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America: On Wounded Knee

When I started to compose this essay, I couldn't get three images out of my mind. The first image is of former NFL quarterback, Colin Rand Kaepernick, who took to kneeling during the national anthem, in protest against police brutality and racial inequality in this country:

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Some folks expressed great moral indignation at Kaepernick's "disrespectful" behavior; Donald Trump himself called on NFL owners to fire anyone who "disrespects our flag." At the time, he said: "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired! ... That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for." The NFL was so petrified by the public outcry that it adopted a league policy, allowing teams to fine any players who exhibited such behavior "an unspecified sum"---demanding further that such players be relegated to the locker room rather than exhibit disrespect for the flag on the field, for all to see. When all was said and done, Kaepernick went unsigned after the 2016 season, and filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing owners of colluding to keep him out of the league. He later reached a confidential settlement with the league, and withdrew the grievance.

Alas, the technicalities of NFL ownership of teams didn't make this a clear-cut issue that might fall under free speech guidelines; players employed by the NFL either play by the rules or get another job. The fact that most of them play in stadiums that have been built with taxpayer dollars or through the use of eminent domain didn't mitigate the circumstances in favor of free expression.

Next to that image of an NFL player taking a knee during the national anthem, and all the hoopla that surrounded it, there is the harrowing image of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, handcuffed, face down, pinned to the ground by a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, whose knee was also bent---grinding into the back of Floyd's neck, even as he pleaded with Chauvin that he couldn't breathe, that he was going to die.

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Fortunately, the moral outcry over this nightmarish injustice seems to have eclipsed the umbrage expressed by so many when they saw an NFL player kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner"---in protest of police brutality.

But there is now a third image that haunts me. It is the image of another man, George Floyd's brother Terence, who traveled from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to the spot in Minneapolis, where his brother was killed. Terence tried to kneel, but the wounds in his soul ran so deep, that they crippled his ability to balance himself. He collapsed in tears.

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These three images tell different stories---but they are all united in some way. They tell the story of protest---both after and before, before and after, the ongoing murder of unarmed black men throughout our country by police officers. They tell the story of what happens when taking a knee in prayer morphs into using a knee as a weapon to snuff out the life of another human being. They tell the story of what happens in the aftermath of that death, when a kneeling man can barely steady himself in an effort to pay tribute to his fallen brother.

America is now under siege, not by rioters, but by what these three images project: protest, death, and remembrance. And if what we are seeing on the streets of America is a war of sorts, I can only quote Herman Wouk: "The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance."

***

Over these last three months, I have lived in a home town that has lost nearly 30,000 human beings to a pandemic. I've posted twenty-six installments on the Coronavirus. It is typical of funeral processions around these parts for the hearse carrying a person's remains to pass that person's home on the way to the cemetery. So, every morning, over the past few months, as I get on my stationary bike to work out in the front room of my home, I look out the bay window of my apartment, which faces the street below, and I've seen---day-in, day-out---one funeral procession after another. A part of you becomes numb to the vision. Until it doesn't.

The morning after Memorial Day, I heard of yet another nightmarish tragedy taking place in an American city. It was the day after George Floyd was killed on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer Derek Chauvin, whose knee was pinned to the right side of Floyd's neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, even as the victim pleaded that he could not breathe---and onlookers screamed for the officer to stop [warning: graphic YouTube link].

When I first heard this news report, I found myself just as numb. Numb not because it was yet another death in a time of unending mass death, devastation, and destruction. Numb because it was the death of one more African American man, in a long list of such atrocities, by a police officer. These senseless brutalities have become so common over the years. But the outrage expressed in their aftermath has become so predictable---and so ineffective---that as I watched the news, all my overtaxed brain could manufacture as a response was: "Another one."

I shook my head in despair, I felt my eyes well up with tears, but I was confident that, once again, people would express their anger for a few days, the politicians would get in their potshots at each other, as they did in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and life would return to "normal"---whatever the hell that term means nowadays.

But I was wrong. By Friday night, May 29th, the protests were spreading from coast-to-coast. And when I turned on the television at around 11 pm, and saw the streets of my home town, Brooklyn, aflame, in front of the Barclays Center, and down Flatbush Avenue, I could not contain the depths of my sorrow. I just began to cry. Night after night, I have watched peaceful protests punctuated by violence and looting, with the typical push-back from police.

