Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.
When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.
There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.
In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.
As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.
Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.
In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.
As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.
Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”
One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.
AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.
While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.
Admittedly, I am sometimes reticent about opining on movements like Black Lives Matter and the types of protests set off by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of uniformed police. I feel that black activists should be in the lead on advancing the national conversation on issues relevant to BLM, and moreover, I realize I am not the most educated and certainly not the most qualified to speak on these matters, my experience grounded in middle-class, mostly white suburban life.
All these things considered, and under the premise that “silence is violence,” I feel as though I have to say something, to take a stand. Over the past two weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends, family, and co-workers regarding the protests and riots that have swept America and have even manifested in other countries where disproportionate brutality against blacks is very real. Some of the responses were illuminating, to say the least, and suggest to me that we need to keep (or, in some cases, start) having uncomfortable conversations about race, class, politics, social issues, and every intersection therein.
The following are some thoughts on topics related to the wave of protests we’ve seen. These thoughts are mine, meaning I take full responsibility for them, though I acknowledge that people with more complete perspectives have helped influence my views as they currently stand.
George Floyd was murdered.
Not killed, murdered. Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, with Floyd indicating at various points that he couldn’t breathe and numerous observers noting that Floyd wasn’t resisting (a common defense of police officers in situations like these which clearly doesn’t apply). Chauvin should’ve gotten at least a second-degree murder charge and the officers accompanying him likewise deserved their aiding and abetting charges for doing nothing while Floyd was being effectively choked to death.
I don’t give a shit about Floyd’s medical or criminal history.
So what if Floyd had underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. So what if he had a criminal record, and no, I don’t know anything about whether he does or doesn’t have one. The man had someone kneeing on his neck for close to nine minutes. That’s why he died.
I also don’t care if he was apprehended for paying with a counterfeit $20 bill. If Dylann Roof can shoot up a church in a racially-motivated attack and walk away with his life, it’s ridiculous to invoke Floyd’s reason for apprehension. George Floyd shouldn’t have died as a result of that encounter, full stop.
There’s no way Amy Klobuchar should be considered as a vice presidential nominee.
I feel like this goes without saying now, and even before the revelation she failed to hold Chauvin accountable for his role in prior incidents as Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar was arguably a weak pick given her poor standing with voters of color and the idea that she wouldn’t have much to offer in the way of policy ideas to buttress a campaign in Joe Biden’s that has been largely devoid of specifics. With what we now know, picking Klobuchar for VP would feel downright suicidal.
Looting is not violence.
I get that people see looting and have strong opinions about it. I mean, who wants to have their things stolen or destroyed? Also, there’s the matter of not all businesses/structures being the same. If the target is, ahem, Target? I’m not very sympathetic. If people are looting a small business, especially a minority-owned business? That’s more deserving of sympathy.
To the extent that some individuals might be using these protests as an excuse to purely wreak havoc, I can’t say I support their actions. That said, looting is still a form of protest against an unjust system, one that has thus far resisted peaceful attempts to promote reform. Furthermore, property can be rebuilt or replaced. Human lives cannot. For this reason, equating looting with police brutality is a false equivalency and anyone wielding this argument in bad faith should be summarily dismissed.
Who has been responsible for most of the violence since these protests began? The police.
In video after video, the scene is set: Protests are peaceful until the cops come or decide to intervene. Whether it’s beating people with batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, or simply going out of their way to push, kick, drag or otherwise physically abuse civilians, uniformed police have frequently been among the worst agitators and perpetrators of violence of anyone involved. Even when there has been provocation, such as throwing bottles or rocks, often there’s a clear disparity of power and resources at work. These officers will be equipped with riot gear and weapons against otherwise unarmed protesters. If it comes down to it, that’s not a fair fight, and it’s not even close.
In one particularly egregious example, Aaron Torgalski, a member of Buffalo’s police department, intentionally knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground, whereupon he hit his head and started bleeding profusely. Not only did most officers not immediately rush to help the man, however, but some officers either walked past him or seemed to barely notice him lying motionless on the ground. To make matters worse, Buffalo PD tried to claim the man tripped and fell, when video evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
At this writing, the victim (who was white, not that it should matter, but just in case you were thinking this was purely about race) is thankfully stable but in serious condition. Regardless, this kind of unprovoked attack is reprehensible. It should be noted too that protesters aren’t the only ones who have felt the wrath of police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Numerous journalists have been arrested, beaten, shot at, or otherwise intimidated by police despite clearly identifying themselves by their profession.
In one instance, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez was arrested on live television by Minnesota state police. Sure, there were apologies following this incident, but it’s absurd that it even happened in the first place, and journalists shouldn’t have to be afraid of doing their job. These examples of police violence against journalists are part of a disturbing global trend of increased violence against journalists. So much for the constitutional guarantee of a free press.
No, Senator Cotton, don’t send in the troops
That President Donald Trump would seek to invoke the Insurrection Act to send the military to states and quell protests unsolicited is enough to give one pause. That he would be echoed by sitting members of Congress, meanwhile, is unconscionable.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who indicated on Twitter earlier in the week that he would support offering “no quarter” to rioters (which, to be clear, is considered a war crime), penned an editorial titled “Send in the Troops,” which ran in The New York Times Opinion section on June 3. That the Times would even run this piece railing against antifa and “insurrectionists,” let alone have its inclusion later defended by editorial page editor James Bennet, has prompted a sizable backlash from the public and staff alike, notably for its potential to put black people in danger.
Cotton’s editorial, which the Times eventually said in a statement did not meet the publication’s standards for editorials, has been labeled as “fascist” by several critics. Whatever you call it, Cotton should never have written it and The New York Times should never have published it. Shameful.
Antifa is not a terrorist organization
It’s not even a real “organization,” lacking formal leadership. Either way, anti-fascists haven’t been responsible for any killings here in the United States. Police forces, on the other hand, obviously have.
The “outside agitator” narrative is BS
One last thing: Claims that “outside agitators” were responsible for destruction and looting in various cities have long been used to undermine protest movements and were cautioned against by Martin Luther King, Jr.
They discredit the ability of protesters to organize effectively, they distract from the central issue of police brutality, they downplay the spiritual connection of these protests, they are designed to make protesters’ cause look unsympathetic, and on top of all this, they can be used to justify violence against protesters because they communicate the sense that these are not our fellow constituents who are being beaten and harassed. You are advised to regard this narrative with skepticism, especially if the source appears suspect on this issue.
As always with mass protests like these, the question of what to do next is a pressing one. To act like we haven’t tried to formulate answers prior to George Floyd’s death, though, obscures the efforts of activists to design and implement interventions meant to reduce deadly police violence. As part of Campaign Zero, a campaign created in the wake of Ferguson protests after Michael Brown’s killing designed to end police violence, its organizers have outlined eight ways police forces can modify their use of force policies to produce better outcomes.
Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations.
Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians.
Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force.
Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
Failing to develop a Force Continuum (which limits the types of force and weapons that are used in situational responses).
Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means (before deadly force).
Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning (before firing).
Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten the use of force (on civilians).
A review of 91 of the 100 largest cities in the United States revealed no police departments of those surveyed employing all eight interventions. Fewer than half required officers to de-escalate situations (#1), outlawed the use of chokeholds/strangleholds (#2), required officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force (#3), restricted officers from shooting at moving vehicles (#4), required exhaustion of means before deadly force (#6), or reported all uses of force including threatening a civilian with a firearm (#8). Minneapolis, in theory, requires officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. Until very recently, it did not ban choking or strangling civilians. Whatever the rules at the time, on both counts, the officers culpable in George Floyd’s death failed their duties, demonstrating the notion guidelines must not only be created, but enforced.
As noted, restricting the use of force is just one part of Campaign Zero’s agenda, which also involves ending “broken windows” policing, community oversight and representation, independent investigation/prosecution, expanded use of body cams, training, an end of for-profit policing, demilitarization of police forces, and fair police union contracts. Calls for de-funding, if not abolishing police forces, have been widespread. In light of the short shrift community social programs seem to suffer in so many cities at the expense of soaring police budgets, the former, at least, seems overdue.
These are common-sense reforms. As protests continue across America, what is vital in preserving momentum for enacting real change is having the uncomfortable conversations we need to have and should’ve been having with those around us who don’t approach these matters from a progressive bent and who conceivably might be allies in the struggle to recognize that black lives matter. We can’t keep refusing to talk about politics and social issues because it is awkward or upsetting. We have to rip off the proverbial bandages and examine the deep wounds in our society for what they are if we ever hope to heal as one people.
