Friday, November 28, 2014

Doing the Right Thing in Ferguson

"Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44" by Loavesofbread
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
Got to give us what we want 
Gotta give us what we need 
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death 
We got to fight the powers that be
—"Fight the Power," Public Enemy

Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing ends with a race riot. Neighborhood tensions between black and Latino residents, the cops, and white and Asian shopkeepers, already seething below the surface, are exacerbated by the heat of a sweltering August day. These tensions are pushed to the breaking point when a fight erupts in Sal's Pizzeria; the police are called in and end up killing beloved local character Radio Raheem in order to break up the fight. In an act of spontaneous rage (or maybe just a desire to get started with what everyone knows is coming?) the main character, Mookie, takes a garbage can and hurls it through the front window of Sal's Pizzeria, which the angry crowd enters, smashes up, and sets on fire.

Earlier in the movie, Mookie is admonished by another character to always do the right thing. The question for the viewer is, when the cops kill your annoying friend and everyone's mad as hell because it's hot and people aren't safe in their own neighborhood, what on earth is the right thing to do? Whether you think smashing up Sal's Pizzeria is right or not, you can (and should) end up understanding the motivation behind it—even as it frustrates and angers you.

~   ~   ~

Unless you were living under a rock, you know that this week a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Mike Brown over the summer. You also know that a lot of people were angry about it.

What you know beyond that probably depends a great deal on whether you live in the conservative or the liberal media bubble, but either way, someone in your circle has gone out of their way to condemn the subset of those angry people who reacted by smashing things.

I think this is a distraction. It focuses attention on something of small consequence—the destruction of property, usually insured, rarely animate—and away from something of enormous consequence: the destruction of black life, without remorse and without consequence.1 If the story you’re getting about Ferguson is centered on black people stealing, you’re getting a racist story. It’s the story a racist would tell, and it's the story that racists would like you to believe in and tell others. And if you’re creating that story—well, you do the math.

My reaction to the week's big Ferguson news was to post a month-old column from Rolling Stone called “Smashy Smashy: Nine Historical Triumphs to Make You Rethink Property Destruction,” which points out that:
[I]t's a familiar refrain for anyone who's been involved in Occupy Wall Street, the anti-Iraq War movement, or any of dozens of other protest cycles: The "good" protesters march, carry signs and make their voices heard, but anyone who smashes, burns or vandalizes contaminates the otherwise defensible show of democracy. This attitude is complicated by the facts, to say the least. In fact, the historical pedigree of property destruction as a tactic of resistance is long and frequently effective. To cite just one example, in recent years the largest police reform packages were only adopted after large-scale rioting.
I hoped that posting this would get people to see that, what do you know, the looting isn’t the main story here, and that in the course of time the rioting might actually be part of the reason things change. Like the viewer watching the end of Do the Right Thing, I wasn't necessarily happy about rioting, but I understood the emotional place that it came from, and I wanted others to do the same.

I had hoped that maybe I’d get to discuss the article civilly with someone, or that people would like it and move one. But no:

(Let me just note as an aside that derailing someone's conversation into an abortion debate strikes me as at best a bad idea and at worst a real jerk move. Since as far as I'm concerned, it is a derail, and doesn't actually belong in this conversation, I'm not going to address my second commenter’s second question in the body of this post.2)

Suffice it to say, I slightly underestimated the quotient of anger I might stir up among my Facebook friends.3 It’s too bad, too, because I could have actually had an interesting and more extended conversation with the first commenter. It’s hard to have a multi-threaded Facebook conversation at the best of times, though, and angry friends compound that difficulty a hundredfold, so I kept it brief.4

There are actually several good cases to be made for rioting as tool for change, better than Rolling Stones' rather tongue-in-cheek and slightly off-base treatment.5 I’m not going to try very hard to make such a case myself, though, because I can’t come up with a solid, specifically Christian reason to justify said destruction, and I don’t believe in attempting to hold my faith and my politics apart as if they were magically separate realms of my life and thought.6 (Take a look at those links and judge the case for yourself. The worst that can be said of them is probably that they do seem to boil down to “the ends justify the means,” as my second commenter worried/jibed. But note that, again, usually what gets destroyed is just stuff, not people.)

I said I wasn’t going to try very hard to make a Christian case for rioting, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to take a stab at it. So here’s a thought experiment:
  • As a Christian, I believe I have a duty to try to keep people from murdering each other, rooted in the parts of scripture where God tells us not to murder each other. 
  • I see someone who I know is going to eventually murder someone (because they do it all the time and haven’t expressed any real desire to stop). 
  • I know that I might be able to keep them from murdering someone if I smash up a shoe store. 
  • Would I, as a Christian, be justified in smashing up that shoe store? 
  • My gut says yes.
If that doesn’t satisfy you on a deep emotional and intellectual level then, hey, get in line. The nice thing is, it’s not the point.

The point is, black lives matter, and in America they’re often treated as if they don’t. And as a Christian, and an American, and a human being, I have a big problem with that, and you should too, whether or not you’re any of those things.7

If Ferguson is about anything, it’s about the value of black life. Forget about the looting. If you must, think about it briefly on your way to being angry about the real problems. And remember: always do the right thing.

1. I write “without consequence,” but Darren Wilson supporters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, and he was reportedly paid handsomely for his ABC interview. So really, just without negative consequence. But I digress.
2. I will address it in a footnote though, because who doesn’t love footnotes about abortion. Bombing an abortion clinic would be unlikely to actually halt abortions, because historically women have sought unsafe and illegal abortions when they don't have access to safe and legal ones. These are dangerous for both woman and fetus. It's bad tactics, in other words, and there's no particularly moral way to justify it. If your concern for fetuses/the unborn (there's no neutral term in this debate, I find) is genuine, then you can help them by supporting broader access to birth control, which is a very reliable, fetus- and woman-friendly way to reduce the number of abortions in a society.
3. Only slightly though! Shout out to all my non-angry friends posting in the feed. Bonus points for the Do the Right Thing reference, which gave me the framing device for this post.
4. And then wrote this post. So, uh, hooray for temporary brevity! Is there a Christian case for destroying the oppressor’s actual property rather than whatever happens to be nearby? Most definitely, and it’s rooted in the example cited by the first commenter. Basically, if Jesus can smash stuff in the Temple to make the point that the Temple system is corrupt and that he’s going to replace it with himself, then I can pour concrete on anti-homeless spikes to make the point that, hey, don’t be a jerk to homeless people. The principle is the same. There may be other ways to get people's attention and make a point, but few are as effective as blowing up their stuff, and stuff doesn't really matter much anyway.
5. Off base because none of their examples is about rioting as a means for creating change; everything they cite is about either directly or symbolically blowing up the oppressors' stuff, rather than going nuts on whatever's available.
6. Look, I like pasteurization and encyclopedias as much as the next guy, but I could lose the element of our Enlightenment intellectual heritage where religion is supposed to be personal and private. Religion is by nature public, communal, and therefore political in nature, so deal.
7. Future alien archeologists: this goes double for you.

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