I'm not going to sit here and pontificate about how violence is not the answer. For a person who has celebrated the riotous response of the Stonewall Rebellion fifty-one years ago, I certainly appreciate how a violent reaction against a corrupt police force attempting to destroy the lives, liberties, and property of a marginalized group can have a revolutionary effect. Those rebellious souls in 1969 directed their anger specifically at a corrupt police force that routinely raided the Stonewall Inn and arrested its peaceful patrons to clamp down on "lewd behavior" (that is, same-sex folks who were holding hands and kissing in the confines of a private establishment). Those raids were almost predictable---especially if the police didn't get their timely payola from the Mafia owners of the bar. This singular violent event has been marked ever since that fateful late June day not with further violence, but with annual parades, in which police---some of them out and about, walk arm-in-arm with their same-sex partners and friends.

The current violence that has punctuated otherwise peaceful mass protests across the country might be chalked up to spontaneous outbursts from those who feel the sting of poverty and institutional inequality, magnified further in the wake of lockdowns and high unemployment during a period in which a pandemic has taken the lives of over 100,000 Americans (many of them Latino and African American, in percentages disproportionate to their populations).

In many instances, the violence, however, has not been spontaneous at all, since it does appear that outside groups have infiltrated these protests specifically to cause mayhem---provocateurs from the left or the right, perhaps. The looting of a Target store in Minneapolis, known for its collaboration with the police, might seem justified to some. But mob action sustained over these many days must, by necessity, degenerate over time. It is not about striking a blow for equality or against oppression; it is not about looting luxury stores in midtown Manhattan or Macy's on 34th Street or the swanky shopping districts in SoHo [YouTube links] as a symbol against "excess" [Twitter link]. The mob does not distinguish; it ultimately aims its wrath even at small neighborhood businesses and stores like those along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx [YouTube link], which directly impact the very communities that have been victimized by police brutality. Their store owners have struggled to keep afloat throughout this pandemic, and now they have no businesses left to open.

Terence Floyd, George's brother, who traveled from Brooklyn to pray at the site in Minneapolis where George was murdered, collapsed in agonizing grief when he arrived there. You could hear him praying---"I need you and Pops to watch over me"---as he cried uncontrollably.

But then he turned to the crowd: "I understand ya'll upset. But ... I doubt y'all are half as upset as I am. So if I'm not over here wilding out, if I'm not over here blowing up stuff, if I'm not over here messing up my community---then what are y'all doing!? What are y'all doing? Y'all doing nothing! Because that's not gonna bring my brother back at all. ... You all protest, you all destroy stuff. And they [the powers that be] don't move. You know why they don't move? Because it's not their stuff. It's our stuff. They want us to destroy our stuff." He implored them to find "another way." "My family is a peaceful family," he exclaimed. He asked the protesters to use their anger as a tool for peaceful, nonviolent change. He urged them to exercise their power at the ballot box and implored them to an even higher cause: "Educate yourself," he said. "It's a lot of us. And we still gonna do this peacefully."

This has been a mantra among long-time civil rights advocates. Even Al Sharpton, an "imperfect vessel" if ever there was one, has also expressed an urgent moral indignation: "Don’t use George Floyd and Eric Garner as props," he declared. "Activists go for causes and justice, not for designer shoes. New York should set the tone, because the first time we heard, 'I can't breathe,' it was not in Minneapolis. It was on Staten Island, six years ago, and we did nothing."

I have always understood the horrific structural issues at work, the broader, tragic context of historic and systemic brutality that breeds violent responses such as we've seen over the past week. I have addressed these issues countless times over the past three decades, including essays, in recent years, on subjects as varied as the war on drugs and the problems of mass incarceration, the trouble with Trump and Antifa, and the reciprocal relationship between the growth of state power and racism as a cultural and political phenomenon. I refer readers to those highlighted links because this is just not the time to say: "I Told You So."

Nevertheless, understanding why violence often punctuates protests does not mean that I subscribe to the view that nonviolent resistance is somehow deficient or protective of the status quo.

For a person, like me, who has dedicated his life to exploring the context of human freedom, who has upheld the libertarian ideal of a free society, the status quo is a system that is the embodiment of violent brutalization. Violence is a way of life in this country. It is the means by which a genuinely political economy redistributes wealth to those who are powerful enough to wield the mechanisms of state. They have been wielding those mechanisms at home and abroad for eons, especially through the apparatuses of "national security," designed to sustain a policy of "perpetual war for perpetual peace." It sometimes astonishes me that so many folks who are understandably threatened by these newest displays of violence on the streets of America's cities and who call upon their government to "dominate" the rioters, have rarely given thought to how such "domination" has given the United States the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the entire world---higher than both China and Russia, and the even more horrific distinction of being, historically, among the most powerful forces for instability throughout the globe, given sustained policies of interventionism abroad.

