Even if Julian Assange is exonerated to the satisfaction of all and sundry, it will still be true that:

  1. Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and plenty of other people with far less influence have published information about Assange’s accusers, including their names and enough personal information to allow the truly sadistic types to locate and harm them. (Though I suppose some might make the argument that this would be a form of justice if the accusers were lying. Because women who lie about being raped deserve to actually be raped. We’ll give them something to lie about!)
  2. Michael Moore and others have mischaracterized the nature of the accusations against Assange, repeating the tired “sex by surprise” and “broken condom” rumors rather than acknowledging that Assange is actually accused of using force to hold one woman down and penetrating another while she was asleep, acts which would be considered rape under any definition. (Well, unless you’re Naomi Wolf. And if you’re Naomi Wolf, please, for the love of god, get a GRIP on yourself.) This was perhaps slightly understandable when the accusations first aired, when the reporting was spotty and Assange’s attorneys were making disingenuous statements and no one had yet thought to ask Professor Google about whether the Swedish legal code really criminalizes unprotected consensual sex (for crying out loud, of course it doesn’t; as Kate Harding said on Twitter, “Seriously, where the hell do @MMFlint, @KeithOlbermann & friends think Swedish babies come from?”), but by the time Michael Moore got around to sneering about this on Countdown there was just no excuse for repeating that mendacious bullshit.
  3. Sady Doyle and various other feminists who have spoken out on this subject have been subjected to rape and death threats. Speak out against rape culture and watch, amazed and repulsed, as various misogynistic creepy-crawlies slither out of the woodwork to try their damnedest to make you regret it.
  4. Trolls (many of whom were clearly men tweeting from fake or anonymous accounts; what are they afraid of? It’s not like they’re going to be threatened with sexual violence) are posting rape jokes and other pretty vile stuff under the #MooreandMe hashtag because, oh lolz, you guys, there are like so many women who have been raped reading those tweets right now, and we will make them so sorry for that, we will remind them that they’re not safe, not anywhere, not ever. And it’ll be hilarious.

None of these things will cease to be true at any point. None of these things will cease to be completely and overwhelmingly fucked-up at any point.

And women like me who have been fortunate enough never to have been raped are watching this unfold, and some of us are feeling that sinking dread, that nausea, that comes with the realization that if we ever are raped, this is also what we will face if we make the mistake of thinking we deserve to be heard. I can’t speak for all of those women, but I know that for me, at least, this has been horrifying enough to witness even from my relatively comfortable vantage point. I’m not an accuser and I’m not high-profile enough to draw attention; I’m nobody, really, just some person tweeting and re-tweeting and clicking links and snickering at Keith Olbermann’s repeated flounces.

But I’m also watching very, very carefully. And wondering who will rape me, and how much society will punish me for it.

I know that regardless of the outcome in this situation, I have nothing to answer for. I wonder if rape apologists can say the same.

So. Julian Assange.

Is that guy blond, or what?

There have been plenty of smart people who’ve written plenty of smart things about the allegations of rape against Assange. I may or may not have something smart to add to the conversation, but first I want to link to the two best pieces I’ve read on the subject so far, which each approach it from a different—and worthwhile—perspective: the first is from bfp at flipfloppingjoy, and the second from Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty.  They’re both excellent posts, but I’m grateful for bfp’s in particular because it led me to interrogate my own feelings on this subject a bit more closely and to understand what is and is not valuable about the way I’ve approached it.

My response when I read about the allegations, and the reaction to them, was entirely reflexive. The part of me that hates the way that we talk about rape, and rapists, and rape victims—the part that wrote this post—went straight into myth-debunking mode. And while I think that’s useful and appropriate, for reasons I’ll elaborate on in a bit, it’s also something that requires some deliberation. Because that discussion cannot be about criminal retribution. I agree with bfp completely—and have said as much in the past—that an appeal to the state to dispense justice carries with it terrible consequences. Ultimately, whatever power we invest in the state is power that will, as bfp said, be used against us.

But that doesn’t imply that consequences shouldn’t be discussed at all, because consequences can be part of prevention. What I think it does imply is that we should work to redefine those consequences as something to be enforced by the community, rather than by the state.

And that means talking about rape culture.

Rape culture attempts to protect rapists from social consequences, e.g. shame and isolation, by normalizing, minimizing or flat-out denying instances of rape. This is made easier or more difficult by the rapist’s power relative to the victim’s, because power bestows an assumption of credibility and credibility determines who will be believed and supported. So to some extent rape apologists work to widen that power/credibility gap, and anti-rape activists work to narrow it. One way this often plays out is that victims are slandered and made unrapeable. This is why rape prevention so often focuses on deconstructing narratives about victims, e.g. what they look like and how they act, because those narratives exist to narrow the definition of “rape victim” until it excludes almost all women and precludes the possibility that they will be taken seriously if they step forward.

