The Ones They Pick, Colltalers
Young, poor, and black. It’s tempting to highlight these three stereotypes to qualify the brutal street combat going on in cities across the U.S. these days, pitting a growing contingent of the able and willing but disenfranchised and excluded, against a military style, armory-clad police force.
It’s also easy to characterize such violent confrontations, between unarmed civilians, picked individually or in group, against overly equipped law enforcement soldiers, as an escalation of anarchy, growing lack of discipline or downright disrespect for the law of the land.
Such gross simplifications, though, despite being trumpeted 24/7 by the mainstream media – a term that by now has all the derision of a slur -, can have not just a dehumanizing but also a deeply damaging impact on any attempt to access the roots of what’s going on in America, circa 2014.
Taken one by one, each of such characterizations holds some truth to explain the killings of innocent Americans within the homeland – and not in far away places, since those are not even part of the current debate. The same homeland which is often invoked with sacrossant zeal by those trusted to protect the law, when they happen to break it themselves. In the end, though, every stereotype fails to unravel the hidden picture behind the shootings.
By isolating factors such as age, social class, and race, be them as encroached and incendiary as they may, we risk derailing efforts to find context-based solutions, historical, social, and demographic elements that don’t easily fit in the soundbites fed us by the news cycle, and ultimately miss the point of what it is to be, nowadays, a citizen in the land of the free and home of the brave. Because that’s what should be at stake here.
What kind of society we’re building, what type of generation we’re forming, and even more important, what part of what this nation was build upon we’re willing to give up, in order to reaffirm dangerous ideals of supremacy and exceptionality, of power to the already powerful, and survival of the fittest to everyone else. For as long as we refuse to formulate these themes into the national conversation, we’re doomed to keep repeating ourselves.
Take age, for instance. It doesn’t pass even a relatively lax scrutiny, for along so many young lives befallen under law enforcement bullets in inner cities across the country, unfortunately another huge, and not so young, segment of the mentally impaired, the disabled, and the dispossessed, to mention but a few, have also fell victim of indiscriminate and institutionalized violence. So, that sort of yardstick simply doesn’t cut it.
Neither does the one about rising poverty, which indeed breeds fertile grounds for blood spilling and impunity, but could never per se shed light on explosive class confrontations, mainly because they, alas, haven’t yet taken hold in the U.S. It does a bit to explain the increasing sophistication of police weaponry, however, and we’ll get back to that flaming issue in a moment. For the purpose of isolating causes, though, it’s inadequate.
And finally, race, which is by far, the most assertive of such causes, as there’s no doubt left about it being the main trigger behind the killings of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, of New York’s Eric Garner, and way back when, Sanford’s Trayvon Martin (it feels like it happened ages ago, doesn’t it?), again to name but three. And of countless tragic incidents of profiling, which absolutely wouldn’t have happened if we were living in saner times.
Scenes of confrontation between people and police this week in Ferguson, do indeed report us all back to the 1960s, and the street battles for civil rights that led to important progresses for racial equality in this country. Although cynics point to the fact that the Missouri city having a majority of black people, and a white police force, is a sign that those battles are all but conveniently forgotten by now, we don’t subscribe to that.
Then again, neither can we subscribe to blaming racism, as raw and unresolved and surprisingly still ingrained as it is, as the sole cause for what’s happening. Or that it can put us on the road to understanding why this nation is hurting so much and when did we exactly stopped caring enough to realize that this can’t be the place we’d call the united states of our home. More like Soweto in the same 60s, or Baghdad just about now.
Racism continues to be a nefarious motivation behind the relentless, and unjust, victimizing of innocent Americans, who just like they’d in post-slavery times, Apartheid Africa, and the U.S. in the 1950s, continue to be singled out and hunted like ravenous beasts. It has the nasty effect of uncover our worse qualities and no American should rest until it’s completely eradicated in this country. But solving it would be only the beginning of a real solution.
For its part, the media boost ratings by highlighting half-truths, misplaced and disguised as causes for the turmoil. Case in point: the military gear and high-destructive power that police departments have been endowed with in the last years. The half-truth goes on the account that it’s indeed an absurd that a force designed to protect rights of all individuals seems better prepare to military campaigns on a battlefield.
The half that’s missing about such a focus of coverage, never mind the copious descriptions of weaponry and almost salacious language to please any militiamen, is that this surplus of equipment has been funded by an overinflated Pentagon budget, mass produced by defense contractors, and, when they proved inadequate to wage modern wars overseas, promptly dumped on local politicians’ coffers. Cops certainly enjoyed the newly gained attention.
They’re not the ones that should be getting the attention, and the good graces of local and federal politicians, though, and that may lead us to trace the tread of causes, not quite glamorous enough to enhanced the headlines on the current and past urban crisis.
Talk about age? What kind of education this generation has been getting anyway? In the past decade, cuts in resources, teachers’ salaries, and quality of education have been so deep that even institutions not prepared to offer a free, science-based instruction, gladly stepped in the gap, offering their mix of superstition and faith in lieu of teaching principles of humanism and moral, democracy and evolution pupils so crave and lack.
About class, what about the costs of higher education? The price of a degree became so incredibly high in the span of a single generation, that today it’d be virtually impossible for Barack Obama to become president, even if one subtracts the glaring fact that he’s, above all, a black man.
Speaking of race, what a young, poor, black boy to do today to get himself out of his birth setup? No much, as it turns out, with successful Affirmative Action programs being discontinued by colleges across the country – many of them with higher real estate investments and executive pay costs, than educational programs and social assistance – and dropout rates growing steady from middle to high school, and translating in diminishing numbers in universities.
Plus, with local politicians being content in supporting the manufacturing of obsolete tanks within their districts, since the payout is considerable, money for technical learning skills programs and community colleges has become so scarce to the point that even a prestigious but free, working class institution such as Cooper Union, in New York, is fighting students and activists to start charging tuition.
So, the killing of 18-year old Brown, as of those before him and, tragically, those who will certainly follow his fate, is obviously not an easy, three-pronged situation that’s suddenly escalated out of control, leading to yet another sad chapter of our increasingly militarized streets and backyards.
And we didn’t even mention the abundance of guns, another ready-made argument often invoked as a cause, and then filed again, to explain these confrontations involving bullets and deaths. We’re not saying that it should, but it’s likely that all the commotion and sadness left in the wake of yet another unjustified police killing, will also be filed away in a few days, before we dwell any deeper than the last time around on its underlying causes.
But if it’s said that history progresses at a glacial pace, it also advances in unexpected leaps, always vulnerable to reversals and setbacks, yes, but always moving forward nevertheless. Social pain has a cumulative effect; there’s a moment when the storm gathers enough static energy to unleash its transformative power. Those already drenched have a definitely edge, but anyone can have a part on the changing conditions and healing process.
If the last metaphor was too obscure, let’s just say that any discussion about contemporary America today has to cut deeper than formulaic approaches to age, class, and race. It’s ultimately unfair to the not-yet spoiled hope of millions of young, poor, and black, who believe they can be the future. Bless their shining vision of a better country tomorrow. It starts today, and for your week ahead, all we wish is for it to be peaceful and better. WC