George Floyd’s killer and his accessories have been charged. The winds of social change are blowing. Long after these riots and protests subside, however, and outside the scope of ending police brutality, there is much more work to be done to address systemic racism in our world and widening income and wealth equality that threaten to swallow the lot of us whole. This includes stepping outside our bubbles and challenging the views of those not yet committed to a better future for all.
We all have a part to play in this. Whose side on are you on?
The ongoing scandal concerning film producer Harvey Weinstein as a decades-old serial sexual predator is a mind-boggling one. Not merely because of Weinstein’s high profile, mind you—if anything, that would seem to make it more likely, in that film producers and other men in positions of power have leveraged or have tried to leverage their stature over women for centuries and longer. The growing list of names of women who have come forward to tell their tales of horrifying, demeaning encounters, and potentially criminal ones at that, with Weinstein, meanwhile, is alarming. For us, the average media consumers, regarding the breadth of the scandal both in terms of the number of women alleged to have been victimized by Harvey Weinstein and the period over which his alleged offenses transpired, the obvious question is: how is this all just coming to light? How did the press and other parties involved not know about Weinstein’s misdeeds? As I’m sure many of us realize, much of Weinstein’s abusive behavior probably was known, just not talked about. Money and influence afford the holder many things in our society, and discretion is among the most valued of them, particularly those up to no good.
As tends to be the case, there will be those commenting on the Harvey Weinstein situation who see the mounting allegations against the disgraced now-former studio executive as something of a “witch hunt” or who otherwise would question the veracity of the statements made by these women after the fact. First of all, we would be naïve to think that more of these incidents weren’t reported to authorities. Whether or not these accounts could or even would be prosecuted at the time, though, is another story. Furthermore, whereas some allegations of rape or sexual assault by women against a more famous male individual might be seen as a “money grab”—which doesn’t mean that these claims should necessarily be dismissed in either the Court of Public Opinion or the judicial system, mind you—what apparent need is there for stars like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to come forward? Money? Fame? These actresses don’t need either. Likely the worst you could say of these women is that they’re promoting some feminist agenda, and that arguably is not just advisable, but necessary with the likes of President Pussygrabber in the Oval Office as perhaps an unsettling sign of present-day attitudes toward women.
Outside of the realm of Hollywood, many—if not most—women are apt to know a “Harvey Weinstein” in their lives, likely one in a past or current workplace, at that. This is to say that the allegations against Weinstein are not some sort of isolated incident, but indicative of a corporate and patriarchal culture that marginalizes women and is built on their commodification and subjugation. Belen Fernandez, for one, writing for Al Jazeera English, urges readers to “face it: we have an epidemic of sexual harassment.” As Fernandez insists, the Harvey Weinstein scandal (Weinstein-gate?) is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to instances of males in a position of power intimidating women physically or professionally as a means of trying to coerce them into behavior they almost certainly would object to under different circumstances. Going back to the milieu of the film and television industries, Fernandez invokes the anecdotal observations of Molly Ringwald, who wrote about her own experiences with sexual harassment in a piece entitled “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins” for The New Yorker. Here is Ringwald’s critical ending passage alluded to in the Al Jazeera piece:
I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.
My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels. It’s time. Women have resounded their cri de coeur. Listen.
It’s perhaps strange looking at the problem of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood from an historic perspective, wondering how tropes like the infamous “casting couch” came to be. Then again, perhaps not. As Belen Fernandez outlines, sexual harassment is a problem irrespective of industry or academic pursuit. Citing numerous studies both recent and comparatively antiquated, Fernandez underscores how even in the STEM fields, for example, instances of reported sexual harassment are “alarmingly widespread,” as they are in the medical field or medical studies. Anita Hill, herself once a subject of scrutiny for her high-profile accusation of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, goes as far as to report 45% of employees in the United States are targets of sexual harassment, the majority of them sadly and unsurprisingly female. (As Fernandez mentions, possibly somewhat wryly, Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice despite Hill’s accusations, evidence that “justice” on this front merits qualification.) And then there’s the U.S. military, which, if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the slightest over the years, you understand serves as a metaphorical hotbed for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Fernandez points to the fact a record number of sexual assault cases were reported in 2016 among our Armed Forces. While the Pentagon regards this as proof the system works, those of us not speaking on behalf of the nation’s military are left to be skeptical, if not patently incredulous. Indeed, this area is one of any number of areas by which the United States military forces merit more scrutiny—and not less, as the White House would insist.
As Belen Fernandez and others see it, all of the above is symptomatic of a larger societal structure that values moneyed white males above all others. It is a patriarchy, moreover, that has not only subjugated women, but has subjugated other groups which more readily value women as equals, namely Native Americans. Fernandez, in particular, cites the work of the late, great Howard Zinn in informing this view. From the article, and by proxy, A People’s History of the United States:
Earlier societies—in America and elsewhere—in which property was held in common and families were extensive and complicated, with aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers all living together, seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bring “civilisation” and private property.
Those references to “civilization” and “private property” are a cue for Fernandez to wax philosophical about the corporatized nature of America. As she sees this matter, since capitalism is primed to divide and exploit people, a significant culture change will need to be effected before this sexual harassment “epidemic” is cured:
Given that capitalism itself has no place for human equality—predicated as it is on divisions between exploiters and exploited—it seems that the current question of how to fix the sexual harassment epidemic in the U.S. will require some extensive out-of-the-box thinking. Enough with the patriarchy. It’s time to get civilised.
The answer, or at least a good start, would be empowering women to seek leadership roles and lead by example, thereby inspiring women across generations and industries to seek their own opportunities to lead and help change a culture so often defined by the metaphor of the “glass ceiling.” Then again, the durability of this repressive culture is such that while the fight for equality and to curb sexual harassment in the workplace is a worthy one, such achievements are easier said than accomplished. Extending the conversation to matters of access to abortion and contraceptives, child care, and spaces safe from emotional, physical, and sexual violence, too, this fight is one that will certainly take time and effort to wage.
In the dawning of the magnitude of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds, use of the #MeToo hashtag by victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence to share their experiences has exploded, and this much is not to be undersold. Some see the revelations about Weinstein as a potential watershed moment, that recognition of the unspeakable treatment of women at the hands of men, particularly those close to the women affected, as well as the power of female voices, is beginning to occur. To be sure, it would seem that we have made progress in this area, and specifically concerning the exposure of high-profile sexual predators, the fairly recent downfalls of Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, to name a few, suggest the bad behavior of their ilk eventually will catch up to them. As heartening as these shows of strength are, however, and while the visibility of females’ victimization is important, when, say, someone like Donald Trump in this day and age can brag about taking advantage of women and otherwise berate or demean them en route to the presidency speaks volumes about how much more is needed on the road to real progress.
Jia Tolentino, staff writer for The New Yorker, explores the weight of the burden faced by female victims of sexual harassment and assault alongside the deeply-ingrained systemic sexism inherent across American institutions. Her insights begin with recalling the incident that led to the revelations in news media about Harvey Weinstein’s character: that of Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who reported to the NYPD Special Victims Unit back in 2015 about being unwillingly groped by Weinstein and later wore a wire in a sting operation of sorts that produced disturbing audio in the vein of Pres. Trump’s off-handed “pussygrabber” comments from his taped conversation with Billy Bush, then of Access Hollywood fame, circa 2005.
Battilana Gutierrez, for her trouble, has had her character questioned if not assassinated by the likes of the New York Post and the Daily Mail—no great beacons of journalism, mind you, but widely circulated and salacious enough to warrant reading. This is no strange occurrence in the world of reporting sexual crimes, whether in the world of producing million-dollar films or the supposedly safe spaces of college and university campuses across the country. Especially when someone of prominence like Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexual impropriety, there is a tendency to call the history of the accuser into question, yet another iteration of the time-honored practice of slut-shaming. Realistically, though, anything beyond the facts of the case at hand involving Weinstein and Battilana Gutierrez is superfluous. Whether she’s a saint or the “she-devil” the tabloids make her out to be, the merits of the available evidence are what matter. Besides, are we supposed to throw out the allegations of every woman who has pointed a finger at Weinstein? After a certain point, trying to prove the contrary seemingly borders on the absurd.
This is not the point of Tolentino’s exercise, however. Beyond the individual complications that surround a woman’s reputation and threaten her very professional livelihood, Tolentino’s concern is the welfare of all women, and despite the goodwill created by #MeToo and the apparent increased accountability for predators like Harvey Weinstein, there is room for concern, if not outright trepidation. Tolentino writes:
Nevertheless, the hunger for and possibility of solidarity among women beckons. In the past week, women have been posting their experiences of assault and harassment on social media with the hashtag #MeToo. We might listen to and lament the horrific stories being shared, and also wonder: Whom, exactly, are we reminding that women are treated as second class? Meanwhile, symbolic advancement often obscures real losses. The recent cultural gains of popular feminism were won just when male politicians were rolling back reproductive rights across the country. The overdue rush of sympathy for women’s ordinary encumbrances comes shortly after the Department of Education reversed Obama-era guidelines on college sexual-assault investigations, and Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire. On October 3rd, the House passed a ban on abortion after twenty weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that “virtually all” Republicans in the Senate support the legislation.
Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another. We have undervalued women’s speech for so long that we run the risk of overburdening it. Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle. The gains won by women are limited to those who can demand them. Individual takedowns and #MeToo stories will likely affect the workings of circles that pay lip service to the cause of gender equality, but they do not yet threaten the structural impunity of powerful men as a group.
To put Jia Tolentino’s assertions another way, it is one thing to have a voice and to preach to the proverbial choir, but quite another to have the power to bring about positive change. And this doesn’t even address the unique challenges faced by different segments of the female population, whether based on age, race, sexual orientation, or other identifying characteristic. Systemic bias is not something that can be overcome overnight thanks to a hashtag campaign; in fact, activist Tarana Davis had the idea to create a grassroots “Me Too” movement back in 2006, before Alyssa Milano and her Tweets even broached the subject, illustrating just how difficult it can be to sustain the momentum needed for meaningful and substantive progress. When influence is concentrated in the hands of a few males at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy, penetrating the associated power disparity is essential to achieving authentic gender equality.
The term “toxic masculinity” is used to describe the kind of social environment that not only is created by the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but aids and abets them, as well as perpetuates the conditions by which future generations will breed new sexists and sexual predators. Wikipedia defines toxic masculinity as such:
The concept of toxic masculinity is used in the social sciences to describe traditional norms of behavior among men in contemporary American and European society that are associated with detrimental social and psychological effects. Such “toxic” masculine norms include dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions.
Conformity with certain traits viewed as traditionally male, such as misogyny, homophobia, and violence, can be considered “toxic” due to harmful effects on others in society, while related traits, including self-reliance and the stifling of emotions, are correlated with harm to men themselves through psychological problems such as depression, increased stress, and substance abuse. Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one’s family, are not considered to be toxic.
Some may argue this definition is too expansive or vague, but nonetheless, it is apparent from this conceptual understanding that there are issues beyond just Harvey Weinstein, or sexual violence for that matter. On one hand, basic human decency tells us that the unfair treatment of women is wrong and the institutions that lead to their systemic oppression must be reformed, if not dismantled. On the other hand, meanwhile, various societal cues only reinforce the value attributed to the domineering “alpha” male. Seemingly every month, a new hyper-masculine superhero movie is in theaters, in which our male protagonist conquers evil, saves the day, and gets the girl, and in which he could give f**k-all about his feelings, the treatment of women, or the structural integrity of surrounding buildings. Is this the ideal of manhood? With leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in place around the world, you get the sense that many of us, male and female, believe this is so. For those of us without a suit of armor or a high office, where does that leave us in the grand scheme of things?
Jia Tolentino, in her closing remarks, hits the nail on the head regarding from where recognition of the scope of the problems in the forms of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation will need to come for Western culture to realize substantive gains:
This type of problem always narrows to an unavoidable point. The exploitation of power does not stop once we consolidate the narrative of exploitation. A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.
As with the Black Lives Matter/blue lives matter/all lives matter dynamic, while we seek not to discount the energy, passion, and importance of grassroots activist movements, from all sides, there must be an understanding that this is a human issue above being a black or female or [INSERT QUALIFIER HERE] issue. On both counts, Tolentino points to lines being drawn in a “predictable” manner, thus requiring men everywhere to be as courageous in defense of (and like) the more vocal women they know, on top of the untold numbers of female (and male) victims of harassment and assault suffering in silence. Belen Fernandez, too, believes it’s time for us to get civilized. Amen to that, sister.
Unfortunately, it seems that all you have to do nowadays is to wait a week or two, maybe a month, and soon enough, you’ll have news of another fatal shooting of a black person at the hands of police reach the national consciousness. Yesterday, it was Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today, it’s Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Though the pain for the black communities of Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, NC, respectively, is nothing less than the kind experienced by African-Americans and other concerned citizens in Baltimore and other cities, regrettably, for many Americans watching, instances of this sort of scenario are becoming old-hat. Black individual (most likely male) is stopped as part of “routine” police business. He is shot and killed by police, or otherwise subdued in a lethal fashion. The exact details of what transpired during the incident are debated. One or more people involved with the arrest-turned-fatal is put on administrative leave and later arrested themselves. Seemingly more often than not, those who face trial are legally absolved of their role in their proceedings. Frequently, as a result of the initial violence or the ruling which acquits the accused officer(s), there are vocal protests and/or more violence which threatens the lives of those in affected communities, not to mention the surrounding buildings and other property. It’s an awful set of scenarios, but sadly, it’s not one we haven’t heard before.
Likewise unfortunately, many of the same reactions we have heard from the likes of critics of the deceased, a good number of them white, conservative and/or Donald Trump supporters, are well familiar to us by now. With my use of the word “unfortunate” in this context, it’s obvious I am making a judgment about these critical reactions, and one the intended audience for this post is unlikely to absorb because a) not many people follow my blog to begin with, and b) my liberal attitudes would likely dissuade them from reading further. I also fully understand, as an average white dude with no formal basis in African-American studies, anthropology, or a related field, I am not the most qualified person to comment on these matters. All of the above notwithstanding, allow me to add my 47 cents (two cents, adjusted for inflation) and opine as to why so many self-righteous attackers of the victims in these situations and uniform defenders of uniformed police are, well, wrong. In doing so, I will try to consider multiple angles and the “broader picture,” which, in a writing-oriented context such as this, is usually advisable. So, here goes nothing.
First things first, stop saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”
If we’re going to have an honest conversation about race relations in the United States and the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re going to have to get past this “all lives matter” nonsense. First of all, the very notion of “all lives matter” actively seeks to negate the fundamentally most important word in the original phrase: “black.” As John Halstead, writing for Huffington Post, argues, this alteration only serves to betray white people’s discomfort with blackness and black cultural identity. Moreover, the use of the phrase “all lives matter” speaks to an attempt at racial colorblindness, a theoretical concept which only white people can hope to benefit from owing to the reality whiteness is treated as the cultural default in American society. We can only pretend not to see black people, their trials and their tribulations for so long. Many people of color, meanwhile, can’t help but see how differences in skin color matter, because they’ve experienced some degree of prejudice or animosity against them. In other words, to insist “all lives matter” because “race doesn’t matter” is to suffer from a serious case of white privilege.
Besides this bit of sociological theory, when it comes to simple logic, the concepts of “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. After all, if all lives truly matter, there should be no problem admitting that black lives, as a subset of all lives, matter in them of themselves. Saying “black lives matter” doesn’t mean you believe that black lives matter more than others. It means you believe that black lives should matter as much those of whites and other races, which is clearly not the case, because if it were, there would be no need for a movement called Black Lives Matter in the first place. Black lives matter. Say it. If you can’t, we already have a problem.
Black Lives Matter is not all about killing police.
The vast, vast majority of people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are opposed to violence against cops as well as violence against everyday citizens at the hands of the police. I obviously can’t speak for the organization or for black people in general, but I tend to think most African-Americans have respect for individual officers of the law, and activists who criticize police departments are interested in bringing only those who abuse the badge to justice, as well as dismantling the prejudicial systems that facilitate bad behavior within their ranks. To put this another way, protests by black activists, by and large, do not cause violence—but rather expose it. Calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist” organization or “hate group” is a blatant attempt to de-legitimize the movement because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative—or worse, is designed specifically to silence the truth.
Not all protesters want to burn buildings, loot stores, or smash windows.
Just as very few African-Americans encourage hostility and violence against police officers, it is the worst among them who show their frustration at brutality against their brothers and sisters in the form of rioting, violence and destruction. Certainly, most people within the black communities affected by unrest like that experienced in Baltimore and now Charlotte would condemn this sort of behavior, and I don’t excuse those actions. Still, even if the logic behind expressing one’s rage by lighting a car on fire is faulty, you can understand the raw emotion behind it, can’t you?
Well, if you’re white, maybe you can’t. Whatever your level of sympathy, viewing violent protests through a biased lens—that is, viewing looting and rioting as an inherently “black” phenomenon—is faulty in its own right. I mean, in 2011, following a Game 7 loss by the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, there was a riot in the city of Vancouver. In Canada, for gosh darn’s sake! If a bunch of riled-up hosers can tear shit up, anyone has that potential—black or white.
Barring one or more outstanding warrants, personal histories don’t matter when it comes to why someone is stopped by police or why they end up shot and killed.
