Archive for the ‘anti-racism’ Category

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.

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.

I was lucky enough to see Angela Davis speak at San Jose State a few days ago. What an amazing woman. Also, I thought, an excellent speaker: careful and deliberative in her word choice, which I appreciate, and her commentary was interesting and thought-provoking and even amusing throughout. I forgot to bring something with me to take notes on, but when I got home afterwards I figured I’d do my best to write up a summary, both to help myself retain it and to detail it for those who might be interested.

The bulk of her talk centered on social justice and organizing, with a particular focus on the evolution of our understanding of freedom. She stressed the importance of always allowing for our notion of what freedom means, and who is worthy of it, to be challenged and expanded. In fifty years, will we look back on this period and wonder how transpeople, or immigrants, or the disabled, could have been treated—even by social justice activists!—as less worthy of that freedom? How can we ensure that our movements are truly all-encompassing and continue to evolve with our understanding of equality?

She mentioned that her generation tends to look down on today’s youth, to condemn them for their apathy, for their lack of involvement and organization and activism. But she continues to place her faith in the younger generations; she contrasts their greater understanding of the connections between racism and homophobia and sexism and all forms of oppression with that of the activists of the 60s, who had a much more limited view of who truly deserved civil rights. She’s also impressed by the tech-savviness of the younger generation, by their utilization of the internet and social networking as powerful organizing tools. She feels that young people are still passionate and motivated, but that their activism simply looks different from what her generation might expect.

My friend Juliet, who saw the talk with me, pointed out that Davis remains “the inveterate optimist”. Powerful interests have tried to silence and intimidate and imprison her; she’s been targeted by counter-intelligence programs, fired for her political associations, even put on trial for murder. But she’s still an idealist. And her idealism isn’t blind, but rooted in pragmatism and an understanding of history.

She used Obama’s election to illustrate the danger of blind idealism. So many pinned their hopes and dreams on his election, which she believes is characteristic of the American desire for messiah figures. We designate and elevate one particular charismatic individual and wait for him (always a him) to effect change, rather than acknowledge that, historically, change has come from the unnamed organizers and activists and citizens, those forgotten by the historical record. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the name most associate with the civil rights movement, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful as a result of the collective actions of female service workers. How many of their names can we recite now? But we need to acknowledge them, not least because we need to remember that the poor and the powerless have agency, and that, collectively, they can challenge even the most powerful interests.

But once we’d elected Obama, we felt we’d earned the right to rest on our laurels, no additional action needed. We waited—avidly, impatiently—for him to dispense justice and realize equality. And what did he do? Increased troop presence in Afghanistan. And where was the outrage? Where were the protests and the marches? We had failed to hold our messiah accountable.

And, in the end, “What good is it to have one black man in the White House when we still have a million black men in the big house?” Davis spent some time discussing the prison industrial complex, which is self-perpetuating insofar as it devours the resources that could be used to prevent the future incarceration of young people who can see no future for themselves. She allowed that there is a need to remove from society those criminals who have committed acts of violence, but this, of course, excludes the majority of the incarcerated. She cited a fairly alarming statistic: eighty percent of the women in prison are there on drug-related charges. She then flatly stated, to wide applause: “They should all be released. Now.”

She mentioned that prisoners are often voracious readers; as she put it, this is often the first real chance many of these men and women have to truly live a life of the mind. She contrasted this to the reality of university, particularly graduate, education. Today’s graduate students feel intense pressure, almost from the beginning of their studies, to market themselves, to publish, to professionalize and monetize their academic path. A main culprit of this shift has, of course, been the privatization—and subsequently the increased costs—of education. Education is now financed by sizable loans which need to be repaid; students therefore see themselves as, primarily, future members of the workforce. Thus has education become a commodity. She commended the success of the March 4th protests, particularly the use of the internet to broaden the scope of the movement from the local to the national stage, and shared a pretty amusing anecdote about how, when she was a young activist, a planned national protest had to be cancelled because the group didn’t have enough money to make the long-distance calls needed to organize the demonstrations.

Many of the questions posed after the discussion were quite thought-provoking. One questioner challenged her on whether we can really hold students accountable for (what some see as) their lack of activism given the barrier she’d mentioned. If students are expected to focus so heavily on professional development (and on working to pay their way through school), is it therefore fair to judge them for their inability to devote themselves to political activism? She clarified that she intended not to reproach younger generations, but to acknowledge the difficulties they face. And she believes they’ve risen to the challenge in their own ways, by changing the feel of activism from something deadly serious to something fun and accessible, something that incorporates art and music and humor and joy. She implied that youth has something to teach even the most hardened civil rights veterans: “After all, we told you to give up on the idea of electing a black junior Senator named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House.”