But there’s another way to widen that gap, and it can be even harder to confront because it relies not on defaming victims (something which runs the risk of being perceived as unjust) but on delineating the boundary of “those who commit rape” in such a way that all assumedly-decent people will fall outside of that boundary. This implicitly strengthens the credibility of many men who are accused of rape by stipulating that rape is not something they could possible have committed. Put another way: if rapists are terrible people, it simply follows that people who are not terrible cannot be rapists. And thus men who are viewed positively by their communities as a result of their social privilege— “good” men; “family” men; “pillars of the community”— cannot, by definition, commit rape. Which not only robs their victims of the chance to be heard and believed, but also ensures that rape accusations will only ever be taken seriously when leveled at men with very little social privilege to begin with. And this simply reaffirms our belief that those men, themselves, are hardly human.

We’ve essentially defined rape out of existence except to the degree that acknowledging it suits our purposes, and allegations against men like Julian Assange and Roman Polanski provide an opportunity to confront that dynamic in a way that can receive wide exposure. So I do think that this is an important discussion to have. Undermining rape culture is a necessary part of, as bfp says, “ending rape to begin with, rather than punishing after the fact.”

But. While this discussion is important, I also think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Because Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks.

The former is being held without bail in Sweden; the latter is the focus of a far more ominous and dangerous campaign being conducted in the form of denial-of-service attacks, the freezing of accounts, and government disruption of the public’s attempts to support the organization financially (whether online or via snail mail). The fact that Assange has been subjected to politically-motivated persecution (and he clearly has; to believe otherwise would require some fairly naïve assumptions about the importance typically given to the prosecution of rape as a crime) is in large part a result of his success at making himself the face of WikiLeaks. This was arguably a bad decision on his part, and it’s not one that we, the public, are required to affirm by continuing to conflate the individual and the organization.

WikiLeaks would be stronger, and Assange himself would likely be safer (though I suppose the damage is done on that count), if the two were thoroughly decoupled. If we’re invested in the fate of WikiLeaks as an organization, we need to be aware of the threats being posed to it directly. Concern for Assange is understandable given the possibility that he may be extradited to the U.S. and forced to stand trial for espionage, so I’m not advocating that we all maintain a position of cold indifference to the risks he faces.

But we can’t preserve transparency by defending Julian Assange any more than we can end rape by punishing him.

Images from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/r_sh/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/nigsby

Book Review: Negroes with Guns

Posted: November 27, 2010 in anti-racism, books

This book was suggested to me as a potentially interesting follow-up to Malcolm X’s autobiography. Robert Williams, I’ve since learned, was the first to develop and promote a theory of self-defense within the context of the black liberation movement, and was apparently a significant influence on Huey P. Newton. This book– well-written and a quick read– is a description of Williams’s experiences with armed resistance in Monroe, North Carolina, and of the events which led to his and his wife’s eventual emigration from the U.S. to Cuba.

While Malcolm X supported the concept of self-defense, it wasn’t discussed in much detail in his autobiography. And while I agree that those who face violent oppression are well within their moral rights to respond with violence in the struggle for liberation, I was interested in learning more about how self-defense functions to further that struggle in a way that passive non-violence does not. And this book was very instructive on that subject.

But it also helped me to clarify my thinking on the principles involved. I realized I’d always subscribed to mainstream society’s inaccurate characterization of the debate over the use of violence within the black liberation movement. Rather than properly viewing the disagreement as one between those who advocate pacifism and those who advocate self-defense, we seem to view it as one between those who would embrace violence indiscriminately and those who would reject it. This despite direct statements from Williams himself to the contrary:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle.

Still we continue to misinterpret the militant view, no doubt intentionally. Worth noting is that U.S. society, on the whole, is not necessarily predisposed to accept pacifism as a valid philosophy. At best, we might see it as nice in theory but insupportable in practice. At worst, we seem to view it as the last refuge of cowards. So it’s telling that we choose not to apply the “pacifism” label to the methods of Dr. King and the Freedom Riders. This allows us to obscure what might otherwise be a fairly glaring contradiction. Why do we elevate pacifism as the only appropriate path to liberation for the oppressed when we dismiss it so readily in every other context?

Williams, of course, makes the answer clear: because pacifism posed no real threat to white supremacy in the U.S. Armed resistance, however, was capable of wresting concessions from those in power, for several reasons:

  1. Such resistance exposed what Gloria House, in the book’s introduction, labeled the “cowardice inherent in mob mentality.” Actual violence was not necessarily even required; the mere threat of it often sufficed, even when the white mob had a numerical or tactical advantage, because racists were unwilling to trade what they viewed as their own superior lives for the inferior lives of non-whites.
  2. The laws were more readily enforced when the safety of whites was endangered. When the black community in Monroe armed itself and confronted a Klan motorcade which had targeted Dr. Albert E. Perry’s house, city officials, who until that point had consistently supported the Klan’s right to organize, convened in an “emergency session” to ban KKK motorcades from Monroe.
  3. Black resistance tended to garner the kind of international attention that the federal government was interested in avoiding, and thus federal law enforcement could often be persuaded to step in and uphold the law even when local authorities refused.

Reading Williams’s descriptions of the events in Monroe, it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion that the willingness to collect arms and employ self-defense accomplished goals which pacifism did not. In some cases, this resistance even paved the way for the successful employment of non-violent tactics, such as sit-ins:

There was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South. In other communities there were Negroes who had their skulls fractured, but not a single demonstrator was even spat upon during our sit-ins. We had less violence because we had shown the willingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves.

