asthma.   It’s not the car for which broken windows is actually a common occurrence (I had my windows smashed at least 4 times in Philly).  It’s not the car that betrays you, and which demands a seemingly unlimited amount of capital from an increasingly finite pool. 

White people see themselves in the driver’s seat, but that’s because when you’re white you have a greater ability to determine your own destiny and destination.    You are not constantly reminded of your less-than status or of the limited roads that you can travel down which are open to others.  You are not pulled over constantly, dead in your tracks, your progress slowed at nearly every turn.  White people look at the rioter and say “I would never do that”, which may be true, but it’s only because that would never be done to you.  They would never seat you next to the fire and tell you to wait.

White parents see themselves in this mom, who smacks her son for participating in the riot, because they wouldn't hesitate to put their kid in his or her place if they had acted out in such a way, but they don't have to live with the fear of knowing that it doesn't even take a provocation for their child to be returned to them in a body bag, that the color of their skin is admissible evidence in the court of a cop's innermost fears.

What the U.S. learned from Vietnam was not to avoid unpopular or unwinnable wars.  We’ve had our share of them.  What the U.S. learned was that black and poor white kids were far more expendable than rich ones, that the symbolism of a rich kid burning his draft card had more value to the privileged than a starving Buddhist burning himself.  And as long as we throw enough black and poor white bodies into the gauntlet by offering economic incentives to be part of a volunteer army, we can slash and burn chess pieces until the game more resembles dominoes.    

“But don’t they hurt their own cause by engaging in perpetual war, ravaging cities through privatization and austerity, and maintaining a security state that through intimidation and degradation actually makes everyone less secure?”, asks no one,  because it’s this that is their cause.   Capital and state power know that those who live in comfort and privilege will continue to defend its least defensible strategies if for one moment they get a whiff of the carcinogenic tyranny that the underclasses breath in day in and day out.    They will cheer on the oppressors, post cute clickbait stories about the “good” cops, and distance themselves from the frontlines by asking  “how does this achieve their goal?”

Then, they’ll get in their car and drive wherever it is white people want to go.  

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