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Black Lives Matter

The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar.” Karl Marx

I’d like to say something about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the aftermath specifically.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Ahmaud Arbery, the African American jogger killed by two white “vigilantes” in Brunswick, Georgia. A short time later we see the Floyd case in Minnesota. I will tell you, as someone who follows these things professionally, I have lost track of the names and the cities.

Based on the information we have at this point, and unless mitigating factors (unlikely) appear, it is clear that Floyd was murdered by the police. An officer knelt on his neck and airway for minutes, while he was not resisting and while three other officers stood vigil. There is appropriate alarm about this, but alarm does not seem to be enough…

So, protests were held in Minneapolis and many other cities, including right here in Jacksonville. Some of these protests begat “lawlessness” and “looting”. I put these terms in quotes because they are social constructions. By definition they are violating laws, because the laws were put in place to protect people that owned- property, people, capital, etc. The legal codes have always made opposition to the standing power structure illegal. So yes, a small number of these protestors were acting illegally; but as many activists have told us, from John Brown to Martin Luther King, it is justifiable to violate an immoral law.

The term “looting” is problematic for similar reasons. It is a subjective term, defined by the powerful. Karl Marx differentiates between the ‘substructure’ and the ‘superstructure’. The substructure is essentially the economic base of society- who has economic power and who doesn’t. The superstructure is made up of the ideas and culture that come out of the power differential inherent in the substructure. In other words, those who control economic life control our cultural narratives. As such, “looting” has always been associated with poor (mostly of color) individuals.

One of the best examples of this was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press ran a photo of an African American man wading through chest deep water with a bag towing behind and the caption read “A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans”. Days later, they ran a photo of two Caucasians wading through chest deep water with bags in tow and the caption read “two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store”. These are power-laden terms, thrown around too loosely.

As the situation is unfolding, I have read many accounts questioning the wisdom of the ‘looters’, from close friends and from strangers. The thinking seems to be: “I understand you are frustrated, but what will looting do, other than make people more averse to your issues? … I get it, but the optics look terrible… I don’t see why they attacked our community … I feel for them, but do you think rioting is appropriate?”. These are well meaning people, but the questions come from a position of privilege.

The white power structure has been tragically non-curious from an intellectual perspective. We focus on questions of why they would burn down their neighborhoods like that, instead of asking how a people could get to the point where they will risk life and limb to vent their frustrations. (Additionally, they risk destroying their own neighborhoods because that is all they have available- if their actions seriously threatened “white spaces”, the repercussions would be sound and swift.)

As a white man, I am in no position to pass judgement on people so beaten down through institutional racism and discrimination that they have no other hope. Can I honestly say, “trust the democratic system, write your Congressional representative, ask for change, peacefully move towards a better day”? I can’t claim to know the efficacy of “looting” and violent protests and whether or not they will be fruitful, but I also cannot say that by doing so, they're undermining progress that might have been made through ‘legitimate’ protesting.

I believe the attack on any innocent person is wrong, but the focus on the protesters’ assaults on persons or property takes our attention away from the police killing of hundreds of black, poor and working-class people. Cornel West

It is also clear that peaceful, democratic strategies have not effectuated structural changes quickly enough, if at all. Some surface changes, but not structural changes. That’s not to diminish the efforts of my predecessors, but rather a recognition that change has been incremental, and often married to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that every action brings about an equal and opposite reaction. African American unemployment rates remain twice as high as whites, just as they were 50 years ago. White wealth is ten times higher than black wealth, and residential segregation rates mirror those of the 1950s. As Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers sings, “I mean Barack Obama won, and you can choose where to eat, but you don't see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street’. One step forward, and one step back.

I taught a graduate class years ago on Social Movements and used the US Civil Rights Movement as the case study to examine the theory and data associated with the topic. One takeaway was that people of color are aware, in a way I can’t fully fathom, that no matter the form of protest- letter writing, smashing windows, silently marching- things will ultimately stay roughly the same. People don’t “loot” simply because they think it is the best strategy to produce change; they do so because they have run out of options. And they are not simply protesting another black man killed by the police, but a social system that operates with impunity as it degrades and debases the African American life experience.

One popular meme these days is a picture of Martin Luther King, walking arm in arm with other protestors, dressed in coat and tie, and the caption reads: “never robbed one building, never robbed one store, never destroyed one town- changed the world”. First, this is false because that picture is from the Selma march in 1965. 55 years later we are still seeing African Americans killed in the streets, so I’m not sure the ‘world has changed’. More importantly, it serves as a justifying ideology for bigots- it serves to demonize current protests while presenting a fanciful image of a time that did not exist. It allows people to look back at a turbulent time in US history with a false lens, implying that there were no riots or violence during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I can’t speak for him personally, but I imagine MLK would roll over in his grave to know that racists are using that image as a reason to shame current protestors, fighting for the exact same thing he was fighting for half a century ago. It insults and vitiates his legacy.

I attended the Black Lives Matter protest here in Jacksonville on Saturday the 30th of May. As I was leaving, I noticed the police presence was increasingly noticeable, and about an hour later, violence broke out. Like many cities around the country, people are taking to the streets, and in some ways, this seems like a potential watershed moment. Indeed, as the eminent philosopher Cornel West recently wrote, “…this time might be a turning point”.

I would like to believe that. However, I’ve lost track of the number of protests I have attended over the years and many of them seem to be “the turning point”. Since I am an old timer, I remember the L.A. riots vividly. I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama (of all places!) when the Rodney King verdict was announced in 1992 and the country erupted. I was a young ideologue protesting from afar when 60-70 people were killed and thousands were injured. Surely, this would be a turning point, no? But alas, it wasn’t, so a different set of young ideologues has taken my place, or at least is sharing space with me, owning the righteous belief that THIS will be THE time! Just as they did in Watts, and Detroit, and many other places, in 1965. Will it be the time?

Many are familiar with the Martin Luther King quote, “a riot is the language of the unheard”. I’d like to conclude with a similar quote I came across years ago, author unknown: “Civil unrest is the final option for a group of people so systematically disenfranchised that their voices have not been heard. We have acquiesced to a system that creates justified hopelessness among blacks. When we are more eager to speak up in defense of property than we are to speak up in defense of another slain black man, we demonstrate that the righteous anger of those doing the rioting is justified.”

That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, it’s a war…That until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained - now everywhere is war… Haile Selassie, via Bob Marley

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