He describes how the Union County chapter of the NAACP, which was on the verge of dissolution when he joined, eventually saw a “rebirth into militancy” as a result of his attempts to recruit veterans who “who were very militant and who didn’t scare easily.” Despite the fact that the Union County chapter’s efforts were supported even by Southern white pacifists, they received very little support from the national leadership of the NAACP, which eventually suspended Williams from his position due to statements he’d made about the use of violence. But while the suspension was upheld even after Williams appealed it, it forced a debate on the issue of armed resistance and even the NAACP was eventually forced to “reaffirm the right of an individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults.”

The Crusader, which Robert Williams and his wife Mabel published during their stay in Cuba.

Williams criticized white liberals and “black Quislings” alike for suggesting that blacks reject militancy in favor of pacifism:

The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system… [The Afro-American militant] does not introduce violence into a racist social system– the violence is already there and has always been there… When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence’ what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.

Williams theorizes that while passive non-violent resistance may have led to some gains, they were limited in scope. The integration of certain public spaces and services (e.g. public libraries, swimming holes, the Montgomery public transit system), while symbolically important in that the segregation of those spaces represented a “direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity,” did not require much in the way of sacrifice from whites. Williams predicted that only when blacks rose to demand true economic parity would they face the fiercest resistance, and in that case, self-defense would be necessary to remind the white racist that “in attacking us he risks his own life.”

It’s evident to me that those engaged in the struggle for liberation should be the only ones to define the terms and methods of that struggle. Which is to say that whites, liberal or no, should have no place in that process (aside from a willingness to support black self-determination), and it’s clear that Williams felt much the same about the leadership of the mainstream civil rights movement. But what of those engaged in the struggle who do not speak from a position of power and who disagree with the use of violence, whether for self-defense or otherwise? bell hooks in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem:

When we reexamine our history we see African-American antiracist resistance move from being rooted in a love ethic and a moral philosophy centered on peace and reconciliation to a rhetoric and practice of violence. This embracing of violence as an accepted means of solving conflict and social control was an endorsement of the very politics of domination that was at the heart of antiblack racial terrorism. It has ramifications far beyond the social and political realm. It brought a socially legitimized ethos of violence into black family life. It made violence acceptable by suggesting that black men needed to be able to enact violence in order to be men… It was one of the first indications that black folks had internalized habits of being learned from their oppressors.

There does seem to be some evidence for the fact that armed resistance was justified by paternalistic attitudes towards women and rooted in a desire to reaffirm a masculine identity. Williams:

To be fair, he wasn't really opposed to teaching his womenfolk to defend themselves.

As a tactic we use and approved non-violent resistance. But we also believe that a man cannot have human dignity if he allows himself to be abused, to be kicked and beaten to the ground, to allow his wife and children to be attacked, refusing to defend them and himself on the basis that he’s so pious, so self-righteous, that it would demean his personality if he fought back.

hooks’s criticism strikes me as entirely valid, but it also seems clear that violence was a necessary part of confronting deeply entrenched white supremacy. Is it possible to subvert the fact that men use violence to define themselves as men by questioning and eventually rejecting the concept of manhood altogether? Or is violence, even in the service of liberation, inseparable from patriarchal notions of dominance and submission? Obviously there aren’t any easy answers here. But I imagine that hooks and other black feminist writers have explored this in more detail elsewhere, so I expect I have some research to do.

This post doesn’t really seem complete without a mention of the trumped-up kidnapping charges and U.S. persecution which forced Williams and his wife to flee to Cuba. They were granted political asylum and spent four years there, publishing The Crusader and broadcasting on Radio Free Dixie. This book was also written in that period of exile. Williams:

I could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere where a Negro would be treated as a human being, where the race problem would be understood, and where people would not look upon me as a criminal but as a victim of a trumped-up charge– a charge designed to crush the militant leaders who were beginning to form a new movement, a new militant movement designed for the total liberation of the Afro-Americans.

I hadn’t realized before this how much significance the Cuban Revolution held for blacks in the U.S. during the civil rights era. But the fact that it was the only Western country where Williams felt he’d be safe from racist persecution speaks volumes. Maybe I’ll come back to this when I’ve read more about Cuba, but I felt it deserved at least a mention here.

At any rate: great book, and I’m glad it was recommended to me. It’s a little dispiriting that I’d never even heard of Robert Williams before, but it’s not surprising. Maybe certain influences are too difficult to whitewash and it’s easier to ignore them altogether– which probably makes them all the more important to talk about.

One of the reasons I’ve had less time for blogging lately is that I’ve been spending more time reading. I have a long-term project in mind, the details of which I’m still refining (tentative title: Read ALL the Things?), and maybe I’ll write more about that later. But for now, I’m thinking I might use this blog to collect my thoughts on the books I’ve recently read, at least when I’m capable of expressing those thoughts coherently enough to make them worth posting.

I’ve had a tough time conjuring up the proper superlatives for this particular book. It shot right up to my top five before I’d even gotten a third of the way through. What really surprised me is how engrossing of a read it was. Searing, thought-provoking, challenging—those are things I expected this book to be. But I didn’t expect it to be a page-turner.

