About race in America, I don’t know how even to begin to talk in public, and that already says a lot about race relations in this country. It’s also a problem. On an unequal field, it’s all too easy for white people who enjoy the privilege of our skin to say the wrong thing about color. But to act on this anxiety by refusing to say anything is to make matters even worse. Wrong or right, don’t I have to say at least something –first and primarily as a citizen of this country, and secondarily as the author of this blog, as a mid-career senior university professor and a self-professing liberal interested not just in aesthetics, but also in politics, not just in politics but also in aesthetics, in Jewish thought and Jewish culture, including its American experience, and as someone invested in this place, New York City?
I’ll try by starting “here,” with a visual impression, with something I saw close to home the week before the grand jury ruled on the Eric Garner killing. Walking with M. through Harlem, we saw a small group of protestors at the corner of Lenox and 125th Street holding signs. “Ferguson is Everywhere.” I’ll admit that it is with a certain excitement that we noted them as we waited at a red light before crossing the street on our route up to 130th Street. Walking around to 5th Avenue and back to Lenox on the way home, we passed the same group as it marched up the avenue moving north. It was a small demonstration, organized maybe by a local church group. An older woman on a megaphone denounced racism and police brutality. Accompanied by a police escort blocking traffic, they were a small group, maybe twenty-five people. It felt sad, isolated, and a little unhinged maybe; because there were so few people when there should have been hundreds.
It’s not pleasant to say that about the killing of Michael Brown I have been ambivalent. It might say something wrong about me, but the ambivalence has to do with the immediate circumstance surrounding his death. If even a shred of his testimony is true, for me, like for too many white people, it’s easy to see why the grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson. Notwithstanding this nagging doubt and notwithstanding the destruction of property at some of the initial Ferguson demonstrations, I understood why so many people took to the streets to demonstrate for Michael Brown. What matters is not necessarily a particular person, but large and systemic patterns of police abuse, escalations of police violence, and unequal justice that the killing and the grand jury decision revealed before the larger public in particularly revealing ways.
And then, Ferguson is New York. It’s one thing to know it. It’s another thing to see it, and to see it in public on old media and social media. It is the video that makes and marks the widespread sense that this is different, that this could have been anyone…black. You see a man being killed, listening to his last dying words on video for the entire world to see that justice isn’t going work in this country for African Americans. Killed for nothing, Eric Garner posed no threat to the officers who came to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes. He just wanted them to leave him alone. Pleading, maybe he pushed back just a little. You watch the confrontation snap. The small cops jumped over a large man, killing him like an animal.” A part of you dies before your very eyes.
On reflection, it seems to me that none of this is about the police, who risk life and limb protecting “the public,” who guard the line and cross the line between reasonable force and excessive violence as they police “the public.” And it’s not about Michael Brown, or the destruction of property and other acts of violence in Ferguson. People respond the way people respond. Everyone in question, they do so always in a moment, always in response to a situation or to sets of overlapping situations. Why do the police escalate the violence? Because they’re racist, because they’re scared, because they can, because they are trained to do so? Because they get caught up in a moment from which there is no way out? Because there are too many guns on the street, because of bad laws and bad policy, because there are too many white cops, because white people in this country don’t seem to think that black lives matter…to us. Why do people demonstrate, and why do they sometimes do so with violence? Because they too are caught up in a moment, because they respond to situations that are unfair, because they can’t breathe, because enough is enough, because it happens again and again, because they’re right to conclude that black lives don’t really matter to too many white people.
Race in America is a terrible thing to watch. The week of the Eric Garner grand jury acquittal, I got home to New York from Syracuse late Thursday. I arrived after the big demonstrations that night and the Wednesday night before. Listening to the radio, I caught the super-rightwing Michael Savage (Savage Nation) on his talk-show speaking out against (!) the police and against (!) the grand jury before then going off the rails, claiming that this country is led by a [black] troika consisting of Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Al Sharpton. For his part, the more temperate David Brooks wrote a terrifying column in the NYT. The point of the article is to understand and to respect “the cop mind.” But what Brooks actually describes are stressed out officers who are isolated, hardened, and cynical in a hostile relation to the very society whom they serve.
Race can also be a wonderful thing to watch. I’m not unsympathetic to the police. Working men and women, their job is to hold a certain line, which in the end is supposed to protect “us all” from chaos. I appreciate that the work is inherently violent. But my heart is with the protesters, black and white, who seek to move that line and renegotiate the terms upon which we draw them. I admire the protesters for their courage, for their conviction, for their clarity, for their youth.
What happens next? What has to change? How do or should recent events and the revelations they reveal impact the way we occupy space and share it with other people? As a citizen of New York, I would like to suspend liberal guilt and self-righteousness. I think about my neighbors, strangers and other passerby on the street, fellow congregants, colleagues, and my students, all the ones who aren’t white like me. Don’t they have the right to demand to know that I know that their lives matter like all lives? And there has to be proof. A person has to act on this deliberation. We’re in a bad place, in it all together, and there’s no way out other than together. All of us need to know this, most of all the police and the politicians. We should demand nothing less from them and nothing less from ourselves in our daily interaction and converse with each other. There shouldn’t have to be any second guessing about each other’s intentions.
In the end, these are the individual intentions that need to form into and out of a larger social mass. To misuse a phrase by Michel Foucault, “society must be defended.” In this bio-political moment what does it mean to “manage” a city, a country, a population, a multitude of people? What is the rule of law? Who determines that rule of law in a democracy? Even when they cross the line, and most of the time they don’t, who is defending civil society if not the demonstrators, caught up in this moment, demanding from the system, demanding for us all, as a constitutional right, better rule of law, transparency, accountability, and the consent of the governed?