Thursday, July 28, 2016
Healing and a Weakness in Obama’s Dallas Eulogy: mass nonviolent versus violent resistance to injustice
President Obama gave a moving tribute to the 5 police officers who were killed by a soldier in Dallas, making the profound point that they, too, had done decent things, had families. They protected a march protesting the wanton police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Stirling. And they did their jobs despite chants like “no justice no peace” which indicted police criminality and the government’s ordinary shielding of murders by police. Lorne Ahrens had bought dinner to a homeless man the night before. Others had said goodbye to children and family, as Ted Cruz said in speech in Cleveland last Wednesday, not to return home.
And several of the black leaders who have done serious work against murders by police and for justice, for example, State Senator Nina Turner of Ohio, has a husband who is a retired cop and a son who was assigned to protect the Republican convention. Her anguish about Castile and Stirling and their families was great; so was her fear for her relatives. Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore DA, put the 6 cops who murdered Freddie Gray on trial – a real first in the United States, even though today charges were dropped (guess Freddie killed himself in police custody…). When attacked initially, Mosby pointed out that she applied the law fairly in making the indictments – a rare thing - and that both her parents are police.
If their husbands, sons, mothers, fathers had been killed even in a justified resistance, would there be a Nina Turner or a Marilyn Mosby?
Speaking to the families and the police in Dallas, Obama brought the good part of what these men and women did to the fore:
“When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly. They showed incredible restraint. Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, and saved more lives than we will ever know. (Applause.) We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions. (Applause.) “Everyone was helping each other,” one witness said. “It wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.” See, that’s the America I know.
The police helped Shetamia Taylor as she was shot trying to shield her four sons. She said she wanted her boys to join her to protest the incidents of black men being killed. She also said to the Dallas PD, “Thank you for being heroes.” And today, her 12-year old son wants to be a cop when he grows up. That’s the America I know. (Applause.)”
Her son’s response does not betray the black men murdered by racist police, but reflects their real heroism in this situation. And one hopes that he would retain both insights as a future officer.
When one strikes violently at the “enemy,” one also harms innocents, deters others from joining movements, breeds vengeance in relations and friends. This is a terrible meaning of Mao’s famous statement: “revolution is no tea party; it is nothing as kind and courteous as that.”
Obama also said rightly: “And today, in this audience, I see people who have protested on behalf of criminal justice reform grieving alongside police officers. I see people who mourn for the five officers we lost but also weep for the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In this audience, I see what’s possible -- (applause) -- I see what's possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God. That’s the America that I know.”
All of this is real, and a profound argument - more, obviously than Obama offers, for a mass, militant, nonviolent movement against injustice. Such a movement is what King led, what Black Lives Matter represents. Yet Obama’s words do not erase the string of racist murders receding far into the past. They do not cancel Philando Castile’s four year old daughter trying to comfort her mother and saying that Philando was gone, or Alton Stirling’s 15 year old supporting his mother, but then weeping uncontrollably and calling for his father who would not return…
Obama said to the police at the eulogy in Dallas:
“ No, the reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law; that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor; that in this country, we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead, we have public servants -- police officers -- like the men who were taken away from us.”
Unfortunately, Obama as President mourning the gunning down of innocent officers, did not name the plain racism involved in the wanton police murders of Sterling and Castile. In fact, he goes on oddly to contrast the shootings of black civilians by racist police officers almost neutrally – mentioning the protests – and then the shootings by the black former soldier: “an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.” We all know – as Obama thinks, even though he is President – that the murders of Stirling and Castile were motivated by racism. And it is fair to say, though Obama speaks here as the chief law enforcement official, that the Dallas shootings were “demented violence.”
But there are deep issues about violent resistance to unjust authority which are raised in this crime and the one committed by the other former soldier in Baton Rouge. Further, Obama’s clear term “racial hatred” – as if it were the only “racial hatred” – is mistaken. In lynching people, the Klan does feel racial hatred. Those who oppose and stop them, even who kill them in self-defense, might or might not dislike or fear all whites. But even if they do, they are not the authors of the initial crime or the elite in the oppressive system behind it. Instead, they act in self-defense.