Time for an embarrassing admission: until recently, I’d never heard any of the recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches. I’d read transcripts, but it hadn’t occurred to me to see what videos might be floating around on Youtube. The book inspired me to seek some of those out. And now, having “seen” him speak, I’d assert that his style really translates well to the page. As a narrator, he maintains his conversational tone without sacrificing any of the vehemence and forcefulness that made him such a compelling speaker.

After reading the epilogue, I appreciated Malcolm’s choice to, as suggested by Alex Haley, leave all of the previous chapters intact even after later events significantly and negatively affected his feelings about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. It would have been a shame if he’d revised those sections to reflect his later feelings of betrayal, not just because it would have made for a less suspenseful narrative (as Haley argued), but also because I think the book as written really gives the reader a sense of having witnessed a part of Malcolm’s evolution as it occurred.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was probably his description of his time in prison. I’m fascinated by autodidacts, and by the process of opening oneself up to new information in the search for truth. I don’t necessarily value intellectual malleability for its own sake—convictions are important—but Malcolm did what I think might be one of the hardest things anyone can ever do: he squarely confronted and acknowledged his own ignorance. And later, when the opinions he’d formed on the basis of his hard-won knowledge were challenged, he didn’t react by jealously guarding his intellectual vanity. He took stock again, and eventually discarded the views that couldn’t be supported by an honest accounting of the facts. A commenter on this post at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog put it best: “His entire life is a case study in positive human evolution.”

Interestingly, and I think somewhat tragically, that quality of Malcolm’s eventually became a source of criticism from his supporters. From the epilogue:

[A] major complaint was that Malcolm X was himself too confused to be seriously followed any longer. “He doesn’t know what he believes in. No sooner do you hear one thing than he’s switched to something else.”

And his ability to communicate to the masses, to reach and to change those who heard him speak, also became something to bludgeon him with:

Malcolm X only talked, but other civil rights organizations were doing. “All he’s ever done was talk, CORE and SNCC and some of them people of Dr. King’s are out getting beat over the head.”

Not to say that these couldn’t have been fair criticisms. But I found them painful to read all the same.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley.

Speaking of criticisms, I suppose I have a couple of my own. Regarding the book itself, I found I had to do a bit of plodding through the chapters related to Malcolm’s conversion to and work for the Nation of Islam, not because I find the NOI uninteresting, but because the incessant glorification of Elijah Muhammad made for boring reading. Fundamentalism in any of its forms always strikes me as a bit robotic and, well, soulless: all mistakes are the fault of the individual, while all glory is due to the deity of one’s choice or his (always his) earthbound representative. That doesn’t leave much room for reflection.

But that’s really a minor complaint; much more disturbing to me was the sexism. It wasn’t unexpected, but somehow I never got quite used to it. This may be because it wasn’t particularly pervasive. Women as a class were largely invisible throughout the book, so there weren’t many opportunities for their denigration. One could (and many do) make the argument that his feelings on women weren’t atypical for the time period, but I always think that’s something of a weak excuse: we can, and should, expect more from political visionaries.

That said, I don’t consider Malcolm’s sexism to be cause for condemnation. I’ve seen its equally ugly counterpart in other contexts, e.g. the racism and classism of the first- and second-wavers, and viewing these failings as part of a pattern inspired some thoughtfulness. I do think we need to resist the temptation to whitewash or even just offer a token acknowledgment of the failings of those we admire, because to do so prevents us from fully recognizing their humanity and—more importantly – the humanity of those who found their own rights and dignity sacrificed on the altar of another group’s struggle. If we elide that reality, we cause even more harm.

But excoriation seems less productive to me, if only because a hyperfocus on individual flaws diverts our attention from another, potentially more useful, conversation about the flaws of movements. Human beings die, and their potential for growth dies with them. That’s never true of a movement. Evolution is always possible. And maybe the leaders of these movements, flawed as they are, can be the impetus for that evolution if we allow their flaws to inform our understanding of power.

But that’s probably a topic for another post.

I think I’ve learned as much from the reactions to this book as I have from the book itself. To many, Malcolm X’s legacy is exactly as he predicted it would be as he faced the inevitability of his own assassination:

Each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like for you to do. What I am dead–I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form–I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

Meanwhile, in post-racial America... this still happens.

But I’ve also been surprised to see the book (and Malcolm himself) receive a fair amount of mainstream approval. Surprised because white America doesn’t generally relish confronting its own racism, which suggests to me that to the degree that we do embrace Malcolm X, it’s probably at least partially a result of misunderstanding him, whether willfully or not. And a few hours spent reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads confirmed my suspicion that, at least to some, this book is in fact a cautionary tale. Not about the legacy of racism, slavery and exploitation in the U.S. and elsewhere—or at least not only about that—but about the supposed excesses of the black liberation movement.

According to those who hold this view, Malcolm X is admirable not because he spoke for blacks who felt that the civil rights movement didn’t truly represent them, or because he forced liberal whites to confront their complicity in upholding racist power structures, or because he challenged the idea that passive non-violent resistance is the only path to justice. No: he’s admirable because he “evolved,” which is here defined as “became less hostile towards whites, thereby allowing us to avoid engaging with white supremacy in any fundamental way.” His assassination is held up as the regrettable but unavoidable outcome of a life spent sowing hatred, and the tragedy lies only in the fact that he was forced to reap that hatred just as he’d come to denounce it. How many of us elevate him only because he’s made it safe for us to do so? Are we just taking what we needed from him and discarding the rest?

