“There is some shit I will not eat”
i sing of Olaf glad and big ~ e.e. cummings
STATESBORO, GA. – The only narrative Baltimore police can seem to put together to explain why Freddie Gray is dead is that he locked eyes with a policeman and ran. He was chased, injured, and then led away, howling in pain and requesting medical assistance. By the time the situation came to its tragic close, eighty percent of his spinal column had been severed and his voice-box crushed. Somehow, amid all the shrugging and fingerpointing, Freddie Gray was killed in police custody.
You tell me how this happens in 2015 America.
Better yet, tell me how a South Carolina cop shoots an unarmed man in the back in broad daylight.
Or how a Tampa cop shoots and paralyzes another unarmed man.
Or how Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri.
Or how Eric Garner is choked to death on a New York City sidewalk.
There is simply no explanation that goes beyond admitting the systematic failure of our way of life.
This morning news outlets across the country are fitting winnowed-down recaps of last night’s riots in Baltimore into their B block between footage of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and whatever cute-animal-doing-what-cute-animals-do video is all the rage of the moment. The only thing they’re going to mention is that protestors got violent and there was looting. Freddie Gray’s name will be said in passing, but the crime will largely be covered up.
Police call it a “rough ride.” It’s an old tactic where a suspect, usually one who has resisted arrest or been a pain in the cop’s ass, is shackled or restrained and then subjected to an overly fast and severe ride in which they are tossed about the vehicle without the means to protect themselves. This is Good Ol’ Boy Police Procedure at its finest. Just the kind of thing they’ve been doing since the dawn of law enforcement. It’s a message that gets across loud and clear.
Don’t. Fuck. With. Us.
Freddie Gray’s rough ride lasted over forty minutes and there’s no explanation for that either.
Now, you don’t have to be a bleeding heart or opposed to the police to understand the horror of this. There is, after all, a strong line that separates what is Right and what is Wrong. Even those assholes behind the wheel understand it in the moment. With every turn and every stomp of the brake they know what they’re doing. They’re aware of the thump and the groan behind them. They know they’re walking on the Wrong Side of the Line, but it’s not enough to make a damn bit of difference.
The arguments are going to be the same old tired ones we’ve been hearing over the past year or so. Cops need to be reigned in. They need to be outfitted with body cameras that videotape their every movement.
Both of those are true, but tell me this: how do you reign them in and how do body cameras make a difference when all of these crimes, and more, have already been videotaped?
We live in the era of the camera phone, a time where every toe over the line gets its own personalized video for sharing and trending. The state of our lives is to be inundated with every second of every day digitized and washed out of feeling and context and import. CNN ran video of Walter Scott, the South Carolina man who was murdered by Officer Michael Slager, being shot five times round the clock. You couldn’t turn on the channel without being overwhelmed by popularized snuff footage.
The answer to this problem is a lot more difficult and complex than body cameras and we’re not living in a society that’s even remotely prepared to face it in any real and lasting way.
Not fifty miles away from the Baltimore protests the White House Correspondent’s Dinner was held Saturday night and there wasn’t so much as a mention of the chaos erupting a car-ride away in the capital’s sister city, not even a nod or a moment of “reflection.” Instead, it was a who’s-who of what celebrities the press corps could drudge up to make their tables look like the place to be.
ABC’s Scandal was on full display, as was Modern Family and House of Cards. Bradley Cooper, of American Sniper fame, was there, as was the Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick and protestor-turned-complicit-guest Jane Fonda. The menu, which C-SPAN pored over breathlessly, included halibut, paprika-rubbed filet, and dessert tapas, a sampling of the High-Life, while journalists and politicians hobnobbed to let us know They’re All In On It Together and We Don’t Stand A Chance.
Traditionally the ceremony involves the president and the night’s featured comedian, this year’s guest was Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, giving comedic performances. Occasionally a presidential candidate is given an invitation, which usually leads to some good-natured ribbing between the contestants before a big smiling handshake at the end. Obama is excellent in this role, a natural joke-teller who stands there with unbelievable timing and mannerisms while he skewers himself and the ridiculousness of the Washington Machine around him.
This year the big joke was Obama inviting Key from comedy group Key & Peele to come up and reprise his role as “Anger Translator,” a long-running gag on the duo’s show where Peele mimics the president and Key screams and yells the things Obama wishes he could say. The skit was funny and worked in a meta-way in that Obama was finally able to let loose with some of his actual frustrations under the cover of the satirical front. His chosen beef: climate change deniers.
Obviously this is an important topic that needs some attention, but isn’t it telling that we didn’t get so much as a word regarding police brutality from the President? Not even a nod? Not even an acknowledgement?
Cecily Strong came through, telling two of the best jokes of the night: “Mr. President, your hair is so white it can finally talk back to the police!”
“The (Secret Service is) the only law enforcement agency that actually gets in trouble if a black man gets shot.”
Both jokes did what every comedian host should hope to accomplish – they made the room uncomfortable. This is a gathering of the richest and the most powerful people in the world, backbiters and grifters galore, and the only time they feel actual discomfort is when The Truth is being told. Stephen Colbert did it in 2006 and was nearly sent directly to Camp X-Ray.
There is something about Telling It, as in The Truth, that makes these people squirm deliciously in their seats.
And The Truth is that The Problem in This Country is as complex as any knot ever tied, but it isn’t as multifaceted or varied as people would have you believe. It’s not about men v. women, black v. white, us v. them, or even the have’s v. the have-not’s. These are symptoms of the bigger problem, the larger disease that’s been ravaging the body politic since there was a body politic to ravage.
The problem is People v. Fascism and it has been the problem since the dawn of man. We are engaged in an eternal struggle between those people who simply want to live and pursue their dreams and the jackboot thugs who take sadistic glee at feeling their backs break under their treads. Now, it is my personal philosophy that no one is born a fascist, that no giggling, wiggling child every comes into this world as a crewcut, steel-eyed monster, but the lure of fascism is as seductive as any beautiful face or telling look, because with fascism comes power and with power comes the gleeful demolition of those weaker and most vulnerable.
We cannot discuss and overcome this issue and this problem until we’re ready to have a real and honest discussion about what it means to be a person in the Twenty-First Century, an abstract discussion with concrete consequences that is as layered as the Internet and modern-discourse is one-dimensional and vapid. But how do we meet in the middle when we can’t even agree on a middle?
That’s where the first hurdle lies.
While most of the good, hardworking people in this country agree that cops shouldn’t be torturing and murdering African-Americans, we’ve still got a lot of others with hate and ignorance in their hearts who look at the videos, who read the articles, who can’t help but wonder if the people being killed and paralyzed and brutalized deserve it. They’ve been seduced by the siren call of Us v. Them, of protection in the arms of the majority. The Hook of Fascism has found purchase deep in the meat of their hearts and god help us, I don’t know what can ever dislodge it.