Almost immediately after news breaks of a shooting by officers of the law of a black suspect, the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd and vigilante social media “thug” police set upon providing reasons why the men and women with the badges were unequivocally justified in their response, and why the deceased, in all likelihood, deserved it. As a function of what frequently amounts to character assassination, this sanctioning of police brutality is viewed through the lens of some criminal past of the victim’s, as if to say, “He wasn’t exactly the most law-abiding citizen. Why am I not surprised he reached for his gun?”
Stop. Unless the person gets killed had outstanding warrants for his or her arrest necessitating pursuit or influencing the judgment of the police officers involved, any criminal history is irrelevant. Alton Sterling pulled a gun on a homeless person who kept asking him for money. Did he deserve to die for it? Philando Castile had numerous run-ins with the police for traffic violations. Did he deserve his fate too? In so many cases of police brutality and shootings, and of police interceding in general, a critical element of why African-Americans and other people of color are stopped is the color of their skin. It’s called racial profiling, and I’m sure you know the term. Police forces say they don’t do it or encourage it, much as we white people might say we aren’t racist against blacks, but to that, I say they totally do it, and for all of us melanin-challenged individuals, here’s another term for you: implicit racism. Look it up. You might actually learn something.
Besides, if we’re invoking people’s personal histories and legal troubles, there’s a chance the same preceding logic of “they were probably guilty” can be used the other way around. In the case of Terrence Crutcher, Officer Betty Shelby was arrested for manslaughter for her role in the shooting. Shelby, as it turns out, was mentioned in a Tulsa PD November 2010 use of force report, has been involved in several domestic incidents in her adult life, and by her own admission, used marijuana recreationally as a teenager. If we’re applying the same conduct standards to Betty Shelby, then she’s lucky she’s on the “right” side of the badge, because she might as well have been shot in that moment. For her sake, all that’s important is what Shelby and witnesses say happened leading up to and including Crutcher’s shooting, what the evidence of the crime scene bears out, and whether the reports and the evidence match. Unless you’re already doubting her judgment just because she’s a woman (I, for the record, am not), and that’s another proverbial can of worms I don’t care to open in this space.
Black people are allowed to have guns in an open-carry jurisdiction.
I’m no jurist, but um, I believe this is true. If everyone in a particular state is allowed to carry a gun, as an extension of our vaunted Second Amendment rights, then in theory, all things considered equal, an African-American suspected of wrongdoing should be viewed as no more hostile or a threat than an individual by any other skin color. And yet, we know this isn’t the case. Despite evidence cited by John Halstead and others that blacks shot by police are no more likely to be an imminent lethal threat to officers than whites in similar situations, they are disproportionately fired upon by officers of the law, and it has nothing to do with them being “violent criminals” or even being apprehended in a “violent” community. The predicting factor is their race. And I’m not even going to go into a diatribe about the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted as potential perpetrators of crimes or arrested and jailed for committing certain crimes, notably drug-related offenses—even though there is plenty, ahem, ammunition on this front.
What this all boils down to, essentially, is that there is a double standard for blacks and whites carrying guns in the United States of America, as there is with any number of individual liberties. Bill Maher recently discussed this subject on Real Time, arguing, among other things: 1) there is a double standard for gun carry and ownership in this country, such that “open carry” apparently only means “open carry for white people” (on a related note, Maher suggested that, evidently, only white people like Donald Trump are justified in their anger, whereas black protestors and Black Lives Matter activists are treated as agitators or advocates of violence against police/whites), 2) that police should not automatically be “emptying their clips” at the first sign of something that “makes them nervous,” and 3) that officers like Betty Shelby should be better trained to handle a situation such as the one involving the death of Terrence Crutcher, and if they are still as nervous as Shelby appears to have been during their fateful encounter, they shouldn’t be doing their job, or at least not in such a capacity that they could potentially end someone’s life at a routine traffic stop. Granted, people like myself and Bill Maher don’t know what it’s like emotionally and physically to be involved in such an altercation as the one Betty Shelby faced from the officer’s point of view, but just the same, I don’t feel police officers and their departments should be above scrutiny on the use of force. Not when lives hang in the balance.
If an official video recording of a shooting exists, in the interest of transparency, police departments should want the public to see the footage.
You know, unless there’s something they don’t want the public to see—though that won’t necessarily stop the truth from eventually emerging, especially not in this day of cell phone ubiquity. What has struck me about the rather defensive reaction from a number of local police unions, police departments, and even supporters of the men and women in blue after fatal shooting events is that these groups seem to have forgotten that the police work to serve and protect the public—and not the other way around. Of course, this does not mean we should encourage police to walk into dangerous situations without the requisite defenses. Many good people have lost their lives in the interest of preserving order. At the same time, however, if protocol is being observed and a reasonable person would be able to observe that the apprehending officer or officers acted responsibly, there should be no reason forces shouldn’t want us to see the footage. Even if one or more officers involved unknowingly violated established guidelines, given the gravity or peril of the situation, they could be afforded some administrative clemency, or some sympathy from the general public. Likewise, when there is evidence to suggest that failure to comply with laws/rules manifested, as in the case of an officer “going rogue,” the powers-that-be in police departments should want to know this information. After all, these departments, as part of a larger and valuable societal institution, should strive to remain above reproach, and in theory, should be thankful to those that point out wrongdoing within their ranks.
Instead, as noted, the prevailing sentiment seems to be one of contentious resistance to criticism and scrutiny of our uniformed police. Black Lives Matter and other black rights activists protest the use of deadly force when it is seemingly unwarranted, only to be painted as would-be cop killers and ingrates. Colin Kaepernick kneels to acknowledge there is injustice in America’s criminal justice system today during the playing of the National Anthem. He, too, is branded disrespectful and a traitor, and is angrily told that if he doesn’t like it, he can kindly move to Canada or some other country. Beyoncé pays homage to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Police threaten to boycott her shows. Indeed, while not exactly a uniform response, too many uniformed police have met well-founded objections and calls for justice with, to be honest, fairly childish attitudes. It is, in fact, possible to still show respect for officers of the law and want to see proper procedure followed and offenders brought to justice. Money and privilege shouldn’t exempt people from prosecution, and neither should the badge.
There’s much more on this subject upon which to expound, but I’ll leave it to the people truly qualified to wax philosophical on what is the right course of action going forward for the country. Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to revisit these same themes in the near future. Another shooting. Another community in grief. Another dash of salt in a deep wound that divides our nation, black and white, as well as though who see there is a problem versus those who think people are merely “playing the race card” and trying unduly to invoke a sense of white guilt. This issue is not going away, and with people continuing to take sides and becoming more entrenched in their belief the other side is wrong, or even what’s wrong with America, it’s evidently not going away anytime soon.
The larger significance of tragedies like the shootings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I submit, is that if more accountability is not demanded of those who serve the public interest on behalf of African-Americans and people of color—be they elected politicians, executives of publicly-held corporations, officers of the law, or other individuals in positions of influence—this moves us all dangerously further along the path to wide disparities of power between the public and those who represent it. Congress is already disliked by a vast majority of Americans for being beholden to special interests and generally proving ineffective in authoring substantive public policy. Numerous corporations over the years have violated the trust of their customers and shareholders in the quest for short-term profits and maximum gains. If police forces continue to operate all but unchecked, their actions sanctioned by juries of shooting victims’ peers and certain task forces resembling miniature armies, those apocalyptic visions of the future we have seen in sci-fi movies, in which cities and whole countries are ruled as part of a police state, might not seem so far-fetched down the road after all. I may seem like I’m being overdramatic here, but many of us probably thought a Donald Trump presidency was a joke or a worst-case scenario—and yet here we are.
In short, wake the f**k up, White America. People are being killed in incidents that objective observers have likened to lynching. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings are dying in the street, in instances in which deadly force likely could have been avoided. And if we keep trying to deflect blame and reason away this fact, we all risk having our civil liberties infringed upon and our overall sense of freedom curtailed at the hands of larger forces. Until we realize that the deaths of American citizens like Terrence Crutcher and Keith Scott affect us all, we’re not ready to make real progress in the United States. Not by a long shot.
These days, with cameras on every cellphone and the proliferation of online content and social media such that content is easily shared and thus highly visible, not much that we as human beings do goes unnoticed. The NFL, of course, one of the most successful organizations in professional sports today, is no exception. That’s why when running back Marshawn Lynch took to the sidelines and enjoyed some celebratory Skittles once upon a time, or quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to sneak a bite of a hot dog while as the quarterback of the New York Jets, or when Sanchez, still with the Jets, um, picked his nose and wiped it on his teammate’s jersey, word got around, and because the Internet remembers everything, these athletes will always be linked to their less-than-private moments.