Here are Barack’s words:
“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week. First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and the protests, then the targeting of police by the shooter here -- an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred. All of it has left us wounded, and angry, and hurt. It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know that such divisions are not new -- though they have surely been worse in even the recent past -- that offers us little comfort.”
“Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold and that things might get worse. I understand. I understand how Americans are feeling. But, Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. “
Obama here plays a very unusual role in achieving conflict resolution and beginning healing. He calls us to understand the point of view of the other, put yourself in her shoes, not just fall into prejudice. As at Emmanuel AME church last year, what Obama said was enormously moving and healing.
And yet – blacks do not “just feel they are unfairly targeted by the police.” They are, and have been, horrifically, for ages, unfairly targeted (slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration). That is just the truth. Yes, things have improved through the long fight from below; it’s not slavery or Jim Crow. But as Obama said, every parent still must have “the talk” with a boy or girl about being very, very obedient and cautious with the police, or often being hurt or dying for walking while black…
In contrast, police feeling “unfairly maligned for doing their jobs,” often have a problem. For some have conducted their “job” as one of keeping blacks and other poor people down, even of shooting them wantonly as in the case of Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Philando Castile or Walter Scott…(Listen to the Mothers at the Democratic Convention last night here).
And other cops and DAs and judges have cooperated with them, protected the shooters. That is why, contra Barack, many see here, rightly, a system of injustice.
Still, as Hillary Clinton said at the NAACP a week ago, Montrell Jackson was a young black cop who found looks of hate in Baton Rouge when in uniform and looks of fear - mainly from whites - when he was not. There is a tension to be overcome here by changing the police, of which community policing would be one important step forward.
Still, the source of the tension is the fearsome effect of black lives being unnoticed, tossed away, arrested, jailed, and sometimes shot down wantonly. And that is coupled with black communities being a wider system of occupation and oppression, massive unemployment and bad (tracked) education. Not law, but unjust law or enforcement of law, piling fine after fine, jailing people for money, creating a past record of plea-bargains (who can afford a lawyer), and on and on.
But that Obama, being the chief executive officer of an oppressive government, could not say.
Obama’s and common, seemingly pragmatic arguments about an equivalence of the racism of the police and the nationalism of the shooters is wrong. For the racism of the oppressor often justifies, in response, violent resistance and the idea that black people must free themselves in whatever way promises success. In Dallas and Baton Rouge, this idea is blurred because former soldiers with big guns can shoot a lot of innocent police officers. Innocent: officers who did them or their community no direct and murderous harm. Such shooting is murder, just as the killing of innocents by the oppressors is murder. Still nationalism against the oppressor is not the same as resistance to oppression. For nationalism can sometimes fights oppression. But nationalism is also misguided, as in this instance, and can sweep away innocent officers or even those of the oppressor nationality who oppose oppressive policies. Further, nationalism can cut off allies and is politically counterproductive as well as wrong.
When is violence justified against oppression? When actual oppressors are targeted (terror bombing of civilians is never justified, never anything but crime). Even so, we must then ask a further question. Will violent resistance, however morally and even legally justified if there were really a rule of law in this country, end oppression? Or will it simply lead to larger and more violent police attacks and be counterproductive? For instance, wanton shooting of the police could spawn the racist ferocity of a Trump Presidency and much larger scale repression.
And mass nonviolent resistance is, in fact, a much more serious – as Black Lives Matter has shown – and effective alternative.
But contra Obama, the police are an occupying army in nonwhite communities (and in general, an oppressive force which serves a tiny elite, not “all of us”). See Ta-Nahisi Coates Between the World and Me, and his article on black violence as a response to a “long and unbroken pattern of abuse” by the police here. Coates just says that wanton police murder eventually and understandably produces a violent response. His account is compelling. The oppression is longstanding and deep, and includes slavery and Jim Crow.
