Recent statements Chris Rock gave to New York Magazine about the on-going campaign to address police violence and America's state of racial amnesia went viral. They went viral because, like any great comedian, he stripped away the bullshit and focused in on the core of the issue at hand: the problem with what we call "racial progress" has actually nothing to do with black people whatsoever, it has everything to do with white people's capacity to stop being racist pricks and to convince other white people to stop being racist pricks. In case you missed it:
We’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people...
...There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before...
...there have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
In this spirit, this post is directed entirely at my fellow white people, namely those vaguely outraged over the death of Eric Garner but for whom the nation-wide protests over the past few weeks seem somehow pointless, misdirected, or just too stained with the stench of radicalism for them to merit their support. Here are your top 5 excuses (Chris Rock reference intended) and why they're dumb:
"What about disrupting average people's lives?"
Variations: "People are just trying to get home after a long day of work, and you're in their way. Why punish those who have nothing to do with what happened to Eric Garner?"
Who says it: Ostensibly liberal sympathizers who want to look politically engaged but are too lazy or frightened to support the protesters and need a superficially populist reason not to do so.
Why it's dumb: Simple: There hasn't been a mass protest movement about which this objection couldn't have been raised.
Blocking traffic (Mississippi 1964)
Blocking traffic (South Africa 1976)
Blocking traffic (Egypt 2011):
Blocking traffic (Ukraine 2014):
Blocking traffic (Mexico 2014):
Civil disobedience is, by definition, disobedient. Otherwise it's not civil disobedience, it's something else entirely. Indeed, the reason Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis was because he was there in support of an on going and entirely illegal sanitation strike by the city's santitation workers that had caused garbage to pile up for months. From just days after the strike began on February 11th 1968:
No doubt, a conversation that took place at the time:
This would seem silly, no? Nothing my strawmen here are saying is technically incorrect, but in retrospect such sentiments would seem entirely petty. And for those of us who conflate analogies with equivalencies I will clarify: clearly the civil rights movement of the 1960s is not the exact same thing as the protests today, but the lack of proportionality brought on by these micro-critiques remains the same: who gives a damn? Police harrass, shoot, and arrest millions of people of color a year and do so with total immunity? Those outraged have, by virtue of their status, only limited means with which to raise awareness and get the power classes to notice their grievances. That such means may disrupt the daily lives of "everyday people" is an unfortunate, but entirely unavoidable reality. Put another way: fucking deal.
"Eric Garner shouldn't have resisted arrest"
Variations: "If you don't resist arrest, cops won't shoot."
Who says it: Apolitical authoritarian types whose instinct is to moralize every problem in life.
Why it's dumb: The punishment for resisting arrest is not execution.
Setting aside the case of Michael Brown (even after one of the key witness disputing his "hands up" defense turned out to be a pathological liar and racist), this objection is bizarre and entirely beside the point. But it's a common refrain, and one I had the misfortune of running into at last Saturday's protest, after protesters were harassed by a number of Santacon "bros", one of whom I happen to have filmed:
The video since went viral and reading the responses in hundreds of comments across many media outlets a disturbing amount of people agree: if only Eric Garner and Michael Brown had followed police orders to the strict letter of the law, they'd still be alive today. But ask yourself one question, even granting the most generous accounts of their arrests: does anyone really believe that had Michael Brown or Eric Garner been a white NYU student in the same situation, the police would have responded in the same way? That if Eric Garner was a white investment banker getting stopped for jumping a turnstile on the subway and said "I'm not going to take it anymore" the police response would have been a 6 person pile on followed by a strangle hold?
If you can answer in the affirmative, then you're either living in a fantasy land or entirely okay with the idea that summary execution is a fitting punishment for resisting arrest for anyone - white or black. One scenario is discounting racism prima facie, the other is a-okay with police brutality so long as it's racially neutral. One is divorced from reality, the other is divorced from morality. In any event, this refrain doesn't hold much water when one bothers to think about it for more than five minutes.
"Why don't people march against Black on Black crime
Variations: None, it's not even a sentiment, just a bumper sticker slogan.
Who says it: Conservative shit-stirrers with a poor grasp on the nature of power and hypocrisy.
