Rage in the margins

Courtesy: VICE News
Syreeta McFadden is a Brooklyn-based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. A regular writer for the New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and managing editor of an online literary magazine. But right now she is best described as a black American in a boiling rage. Needless to say, she’s not the only one.

In August this year, a police officer, Darren Wilson, pumped 12 bullets into an unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, in Ferguson, a suburb in St Louis county in Missouri. Now, a hundred days later, a grand jury has decided not to prosecute Wilson. The verdict has triggered outrage, angry protests across America. McFadden’s incensed piece published in the Guardian, “Ferguson goddamn…” encapsulates that mood, sends out a clarion call: “Fists up, the cops still shoot”.

Why is McFadden, why are African-Americans, so infuriated and outraged? Because they believe verdicts are unlikely to be fair in cases of black men and women similarly killed by the police.

They know this from bitter past experience. On July 17 this year, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black father of six, died after a New York police officer put him in an illegal chokehold. A grand jury is yet to indict any of the cops responsible for his death. A week ago, 28-year-old Akai Gurley was shot dead in Brooklyn as he descended the darkened stairwell of a housing block. Like Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Akai Gurley too were unarmed. A 12-year-old-boy, Tamir Rice, holding a toy gun was shot dead by the police outside a recreation centre in Cleveland on November 24. The death has left writer Latoya Peterson wondering: “Do I have to tell my son to accept being treated as less than human to preserve his life?”

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” wrote the celebrated writer James Baldwin over half-a-century ago. It’s not much different today, says McFadden: “Fifty-three years later, the sustained rage restarts every 28 hours, because every 28 hours an African-American is killed by law enforcement, or a security guard, or a ‘vigilante’ claiming self-defence or all three at once”.

Why is McFadden, why are African-Americans, so infuriated and outraged? Because they believe verdicts are unlikely to be fair in cases of black men and women similarly killed by the police.

“It could have been me, 35 years ago”, President Barack Obama told his countrymen when, in July 2013, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of the charge of killing a black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, a year earlier. He urged Americans to understand the pain blacks felt over the acquittal. Recalling his own experience of racism and racial profiling, he said, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me”.

But the first black person to occupy the White House has been more circumspect this time. In a nine-minute long press briefing within minutes of the grand jury’s verdict in the Ferguson case, Mr Obama did ask Americans to remember that “there are still problems and communities of colour aren’t just making these problems up”. But there was not a hint in his words or body language of his earlier “it could have been me…” lament.

“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make”, were President Obama’s opening remarks at the press briefing. But African-Americans have not taken kindly to the “rule of law” homily.

In the words of Ajamu Baraka, the founding executive director of the US Human Rights Network, the “inane remarks” of the “errand boy for the financial and corporate plutocrats who own the US government” has only rubbed salt on wounds. “For far longer than it has been a ‘nation of laws’, the
United States has been a nation of injustice. And in the absence of basic justice such laws can amount to little more than codified tyranny”, wrote columnist Gary Younge.

Steven W. Thrasher, another columnist, was more blunt: “It was nothing short of a gut punch to see our African-American President on the wrong side of the gap between the fantasy of what the law does and the reality that people live. He gave credence to the fiction that if citizens just faithfully adhere to being “a nation built on the rule of law”, the result will be justice”.

But American blacks know better: “At least the protesters understand the gap between justice and the law, between reality and our political insanity. They know not to simply listen to words from a black President in Washington or a white prosecutor down the street. They know to take to the streets, because it’s not enough to shout in the margins anymore”.

“The African-American body is still the bellwether of the health, the promise and the problems of the American democratic experiment”, said McFadden. “The message that the Missouri grand jury has now sent to young African Americans and the rest of the world’s that black lives do not matter, that your rights and your personhood are secondary to an uneasy and negative peace, that the police have more power over your body than you do yourself”.

So what’s to be done? Protest, says McFadden, “because it is our only recourse. We do not explode in violence… We channel a sustained, clear-eyed rage… so that some day, some years from now, justice is not a surprise, nor a dream, nor deferred. So that justice just is”.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” That’s how Senator Obama began his victory speech from Chicago on being elected President in 2008. He was lustily cheered by a multitude of Americans, black and white, men and women, who with tears in their eyes and joy in their hearts were witness to what they believed was a magic moment in their country’s history. “Yes, we can” was the promise then. What can he do now?

(This article was first published in The Asian Age on Novermber 28, 2014)





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