Beyond Ferguson: “This is America, that’s the point”

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 Following is the text of a speech I gave at Texas Christian University  on January 15, 2015.

To begin by stating the obvious, it’s not only Ferguson. “Ferguson” is shorthand. It’s also Staten Island, New York, where Eric Garner was asphyxiated by Officer Daniel Pantaleo after being tackled by him and five other police officers and telling them eleven times that he couldn’t breathe. And it’s Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was stalked and killed by the self-appointed neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman. And it’s Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police after brandishing what turned out to be a toy pistol. And it’s Milwaukee, where last April Officer Christopher Manney shot a mentally ill black man named Dontre Hamilton fourteen times after nearby Starbucks employees complained that he was sleeping in a park, and where in December protesters seeking justice for Hamilton’s death shut down the Interstate in both directions between the mostly poor and black city and the mostly white suburbs in affluent Ozaukee County to the north.

Milwaukee is where I grew up. Actually, the point of where I grew up is that it’s very much not Milwaukee. I grew up in a town called Oconomowoc, thirty miles west of Milwaukee, at the far edge of suburban Waukesha County, Wisconsin. When I was growing up there were fewer than 10,000 people in Oconomowoc, all of them white. Today there are about 15,000, still all white. It’s a classic upper-Midwestern small town, really a very nice town, an idyllic place to grow up – if you’re white. Milwaukee native Moshe Katz, who is white but Jewish, summarized what you need to know about my hometown when he told me: “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.” There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops. I know those guys. I went to high school with them.

The day that protesters shut down Interstate 43, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran one of those little “click here” online polls alongside its article, asking whether readers believed the police had been justified in arresting 74 of the protesters. I clicked the “Undecided” option, just to see what the results were, and found that 92 percent of respondents had voted “Yes.” And, somewhat to my own surprise, I realized that my own real answer to the poll question is also yes. Allow me to explain why. First of all, the police in any community do have a legitimate job to do, and that does include arresting people who are disrupting public safety by blocking traffic on an Interstate highway, no matter who those people are or why they’re doing it. But at the same time, I also believe that the Milwaukee protesters were justified, because all too often it’s necessary to break the law in order to make an important point. They were not legally justified, but they were morally justified, and morality always trumps law. And, as Martin Luther King knew, it’s necessary for nonviolent protesters to be willing to pay the penalty for breaking the law. That is the meaning of civil disobedience.

It’s important to remind ourselves and each other that what we’re currently calling “Ferguson” did not start in 2014. I was startled, if not surprised, to read in Darryl Pinckney’s short book Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy, the following passage:

In February 1965, shortly after Malcolm X was gunned down in New York, a young man who’d been part of a march in Marion, Alabama, on behalf of a civil rights worker held in the town jail was shot while trying to shield his grandmother from police violence. He died a week later. A grand jury refused to indict the state trooper who’d fired on him at close range. The [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] organized a march from Selma to Montgomery in response.

As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. For that reason, it’s very important to study history. There’s nothing new under the sun, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A lot of the history that we need to know relevant to Ferguson is in the three-volume history of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s by Taylor Branch. Volume one is titled Parting the Waters.

In more recent history, on March 3, 1991 in Los Angeles a hapless young construction worker named Rodney King was severely beaten by police, in an infamous incident that sparked the largest urban riots in America since the 1960s. The Rodney King incident was historic in ways that are currently very relevant, because it was the first time such a police beating had been caught on amateur video by an ordinary member of the public. The owner of the historic Camcorder was an Argentinean immigrant plumber named George Holliday. George Holliday deserves to be remembered for what he did, as well as for what he said to Michael Goldstein, a Los Angeles lawyer who knew him and who published a moving article in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 about the personal toll that the incident’s aftermath took on Holliday. “I was thinking, ‘What did the guy do to deserve this beating?’” Holliday told Goldstein. “I came from a different culture, where people would get disappeared with no due process. Police [in Argentina] would pick people up on suspicion. I didn’t expect this in the U.S.”

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To help us move beyond today’s tweets and rhetoric, there are many writers who can give us perspectives on what we’re calling Ferguson. Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, Darryl Pinckney in the New York Review of Books, Edwidge Danticat – the Haitian-American novelist whose August 2013 visit made a great impression on many here at TCU – in The New Yorker online: all of these and many more are excellent resources to help us understand. Danticat’s November 26 article – headlined “Enough is Enough” – is especially valuable, for its eloquent personal testimony about routine police harassment of bus passengers in Brooklyn when she was a teenager, and for her interview with the famous victim of police brutality Abner Louima, whom she knows as a family friend. And a remarkable young citizen journalist named DeRay Mckesson has been providing real national leadership through his daily tweets and email newsletter, motivated by a desire to offer an alternative to the distortions and omissions of the mainstream media. “We still protest every day,” Mckesson told a writer for Salon magazine, “because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.”