Maybe. But I think we’re capable of more. We have the ability, and the responsibility, to engage with Malcolm X’s life and death in a way that precludes comfort or reassurance.

Because if we aren’t allowing his words to challenge us, we aren’t listening carefully enough.

The verdict in the Oscar Grant trial was read yesterday: involuntary manslaughter. Sentence of four years possible, with two years likely (and possibly three to ten more for the charge of using a gun).

Let’s all take a moment to reflect on the fact that Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dogfighting charges.

Rather than embarrass myself trying to form the sort of cogent analysis that’s already been provided by people like Adam Serwer and the writers at Color Lines, I’ll just point in their direction. Racialicious also has a fascinating post up juxtaposing quotes and images from the aftermath of the trial, including the much-anticipated “violent protests.” Luckily, the police arrested upwards of 80 for such devastating crimes as “failure to disperse,” so we know shit’s being handled. I almost expected to hear that some unfortunate protester had been shot by an overzealous officer who’d missed the “Slingshot or Semiautomatic? Learning What the Fuck Weapons Look Like” training course, thereby bringing us full circle. Glad to be wrong about that.

Probably unsurprisingly, I agree with the afore-linked posts, and most of the other left-wing and progressive coverage of the trial, that this outcome only resembled justice in the most remote sense, and then only because it was the first conviction of its kind. In particular, I’m appalled that Mehserle’s stated defense is actually being treated as anything but nonsensical. Even if he truly were so incredibly bad at his job that he honestly mistook his gun for his Taser, both at the point of drawing it and at the point of firing it—in which case, please never issue this man any weapon more dangerous than a Super Soaker ever again—there is simply no reason for him to have pulled any weapon in that situation. Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach, handcuffed, surrounded by multiple police officers; it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which any individual could pose less of a threat, and he no more deserved to be Tased than he deserved to be shot. The weak excuse that Mehserle supposedly saw Grant reach into his pocket for a weapon doesn’t hold even a drop of water—what on earth would have been Grant’s motivation for pulling a weapon, even if he’d had one? Again: handcuffed, lying on his stomach, surrounded by police officers. He’d lived 22 years in this society as a black man. Surely he was perfectly aware of the risk to his physical safety posed by the police in any situation, let alone one that highly charged. I suppose this explanation of Mehserle’s conduct was accepted as valid by the jury (and the media) because, well, we all know that black people just aren’t very smart. Dude reached into his pocket and got shot. Why should we be so surprised? Bell curve, people. Bell fucking curve. (Do I need to make it clear that this is sarcasm? I guess it wouldn’t hurt.)

Nearly all mainstream media coverage of the trial has been terrible, if instructive, in that it’s concerned itself so much more with the supposed riots (“Riots are expected any second in Oakland!” “Riots are happening right this very second in Oakland!” “Here are some pictures of a window in Oakland that is broken right this second from the riots that totally happened just like we said they would!”) than with the actual verdict. Not surprising, and only disappointing if you expected better.

I didn’t. But there are people I did expect better from, and one of them disappointed me terribly yesterday. Silvana Naguib, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown under her full name and Bitch Ph.D. under her former pseudonym, M. LeBlanc, posted what struck me as two unbelievably wrongheaded tweets:

Once again, pretty uncomfortable with entire twitterstream bemoaning a guilty verdict. By a jury. #thishowjusticeworksyall

I am glad that everyone seems to know that mehsehrle should spend life in prison b/c they watched a video. This is why we have trials.

I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been an M. LeBlanc* fangirl for years; she’s one of my all-time favorite writers. She strikes me as one of the least-myopic big-name feminist bloggers and I’ve always admired her integrity. In fact, this post, which I linked to in a previous entry of mine, has actually done quite a lot to shape my opinion on the intersection of feminism, racism, and the justice system. And I simply can’t reconcile the person who wrote that linked post with the person tweeting that we should all sit down and be quiet and accept the Grant verdict because a trial by jury equals justice, by god, and so what if you actually watched Mehserle shoot an unarmed man in cold blood; what are you going to believe, the scales of justice, or your lying eyes? And the fact that the jury was purged of African-Americans** is irrelevant, because shut up, that’s why.

She caught a bit of heat for her tweets, including from me here, and responded to her followers at large here. I tried again here; no response. It was a surreal exchange, to say the least. To see M. LeBlanc, of all people, implying that one can’t question the outcome of a trial in which a white police officer shot a black man with no provocation and was subsequently convicted of the mildest form of manslaughter by a cherrypicked jury unless one can point to a flaw in procedure honestly left me wondering if someone had hijacked her Twitter account. Does this really need to be explained? That context matters? That racism almost certainly informed the actions of the defendant and the views of the jury? That this is likely true even if the jury doesn’t stand up and say, “We declare Mehserle innocent because we think Grant had it coming and his life really isn’t worth a damn to us anyway because he’s black”? Not every trial will have a Mark Fuhrman, and systemic racism does not always manifest itself in obvious ways that we can point to and yell “HA! RACISM!” If, as Adam Serwer wrote, every single one of those jurors agreed that Mehserle’s fear of Grant was justified because Grant was black, that may not be a procedural error, no. But it’s also not justice.