It is no great wonder, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions and comments concerning police brutality against African-Americans and the overall treatment of blacks in the United States have caused such a firestorm of controversy. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback—though whether or not he will actually remain on the team has been in question even before he started gaining attention for his political and social stances—has caused a stir among casual football fans and even those people who don’t follow sports for his decision not to stand up for the playing of the national anthem before the start of a recent preseason contest. Here’s what Kaepernick had to say about his very public, ahem, stand on the issue of race relations in America:
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.
Colin Kaepernick is not mincing his words here, and I am of the belief that he shouldn’t with respect to a subject of such relevance today, necessitating talk of expanding the use of body cameras within police forces and activism on the part of Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups. Certainly, though, others disagree with his viewpoint, not to mention the form of his protest, and made their objections to his silent refusal very vocal indeed. Former New York Giants running back and current CBS Sports radio show host Tiki Barber, for one, voiced his displeasure with Kaepernick’s actions, saying this:
I agree with his desire to continue the narrative. There are issues in this country. That, you have to commend him for. But I don’t commend him for sitting and not honoring this country and our flag.
Barber, for his trouble, was roundly criticized for aiming to lecture someone on their behavior when he, among other things, ditched his pregnant wife for his 23-year-old blonde “sidepiece,” but at least his argument was a more nuanced one. Others were more unequivocal, with athletes from other sports such as John Daly and Tony Stewart going so far as to call Colin Kaepernick an “idiot.” And lest we envision this as merely a black-vs.-white controversy, instead of a red, white and blue one, former NFL player and sports personality Rodney Harrison had to recently apologize for comments he made in anger that Kaepernick isn’t really black (Colin was born to a white mother and raised by white adoptive parents). Clearly, not all current and former players support Colin Kaepernick, and perhaps fittingly, there aren’t clean divisions of opinions along racial lines regarding the biracial quarterback’s protest.
However seriously football players, athletes and other critics are taking Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, for those who disagree with it, the same types of comments seem to predominate, and I think each is worthy of dissection on its own merit.
“He should respect the flag.”
Jerry Rice, whose legacy among the greatest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League is unquestioned, is among those who believe not standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner equates to disrespecting the American flag, and by proxy, I guess, America. To say that Colin Kaepernick, by staying seated, it is disrespecting the flag, however, may be to make a faulty assumption. The Supreme Court has affirmed twice within the past 30 years that flag desecration, in particular burning, is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution as “symbolic speech.” Granted, one can’t just go taking other people’s flags and burning them all willy-nilly, but like it or not, people can burn the flag however they want, barring context-specific restrictions. In Kaepernick’s case, he is merely refusing to stand, and certainly not bringing flames into the situation. Literally speaking, the QB isn’t doing anything to make a demonstration against the Stars and Stripes.
“He’s disrespecting the men and women who serve our country.”
In his explanation of the reasons behind his actions, there’s nothing to suggest Colin Kaepernick is showing a disrespect toward or protest against members of the United States military, let alone those who serve and protect the public faithfully as officers of the law. Kaepernick’s concerns are with systemic bias and prejudice against blacks and other people of color in America, and accordingly, reflect frustration with racial inequality rather than specific individuals. Either way, again, he is not making any pointed attacks against our servicemen and -women, and is simply showing his discontent for the status quo. Moreover, it is not out of character for him, as he frequently posts civil rights-oriented material on social media.
Such is apparently the state of today’s hyper-patriotism where any perceived slight against our soldiers or against the United States, whether this takes the form of choosing not to stand for the playing of the national anthem, criticizing the endless War on Terror (and bear in mind, this is a knock on the mission and its parameters or lack thereof, not the troops themselves), or not wishing to throw piles of money at the Department of Defense, is liable to earn someone of an opposing viewpoint a harsh rebuke. However, it is not as if our veterans would necessarily think raging against conscientious objectors to standing for the Star-Spangled Banner is the right course of action. Going back to 1989 and the notion of flag desecration, before United States v. Eichman reaffirmed flag burning is protected as free speech, President Bush signed into law the Flag Protection Act of 1989, and who protested by lighting cloth aflame? It was Vietnam veterans, furious in thinking they put their lives on the line so that future generations could have fewer freedoms. As they would have it, they fought for the sanctity of the Constitution, not for a piece of colored fabric that costs $20 or less at the local store.
“There’s a time and a place for that kind of protest.”
This paraphrases the thoughts of Alex Boone, an offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings, who admittedly has a bit of a personal connection to the Stars and Stripes and to our Armed Forces with a brother who served as a Marine in deadly combat situations. Here’s some more of what he had to say when interviewed by reporters and asked how he would’ve handled the situation if he were still playing for San Francisco, in his own words:
See, I’m a very emotional person. So I think if I had known that, my emotions would’ve been rolling—I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline. And I get that he can do whatever he wants. But there’s a time and a place. Show some respect, and that’s just how I feel.
With all due respect to showing respect, Alex, what exactly is the right time and place for such a protest? At 3 AM in his living room—with no one around him? This is the big problem I have with people suggesting there’s a time and place for a protest. I think if it were up to people like Boone, such a show of dissent would never occur, at least not in this country. Often enough, when people offer some pointed criticism of the United States that is judged by others who are self-appointed arbiters of patriotism as borderline heretical, they will offer something along the lines of, “You don’t like it here? Why don’t you leave?” Presumably, these angry defenders of America’s virtues would be apt to point the original critic to Canada, or Europe, or some other region assessed to be a home “for pussies.”
Barring the logistical difficulties of suddenly relocating upon request, this kind of thinking, despite the “best” intentions of the jingoist expressing herself of himself, is the most un-American expression of them all, in that it tries to squelch those opinions the expresser doesn’t like, thereby ironically limiting expression. It is thereby antithetical to our American ideal of the “home of the free.” In modern-day political and social theory, a mindset outside of black-or-white thinking seems to be one of a dying breed, such that one must agree or disagree with a political candidate, ideology or party in sum, or else risk looking wishy-washy or whiny. Speaking of black and white, as we must keep stressing, Colin Kaepernick is sitting out the playing of the national anthem because of the need he feels to express his anguish at seeing African-Americans get routinely shot and killed by police, a sentiment that already has been co-opted by the kinds of people who see Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization and inherently anti-cop or anti-white (see also All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter). Now throw a perceived slight toward past and present members of the military into the fray, and there’s no way Kaepernick’s message can survive over the shouting. Or, as Dylan Hernandez, writing for the Los Angeles Times put it, “A well-meaning Colin Kaepernick starts a conversation that, sadly, seems headed nowhere.”
As you might imagine, not everyone has been critical of Colin Kaepernick, though it should be noted few public figures have fully embraced him, either deferring to the idea “it’s a free country,” or saying they feel his message is important without “approving of his methods.” Hall of Famer Jim Brown says he is behind Colin 100%, though for him, the top issue is young black men killing other young black men. Perhaps the best defense of Kaepernick’s stance, meanwhile, comes not from a civil rights attorney or even a fellow football player, but rather a basketball player. Like Brown, this man carries quite a bit of clout as a legend of his sport, as well as someone very politically engaged on a personal level. In an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how our response to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand reveals more about what we think and how we express our patriotism than it does him (Kaepernick). From the beginning of Abdul-Jabbar’s essay:
During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.
In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.
The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.
Kareem goes on to say that Kendricks’ and Kaepernick’s actions carry meaning because they involved sacrifices; for Sam Kendricks, he broke concentration to salute his country, risking poor performance. In Colin Kaepernick’s case, he made a stand knowing full well this could jeopardize his place on the team and in the National Football League, as well as cause sponsors to bail on him, and yet he did so anyway, vowing to continue his protest as long as he deems sufficient. Both seemingly small gestures are much bigger than the sum of their physical requirements.
It also should be recalled that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not the first of its kind in sports. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, some 20 years ago, sat during the playing of the national anthem for a game in opposition to America’s “oppression” and “tyranny,” a decision which was instrumental in the demise of his NBA career. In Major League Baseball in 2004, Carlos Delgado did not take the field for the playing of “God Bless America” over political objections, for which he caught his fair share of heat, too. Going back further in time, there are a number of salient examples of political protests in and out of sports. The flag-burning at the hands of Vietnam vets has been discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likewise touches upon it in his editorial, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics, and obviously, Rosa Parks’ historic act of “sitting down to stand up” is alluded to in the title of this article. Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his stance on police brutality is important, particularly because this is 2016 and we still have so far to come in this country with respect to race relations. If we can put aside our emotions and prejudices long enough, we might be able to use this event as a springboard for an authentic discussion about race and other related issues. With the NFL regular season soon to begin, however, and with a presidential election not far behind, I worry that larger discussion will be quick to get swept under the proverbial rug as a function of the calendar year and the 24-hour news cycle, and that is indeed a shame.
Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feel like Old Ned, wish I was dead
All my life through, I’ve been so black and blue
Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m white—inside—but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
— “Black and Blue,” composed by Fats Waller, with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf
In the prologue to the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the nameless narrator listens to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the above-quoted jazz standard at full volume. On a phonograph, just to give you a sense of the time period. He secretly lives underground, stealing electricity from Monopolated Light & Power, and explains to the reader that he is invisible—not because of some feat of magic or science, but rather of intentional blindness on the part of the observer, refusing to see him because he is black.
Obviously, this facet of the narrator’s reality is a metaphor for the kind of “invisibility” faced by black Americans of all walks of life, but one that is starkly potent, and one still very much relevant even today. Especially today, more than 50 years after Ellison’s book was first published, and more than 80 years after “Black and Blue” came into being. In 2016, with cameras on every cellphone and a Vine or YouTube video seemingly for every situation that manifests in waking life, the struggle for authentic visibility for African-Americans is, well, perhaps more visible than ever before, and social media has only magnified the profile of responses within the African-American community to the injustices of society as a whole, notably that of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet for all the attention racism and other social issues surrounding black life in America have gotten in this day and age, it’s what remains invisible to so many of us that looms large. In “Black and Blue,” the allusion is, of course, to physical bruising caused by a rupture or tear of blood vessels under the skin—a black-and-blue. To be sure, in the violence against African-Americans which persists in the United States, those markings of bodily abuse have been plentiful in their own right. I speak, however, more pointedly about a bruising of the spirit and soul that has accompanied blacks in this country, one that, by its nature, can’t be seen unless the observer actively tries to find it. It’s a wound which exists in plain sight for those who feel its pain, but goes unnoticed, or worse, ignored by those who might stand to benefit most from acknowledging this hurt which spans generations. Even in describing this figurative subdermal bleeding thusly, I only hint at what experiencing it first-hand must be like. I couldn’t know the pain which comes along with it, nor would I want to.
In the past few weeks, another intersection of black and blue imagery has come to the forefront of the national consciousness, and unfortunately, in the worst ways possible. In the wake of the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, protests have sparked across the country decrying the injustice of treatment of black suspects at the hands of officers of the law. These protests, when peaceful, are not only acceptable, but welcomed, from my point of view. The disenfranchised among us deserve a voice, a chance to be heard in their frustration and grief. Sadly, not all actions in response to acts of violence by police against African-Americans have been characterized by such restraint. America, still trying to process and recover from the tragic murder of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest, as well as the senseless killing of at least 84 people in Nice, France in a terrorist attack on Bastille Day, was dealt another shocking blow on July 17 when three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As with the Dallas incident, the brutal slaughter of these officers and injury to others appears to have been carried out in the style of an ambush, with little discrimination evidenced by the shooter. To injure and kill police, it would seem, was enough for the perpetrator.
We may not know all that much about the officers who lost their lives on July 18, but for the vast majority of us following this story, there is no need to be familiar with their character or their deeds to understand they didn’t deserve to be gunned down like they were. As much as critics of Black Lives Matter insist the group advocates violence against those who protect and serve the public, few within this organization would condone the actions of either the Baton Rouge or Dallas gunman. Even when law enforcement and the criminal justice system hasn’t been above reproach, the lot of us still believe in law and order.
Yet any number of opinionated detractors will outline a yet more sinister motive to these shootings, or otherwise will resort to hyperbole in explaining their driving force. Jeanine Pirro, a former prosecutor and judge who now works for Fox News as a host of her own show on the network, minced no words in expressing her belief in an interview with Harris Faulkner, another of the channel’s on-air personalities, that the murder of the three police officers in Baton Rouge was an “attempt at anarchy,” and furthermore, that “the killing of cops is becoming normalized, it’s becoming legitimized.” She also derided President Obama’s calls for a “conversation” between blacks and police officers, and professed her lack of regard for people’s fears about the growing militarization of police forces, saying whatever is needed for officers’ protection is justified. As Judge Jeanine would have it, then, we are a country at war.
Bear in mind I am usually not wont to side with Fox News anchors and talking heads, but I take issue with a number of Ms. Pirro’s arguments as well as the very tenor of her speech. Firstly, regarding the shooting of these officers as tantamount to anarchy, their killer, from the reports I have read, believed what he was doing was serving justice for offenses against blacks by police. Not merely to be cliché, two wrongs do not make a right—and this warped vigilantism is definitely wrong, as I see it—but the Baton Rouge shooter wasn’t acting on behalf of advocacy for the dissolution of government and absolute freedom of the individual as a political ideal, as my Google search on “anarchy” defines the term. If anything, he believed—however misguidedly—that he was bringing more order to the system, not less. Secondly, who truly thinks that killing cops is a legitimate solution to the plight of black America? I don’t think very much of black America itself does, even in the face of police brutality and other hallmarks of institutional racism, but suggesting the murder of uniformed police is becoming some sort of “new normal” is a stretch, to say the least. Thirdly, ensuring police safety and militarization of police units are related issues, but there are nuances to be weighed, most notably in the attitudes that come part and parcel with the use of extreme force for situations like drug searches. The ACLU comments on this trend on its website:
Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.
The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe.
When the police view the patrol of our streets in terms of an “us vs. them” paradigm, is it any wonder that many African-Americans, especially younger individuals who have grown up with these regiment-like law enforcement units (and who by virtue of their youth may not possess the most well-developed sense of judgment), react with hostility toward the men and women in blue? Again, while the murder of officers as in Dallas or Baton Rouge is not to be excused, for this and other more defensible expressions of resistance within the black community, there is a least a context which helps explain why emotions run hot with regards to this issue on both sides of the badge.
Both the families, friends and those who knew of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, alongside the litany of other black Americans who have been treated unjustly at the hands of the law, as well as their counterparts mourning those officers who were tragically cut down in the line of duty in Louisiana and Texas, are in a state of grief and shock right now. To an extent, much of the nation feels these same emotions right now. Where anger and resentment put us on a path to hate, however, is where we lose a portion of our humanity, and in the process, plant the seeds for disunity, inequality, racism and violence to spring forth anew. Jeanine Pirro’s rhetoric is part of the problem, but hers is just one example of the kind of divisive language which characterizes the lesser outcomes of incidents like the shooting in Baton Rouge (and yet, Barack Obama is the one who’s the divider, according to her!). Surely, there is blame to be had on both halves of the equation.
Moreover, when misfortune strikes those who can speak for these two camps, effectively bridging the divide, our sense of loss is all the more poignant. Montrell Jackson, one of the three officers who lost his life on July 17 and a new father, wrote this on his Facebook account in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling:
I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.
What a sad and ironic end to the life of a man who recognized that, through his actions, he could make his community and those in it better for them, and furthermore, that hate doesn’t achieve anything but giving way to more hate. This is not to diminish, by the way, the lives and service of the two other men lost that day. Matthew Gerald was a husband, father and serviceman for both the Army and the Marine Corps. Brad Garafola was a husband and father as well, and had been with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for over two decades. Both of these men, by all accounts, were good officers and even better people. Montrell Jackson just happened to be in an unique position to embody the duality recent events have served to highlight—black and blue.
Though it may be trite to say, though Garafola, Gerald and Jackson are gone in one sense, their memory will live on. What is critical, however, for us as a nation moving forward, however, is not that we remember their sacrifice, but how we remember them, and how we approach the intersection of the fundamental rights of all people, notably African-Americans, and the ability of police officers to do their jobs effectively without compromising those rights. There has been a tendency in the numerous high-profile confrontations between blacks and law enforcement for those on the outside looking in to take sides in individual cases. Seemingly, for every activist championing the cause of Black Lives Matter, there is someone whose reverence for the men and women that serve the greater good compels them to co-opt the very namesake of their movement, calling for recognition that Blue Lives Matter and louder than those of Black Lives Matter, whether blinded by their admiration, wishing to drown out the inconvenient truths of prejudice, systemic bias against minorities, and white privilege, or some other reason.
Before automatically deciding that Barack Obama is automatically wrong for wanting to promote a dialog between blacks and police within communities, or subscribing to the viewpoint that all cops are crooked, we should consider that the major aims of Black Lives Matter and like organizations, and the wish to respect officers of the law and prevent them from undue danger, are not mutually exclusive. This is realistically difficult to argue when emotions are so raw immediately after the fact, not to mention when stereotypes of the nondescript black male as perpetrator are perpetuated on the nightly news, or when cable news shows and conservative talk radio hosts dismiss Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization, when in actuality, these anchors and pundits are merely projecting their own fears and insecurities. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we all want people to stop getting shot and killed. Black or white, police or civilian, heck—with the more-or-less constant conversation about gun control that exists in America today, any death, regardless of the specifics of the situation, seems like one too many when at the barrel of a gun. In this regard, there’s a lot more that these two sides—black and blue—have in common than some might have you believe.