Why it's dumb: A) Blacks protests against black on black violence all the time B) Protesting against black on black crime when most of those who commit it are summarily arrested and jailed would render such a protest entirely pointless. One protests against a system, not against those the system already opposes, that's what protesting is, by definition.
First the latter: Nation-wide protests didn't erupt the night of Eric Garner's murder, they erupted the night of his murderer's pre-trial, ad hoc acquittal. The injustice at play here isn't the murder itself as much as it's the complete lack of accountability for those who committed it. The day 90% of blacks get away with murdering other blacks without even so much as a trial is the day this appeal to hypocrisy will make any sense.
Now the former:
As Slate's Jamelle Bouie recently documented:
Beyond the data, there’s the anecdotal evidence. And in short, it’s easy to find examples of marches and demonstrations against crime. In the last four years, blacks have held community protests against violence in Chicago; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. Indeed, there’s a whole catalog of movies, albums, and sermons from a generation of directors, musicians, and religious leaders, each urging peace and order. You may not have noticed black protests against crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Black Americans—like everyone else—are concerned with what happens in their communities, and at a certain point, pundits who insist otherwise are either lying or willfully ignorant.
So, in addition to it not really making any sense, it's manifestly untrue.
"I'm outraged by these killings but why does this have to be about race"
Variations: The world's dumbest hashtag: #alllivesmatter.
Who says it: Pseudo-outraged libertarian types who confuse pedantry with principle.
Why it's dumb: The world exists in three dimensions.
Yes, this is about police militarization and yes, it's about inequality but it's also manifestly about racism. All three of these things can be true all at once and saying #blacklivesmatter is not saying that non-black lives don't matter, it's simply an appeal for non blacks to get as outraged over the deaths of their black brothers and sisters as much as they do whites.
And to the Anonymous types who focus solely on the issue of government abuse and militarization at the total exclusion of race I'll say this: You're correct that what's being done to people of color will one day affect us all but for today, this point is entirely secondary. For whites, police abuse is largely academic, for minorities it's an everyday reality. We're number eight on the hit list, they're number one. To us, it's the stuff of dystopian Sci Fi, for them it's called a Tuesday. So instead of singularly obsessing with just the X and Y axes of government abuse and class, indulge - if only in the interest of solidarity - the Z axis of race, and its pernicious everyday effects on black Americans.
"There's too much violence and extremism at these protests, I only like peaceful movements"
Variations: "I supported these protests at first, but now they're getting out of hand".
Who says it: Bourgeois liberals who don't support anything until its been sanctioned by The New York Times, Jon Stewart, and a team of lawyers.
Why it's dumb: As with #1 on the list, there's literally not a single protest movement in history this could not have been said about.
Was there small-scale vandalism and looting in Berkeley and Ferguson? No doubt. Were there allegedly six people involved in a scuffle with police during Saturday's march in New York City? Perhaps. A fact the media has harped on and magnified in the run up to Friday's "pro-NYPD" rally at City Hall:
Recent events that have prompted fears of further violence against police officers include the assault on NYPD officers on the Brooklyn Bridge by City University of New York professor Eric Linsker overnight Saturday. The 29-year-old was arrested after he threw garbage cans at two NYPD lieutenants and an altercation ensued. Before being arrested, police found hammers in the backpack he was carrying.
Earlier Saturday, a YouTube video showed a protest in the Murray Hill neighborhood, where protesters were chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!”
But, again, "extremism" - to the extent this even qualifies as such - exists and has existed in every mass protest in history, up to and including those during the now-holy civil rights movement. Indeed, the same "police under seige" press pieces ran back then as well:
The world is messy. Mass protests movements like any political movement involving hundreds of thousands of people, causes, and agendas (to say nothing of undercover agitators) will have violence and property damage around the margins. The existence of these "extremists" does not, in and of itself, provide a compelling reason for liberals to abstain from these protests movements altogether. If it did, then this same appeal to purity would have to apply to every other movement around the globe and throughout history - rendering this person a nominal "liberal" at best, and a disingenuous, closet reactionary at worst. Or far more eloquent terms:
Ryan C. Johnson contributed to this piece.