I watched the news about the Ferguson grand jury's refusal to indict Darren Wilson come in over Twitter and the WaPo live feed. It turns out that I was doing so as an act of protest, because most of the vitriol spit out during the conference was directed at the news media, and Twitter got special mention for its role (never specified, only claimed) in the unrest. My own personal act of disobedience, I guess: consuming a tragedy through unsupported means. Take that.
My feelings upon hearing the news (hearing? watching? reading? what's the appropriate verb for this?) were similar to the reactions of others at the time, or at least they seemed to be. "Fuck." "This is injustice." "This is ridiculous." "This is racist." "This guy is out of control with the blaming-social-media bullshit." The wittiness of my Twitter feed still surprises me - it's truly in moments of incredible darkness or tragedy that humor serves to expose the truth, sometimes in the only way that it can be fully digested.
The most jaded, which usually includes me, generally coalesced around a simple point of view: "what, didn't you expect this? This is the way shit works in America, and especially in this area. We were stupid for expecting anything like justice."
This is a really easy and natural view for me to hold, but I'm in such a state of angst right now that indifference isn't sitting well with me. It's a rigid tuxedo on a night where I just can't be wearing one, where my bowtie would come off as soon as possible, my collar would open and my jacket's buttons and their holes would never meet. I want to wear my frustration, my anger, my profound disappointment, but something still prevents me from donning it with the comfort I imagine it should have.
Why do I feel this way? Why is there an apprehension this time, a timid refusal to acknowledge an emotional reaction? Part of me wants to find the people I love and talk about something, anything else: the other part is ashamed at the mere suggestion that we shouldn't look directly at this, that we shouldn't learn all we can about ourselves and our culture, that we should instead stick our heads in the sand.
I've settled on an explanation that makes sense to me: I haven't really thought about why I feel this way, only that I do. It feels self evident, but what is it about it that makes me angry, or disappointed, or jaded?
Imagine a peoples, diverse and plentiful. Think of the idyllic, semi-primitive style described of men in Lord of the Rings, or medieval England to be more close to the truth of the matter.
Centrally located in the town is its capitol, a medieval style fortress, with walls impenetrably high, made of stone and reinforced with metal. The only way in and out is a highly secured gate, heavily controlled and secured, through which egress and ingress are possible. Can you almost feel the stone under your fingertips, hear the drawbridge (or what have you) slam securely shut?
The wealthy, of course, secure their spot inside the walled fortress. Others remain outside, and in times of peace, entry and exit are more flexible. Some, however, spend their entire lives inside the wall, with no real reason or urgency to leave.
Suddenly, smoke rises in the distance. Picture what you imagine a Mongol horde to be like (which, as I'm learning through a series of fantastic podcasts, is about a tenth as horrifying as it actually was), slowly approaching, with the intent to scour whatever they find as they move though. Know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, and in this case, we fold and prepare to withstand an attack on the wall...
...except the gates slam shut, leaving some outside to be slaughtered.
Now, there are Four positions to take in this situation. Let's address them in turn.
Imagine the royalty, the privileged class. They regard self preservation as the highest order, and society as an engine with which to further their individual growth. To the approaching horde, they taunt "Go ahead, come and get us! You'll never make it through the wall, and will be forced to leave having never seen the inside of our palace."
It's possible they have lived their whole lives inside the wall, in some cases not even able to describe what life is like outside it. If pressed, they might insist that those outside the wall live in similar comfort to them, especially in times of peace and success. They are the sightless ones, truly unable to comprehend a life other than their own.
In their worst cases, they truly believe that they have earned their place inside the wall, and that those outside are those not strong enough to do what he has done. He sees them as deficient or lazy. He has no idea how different it truly was for him, how much easier it was to start inside, how little he needed to work at all.
Imagine the military tactician, the warrior, cold and calculated. He knows better than the Lord, for he can see the full context of the social and military (and lets be honest, he think's its all military) engine, powering the whole city. He mans his defenses, but takes his position inside the wall. The only way the defense works is that some must remain outside, scattering and delaying the enemy and weakening their forces so that the wall can stand. Each part serving their purpose, he recognizes some sacrifices have to be made for the greater good.
Their passivity is not from lack of knowledge, but from calculated indifference. He believes it's truly better this way, and at his most honest, he believes it's better for everyone, including those outside. Why, they benefit from the economic engine just like everyone else, and they get to reap the benefit of such a strong city! Their tributes will, of course, serve as the only thanks Generals ever need.
Imagine one born inside the wall, in a position of privilege, but more populist than the General and more knowledgeable than the Lord. He can see that the attack is coming, and that the wall will stand - but the people outside don't need to die at all! If we just opened the gates, everyone would be able to fit, and we could all survive, not having to pick up the pieces and start over like in so many other raids.
He is well read, especially in the ways of those different than him. He imagines himself the popular leader, the voice of reason, and pleads for the gates to open. He is outraged at the failure of the General and the Lord to see the truth, disgusted at their worldview that necessitates that some be slaughtered so they might be safe.