Yet there have been only two such shootings in recent weeks. For such things are very unusual in American history. Even the Black Panthers, once upon a time, though armed in self-defense, did not shoot police. Instead, they were wantonly murdered by the police and FBI. All this reveals that violence has not been a first, second or third resort in America of a people who are very oppressed (indigenous people repeatedly tried to make peace, were massacred and did also, often, fight back against the genocide, but entirely in self-defense…).
I should add: as Frederick Douglass says, from the Revolution on (see my Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence), blacks have participated in public, patriotic uprisings and wars Through being leading soldiers as well as through nonviolent protests, they and their allies have won increased freedom. So charges about the supposed likely violence of blacks – the panicked babbling of Trump, the Republican Convention, and Klan leader David Duke- are belied by a straightforward, nonracist telling of American history.
Barack’s statement about the “racial” violence of the shooters is negated for a system where ordinary blacks are harmed by and not protected by the police. Barack did rightly say that the Congress does not provide jobs and education needed in what are in fact occupied communities. And that is an important evil, and hardly the fault of the police. And many individual police officers do stand up for non-racist application of the law.
The police – and the elite - could, however, break up violent intra-black crime especially murders, but don’t. Mainly they occupy and harass/list as “gang members” and lock up and shoot ordinary people. With a criminal record – for marijuana, for example – one cannot get a job or live in public housing. Mass incarceration and probation (2.3 million prisoners – 25% of the world’s prisoners – and another 5.1 million on probation…See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow).
“We know,” Barack says, “that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally. They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn. (Applause.) And when anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety. And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves -- well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote. (Applause.)”
No, in occupied communities, the police are first and foremost instruments of oppression. They either carry out unjust laws, and use their authority unjustly (rampant police murders, gang identifications, false convictions – one’s stomach assaults the policeman’s billyclub….
The American police originated out of slave patrols, long ago. This was also an initial motivation for the Second Amendment, in which civilian militias, especially in the Southern colonies, were slave catchers, a la Patrick Henry – see Black Pqtriots and Loyalists, pp. 6, 17.
In Chicago, in the late nineteenth century, the first urban police force was to oppress immigrant workers, Italian and German, sometimes anarchists who strove to form unions and fight for an 8 hour day, See Sam Mitrani here and here. The Haymarket massacre of early May, 1886, emerged from this history.
In poor communities, and especially non-white communities, the American police is an oppressive force. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has written of the origins of this under Nixon. The US government had often pushed drugs - the epidemic of heroin in Harlem and other ghettos in the early 1960s – to stop rebellions among soldiers in Vietnam and in American cities (see Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade here. But Nixon suddenly claimed to “war” on them. See Norm Stamper here.
As Michelle Alexander has emphasized in The New Jim Crow, this was an attempt, led by Southern newly-minted, anti-Lincoln Republicans to reverse the successes of the civil rights movement. Mass incarceration was a new effort, parallel to Jim Crow, to throw away black people, particularly young people, through mandatory sentencing.
The militarization of the police, as Stamper says, began in the “war on drugs.” But after 2001, he continues, the use of military equipment – armored vehicles – penetrated sleepy, though poor suburbs of St. Louis like Ferguson, and all over the country. Young people, mainly nonwhite but also poor white, were harassed even in schools, through repeated stops. racial profiling and labeling as “gang members." A school to prison pipeline emerged.
Even middle class blacks, even former Attorney Gerneral Eric Holder, have “the talk” with teenagers. And for many – and we have now seen the videos thanks to cell phones, the police come and shoot them, and walk away without punishment.