What all of the writers I’ve just named have in common is that they are black. And we should be reading and listening to them. Black Americans understand, by virtue of long and hard experience, some things that white Americans have to make an effort to learn. But those of us who are white do also have valid voices and points of view, and we have more interesting things to say than either “not my problem” on one hand, or “I’m sorry” on the other. White Americans should be exercising and expressing our voices and points of view, albeit not in opposition to black and other minority voices, but in collaboration with them.

One thing I’m concerned to try to accomplish in this talk is to complicate the simplistic notion that black people are victims and white people are perpetrators. This is a matter of personal importance to me partly because, frankly, I’m white. Darryl Pinckney might be right to assert that “Behind every failure to make the police accountable in such killings is an almost gloating confidence that the majority of white Americans support the idea that the police are the thin blue line between them and social chaos.” I hope he’s wrong about that “almost gloating confidence,” though I fear he may well be right. But, even if he is right, I want him and all of you to know that I’m not one of those white people. I feel an urge, out of enlightened self-interest, to bring home explicitly the point that those white Americans who are vulgar and bigoted and divisive and ignorant do not speak for me, that the America they claim or suppose themselves to be standing up for is not the America that I know and love, or the America that I want to live in. And I claim entitlement to stand up strongly and explicitly against the bullies because I’m an American, and it’s a free country.

But I also want to be clear that I don’t consider myself a liberal. I’m not one of those white people, either. The word “liberal” has long since become a bankrupt descriptor. (So has the word “conservative,” by the way.) The problem with the white liberal response to America’s heritage of racial tension is that it’s too often merely, even smugly, apologetic. This is exemplified for me by the famously liberal – and majority white – city of Seattle, where I live. Faraway Seattle does have a black community – the great black musicians Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones both grew up in Seattle – and there is a black part of town, and – of course – through that part of town runs a street called Martin Luther King Junior Way. The county that includes Seattle happens to be called King County. That’s coincidental, but sometime in the more or less recent past some white liberal decided to make a silhouette of Martin Luther King part of official logos representing the county. That sort of symbolic gesture is nice, the way a greeting card can be nice, but it doesn’t really mean much, does it? And even in supposedly liberal Seattle, our police department has been singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice for its long-established pattern of disproportionate violence and discrimination against nonwhites, such as the appalling shooting death of a Native American woodcarver named John T. Williams at the hands of Officer Ian Birk in August 2010.

So no, I’m not a liberal. I like to think that I’m not smug, and I’m certainly not apologetic. I make no apology for being white, or male, or middle-class, or Midwestern, or even for being privileged. I make no apology for being who I am. No one should have to. But how can the validity of my identity and perspective and voice be reconciled with the validity of yours? How can “we,” whoever “we” are, live in the same country as “them,” whoever “they” are, and vice versa?

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In order to address that important question, I think we need to go back to the beginning. In The Black Jacobins, his great history of what was arguably the most important political movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere – the slave uprising that brought about the overthrow of French rule in Haiti in 1804 – C.L.R. James wrote that “In politics, all abstract terms conceal treachery.” Much of our problem as Americans lies in the historical fact that our country was founded, with explicit audacity, on the shifting sands of abstraction: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words were written in 1776. Their author himself did not always live up to them, as we know. But what do those abstract terms – especially “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” – really mean, anyway? The entire history of the United States of America can be documented in the form of a running argument over their meaning. And establishing their meaning is very important, because their meaning affects the answer to another important question: whether I’m entitled to force you to sacrifice your liberty so that I can pursue happiness.

We all know that in practice none of these principles can be absolute, and it’s a widely accepted truism that my liberty should not be allowed to impinge on your liberty. But more darkly pertinent in our present situation is whether my security should be allowed to impinge on your liberty, or even on your life. The answer is that it should not be, because a middle-class American way of life is not such a wonderful thing that it’s worth defending at all costs.

More and more these days, I feel that the need of our times, for those of us who have been accustomed to enjoying a middle-class American way of life, is to begin cultivating an attitude of what Buddhists call non-attachment. Buddhists – as well as serious practitioners of other religions, including Christianity – understand that true freedom has a lot to do with teaching ourselves not to want things that we don’t really need. In other times and places, dictatorships have flourished with at least the tacit acquiescence, and often the active support, of their society’s middle class, the portion of society that usually cherishes security and stability more than freedom and justice. I have a feeling that, in the times to come, if we middle-class Americans can summon the nerve to let go of the way of life we’ve cherished more than long enough, we might well find ourselves and each other living in a society that’s not only more free and just, but also more secure and stable than the one we live in now. I’m not saying it will be easy, but the rewards will be great. As Sherron Watkins, a middle-class American, a Texan, a Christian, and a patriot who performed a great service to our country in 2001 by blowing the whistle on the notorious Enron Corporation scandal, said to me: “It’s this great unknown. It’s this leap of faith. But as soon as you do it, it’s just like all those Old Testament things: you have to step in the raging river, and then the water stops.”