These are outside the wall, condemned to be slaughtered. They do not share the Lord's bluster, for they bear the brunt of the response. They do not share the General's willingness to sacrifice, for it is them that are sacrificed. And while they appreciate the Patriot's desire to let them in, his failure to do so (as he always fails to do) is more an indication of his status inside the wall than any engine of good will.
Theirs is the mourning of the forgotten, the neglected, the discarded. It lapses into anger on some occasions, but it's more visible in the periods in between, when it becomes a latent sense of powerlessness, of resignation, defeat. They are a people who recognize that they are expendable. The society they live in is not theirs - it deems them worthless, unless their work serves to fuel the engine of growth for their society as a whole, for those who benefit from their work.
The Horde Arrives
The goal of any decent Liberal Arts education, as shoddy as some might be, is to turn Lords into Patriots. I was given a world-class education from the start, the result of which was a surface level understanding of my place in the world and the surrounding peoples with which to share it. It's all fine and good, and it was for me.
I expanded upon that in ways I neglected in college, understanding more about how truly different our multi-cultural world was. How disparate the world of women was from the world of men, for example. The racial and class divides, which we desperately try to separate but bind so tightly together. It shone a light on my privilege and brought me to a greater point of appreciation and understanding of my own ignorance than ever before. I know more now about what I don't know, and what I cannot claim to know, and what I cannot claim to feel or understand, than I ever have.
Then, the horde arrives. Sometimes small, highlighting one individual or two. Trayvon. Mike Brown. An epidemic of rape at a college fraternity. The harassment of a mosque. Stand Your Ground. The unemployment rate, the crack epidemic. This is a country where a white high school student who raped a girl and filmed it and posted it online shouldn't be kicked off a football team, but an unarmed black man deserved to be shot 12 times because he might have robbed a convenience store earlier in the month. We are in no shortage of attackers, and our gates have been closed for decades. Some wonder if they've ever been opened at all, or at least, opened in any real sense, in any way that mattered.
So, open them, I yell, pounding on the door, screaming at the Lords and the Generals who either hold them shut or indifferently resign to their station. I can hear the yelling from the other side of the wall, the screams fueling my dismay, my outrage at my fellow man. Isn't it obvious that any society that treats people like this is a failed state, no matter how wealthy? How can we allow any of us to be treated this way, either by direct assault or by neglect? We have the resources to protect everyone - isn't locking them out as much a direct act of murder as killing them ourselves?
And in the end, isn't it obvious that our position inside the wall is unearned, that we wield it as if it came to us through competition, but in reality we could just as easily be in a different place, in a different position? Doesn't that bring with it a sense of humility, of unity, of fellowship? Doesn't it?
This is my outrage. This is my anger. I am angry at The State of Things. I have a distaste, a bile that wells within me, that I find myself choking on every time we let a killer of black men and women, or a violent sexual predator disguised in celebrity, walk free, or when the statistics come back to say that the average black male has a 13% chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime, and the law is still not in their favor, that recidivism is at an all time high and quality education is more disparate than ever before, that murdering black men in this country is illegal only on paper, and that the goalposts for success move ever so slightly but constantly, preventing anyone but white men, white upper middle class men, from achieving anything like peace in this world, in this age of sickening plenty.
But as angry as I become, I don't even come close to understanding what it truly feels like to be Damned because it is unlikely I ever will be, and the feeling of being neglected and left to die is one that you must feel before you can understand.
It is foolish of me to claim that, since we're both screaming, that we're screaming for the same reason.
If history is any indicator (history being just the Twitter firehose for the year 2014, if need be) the screams of the Patriot die down somewhere around the 3 month mark. The urgency vanishes once the Horde leaves. The voices outside the wall die down, too, but for different reasons.
Scaling the Wall
What's the next course of action? If the first phase of development (there are probably earlier ones, but for the sake of the discussion, let's say I start here) is to transition from a Lord to a Patriot, where do I go from here? What's the next phase of development?
Some would say it's to abandon your post and leave the confines of the wall entirely. Some have, to the best of their ability. It's tough to do, and there's not any real evidence that the end result is anything more than a sabbatical, the conclusion to a liberal arts education, from which they can return and become more passionate Patriots.
I don't think this is the way out. In fact, I don't know for sure there is one. The only way to really gain new perspective is to find yourself on the wrong side of a wall.
(Back to the Mongols, again - the Mongols were warriors from what seemed like another planet to the existing powers of the 13th century, and their pressure made for some very unlikely bedfellows. Muslim leaders found themselves fleeing to London and Rome to enlist help and send warning to the Catholics of the horrors that were making their way across Europe. At the time, Catholics were in the middle of the Crusades, so you can imagine how bad the Mongols must have been if Muslims were approaching Catholics and going "Hey, guys, bygones be bygones, we should really work together on this one.")
