Friday, August 15, 2014

About Ferguson

Around five o'clock this morning I had a long conversation with my friend James—an indefatigable proponent of civil liberty and civil disobedience, an Occupy Wall Street ally, and a documenter of street protests in NYC and beyond—about the rumblings in Ferguson. I had rather hoped to post the bulk of the conversation here, but James is also preoccupied with the encroachment of domestic surveillance, and so he scrupulously makes sure that all of his Gchat conversations are off the record.

I remember showing him one of the photographs that most troubled me as I checked the news links on Twitter and elsewhere:

If I had scrolled down a news page and found this picture with a caption like "a US marine on routine patrol outside of Kabul" or something along those lines, I wouldn't have batted an eye. But to see this image with the caption "a police officer watches over demonstrators" is fucking terrifying.

But what I really wanted to talk to James about was the buzzing hive regarding the riots. Expressing support for the protesters and their cause is something I'm absolutely behind. Michael Brown shouldn't have been shot. The cop who pulled the trigger must be brought to justice. The police culture in this country needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt immediately, if not sooner. But seeing the people lobbing molotov cocktails and torching stores celebrated on Tumblr, Twitter, and even by some journalists, is something that doesn't sit well with me.

For two of the last three years I lived in a Quaker community whose history is twined with the lives of Bayard Rustin, Ham Sok-Hon, and Richard Gregg. Having spent so much time among religious pacifists, I had to wonder if my moral compass hasn't been overmagnetized in that direction. I wanted to get James's thoughts on the matter as a kind of calibration test.

So I asked him: are these riots justified? Are they helpful?

Depends on how angry you are, he answered. When you've been the victim of institutionalized oppression long enough, and asking please be considerate of us has accomplished nothing, you have to start throwing bricks.

Have to. He's right, you know.

There is a comparison to be made between the behavior of human beings and the behavior of molecules—in this instance, let's say water molecules.

The actions of the individual human being can be so varied and so difficult to guess in advance that you might begin to think what their behavior is borne of something called "free will." The movements of the individual H2O molecule can be so rapid and unpredictable that you might suspect that water was a substance that acted randomly.

It's when taken en masse, humans and molecules, that certain necessities to which each are beholden come into focus. You can't guess where a single H2O molecule is headed as the pot is heated on the stovetop, but you can be very nearly 100% certain that the pot is going to come to a boil at 100° C, and steam will rise from its surface. Similarly, when you turn up the heat on a large group of human beings, they're going to start hurling rocks at cops and setting buildings on fire when they get hot enough.

Under such circumstances, and without some kind of intervention, it's just bound to happen. It's probably as useless talking about the morality of rioters and looters as it is to blame steam for bursting its pipe when the pressure gets too high.

So I told James all of this. Sometimes, he said, it's worth it to just lie down and take a beating if you're looking to win hearts and minds.

I remember there was an implied "but" to this, and I remember that I interrupted him as he typed it. Isn't it almost always about winning hearts and minds? I asked him. We're social animals. We're ultimately controlled by who or what has won our hearts and minds.

If it were that simple, James began.

I wish I could recall (or had a record of) the rest of the conversation, in which we each took turns pointing out some other cord in the awful snarl. An ingrained history of racism in law enforcement. The militarization of the police force. The executive minds who won't be able to help but see these protests as a reason to continue handing assault rifles and tanks to local police. The political entrenchment of these executives. The Patriot Act, the fucking Patriot Act. The grooved mind of the police department with an annual budget: "we have X dollars to spend on weapons and equipment, but we really only need half of that. But if we don't spend the money, exactly that much will be cut from next year's budget; so let's look through the catalog and pick some cellphone jammers and LRADs!" For-profit prisons. The sad fact that incensed people tend to throw their bricks without realizing they're aiming at the wrong targets.

What are the correct targets?

I don't know. And I don't know if throwing bricks is right way of fighting back against injustice. I'd like to imagine I understand twentieth-century history well enough to assert that standing your ground and taking a beating in an act of civil disobedience is the braver and ultimately more efficacious method of getting results than tossing Molotov cocktails at cops and looting stores. (See footnotes.) But this isn't the twentieth century anymore; what really works best is anyone's guess at this point.

Footnote #1: Of course it is easier to advise someone, from a safe distance, that they'd be better off getting gassed and beaten and tossed in jail instead of acting on their anger—their absolutely, unquestionably valid anger—in the most expedient way available to them. We can't deny the anger, and we can't deny the injustice.

But do I feel powerfully that there are right and wrong ways to act on anger, however righteous or justified it might be. The easiest and most immediately satisfying means of giving voice and action to anger is usually counterproductive towards achieving whatever solution we're hoping to arrive at. (Go on, ask me about how my temper has been fucking up my personal relationships lately.)

As I type this I'm reminded of the Ecclesiasticus quote that always accompanied the snapshot of the Twin Towers that David Rees used to post on the front page of Get Your War On on the anniversary of 9/11:

A fire is kept hot by stoking and a quarrel by persistence.
A man's rage is in proportion to his strength,
and his anger in proportion to his wealth.
A hasty argument kindles a fire, and a hasty quarrel leads to bloodshed.
Blow on a spark to make it glow, or spit on it to put it out;
both results come from the one mouth.

The most salient problems in this situation are a stubbornly entrenched institutional racism and the cultural brutality and decades-long militarization of the police in this country. Violent protests probably won't be very useful in allaying the first problem, and will likely exacerbate the second. I'm betting that every Molotov cocktail hurled in the aftermath of a tear-gassed demonstration becomes another reason the piglords (they know who they are) will cite as a justification for importing the weapons and tactics once reserved for use against enemy combatants and handing them to local police in the name of civil protection. There are better ways of going about this.

Footnote #2: I hope I won't be accused of parroting Obama's remarks earlier today: "there is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting." While I do agree with him on this point, I also think he has even less right to make such a claim than I do. He is, after all, at the very top of the law enforcement org chart. Instead of making some vague declaration about an investigation and justice being done, he should have promised to take action on demilitarizing the police and then faithfully carried out that promise. But I'm hoping for too much from him, as always.

James kept making a joke. I forget, he'd say; are we talking about Missouri or Palestine?

The instruments are different, but the score is the same. It's awful to listen to and exhausting to consider.

James and I talked for nearly an hour. We could agree on what was wrong, and a whole lot was wrong. But I'm sorry to admit that we came to no conclusions as to what was best, what was right, what would really make a substantive difference in all of this.

Later in the day I listened to a radio interview with Reverend Willis Johnson, a Ferguson pastor. More than Obama, more than the Twitterati or journalists, this is the observer I think most deserves to be listened to.


  1. The most worrying thing about the whole conflict is the way that the police has justified the extreme measures. They say that because they presume that civilians are armed (because stupid lack of gun regulation) they have to make sure of "bringing the bigger stick". Apparently we're dealing with people that haven't ever heard the word "escalation".

    1. Perhaps we are. "Escalation" is a lot of syllables.

  2. What I don't get about this is that no one seems to be shooting back at the cops. The most gun-toting nation in the world and all they can muster are throwing bricks at storefronts? Is there going to be some kind of modern day Storming of the Bastille eventually?