Another questioner asked how he could ensure that he avoided abusing the power he’d been bestowed through his activist work. She answered that the truly effective leaders are those who have scrupulously represented their constituencies, who have remained connected to the desires of the people. The abuse of power can be avoided by working closely with the groups one represents, by truly hearing and respecting their voices, by allowing oneself to be challenged and informed and changed by their struggle.

Another questioner, Fred Hershaw (whom she knew personally and described as one of the activists most dedicated to securing her freedom during her trial), drew a parallel between the Dred Scott decision and the current rhetoric around immigrants’ rights, and she acknowledged the similarity and briefly discussed the new immigration bill in Arizona and its function as a justification for racial profiling. “What does it mean for a person to be illegal? And we’re all immigrants. We’re all motivated by a desire for a better life.” And, as she pointed out, most immigrants are simply fleeing the poverty in their own countries, the poverty which exists as the grim offspring of NAFTA and global capitalism. Immigrants’ rights, in her view, is the most important civil rights movement of our generation.

If I’d had the guts, I would have asked her about the issues Brownfemipower discussed in her post on Feministe, about the convergence of sexual violence and our designation of certain bodies as “illegal”, particularly as it relates to the law in Arizona. This new legislation has particularly ominous implications for immigrant women, who face the threat not only of racial profiling but also of sexual assault and rape by law enforcement, and I would have been interested to hear her thoughts on how feminist and anti-racist organizations can best address that. But, alas. I was too intimidated.

I think I’ve summarized her talk fairly well here, though I’m sure I left some important things out. I didn’t really add any of my own commentary, so it’s fair to assume that everything written above (save the paragraph preceding this one) originated with her comments, though obviously I paraphrased like crazy. At any rate, I hope that this will be interesting reading to some!

Brownfemipower has a great guest post up on Feministe about citizenship and sexual assault. I can’t possibly do it justice with a summary, so I recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing.

I found this bit particularly poignant: “[Ending sexual violence] will require taking a good long look at what many feminists are deeply invested in: a nation/state response to sexual violence.” This is painfully apt in that quite a lot of anti-rape activism assumes that there is, and should be, a place for the criminal justice system at the table of proposed solutions. We struggle over how to make the police and the courts more responsive to sexual assault, how to support victims through the process of reporting and trial, how to draw media attention to abysmally low conviction rates. But these methods offer no recourse to the women most susceptible to sexual violence: those designated as illegal—whether in the technical or figurative sense—by the state. And as BFP points out, that designation, in addition to excluding them from traditional (read: white, middle-class) avenues of obtaining justice, also renders them vulnerable to state violence (including re-victimization should they report their assaults).

Of further concern is that when the system is responsive, it’s often in the service of destroying communities of color. Turns out that relying on a white-supremacist and patriarchal system to administer justice to victims of white supremacy and patriarchy is darkly ironic at best.

I think there’s some recognition of this in mainstream feminist activism. I know my advocacy training touched on the additional barriers faced by immigrants and women of color in seeking services. It was framed as a bit of consciousness-raising to get us to think about why, for example, not every victim of violence would jump at the chance to get the police involved. And most activists have a vague understanding of the limitations of the justice system, if only because we see how it fails even the “good” victims.

But these issues were presented as largely tangential; there was no real in-depth criticism of our approach as a whole. There was no discussion of whether our investment in making the criminal justice system more responsive to sexual violence might actually serve to reify said system’s power and, by doing so, increase the vulnerability of the populations both excluded and targeted by it. A courtroom victory is seen as a triumph by activists, but doesn’t that just legitimize the role of the state in meting out justice?

There have always been people excluded from that system, and they’ve had no choice but to develop their own methods of recourse and survival, e.g. models of community/restorative justice, or the testimonios BFP mentions in her post. But these forms of activism receive little recognition by mainstream organizations working to end sexual violence. I’m a certified sexual assault advocate, and I’d never heard of them until I started reading bloggers like BFP. In this as in so many things, we white feminists tailor our approach to the women who look like us, at the expense of the women who don’t.

And thus we become complicit in the same system we claim to want to destroy.

bell hooks blew my mind recently.

She’s good at that.