On the importance of using strategies of nonviolent resistance---not to be confused with pacifism---I highly recommend the work of Gene Sharp, a man of integrity whom I met and with whom I had a 25-year correspondence. The author of such books as From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, Social Power and Political Freedom and a three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp did more to champion various strategies by which to overturn the status quo in ways that tend not to reproduce the patterns of brutality that its practitioners seek to end.

Over this past week, there have been remarkable displays of how nonviolent protest---in some profoundly symbolic gestures---can change the dynamics between protesters and those to whom their protests are typically directed. Yes, we have seen burning neighborhoods, but we have also heard stories and seen images marked by an extraordinary depth of humanity. From Bellevue, Washington, where the Police Chief declared "We are with you. We are not against you"---to Miami, Florida [YouTube links], where a highway trooper hugged a protester, who told him "I love you"... from Foley Square in Manhattan, where police officers kneeled to the applause of the protesters, a young African American man reaching out, telling them: "I really appreciate you doing that. Thank you very much. I hope you all stay safe and have a great night" to images of protesters in Louisville, Kentucky forming a human barrier to protect a police officer who had been separated from his unit, from violent attack. White women standing in a line, to separate and protect protesters from police and police from protesters. Police chiefs from New Jersey to Wisconsin walking side-by-side with protesters. Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, hugging an activist as protesters paused in Washington Square Park, the same park where I once protested myself---against the reinstatement of selective service registration for the draft by President Jimmy Carter---telling protesters that he was with them standing against police brutality.

And then there was an unforgettable video that went viral [YouTube link] of Flint Michigan, Genesee county sheriff Chris Swanson [YouTube link], who confronted a gathering of protesters and spoke to them from his heart. He assured the crowd that he meant them no harm. He took off his riot gear, put down his baton, and yelled out to the crowd: "We want to be with you all … I want to make this a parade, not a protest. ... These cops love you." The crowd chanted: "Walk with us!" And he did. "We will protect you. We are with you," he said. Later, he observed: "I knew that the benefit far outweighed the risk. And when you show action of, listen: I'm going to make myself vulnerable in order to come into your circle and show you that I want to be that solution. That was the change maker right there. It was beautiful. Not a single arrest. Not a single injury. Not a single fire."

As much as these stories and images uplift and inspire, Kumbaya is not going to cut it. (Indeed, in some instances, the same police who knelt with the protesters were later involved in tear-gassing the folks with whom they expressed solidarity.) Nor is the opposite tendency among those who simply call for the outright abolition of the police going to cut it. Why stop there? Abolish the state!

To my principled anarchist friends (not the "bomb-throwing" kind),** who see the state and its police functions as the distillation of evil in the modern world, I am compelled to ask: If you were capable of "pushing the button," what do you propose to replace it with? This is the danger of thinking undialectically, of dropping the context of the conditions that exist in the real world. We are dealing with structural racism that permeates not only our political institutions but our very culture. Certain measures can be taken (from ending qualified immunity to challenging the militarization of the police force) but a genuine cultural transformation is a necessary precondition for any genuinely radical social and political change.

***

Despite all these mixed messages in an age of mixed premises, I must end this essay where it began---with images. Images of many police officers who have now taken to one knee, one wounded knee, the position of the Colin Kaepernicks of this world---in opposition to the brutality in their own ranks and the racial inequality it perpetuates. [Ed.: This practice has continued in earnest even weeks after the riots have subsided... to the credit of people on both sides of a crumbling blue wall.]

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Notes
** In a recent study group discussion for the anthology, The Dialectics of Liberty, I had the occasion to quote from a Spring 1980 article I wrote, while an undergraduate at New York University for The New Spectator: The NYU Journal of Politics:

Anarchism has had a long and negative conceptual history. Traditionally, the image of the anarchist has always been one of a bearded, bomb-hurling immigrant attempting to violently overthrow the social order in a revolutionary and bloody battle against authority. It is quite ironic that skeptics will see anarchism as a ridiculous, idealistic, floating abstraction without realizing that the present-day situation is in essence, one of international anarchy among monopoly governments, which have considerably refined the practice of bomb-throwing beyond what any anarchist would have dreamed. In this context, the real issue seems to be what kind of "anarchy" we want---governmental or voluntary.