At first blush, it may seem as if we are not making progress on the issues of racism and violence in our society, but as long as we keep talking about these matters, as uncomfortable as confronting them may be, we will be better off for it. Going back to the imagery of black-and-blues as bruises, though we as human beings may look different on the outside, underneath the skin, we all bleed the same color blood. Only when we begin to understand this concept can we as a nation start to live up to the greatness synonymous with the United States of America.
For people who don’t favor the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly have a problem with African-Americans existing in some form or another, there are explanations for why blacks in any given situation are wrong. It’s not Black Lives Matter—it’s All Lives Matter. They don’t care about reforming a broken criminal system or ending disproportionate violence towards minorities—they only advocate killing cops. That girl in the classroom slammed to the ground for refusing to leave class? She should have listened to the cop! Eric Garner? He shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes! Trayvon Martin? He shouldn’t have been wearing that suspicious hoodie! All those black characters dying in The Walking Dead? They should have known what happens to black people in horror movies and TV shows! OK, that last one was meant to be kind of silly. Kind of.
Time and again, in cases in which black suspects are injured or killed at the hands of the police, two major criticisms will be lobbied at the person who is, by many accounts, the victim, but only ostensibly so, as far as others are concerned. As I see it, they are:
1. “They shouldn’t have been resisting.”
OK, let’s deconstruct this idea as viewed through the lens of a recent shooting, of which I’m sure you’ve heard by now. From what we know or have read, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5. Reportedly, he was approached by a homeless man asking for money in a persistent manner, whereupon Sterling showed him his gun and said something to the effect of “I told you to leave me alone.” Sure, we might have preferred if Alton would have treated his solicitor in a, shall we say, more Christian manner, but who among us hasn’t been abrupt or less than charitable with someone begging for even pocket change? Or called them “bums?” As John Oliver puts it, referencing a quote from Ivanka Trump with respect to her father, Donald Trump, pointing to a homeless person and saying “that bum” had $8 billion more than him, owing to his debt at the time: “That really shows you the indomitable spirit of Donald Trump. To fall to his lowest point, and in that very moment, still find a way to be kind of a dick to a homeless guy.” We may shake our heads—and in Trump’s case, start researching the logistics of moving to Canada should he win the presidency—but this is no crime, and certainly not an offense warranting death.
Whether he felt legitimately threatened or not, the fateful events leading to Alton Sterling’s demise, according to a CNN report by Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, were precipitated by that homeless man calling 911 on his cell phone (let’s table any sidebars about a homeless person having a cell phone for the moment, shall we?) and reporting a man “brandishing a gun.” This necessitated the intervention of police, though apparently, Sterling was not immediately aware of why he was being confronted by officers. In a video included within the CNN report, a “pop” is heard, and Alton is told to get on the ground, but given little more than a moment to react, he is pulled over the hood of a car by one officer and slammed to the ground, whereupon he is helped by a second officer to keep him down. Seconds later, someone yells that Sterling has a gun, whereupon the two officers frantically pull their weapons. Not soon after, the fatal shots are delivered, with horrified onlookers reacting viscerally to what they witnessed.
Could Alton Sterling have been more physically still in this scenario? Sure, although when you’ve just been body-slammed by a large police officer, and you’re not completely sure why you’re being accosted in the first place, you’re probably not thinking all that rationally. Either way, I don’t know that I would be considering his actions or motions resisting, and moreover, outgunned and outnumbered, even if he were resisting, was he genuinely in a position to react in a way that made the officers’ use of deadly force appropriate? Put another way, is this the only way that scenario could have played out? Could Sterling have been subdued by a Taser or other means of incapacitation rather than bullets being spent?
These questions are, to varying extents, rhetorical ones, but let’s not demean the notion that tough decisions based on judgment have to be made by police in these situations, and that their own personal safety is at risk. Nonetheless, as trained, uniformed defenders of the public’s safety, there is some level of assumption of risk in the line of duty, and I submit, an onus on the officer or officers to act responsibly. That Alton Sterling’s detractors would be so quick to deflect responsibility onto him seems patently unfair, if not understating the capabilities and discretion of the officers. We spend so much time building up the men and women who serve and protect the public interest, and often justifiably so, but let’s put accountability where it belongs all the way around.
2. “Well, he was no saint.”
OK, so this hypothetical argument is at the heart of my post here, and while my concerns are very real with respect to the role of the police in the course of interactions with potential criminal suspects, from an outsider’s perspective, arguments about the background and possible criminal history of someone who dies at the hands of officers, in my view, utilize a fundamentally flawed logic. Not soon after the events leading to Alton Sterling’s death, Jessica McBride of Heavy authored a post advertising his “arrest record, criminal history, and rap sheet,” which may have been phrased in this way for dramatic effect, but is notably redundant; a “criminal record” and “rap sheet” are the same thing, and this appears to serve only to either generate more hits for this article or lead the reader into believing he was some sort of degenerate.
The post, which includes an exhaustive display of the physical documentation of his relationship with the law prior to, as some see it, his “lynching” at the hands of uniformed police, ticks off the evidence which apparently lends itself to portraying Sterling’s troubled history with the boys and girls in blue. As McBride outlines, per an affidavit of probable cause from 2009, Alton Sterling was involved in a “wrestling match” with a police officer after resisting arrest, an event in which he (Sterling) was in the possession of a semi-automatic weapon. Sterling was also a registered sex offender after being convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”—Louisiana’s seemingly antiquated way of saying “statutory rape”—in 2000 and serving four years in jail. Lest this seem especially egregious, Alton was only 20 at the time of his conviction, so while this is not meant to exonerate him, it does give context to the notion he may not have been all that mature and well-developed with respect to his regard for obeying the law. There are other offenses highlighted in the Heavy piece, too, including Alton Sterling’s conviction in 2011 for “knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance,” in this case, marijuana, a drug many contend should be legal, and domestic battery in 2008.
These violations of the law are all well and good, but any insinuation that Sterling “deserved” his fate suffers from one or more serious errors in logic. Firstly, the bulk of the offenses referenced in Jessica McBride’s piece on happened over five years ago. This is not to excuse Sterling’s behavior, mind you, but it does provide context to his criminal history. Since that time, perhaps Alton Sterling had changed. Perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll never know now, and it’s a little disingenuous to assume he hadn’t. Secondly, as the CNN report above makes explicit, there’s no evidence that the officers who responded to the 911 call knew of Sterling’s criminal history. So, while this may help frame some people’s understanding of the situation better according to the narrative of crime perpetrated by blacks that they would like to believe, this doesn’t necessarily mean Alton Sterling’s past was a factor in this incident. Thirdly, and most importantly, it shouldn’t matter what Sterling did or did not do prior to the events at the convenience store. Whether the suspect is black or white, sex offender or not, protocol should be followed. To stress, I respect that police offenders should be on high alert in the case of a weapon, as their personal safety and life may hang in the balance. All this aside, firing shots should be a last resort, and yet you get the sense in this shooting that the officers at the scene were all too ready to pull the trigger. If a supposed “Ferguson effect” exists, it didn’t appear to manifest itself here.
It seemingly gets worse in consideration of Philando Castile’s track record prior to his being gunned down at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Hmm, who could we trust to provide us with this historical documentation and information? Why, no other than Ms. Jessie-on-the-Spot herself—Jessica McBride! Castile, stopped for a busted taillight and fatally shot after attempting to make it clear to the officer that he had a gun on him (legally) and was trying to get his wallet to produce his identification, had numerous traffic offenses on his record. Aside from these relatively minor infractions, though? Two drug incidents, in which the charges were ultimately dismissed, and no felony or violent criminal record. I don’t care if Philando Castile were green and had tentacles for arms—it’s a hard sell to insist the lethal force used on him was appropriate.