Real life is always like this, but in recent times our national life has not been very real. Through all that’s been happening lately, the priority of the establishment and the middle class has been to shore up the status quo. That shouldn’t be surprising: it’s almost a tautological definition of what the priority always is of any establishment and any middle class, anywhere. But there are times when the status quo can no longer be shored up, even if it should be. And sometimes it shouldn’t be, anyway. It dawned on me recently that the title of Spike Lee’s great documentary film about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, is not only a literal description of what happened in New Orleans in 2005, but also a metaphor for the propensity of every ruling class, everywhere, to shore up the status quo on the cheap, at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. “The Ferguson movement has promised that the situation cannot go back to normal,” writes Darryl Pinckney. If Pinckney is right about that, then the question facing each of us is: Am I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem? And, if the situation cannot go back to normal, what should the new normal be?

For starters it’s important, especially if we come from the stable and secure portion of society, to teach ourselves to see through and beyond what we call “the news” or “the media.” Turn off your television and laptop, and go out and see America for yourself instead, as I did in the fall of 2012 to write my book Home Free: An American Road Trip. Sixto Rodriguez, the Detroit singer-songwriter who is the subject of the wonderful recent documentary film Searching for Sugar Man, puts it wonderfully in one of his songs: “I opened the window to listen to the news, and all I heard was the establishment’s blues.” If all you do is listen to the news, the establishment’s blues is all you’ll ever hear.

Speaking of Detroit, in early December I spent an afternoon with my friend Jeff Nelson. Jeff is the pastor at Redford Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Redford Township, a suburb that borders the city of Detroit on the west. We discussed Ferguson, and one thing Jeff said struck me very strongly. “That could happen in Redford today,” he told me. Redford Township is a historically white working-class town, but Jeff, who is white, believes that the portion of Redford’s population that is under the age of fifty is now majority black. And Redford’s city government and police force are still overwhelmingly white. The next suburb to the west, Livonia, was for decades known as one of the whitest communities anywhere in America. What happened in Ferguson in August could happen in Redford Township, Michigan today, and Jeff Nelson and his fellow pastors and community leaders, white and black, are trying to come up with a plan to do something constructive about it before it happens.

Today, as always, Detroit and southeastern Michigan are a crucible for issues facing our country as a whole. Right now it’s kind of fashionable to believe that Detroit is enjoying a revival, but that is a wishful simplification. Most of the discussion about Detroit’s future these days takes into account one or the other, sometimes even both, of two broad groups. One is the influx of young white hipsters into two particular neighborhoods, the category pithily described to me by a black activist in similarly ravaged New Orleans as “the ‘I-want-to-be-part-of-the-rebuild’ people.” The other is Detroit’s black majority, including grassroots activists like Dawn Wilson, whom I met in a neighborhood called Brightmoor. “Don’t believe the hype,” Dawn urged me.

We are coming together as a group of people who are compassionate and passionate about what we’re doing in Brightmoor. Don’t look at the abandonment. Don’t look at the trash. What we are doing in Brightmoor is going to be something for the world to see. It’s a process. It’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. And it’s hard, working with people. But the magic is coming together and finding a common cause.

But there is a third category of Michigander that often gets overlooked: the now aging generations of white refugees from Detroit’s collapse, most of them working-class, who now live in the suburbs but whose hearts never left the city. My friend Tom Derry, who is a member of this category, describes them as “people who may not live in Detroit, but Detroit lives in them.” Tom is a career postal carrier, now sadly relegated to a desk job because a couple of years ago he broke his leg falling off a porch while delivering the mail. He has become a local folk hero as a wonderfully enterprising activist and prophetic voice about Detroit, which I extrapolate to being prophetic about America as a whole. Everything that Tom does and says is another story (told beautifully in Jason Roche’s documentary film Stealing Home), but I want to share with you just one more example of his eloquence. “Why are you a writer?” Tom once asked me. “Because you couldn’t be a major league baseball player. Same reason I’m a mailman.” Then he added: “I was gonna be a Detroit cop. Am I ever glad the Post Office hired me.”

I tell you about Tom because, just as it’s important for us to acknowledge the humanity and the specific, personal identities of those who are on the blunt receiving end of police brutality, it’s also important to remember the humanity of someone who, but for the grace of the United States Postal Service, might well have become a police officer, as well as for the many men and women of similar backgrounds who did. I told you earlier that I know the kind of white guys who grow up to become cops, because I went to high school with them in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Tom is such a guy. Tom attended Christ the King School in northwest Detroit. “Most of those Catholic schools are closing, but Christ the King is still open,” he told me. “And I’m still friends with a lot of the people I went to grade school with. … I have nothing but great memories of that neighborhood and Christ the King. … It was disappointing to see everybody move out of my old neighborhood.” Tom is exemplary of the sort of burly, middle-aged, sports-loving, Middle American white guy that I know well: the sort of guy you talk sports with in order to avoid talking politics. The sort of guy that I am, come to think of it.