American capitalism is a system of oppression of young people. Blacks are hurt worst by it – according to the Justice Department, the chance of a black child born in 2001 of being involved in the prison system was 1 in 3, of a Chicano 1 in 6 and of whites, a smaller but still outrageous 1 in 17. (The Justice Department did not bother to collect figures on native americans, but it is high). Young blacks can find few jobs. In New York, just after Obama was elected, the unemployment rate for poor black teenagers was 96%.... Young black men and women are often treated as enemies in the schools or warehoused (see Jonathan Kozol’s descriptions of the resegratation of American schools in The Shame of America: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America here. In the streets, “stop and frisk” is normal for black people…
Contra Obama, we must contrast the racism which serves as an instrument or “justification” of murder and just hostility to the establishment from oppressed people. Read Charles Blow’s account in the New York Times of Tahj, his son, a student being confronted on the Yale campus by a New Haven cop with his gun drawn here. This would not have happened had Tahj been white.
As a legal and moral matter, if somebody tries to kill you, you fight them, and they die, you are not guilty of murder. This is a case of self-defense. Had Trayvon Martin killed his hunter, that would have been just. Trayvon would have had a difficult time with the case in an American “court.” Yet since his hunter had been warned by the policewoman whom he was speaking with by phone not to follow this “suspicious” teenager in a hoodie who had gone out in the rain to buy skittles, perhaps a living Trayvon could have successfully made the case.
And if as in the case of the American Revolution against Britain, blacks had had a revolution against slavery, Jim Crow or the current system of oppression, that, too, would be self-defense. The British crime is called aggression and occupation. Collective self defense against aggression is the paradigm of just war. It is wrong to say, as Obama did in his eulogy of police in Dallas - a very hard place to say exactly what is true - that racism of the oppressors and a reactive nationalism on the part of the victims are equivalent. They are not.
Now the shooters in Dallas and Baton Rouge, both soldiers, were, once again, influenced by a bizarre nationalism and enabled by big weapons. They shot white and black police officers and demonstrators who had done them no direct harm. Their act is still murder. And in isolation, each was ultimately suicidal. But had these police been guilty of oppression – and one is, in part, simply by doing the job of occupation, even cautiously – then the act, however unwise and horrible, might perhaps still be one of self-defense.
Further, someone who sought to defend even these (crazed) actions could say, look the whole police and judicial apparatus defends killer cops. The thin blue line means that even officers who don’t kill falsify evidence or fail to not investigate shootings by their fellow officers. The DAs use the police in making cases. Except for Marilyn Mosby, they let the plainest murderers walk. And courts acquit police as in Baltimore – Freddie Gray died in police custody, but no cop is guity of anything…Talk about a racist police state…
Further, this person might note, mass revolutionary violence, when directed against the instruments of an oppressive state, is just a broad-based form of what these isolated killers did.
But even if this were true – and it is a big stretch to think it is – the main result of such killing is to legitimize or widen support for a large-scale violent response by the police against the community. That is what the entire “Republican” convention, a racist one, is urging. That is what the “law and order” candidate meant when he said he would stop all crime upon his inauguration.
Now racists also charge nonviolent protests, like Black Lives Matter, with being violent. But everyone can see that they are not. Black Lives Matter protests racist murder..
When there is actual violent resistance, however, and innocents are killed, their families are often incensed and want vengeance. And that can lead to much more killing as a kind of counterrevolution. It can also generate lurking hatreds which pervert or strike out against even successful revolution.
Since the Chinese (70 years ago) and Vietnamese Revolutions (40 years ago), most great social and political changes have occurred by mass, nonviolent resistance. Consider the fall of the tyrannies in Eastern Europe or Arab Spring in Tunisia, where the parliament is now half women. Consider the vast movement led by Martin Luther King and other nonviolent resistors. The rebellions/”riots” in American cities also played a large role in the civil rights movement. They involved massive destruction of property by rebels, but the relatively few killings were mostly by police. What Obama said – that there have been great changes in all of our lifetimes about racism – is true. And consider the enduring impact of Black Lives Matter.