I started planning out and writing this piece after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and before the killing of five officers in Dallas and the injury to more. Suffice it to say, this event in it of itself is a tragedy, and their assassin is not only clearly wrong to bring more death to this world, but a coward on top of it for sniping unsuspecting victims. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the prevalence of guns in America as a factor in all these cases, though I don’t feel the gun control issue should predominate the conversation. I also don’t wish for what happened in Dallas to overshadow what I believe were the wrongs done in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The officers in Texas were killed in cold blood by a madman, recluse or whatever term you feel you want to use; while we’re delving into people’s criminal records, it’s worth noting the shooter had no criminal record and served his country as an Army reservist. This is undeniable. But Castile and Sterling were murdered in their own right, and in their case, it was those with badges who perpetrated it. Because it must apparently continue to be a refrain, this is not a blanket condemnation of all police. Most officers, I believe, do the right thing. Some do not, however, and when the criminal justice system and law enforcement officials conspire to deflect blame and shield those who did wrong from criticism and due consequences, those officials and systems are not above their own criticism and scrutiny. For those who would supplant Black Lives Matter with the insistence “Blue Lives Matter,” I agree those who serve the public interest should be lauded, but not deified. Again, if anything, we should be holding them to higher standards.
I wouldn’t wish what happened to the slain officers and their families on my worst enemy. Theirs is a loss I couldn’t even begin to try to comprehend. That said, if this collective violence of the past few days provides them with a broader perspective on the pain so many Americans feel right now—especially within the larger black community—these killings won’t be for nothing. In 2015, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that black Americans are four times as likely to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, and that, while more than 80% of blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force, two-thirds of white respondents label police use of force as necessary, and six out of ten white respondents believe race is not a factor in the use of force. These are huge disparities, and suggest we have a long way to go before we can say we are having an authentic conversation about race in the United States today. If “all lives matter” as much as we might insist, we need to realize the issue of violence related to encounters between civilians and police is a shared human burden. Seven citizens died in much-publicized ways this past week, and that is the essential notion here.
In discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m relatively sure you’ve heard at one point or another this line of thinking: “It should be All Lives Matter.” I’m also relatively sure that when you heard it, a white person said it. As a white person—an exceedingly white person, at that—I would like to speak directly to those other white persons who have espoused such a belief.
As well-intentioned as you may be in insisting that we are all one people under the same sky, supplanting the black in the phrase “black lives matter” is missing the point. Either you are missing the implicit argument that black lives matter too, and therefore falsely regard the movement as a bastion of black pride at the expense of all other makes and models of human existence (or worse, a terrorist organization), or you acknowledge that black lives matter, but by downplaying that sentiment in favor of some post-racial love for humanity, you are complicit in the preservation of systems of power that marginalize African-Americans and other minorities. To that effect, I don’t know which is worse.
I was reminded of the “Black Lives Matter”/”All Lives Matter” logical trap earlier this week following activist and actor Jesse Williams’ acceptance speech at the BET Awards for the Humanitarian Award. Williams had this to say in closing regarding the topic of race in America:
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though—the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.
And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little side note—the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.That’s not our job, all right—stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though—the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.
Powerful words. As is often the case, though, influential white people soon started rendering their opinions, and that ruined that pretty quickly. The inevitable hubbub/backlash started when Justin Timberlake took to Twitter to react to Williams’ impassioned speech:
Which led to this:
And all this:
OK, so there’s a number of things going on here, so let’s break down the component events/issues:
1. Justin Timberlake was #Inspired. Good for him. I don’t have any particular grievance with this Tweet other than the notion #Inspired, as far as hashtags go, isn’t particular inspired. At least he didn’t use his remaining characters to fill the space with more unnecessary hashtags. #ThankYouJT #WhitePeopleWatchTheBETAwardsToo
2. Ernest Owens (and a slew of others) took umbrage at Justin’s alleged history of habitual cultural appropriation. This is where the issue of race and culture gets decidedly thorny. More and more, white entertainers and famous individuals who lack real talent but are a subject of interest nonetheless (e.g. Kylie Jenner, and as some would argue, Iggy Azalea) are criticized for their use of African-American cultural elements without standing with blacks on social issues like discrimination and institutionalized racism. And God help them if they’re wearing cornrows or dreadlocks.
On the subject of Janet Jackson, meanwhile? Sheesh. Guess neither Justin nor Janet are ever going to live that one down. #WardrobeMalfunction #SuperBowlProblems #OneTittyOut
3. Justin Timberlake took patronizing umbrage at Ernest Owens’ umbrage. “Oh, you sweet soul?” Who are you, the Dalai f**king Lama? Rather than just leave that comment alone, Timberlake committed the cardinal sin of feeding Internet trolls, something which he does acknowledge in his follow-up Tweet. By this point, however, the damage was done, and JT had exposed himself (much in the same way he exposed Janet Jackson’s naked breast at the Super Bowl) as someone who, maybe just maybe, didn’t truly get why people were upset at him in the first place.
4. Justin Timberlake only proceeds in digging himself a bigger hole. On some level, yes, Justin, we are all one race under the sun. Physiologically speaking, distinct racial markers are relatively recent developments in human development. That said, you’re never going to win that argument, and on the subject of perceptions of race in America and around the world, and how that has been instrumental in the perpetuation of graphic inequalities economically, politically and socially for people of different skin colors, um, no, we’re not the same. Not even close.
In saying people of different races are not the same, I am indeed speaking of their treatment within complex systems, and not as a referendum on supposed mental or physical attributes. On the first count, this is 2016. Sorry, #BeckyWithTheBadGrades. Sorry, Angry Ghost of Antonin Scalia. The vast (and sensible) majority of people are not trying to argue the point that affirmative action produces weaker candidates to earn degrees and jobs, nor is it wildly unfair to poor, hard-working Caucasians. On the second count, what are we talking about, exactly? Sports? Dick size? Either way, the stereotypes get blown out of proportion, not to mention after a certain point, er, depth, a gigantic member can only do so much good.
Concerning why I say that the topic of cultural appropriation is so thorny, what makes it so complicated is not only that the appropriator may not see much of a problem with his or her appropriating, but the aggrieved arbiter of matters of appropriation, seeing himself or herself as defender of cultural values, is usually self-appointed and therefore somewhat questionable as an authority figure. As far as Kylie Jenner’s (cornrows) and Justin Bieber’s (ugly blonde dreadlocks) limited self-consciousness was concerned, they were just, well, styling their hair. In the eyes of one Amandla Stenberg, however, it’s more than that. In a video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” Stenberg waxes theoretical on cultural appropriation, saying:
Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.
In making the connection to larger issues about race in America and the disenfranchisement of blacks as part of a society designed to suppress them, Stenberg also makes a connection between one’s follicles and hip-hop music, which, more and more, white people seem intent on co-opting for their own purpose, too:
Hip-hop stems from a black struggle, it stems from jazz and blues, styles of music African-Americans created to retain humanity in the face of adversity. On a smaller scale but in a similar vein, braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They’re necessary to keep black hair neat.
Assuming they’ve seen the video, Mr. Bieber and Ms. Jenner probably are defensively resisting any implication they are prejudiced or racist in any way. They also are probably wondering why the heck the young girl from District 11 of The Hunger Games is giving them a dissertation on black culture. Perhaps, though, the source is not so important as much as the message itself. Even when you tend to be kind of a dick.
More than just resisting the urge to look like Coolio, however, it would seem more worthwhile for white people to acknowledge that racism—both explicit and implicit—exists in today’s America. Taking it a step further, it’s time for more people of the Caucasian persuasion to recognize that white privilege is, in fact, a thing. A number of months ago, Saturday Night Live‘s Sasheer Zamata penned an essay and made a short video about privilege as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. It is primarily concerned with the intersection of gender and privilege, but race is also touched upon (as is the intersection of all three, and spoiler alert—it doesn’t tend to work out great for African-American women!).
Zamata says outright in the essay, “The fight to protect and advance the rights of women and girls is far from over.” Again, the focus is mainly on the role sexism plays in the power of privilege, and deservedly so, but the same may be said about other forms of prejudice. Your evidence? Look no further than the Comments section for Sasheer Zamata’s post. You would’ve hoped for more respectful input from a page on the ACLU website, but apparently, a Comments section is a Comments section, and trolls lurk in all corners of the Interwebs. Courageously hiding behind the designation of Anonymous. Your fearlessness inspires us all, Anonymous Trolls!
Were Justin Timberlake’s ill-fated comments the worst reaction we’ve seen to insinuations about appropriation, privilege and racism? No. Just look and listen at Tomi Lahren’s repugnant rant following these same BET Awards. You’ll have to fight the urge to stab your own eyes out with a sharpened Blake Shelton CD and cut off your own ears with—OK, what else is sufficiently white?—a kitchen knife covered in mayonnaise. Still, could we learn a thing or two from JT’s folly? I submit yes.
So, in summary, white folks: 1) It’s Black Lives Matter—take it or leave it, 2) if you love and appreciate black culture, love the things that empower black people (and consider forgoing that fresh Jheri curl hairstyle you’ve been thinking about), and 3) just accept your white privilege. Even when you think you’re not privileged, you probably are. That is all. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming. Which is, like, what? Watching re-runs of Mad Men? What do white people watch these days anyway?