And that dig about the Youtube video? Ridiculous. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the details of the case would have raised many hackles even without recorded evidence of the murder, because we’ve been down this road before. (Sean Bell, anyone?) With that evidence, even the most obstinate have to admit that something went very, very wrong in that BART station on New Year’s Eve; that video is probably the only reason we have a conviction at all. We all saw Mehserle shoot a prone and restrained Oscar Grant in the back, and the resultant outrage was undoubtedly a driving force behind the finding of accountability. So now that outrage is mock-worthy? Now we’re just an angry mob with a “thirst for blood“? Is it even possible to be more insulting towards the people who would question the assumption that a police officer’s actions are de facto justified and that a black man’s life is worth nothing?

I do understand her intent. She’s making the point that the court of public opinion can’t be trusted to determine guilt, and that this is why we have juries and the right to a fair trial. But I’d argue that the public’s trust in that process has been undermined by these sorts of outcomes. To declare, “This outcome is a result of the proper functioning of the justice system, and therefore represents justice” begs the question of whether the system actually exists to dispense justice in the first place, particularly for those who have been deemed expendable by the state. Those of us who challenge this verdict believe it does not. If she wants to argue that it does, fine, but it seems to me that she’s arguing against both historical context and her own previous statements to the contrary. And if anything strikes me as knee-jerk, it’s her tweets ridiculing the rest of us for giving a damn.

At any rate, yes, someone was definitely wrong on the internet yesterday. But so many other people were right, and more good reading on the subject can be found here, here and here. The Department of Justice has also announced that it will be conducting its own investigation of the murder, and a civil suit is likely, so there may be other opportunities for some form of justice in this particular case. But that doesn’t address the larger context of racism and state violence which ensures a never-ending supply of Sean Bells and Oscar Grants. And I worry that we’ll forget about this until it happens again, at which point we’ll forget that it’s happened before. Unless we make the effort to remember.

*Still have a hard time thinking of her as Silvana.

**I mistakenly tweeted that Mehserle was convicted by an all-white jury; it did include people of color, but no black jurors.

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The verdict in the Oscar Grant trial was read yesterday: involuntary manslaughter. Sentence of four years possible, with two years likely.

Worth noting that Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dogfighting charges.

Rather than embarrass myself trying to form the sort of cogent analysis that’s already been provided by people like Adam Serwer and the writers at Color Lines, I’ll just point in their direction. Racialicious also has a fascinating post juxtaposing quotes and images from the aftermath of the trial, including the supposed “violent protests” that swept Oakland after the verdict was read. Said violent protests, according to such outstanding media outlets as the Huffington Post, seem to have consisted mostly of the looting and ransacking of a Foot Locker and a jewelry store. Oh, and someone set a few trash cans on fire. Beware the incendiary rage of the urban minority population!

Luckily, the police arrested dozens of people for “failure to disperse,” so we know shit’s being handled. I was almost expecting to hear that some unfortunate protester had been shot by an overzealous officer who’d missed the “Slingshot or Semiautomatic? Learning What the Fuck Weapons Look Like 101” training course, thereby bringing us full circle. Glad to be wrong about that.

Probably unsurprisingly, I agree with the afore-linked posts, and most of the other left-wing and progressive coverage of the trial, that this outcome only resembled justice in the most passing of ways, and then only because it was the first conviction of its kind. In particular, I’m appalled that Mehserle’s stated defense is actually being treated as anything but nonsensical. Even if he truly were so incredibly bad at his job that he honestly mistook his light and non-holstered Taser for his heavy holstered gun, both at the point of drawing the weapon and at the point of firing it—in which case, get that incompetent asshole off the streets, for fuck’s sake, and please never issue him any weapon more dangerous than a SuperSoaker—there is simply no reason for him to have pulled any weapon in that situation. Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach, handcuffed, surrounded by multiple police officers; it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which any individual could pose less of a threat, and he no more deserved to be Tased than he deserved to be shot. The weak excuse that Mehserle supposedly saw Grant reach into his pocket for a weapon doesn’t hold even a molecule of water—what on earth would have been Grant’s motivation for pulling a weapon, even if he’d had one? Again: handcuffed, lying on his stomach, surrounded by police officers. He’d lived XXX years in this society as a black man—surely he was perfectly aware of the risk to his physical safety posed by the police in any situation, let alone one that highly charged. I suppose this explanation of Mehserle’s conduct was accepted as valid by the jury (and the media) because, well, we all know that black people just aren’t very smart. Dude reached into his pocket and got shot. Why should we be so surprised? Bell curve, people. Bell fucking curve.

Nearly all mainstream media coverage of the trial has been terrible, if instructive, in that it’s concerned itself so much more with the supposed riots (“Riots are expected any second in Oakland!” “Riots are happening right this very second in Oakland!” “Here are some pictures of a window in Oakland that is broken right this second from the riots that totally happened just like we said they would!”) than with the actual verdict. Not surprising, and only disappointing if you expected better.