In 2008, the hordes came in the form of economic meltdown, evidence for those looking for it that the lines were drawn on a class basis in this country and that race was irrelevant. A laughable conclusion, to be sure, but what they got right was that this time, whites in the lower to middle classes were on the wrong side of the fence for what might have been the first time in their lives. Lords and Generals were not just white men, they were Rich White Men, distinguishing themselves from the common folk, 'common' now meaning 99% of American society.
And boy, did they flip out. Entire political structures were upended, and grassroots ("community organizing") political activism took to new heights, uniting people over racial borders against the new Aristocratic class. I can imagine that there was, for a second, a glimmer of hope among the Damned, that finally, they who once sat in comfort while they were set upon by injustice would know what it truly feels like to be used, to be cast aside, to be expendable. You could feel it, too. The excitement was palpable, as was the disappointment when the populist movement turned radical and conservative, when the system ended up protecting its own, and when everything went right back to normal.
So, where does that leave me? Still with the same feelings as before, I suppose. The imperialistic urge is to need to understand, to possess the feelings of others, to make them mine. I forego as much, instead acknowledging my shortcomings and my inability to truly empathize as I would wish to. I just will never know what it's really like to live in this world as anything other than what I am.
It still feels like a copout, and horrifying at its worst moments, to think that the most i'll ever be able to do is yell and scream at my contemporaries in privilege. I didn't deserve to be in this position, I say to myself.
But what self-hatred and self-loathing that is, at the expense of what I could be doing for those in a worse position than me. If I truly believe that only luck placed me in this position, than what good is it to self flagellate in front of those you could be helping, or at least, those whose voices you could amplify? Isn't it an insult to those you would help to show guilt rather than motivation?
For the time being, this is where I'll live. I cannot claim to truly know what it's really like, but what I can do is echo, and pass forward the stories from the front. My role will be that who Bears Witness.
A Message from the Damned
This country is one of incredible, sometimes shocking injustice. The events in Ferguson, highlighted but not in any way begun by the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson, and culminating hours ago in the complete exoneration of his murderer by a jury of his peers (not Mike's), flying in the face of rampant evidence collected on the ground and multiple occasions of attempted falsehoods on the part of the local police in an attempt to smear the victim, are not unique in any means, either in their scope or their horror.
To be black in this country is to be inhuman, to carry with you a baseline of suspicion and fear, to be, for all intents and purposes, hunted. White people, and specifically white police officers, have been killing black people for as long as white people have deemed black people people, and the horrors that existed from before that time (we forget, less than 200 years ago, and that's generous for many reasons) are enough to curdle blood. Every attempt to stare into the face of these horrors and identify them for what they are is met, from whites, with every form of self deception, rationalization, victim blaming and historical revisionism necessary to prevent the need for restitution and apology for centuries of systematic abuse and mistreatment.
This is almost nothing compared to what we do to women. To be a woman is to be assaulted on a physical, emotional or mental level on an almost daily basis, to have your safety threatened, your intelligence questioned, your sexuality mocked and demanded in turns, and to have your ideals, what you strive for, taken from you and held in the possession of another, one who demands you strive in two impossible directions and condemns you for your failure to satisfy. We indignify women, we minimize them, we rape them and kill them in record numbers, and in the final humiliation, we demand that they accept responsibility.
The most popular method of discarding the legitimacy of any of the previous two claims is to, after acknowledging their horror and inhumanity, to proclaim them solved problems. Suffrage, civil rights, aren't these things taken care of? We elected Obama and nominated Hillary, women have begun to ascend the high ranks of business, and even the military is becoming more gender accepting. Aren't we post-racial, or whatever that word is for post-sexism (probably not a good sign that there isn't really a word for that yet, by the way)?
Not as long as Mike Brown's killer walks free.
Not as long as a woman who's been raped walks alone into a hospital, muttering "My father's going to kill me", afraid that the act of violence done to her is a blight on her father's honor.
Not as long as Ray Rice can beat his wife on camera and get away with it, with some suggesting he got his punishment in the Court of Public Opinion.
Not as long as Stand Your Ground laws apply to one skin color over another, the unspoken truth being that a black man approaching a white man makes the white man afraid, and that that fear is sufficient to take the black man's life.
Not as long as women are held to different standards than men in business, which I see almost daily.
Not as long as a cop, addressing a crowd of black mourners demanding justice for a slain child, refers to them as "monkeys".
Not as long as the mourners in Ferguson were begged to "remain peaceful and non violent" and lectured by white men with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. while months earlier in San Fransisco, a predominantly white crowd, celebrating the victory of their sports team in the World Series, celebrated by overturning police cars and television vans.
No, these are far from solved problems. They're barely even registering as problems for many people, people who haven't even the foggiest idea that a world exists outside of themselves.
It always struck me as funny, our use of that word to describe the turmoil in situations like Ferguson. Civil unrest, they call it, when a people, looking for a way to express their anger, take to the streets, sometimes with no goal in mind, sometimes just to remind themselves that they're not the only ones feeling that way, that they're not crazy.
Unrest, as if our normal state was comfortable, peaceful sleep.
Who's really been asleep this whole time?
Who's really been awake, desperate for even a second of peace?