I’ve been reading Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem off and on for the past couple months.* It’s been educational, though perhaps a little frustrating in a way her work usually isn’t for me, in that the heavy focus on self-esteem sometimes gives it the flavor of a self-help book. But that’s a small complaint. Most of the book centers on the struggle of the black community to achieve stability and emotional well-being in a society plagued by racism and patriarchy, which I find a compelling theme.

The whole book’s been challenging in the best way, but one particular bit really struck me: the discussion of how racial integration was, in many ways, harmful for American blacks, and far from a clear improvement over segregation at the time.

The reason for this was quite simple: integration removed them from an all-black community focused heavily on nurturing their growth and achievement, and forced them instead into the very precarious position of everyday interaction with their white oppressors. hooks writes: “Within traditional segregated southern black folk culture we found refuge from the intensity of white racism. Racial integration brought us face-to-face with the possibility of racist assault or an actual confrontation.”

She goes on to describe the traumatizing effect of this displacement on black children in integrated schools. Black boys, in particular, often suffered by being funneled into less-challenging courses because their presence was thought to be a threat to white girls. And all black students were suddenly faced with real threats to their physical safety from their white classmates. Integration, meanwhile, was assumed to be a natural improvement for blacks, because, as hooks writes, “[T]he logic of white supremacist thinking had made it seem that black people were longing to be close to white folks.” She isn’t advocating for a return to segregation, mind; she’s simply pointing out the ways in which this transition was psychologically damaging to the black community.

My initial reaction to which can pretty much be summed up as:

Well, shit.

Integration, harmful? The hell you say! Not that I doubted it for a second, of course; the argument is both objectively persuasive and rooted in hooks’s own personal experiences. But it went against everything I’d been taught from a young age: that segregation was wrong, horrible, terrible, because of course black people suffered by not being allowed full access to white (i.e. “real”) society. Integration, by contrast, was intrinsically good. It was supported by the nice white people and opposed by the bad white people. Now that society is only composed of nice white people (the racists all died in 1987, I think), we can all agree that integration was a Good Thing. Complexity is antithetical to self-congratulation, apparently.

Obviously, no one thought to ask black people how they felt about the shift, or made any attempt to include their perspectives in the discussion or in the historical analysis of integration. Ridiculous thought. Do you ask your hamster how it feels about running on the wheel you so kindly provided it?

I’m going to be a bit self-indulgent here (it is my blog, I suppose) and highlight how this lesson about white hegemony illustrated to me how incredibly narrow my own perspective is. I think of myself as self-aware, as willing to challenge racism (both my own and that of others), as educated about oppression and social justice theory. But, hell, I was still raised in a largely white community, taught by white teachers who were reading from textbooks written by white people. There’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t even know that I don’t know it; this is true on this subject and on so many others. It’s a bit scary, yes. But it’s also awe-inspiring.

Because there’s so much for me to learn, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I believe that my main goal, at this point in my life, should be to unlearn the things I’ve been taught. To question my assumptions. I think this is part of the normal process of radicalizing: developing a different intellectual framework for analyzing and making sense of history and the present. I’m a product of white-supremacist, neoliberal education like most other Americans, and my mind is full of dangerous assumptions and blatant lies. Rooting them out takes time and diligence, but I’m fortunate enough to have both, and also fortunate enough to have access to the work of writers and activists who have spent their lives thinking and talking about these subjects.

Sometimes I feel envious of them, of people who seem to have been born into radicalism. How can I ever catch up? But mostly I feel gratitude. Gratitude that, for reasons having to do with the person I currently am and the people who have affected my life, I’m now open to this process, to this shift in my perceptions. I wasn’t always.

I have a secret wish that I might, at some point, affect someone else’s life in a similar way: broaden their perspective, or cause them to question a long-held assumption, or even just help them ask the right question at the right time. I’m no bell hooks and I never will be, but then, most people aren’t. And it’s not even about a desire for self-glorification; the opposite, in fact, in that I want to be a part of something much bigger than me. I want to think that I’m part of the process of change, that I’m helping to spread it like a virus.

Truth is contagious. I want to be a carrier.

*Interesting tidbit about my experience with this book: because of its title, I feel uncomfortable reading it in public. I tend to get paranoid and imagine that strangers assume me to be reading some ridiculous conservative screed about why the intrinsic nature of black people means they’ll always be on welfare or in prison. I worry that racists think I’m one of them. Silly, maybe, but there it is.