Obviously, I didn’t. But there are people I do expect better from, and one of them disappointed me terribly yesterday. Silvana Naguib, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown under her full name and Bitch Phd under her former pseudonym, M. LeBlanc, posted what struck me as two unbelievably ignorant tweets:

XXX

XXX

I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been an M. LeBlanc* fangirl for years; she’s probably my favorite writer on Bitch Phd’s blog. This post, which I linked to in a previous entry of mine, has actually done quite a lot to shape my opinion on the intersection of feminism, racism, and the justice system. She strikes me as one of the least-myopic big-name feminist bloggers and I’ve always admired her integrity. So those tweets were a bit… disconcerting.

I simply can’t reconcile the person who wrote this post with the person tweeting that we should all sit down and be quiet and accept the Grant verdict because a trial by jury equals justice, by god, and so what if you actually watched Mehserle shoot an unarmed man in the back; what are you going to believe, the scales of justice, or your lying eyes? Oh, and racism has ceased to exist, apparently. So the fact that the jury was purged of African-Americans and that a non-trivial percentage of the jurors (I’ve heard between one-fifth and one-half) had relatives in law enforcement is irrelevant, because shut up, that’s why.

She caught a bit of heat for her tweets, including from me here, and responded to her followers at large here. I tried again here; no response. It was a surreal exchange, to say the least. To see M. LeBlanc, of all people, imply that one can’t question the outcome of a trial in which a white police officer shot a black man with no provocation and was subsequently convicted of the mildest form of manslaughter by a cherrypicked jury unless one can point to a flaw in procedure honestly left me wondering if someone had hijacked her Twitter account. Does this really need to be explained? That context matters? That racism almost certainly informed the actions of the defendant and the views of the jury? That this is likely true even if the jury doesn’t stand up and say, “We declare Mehserle to be innocent because we think Grant had it coming and his life really isn’t worth a damn to us anyway because he’s black?” Not every trial will have a Mark Fuller, and systemic racism does not always manifest itself in obvious ways that we can point to and yell “HA! RACISM!” If, as Adam Serwer wrote, every single one of those jurors agreed that Mehserle’s fear of Grant was justified because Grant was black, that may not be a procedural error, no. But it’s not justice.

And that dig about the Youtube video? Ridiculous. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the details of the case would have raised many hackles even without recorded evidence of the murder, because we’ve been down this road before. (Sean Bell, anyone?) With that evidence, even the most recalcitrant have to admit that something went very, very wrong in that BART station on New Year’s Eve; that video is probably the only reason we have a conviction at all. The world saw Mehserle shoot a prone Oscar Grant in the back, and the resultant outrage was undoubtedly a driving force behind the finding of accountability. So now that outrage is mock-worthy? Now we’re just an angry mob “out for blood”? Is it possible to be more insulting towards the people who would question the idea that a police officer’s actions are de facto justified and that a black man’s life is worth nothing?

I do understand her intent. She’s making the point that the court of opinion can’t be trusted to determine guilt, and that this is why we have juries and the right to a fair trial. But I’d argue that the public’s trust in that process has been undermined by these sorts of outcomes. “This is justice because it was dispensed by the justice system” begs the question of whether that system actually can be assumed to dispense justice consistently, particularly for anyone who’s been deemed expendable by the state. Those of us who challenge this verdict believe it can’t. If she wants to argue that it can, fine, but it seems to me that she’s arguing against both historical context and her own previous statements to the contrary. And if anything strikes me as knee-jerk, it’s her tweets ridiculing the rest of us for giving a damn.

Another personal entry. Skip this if you’re bored by such.

One of my friends– and I can’t remember who, but I suspect it was someone who reads this blog, so apologies for not naming you and please speak up if it was you– told me recently that sometimes, when it comes to romantic partners, we choose people who we know will trigger us in very specific ways. This sounds masochistic, at first, but there’s a kinder way to interpret it: as my friend said, we do this because we want to be challenged; we want to grow. So we look for someone whose presence in our life will push us to do that.

I can’t stop thinking about this. I keep finding myself tripping over anxieties and insecurities I didn’t even know existed, lately. Like, oh, huh– that upsets me. Why does it upset me? Is it new, or is it something that I’ve dealt with before? Is it an isolated thing or part of a bigger problem? Have I picked other partners who triggered it in the past? Why?

I don’t think of myself as an insecure person, in general. I try to find what I think is the middle ground between dissatisfaction and complacency, because I want to recognize what’s gone right in my life and be pleased about what I’ve achieved, but I also don’t want to get lazy and stop feeling inspired to change, or to improve my situation or myself. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I swing all the way over to feeling like a failure, feeling like a worthless person; this is sometimes a sign that depression is sneaking up on me. But not always. Sometimes it’s a sign that I’m getting better, that I’m on the cusp of some real growth or progress, as though I’ve just taken the first step on a long path and have suddenly realized how far I still have to go. It’s not quite the same as hitting rock bottom; it happens after I’ve already made the decision to move forward. It means I’m shaking things up.

And lately I feel like all of my insides are in a blender set to Liquify.

