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Commentary. Obama’s election reopened the perverse dialectic of racial hatred in America. What James Baldwin wrote in 1963 has bearing on today.

The crimes of the ‘innocent’

An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth: There was a chance it could happen, and it did.

Six people are dead: five police officers and Micah Xavier Johnson, the shooter, who said he wanted to kill white cops in revenge. Nine others, including two civilians, were not seriously wounded. It happened last Thursday night in Dallas, at the end of the sacrosanct peaceful protest against the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two African Americans, by cops in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in St Paul, Minnesota.

Even after Ferguson and all the hundreds of people, African-Americans and others, killed by the police in these last two years, still more than 500 people have been killed by police since the beginning of the year, and 990 in 2015.

In Dallas, protests were held again on Friday, in spite of everything, and over the weekend, demonstrations took place in other parts of the United States, from New York to Oakland, from Denver to St. Paul. Men and women of Black Lives Matter, the movement which took its name from the slogans by the protesters during the days of rage in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, did not stop going to the streets.

And many others went with them, Hispanics and whites, young people and old, women and men. They will not be silenced, not by those who unilaterally chose, or will choose, to answer violence with violence, nor by the racist slander thrown at them by Fox News provocateurs, according to whom the protest movement is responsible for the shooting in Dallas.

In 1963, James Baldwin published a book entitled The Fire Next Time, full of rage and frustration, and a consciousness of history. Months before, police violence would trigger the first urban revolt of the decade in Harlem. Since then, the same revolt continues in intervals, through to the Ferguson riots following the Michael Brown homicide. In the 1960s, African-Americans finally responded to the endless abuse by racist institutions and society by revolting en masse, and violently — “the fire.” It’s no doubt that their protest, both physical and political, led to the Civil Rights Act and changed the racial order that had dominated for centuries. Barack Obama’s election, no matter how his presidential activity might be judged, is the result of this change.

But his success, which suggested that the majority of the electorate was not stupid and myopic, reopened the perverse dialectics of racial hatred as a reactionary mobilization tool. (One of the first, and most vulgar, insults against him was a sketch published by the New York Post, owned by the same company as Fox News, in which Obama was portrayed as a monkey, killed by a couple of policemen because his indocility made him dangerous.)

When a black man “moves out of his place,” Baldwin wrote, “heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” The local police forces, like other parts of the society in which power is embodied, have never been immune to the fears of this earthquake. In confrontations with rebels, oppressors react as they always do: with violence. This is evidenced by the consistency in the method of the killings and in the killers’ immunity to justice. And the police officers who literally turned their backs on Bill de Blasio, after the New York City mayor opened an investigation into the choking death of Eric Garner, have unwittingly revealed the arrogance which supports all this.

To them, de Blasio is a traitor. It’s the society overall which is crossed through and split in half by the reactionary involution (which covers other issues, of course). There are those who see Obama, blacks, Hispanics and immigrants as The Enemy, responsible for the fact that America is no longer “America.” It’s not by chance that Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again” — by excluding these, deporting those, by building a wall along the border. The draw of this idea, for those receptive to this message, is a return to the comfortable certainties of racial discrimination and of racial exclusion, which might recover a portion of the welfare and stability that whites had in the 1950s. These poisonous ideas have continued for decades; social attacks at home coupled with warring policies abroad.

In recent years, the African American and Hispanic movements, workers movements seeking $15 minimum wage, movements seeking to defend the right to abortion, the Occupy movement and the Bernie Sanders movement have lifted the curtain on many of those responsible for spreading those poisons. They have also made people aware of social injustice and the frustrating failures of previous remedies.

Baldwin wrote that “the authors of devastation” can’t hide themselves behind the mask of “innocence” forever. His words are as valid today as they were in 1963: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

In Dallas, the denunciation took two of the possible paths: the mass protest and the vengeful individual action, separate but simultaneous, side-by-side as if diverging from a crossroads. It’s not like that. The thousand protests over the years, one could say, haven’t stopped police from killing black people, although they sensitized millions of Americans to the problem.

But it must be said that the underlying causes of the road Johnson took — influenced and armed by war, in a society marked by injustice and infested with weapons — have not gone away. The imbalance of power made him like that, and others could follow his example.

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