The Protest

Every subway station, from my local one in Queens, through Union Square, to Brooklyn Bridge, where the protest was located, seemed to have cops posted in it, randomly searching bags. I’d never seen that before, and it certainly didn’t help the fact that I was already slightly on edge about attending a protest. After all, who knows how cops deal with protesters these days? After all, they’re all too ready to choke innocent people to death. I doubt the police would have much sympathy for a majority-minority crowd of citizens gathered for the sole purpose of venting their police-related anger.

I rarely head down to that part of lower Manhattan, and, leaving the subway, I was ready to ask someone for directions on how to get to Foley Square. No need. The sheer volume of police cars (armored and otherwise), vans and multiple police helicopters led me directly to the site of the protest. By the time the protest began, at least couple thousand people (by my estimate) had shown up- from grotty college students to the well-dressed and suit-clad, from bearded and tattooed hipsters to teamsters, and members of seemingly every racial and ethnic group under the sun. There was barely any breathing room in the “free-speech zone” to which we were initially confined, and the two hundred or so cops (again, my estimate) did not seem amenable to us taking up any more space than what we were allotted.

A middle-aged woman held up a photo up a bloody-faced teenager. She told me the story of how the police had brutally beaten her son. His crime? Technically, standing around. “A lot of people don’t believe them when I tell them,” she sighed with clear exasperation. “I wouldn’t put it past them.” I replied. She stared at me for a second. “You know, when we used to say ‘anything’s possible,’ it used to mean ‘you can do anything.’ Now it means ‘they can do anything.'”

At the center of the protest, a protest security team answered questions, distributed slips of paper with numbers for legal aid, unloaded bottles of water, and generally acted in as civil and caring a manner as a celebration of human anger would allow. Within minutes, the protest started up. The crowd was large enough that it had effectively formed neighborhoods- the two bullhorns the security team had brought with them were not enough for the whole crowd to hear, and several pockets of the crowd were eager to begin their chants. Astoundingly, after only about 10 minutes, a series of mic checks had united the crowd. The parents of RaMarley Graham spoke- the human microphone transmitted their stories to the very edges of the crowd. Addressing the crowd consistently as ‘beautiful people,’ the main organizer started a litany of chants and re-purposed Civil Rights-era songs that darted through the crowd with near-total unity of purpose.

Apart from protesters and police, the next biggest group represented at the protest were journalists and reporters- whether tied to formal news organization or freelancing. I sincerely doubt any one of them could have seen the love, solidarity, harmony, unity of purpose, organization and genuine care this amazing group of people was showing and not be deeply touched. For several years, I had become disillusioned, assuming that hashtags, general apathy, and cynicism was bringing a slow death to genuine activism. What I saw yesterday began to change my mind. For the first time in years, I saw the power of mutual solidarity, of rage tempered by civility and of spontaneous human organization. It’s a pity that it takes police brutality and institutionalized racism to bring out the heroic capacity of human beings. But it was the realization that a commitment to humanity and progress still exists that allowed me to sleep easy last night.

An American Dilemma

Many of us (i.e., white Americans) are surprised by the recent and not-so-recent events in Ferguson. To many white people, the recurrence of such stark racial issues reeks of a time forty or fifty years past, irrelevant to a so-called post-racial America. What many of us don’t realize is that very few people outside white America- whether American minorities or people outside the US looking in- are surprised. Firstly, our memories tend to be shorter than the memories of people living in other countries. The LA riots were barely twenty years ago. Those with power tend to write the history books, and, as such, we have been very successful in ensuring that any obvious signs of racial inequality are relegated to dusty corners of the history books. Secondly, I learned US history once outside the US and once inside, and I can vouch for the graphic, brutal horror with which America’s racial narrative is taught overseas. It is simply not taught in the same way here in America. This is not to say that people in other countries are not racist. But the racism of people in other countries generally resembles tribalism or xenophobia more than the systemic societal schisms were see here. The American form of racism (much like baconnaise or deep-fried Coke) is a unique and terrible thing.

With the possible exception of Brazil, in no other post-Enlightenment country were labor and capital ever divided cleanly along racial lines. In no other post-Industrial Revolution society did labor ever own zero wealth and resources. Nowhere else in the world was national unity ever challenged and redefined by the right to own other human beings. In no country were slaves ever literally half the population, as they were in the US at the peak (trough?) of slavery as an institution. Nowhere else did it take a hundred years to ‘clean up the law books’ (read: establish a series of marginally less unequal equilibria) after slavery ended. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there should be small wonder we’re still struggling with the idea of racial equality.

When people say things like ‘there’s still a lot of racism in this country,’ I can only think ‘no shit.’ There’s very little else in American history that rivals the centrality of the racial narrative as a driver of the American identity. The concept of individualism may come close, but, lest we forget, the right to own slaves was itself for years couched in the language of individual rights. It was varying opinions on this racial divide that formed the biggest challenge to the American identity in its formative years, and it wasn’t until that schism came to a head and quite literally tore the country apart that the identity of the country coalesced into something remotely unified. White Americans- even white liberals- don’t want to hear any of this. We want to be in charge of opening and closing the debate on race. We want to define when racial America ends and post-racial America begins. Realistically, we can’t do that. The debate has been open for well over four hundred years, and we can’t close it unless we discuss our own failings as a society. Until then, there will only be more Fergusons to come.