I’m re-examining everything at the moment, because I don’t trust my instincts or my reactions. I have to be careful. My head’s full of emotional landmines, and most of them were planted so long ago, and I’ve been ignoring them for so long, that I’ve completely forgotten where they are or how to avoid them. And now suddenly I’m in a situation that’s forcing me to move forward whether I want to or not. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think I’ve done it on purpose. But I can’t just blunder forward mindlessly and expect not to have things blow up in my face. I have to think, strategize; I have to remember where the landmines are, and defuse them, carefully, one by one.

But, really, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to have my own vulnerabilities and insecurities laid bare, and not just for me to see or just for me to deal with. Other people are not pawns in my personal growth; they’re not obligated to stick by me no matter how I act, no matter how I treat them, no matter how difficult I make things for them or for our relationship. Sometimes they might choose to, anyway, and maybe they’ll walk with me and hold my hand while I find and defuse those landmines. Or maybe not. Certainly some haven’t. One particular person who I dated several years ago and was deeply in love with broke up with me very suddenly, without ever telling me why. To this day I have no explanation other than the one that I’ve imagined because it just feels true to me: the whole thing was just too much for him. He loved me, but not enough. The landmines were too treacherous. I don’t necessarily mean to imply, by that, that I was wholly in the wrong and he in the right; he was fairly immature, and completely unable to deal with his own emotions in anything but the most superficial way. He was a fair-weather boyfriend and never would have been able to stick it out through any real difficulty, and I know this because he never made even the tiniest effort to talk to me about anything or to even acknowledge the problem, let alone fix it. But I also can’t avoid the reality: I’m really fucking difficult to be with, sometimes.

I’ve recently started keeping a private journal again, and I’m using that to work through most of this. I can’t post everything here, because some of it’s too personal. And there are some things I need to say only to myself so I know I’m completely free from any possibility of judgment. I just lay them out like some exotic species of insect that I’m examining under a microscope; when it’s just me, brutal honesty doesn’t feel all that painful. And sometimes I’m surprised by how kind I can be to myself. Things have happened to me, things that I had no say in and that happened when I was young, things that sometimes make it hard for me to trust people or to believe that they won’t disappear. I’m not totally whole or healthy now, no. I’m not perfectly secure with sky-high self-esteem and a rock-solid sense of my own worth as a human being. I’m on shaky ground, sometimes. And that’s not my fault. But I can change it, maybe, if I can untangle it first.

I’m still wondering, as I write this, if I’m going to have the guts to post it. I probably won’t actually know until I hit Publish. Part of me is thinking, come on, no one wants to read this crap. And the other part is thinking, wait, no– if someone else wrote this, I’d want to read it! It’s a huge relief, sometimes, to know you’re not the only one. And, realistically, I know that I’m far from the only woman tortured by doubt and insecurity; that’s how we’re raised, after all. I’m always amazed by how gendered self-confidence is. I know so many men who are just completely and utterly secure in themselves, including some who really shouldn’t be, some who could really stand to be taken down a peg, who never doubt themselves for a second even when it’s clear that they should. Women like that exist, too– I’ve known a few in my time– but they’re so rare, comparatively, or at least according to my own very scientific studies which I have based on my own very scientific anecdata. (Honestly, I could probably find some stats backing this up after a mere five minutes with Professor Google, but I sort of doubt that anyone reading this blog would challenge me on this point.)

Anyway. I think I’ll post this, as an act of defiance if nothing else. I don’t have to keep it all inside; I can be That Guy, who knows– knows!– that everything he says is something that should be heard by someone. Then I can go back to my self-doubt and my landmines. But for now I’ll tell myself, and believe, that I’m doing the right thing. Just so I know how that feels.

No one cares for nothing

Posted: May 30, 2010 in anti-racism, poetry

There’s a good post up on ColorLines about the criminal justice system and the black community’s ambivalence about reform. Some support it as a “defining political issue”, but others feel differently:

Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, says all of these efforts can be hard sells inside Black America itself. “We’re quick to respond to [cases] of driving-while-black because that also is affecting doctors and lawyers,” he says. “But there seems to be a real pressure in the African American community, in the minority community, to throw away the ‘dysfunctional,’ the ‘impoverished,’ the ‘broken’ so that the elite can feel welcomed into the mainstream with less fear and prejudgment.”

Later, there’s a mention of Reginald Dwayne Betts, former felon, now a scholar and poet. He spent nine years in prison after pleading guilty to participating in a carjacking. I did a search for some of his poetry, and found this (excerpt below, follow the link to read the whole thing):

Sometimes It’s Everything

Time & what else moves man to shape scrap
metal into god’s tongue? Call it a bid:
slang for a stretch, a mandatory minimum that leaves
years swollen into the thirty seconds
it took to kill, & reasons are worthless once
cuffs close wrists, after a night’s dirt turns

I read this and wonder if Betts would have been designated by the elite, in his carjacking days, as one of the dysfunctional, the impoverished, the broken. I wonder about all of the others so designated. I wonder who else has been lost. And not just the would-be poets, but the normal everyday voices. I’d say they’ve disappeared, but that sort of phrasing is conveniently passive; it wasn’t an accident. We’ve disappeared them.

And we don’t miss them because they never mattered to us anyway.