“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,”
1967: American Muhammad Ali was convicted on federal draft-evasion charges, then stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam.
1968: Gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos gave a Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics to protest racial discrimination in America and were expelled from the Games.
2014: Last Sunday, before playing the Oakland Raiders, five St. Louis Rams, in sympathy with Ferguson’s residents, raised their hands: “Hands up, Don’t shoot!”
Hands up. Don’t shoot! I can’t breathe.
In Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown was filmed allegedly stealing cigars and shoving a clerk: minutes later he was dead, shot multiple times by Officer Darren Wilson, his body to lie, road kill, neglected for hours on Ferguson’s bloody street.
A grand jury refused to indict Wilson.
Eric Garner died when NYPD Officer Daniel Panataleo put him in an illegal chokehold while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. On video he’s heard repeating, “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
A grand jury refused to indict Panataleo.
Neither Brown nor Garner was an Olympic medalist. They had no cause, no mission — they carried only their burden of birth, born into America’s community of color and marginalized by the privileged heroes like Ali, Smith, Carlos and others had struggled against fewer than 50 years previous.
What happened to them, and why, aren’t merely abstract epistemological questions. They’re questions central to trying to understand the nexus between justice and law, between mercy and wrath, life and death.
Americans of color, especially those crying out from within underserved and disenfranchised communities distant from the American Dream, are often treated as though Third World residents, viewed by Americans privileged by whiteness as existential threats to their prosperity and comfort.
“A prevailing Western consensus that has come to regard the Third World as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place,” Edward Said argued. To defend that consensus two justice systems have evolved; one for privileged elites, another for the disenfranchised who often perceive police as the elite’s enforcer. In my experience the voice of the Other didn’t matter until the privileged affirmed it — only the dominant white narrative mattered.
That narrative prevailed for over 300 years until, in this century, social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and YouTube exploded and privilege was challenged by truth-tellers. In Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy, the king complains, “The kodak(sic) has been a sore calamity to us … The only witness… I couldn’t bribe.”
Today Leopold’s “sore calamity” bears witness, telling police, the privileged and the protected that truth is no longer subordinate to power.
Truth is not about Ferguson and Staten Island. It’s not about Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, Henry Lewis Gates and Eric Holder — or about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Abner Louima, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice.
Truth isn’t about looting and property damage.
Truth is acknowledging that “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, Don’t shoot” are primal cries of despair from a dark place deep within our communal soul. For the elites what Wilson and Panataleo did is irrelevant; what matters to white America is how to protect their own interests while still the majority.
What matters today is whether we’re prepared to heed the voices of those crying out in the wilderness: “I can’t breathe.”
Ta-Nehsi Coates writes: “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem … Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, ‘You wear the mask.’ ”
Today, who wears the mask? Who lives in the wilderness?
“The history of America, unfortunately,” to paraphrase Kwame Nkrumah, “Has been too often too easily written as the history of its dominant class,” and today police, prosecutors and grand juries write that history.
Americans expect free disclosure and public trials, not cynically designed grand jury proceedings with predetermined outcomes. Contrary to how we expect justice to be pursued, Prosecutor McCulloch allowed Officer Wilson to give hours of unchallenged testimony, assistant district attorneys to misrepresent applicable law and the government to manipulate witness testimony to support a desired result.
For me the most revealing moment was when McCulloch, after days of warning that the sky might fall, released the verdict after dark.
Then, when Ferguson’s communal outrage spiraled into violence the elites whom McCulloch represented paternalistically mourned, “See, that’s who these people of color really are.” Sadly, we’ll never know how much trauma might’ve been avoided had the verdict been released the next morning.
Stay vigilant: We must bear “… witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice,” Qur’an 5:8.
Take heed: We’ll be judged not just on how we help the poor, weak and oppressed find freedom but on how we challenge and change the social order — this is our call.
Our call is to humbly recognize that although America has never accepted the testimony of the disenfranchised their whole life has been as witness.
During Advent, where the global Christian community awaits the birth of Jesus, I ask: If you believe that one who is more powerful than we is watching after us, if you believe that we must be attentive to the voices from the wilderness then show you’re worthy to bear witness — join in love — join the call to social justice inspired by a Jew from Nazareth who upended tables in the temple, was embraced as the Son of God by Christians and as a prophet by Muslims.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.