Thus, the wisest and likeliest to succeed way to change the entrenched racism/murder by the police is to organize mass nonviolent civil disobedience and other forms of protest from below.
In addition, there are some who are working to reform police departments. For example, in Dallas, Chief Brown had a son who killed two police officers and was killed. Brown himself has led – challenging others – a movement toward community policing. As Obama underlined, reports of “excessive police force” – a police category - have fallen 64%. Further, the chief has advertised for more black police officers. Not everyone is a Montrell Jackson whose words Hillary Clinton movingly discussed at the NAACP last Monday. But a police force more like the community is better than a separated from the community, hierarchical, militarily armed, infiltrated by the Klan and neo-Nazis, egged on by Donald Trump, Occupying force – consider Ferguson and many many other suburban and urban police departments.
As Dallas shows, some real reform is possible in even hierarchical police departments; mass nonviolent noncooperation/civil disobedience could force much greater changes. But in any month in the United States, more people are shot by the police, and many of them murdered, and with little or no investigation, than in Britain or Finland in the last 16 years. In 2014, there were officially 475 police murders in the US, 0 in Britain. America has a culture of gun violence, propagated on the Right - the NRA - for white people. It is a sickeningly racist culture. But note, there was not a single peep at the Republican Convention or by the NRA about Philando Castile, a very popular cafeteria worker in a Montessori school in Minnesota, stopped for a broken taillight, and shot when he reached to get his wallet.
If we take guns off the street as other societies do, that would limit police murders. It might also go along with the US becoming a less warlike country abroad. For even Obama, who admires Gandhi and King, currently wages war in 7 countries. Hillary Clinton wants control of guns internally and opposes murers by police, but is a dangerous war-maker, neo-con abroad (Trump is obviously much more dangerous). See here.
Now mass nonviolent resistance might be able to force serious reform about guns. John Lewis’s and other representatives’ sit-in on these issues seemed good – until they forgot about banning even assault weapons. Instead,, they zeroed in on restricting people on “no fly” “terror” watchlists from buying weapons. So some Republicans could make the smart rejoinder that the watchlists themselves contain a lot of people who are innocent, that is, have fallen “under suspicion” but without serious evidence. Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, did many very courageous things, and launched something here of real promise. But he forgot himself and it fizzled.
Still, mass militant nonviolence by ordinary people, challenging the government in Washington and elsewhere, until there are real restrictions on guns, could accomplish a lot.
Now, as in the case of Martin Luther King, one can get shot urging nonviolence, just as Malcolm X, urging violent self-defense, was. So one had better figure out which strategy will work. Nonviolent protest has the defect that the police often bully – and that innocents, those who have not trained in nonviolent protest or meditated on it, just good-hearted participants in the movement - are often killed. But many fewer are killed than in violent movements. Compare Arab spring in Egypt or Tunisia to the long liberation of Vietnam (in the American aggression, some 3 million were slaughtered).
In mass nonviolent movements, many more come to participate (h/t Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stepan). Very large changes, even revolutionary ones as in Tunisia or Eastern Europe, can be forced through nonviolently.
Nonviolence is a way of stopping the oppressor while still protecting their lives. And because of that, it has a unique power. It forces some oppressors and many who go along with them, to change. It also isolates diehard reactionaries who can’t change. Finally, it can achieve great healing even in the face of the most terrible racist divisions like apartheid (see the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness). It is worth meditating on and pursuing.
For nonviolent resistance leaves fewer children without a father or mother. And as with the four year Daeanna who comforted Diamond Lavish Reynolds, or the 15 year old, who, in trying to support his mother broke down that Philando Castile, his dad, was gone, if you kill people wantonly, you breed lasting resentment and in others related to them, often renewed violence. In contrast, the effect of responding to police violence with mass militant nonviolence, a determined effort to stop the oppression yet honor the souls of the oppressors, and reknit the community – watch Indomitable, the film on Nelson Mandela and rugby – is amazing, breathtaking, capable of pointing a way forward…