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Tom’s example gives me inspiration and encouragement because he belies the regrettable impression that all those burly white guys all around America do nothing but sit around watching football games on TV and fail to understand all that’s at stake in our country today. Same goes for Jeff Nelson. But, needless to say, not all white guys are on the same page as me and Tom and Jeff. “America has spoken,” gloated Wayne Pimental of Summerville, South Carolina on Facebook, commenting on something I wrote just after the Republican landslide in the November 4 congressional elections. What’s revealing is that Wayne seems to feel that America spoke on that occasion, but apparently America didn’t really speak in 2008 and 2012, when it said things he didn’t want to hear.

Wayne doesn’t appreciate that the real America speaks in many voices. I’m sorry, Wayne, but the world – and the country – that we live in is both diverse and political, and no victory or solution is final and, regardless of any election result, we all have to continue living here together and dealing with each other, whether we like each other or not. What I like about Americans like Tom Derry and DeRay Mckesson is that they don’t talk politics; they just do politics. And not the cul de sac of mere protest or oppositional politics, and certainly not electoral or party politics, but real, blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-specific-real-things-accomplished, effective street-level politics that relies much more on action than on words. America needs more such Americans.

The problem with authoritarianism in all its guises is that you can force people to pretend to agree with you, or to remain quiet and obedient out of fear, but you can’t force anyone actually to agree with you. In the privacy of our hearts and minds, each of us is irreducibly free. Hence, some of the insistent pronouncements from police union spokespeople in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland have been not only offensive, but also tone-deaf. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins brought home this point eloquently in mid-December, when he declined to apologize after the president of the Cleveland Police Union called him “pathetic” for wearing on the gridiron a t-shirt reading JUSTICE FOR TAMIR RICE AND JOHN CRAWFORD. “I’m at peace with it,” said Hawkins,

and those that disagree with me, this is America, that’s the point, everyone has the right to their first amendment rights. Those who support me, I appreciate your support. But at the same time, support the causes and the people and the injustices that you feel strongly about. Stand up for them. Speak up for them. No matter what it is, because that’s what America’s about and that’s what this country was founded on.

Hawkins not only had every right to wear the t-shirt; I would argue that, as a free American, he had an obligation to wear it and to say the things he said, an obligation that he met with exemplary integrity and patriotism. And there’s a secondary but significant aspect of the politics of his situation that merits highlighting: the National Football League has many black players as well as black fans – many more of both than baseball does. I regret this, because I’m a big baseball fan and am not very interested in football. But I find it both admirable and quite interesting that the NFL as a league, as well as the management of both the St. Louis Rams and the Cleveland Browns, supported Hawkins and the Rams players who made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture on the field, and joined with them in staring down the bullies from the police unions.

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It’s never okay to begin and simultaneously end a conversation by denying the validity of the other person’s point of view. If you silence or stigmatize your adversary, then you’re peremptorily declaring that there’s nothing to talk about. You’re forcing your adversary to pretend that he agrees with you, or to remain silent and obedient out of fear. And you might seem to win, for a while. But your victory will be Pyrrhic, because the other person will hate and resent you, as any self-respecting human being would do. This is the significance of the terrorism charges laid against a man in St. Louis named Jason Valentine for the series of tweets that he sent out on New Year’s Eve, which he dubbed “kill a pig night.” Of course, Valentine should not have tweeted such things. But it’s revealing that a justifiably angry civilian citizen – Valentine – was immediately charged with terrorism, while the police officers Darren Wilson in Ferguson and Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island were not even indicted, much less tried or convicted, for having killed unarmed civilians.

Yes, it is racial. At the same time, there are other things going on that involve all of us. To say that it’s racial is accurate, but parochially American. This is where my experience living and working as a journalist overseas colors the way I see my own country today. And it’s where the national security state set up to fight terrorism internationally meets the police state that’s being constructed to suppress domestic dissent within the United States. What it’s about, in addition to race, is whether the agents of the state – police officers domestically, CIA agents internationally – are entitled to kill or torture unarmed civilians without any effective accountability.

I’ll end by stating the main issue bluntly: the question we face is whether those who enforce the law should themselves be above the law. Apparently there are some people in America who believe that they should be. But I can tell you, from my years of experience as a witness to events in Haiti, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and other countries that have suffered under dictatorships, that impunity for the people who hold and who enforce state power is a bad idea. This is America. And, as Andrew Hawkins understands, the point of America is not security, but freedom.

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