Bob Schwartz

Tag: Ferguson

The Promise of and Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests

Albert Einstein Institute

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests appear to be over—for now. The protest leaders have surrendered, and the official plan to have Beijing approve candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office remains in place. The result is disappointing but not surprising. Facing off against the world’s biggest and most powerful non-democracy is by definition quixotic.

Yet for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who admire the thousands who engaged in this nonviolent movement, there are lessons to be learned and practiced. As pointed out here before, thinkers such as Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution have spent lifetimes mapping the path to nonviolent change. Here are a few of the lessons:

Be organized and disciplined. If you watched the news coverage of the Hong Kong events, you got to see an orderly and colorful tent city that served as a base, along with protestors carrying the symbolic (and also colorful) umbrellas, which served double-duty as a shield against police force.

Be specific. Movement goals can range in size and scope, from the ouster of a president to, as in Hong Kong, the right to select candidates for an election, as promised in an agreement. In the U.S., both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement had such specific goals. In civil rights, it was piece by piece in a bigger picture: desegregation of public transport, desegregation of restaurants, voting rights, etc. Vietnam was specific and absolute: get out. The recent Occupy movements in the U.S., on the other hand, seemed to be all over the map, even when their complaints were justified. We are now seeing a bit of that in the Ferguson movement. The general discontent over the treatment of black citizens by police and justice is justified, but the power of the protests is diluted by uncertainty about what is being requested. (Possible answer: The St. Louis county prosecutor, having made an unprecedented mess of the criminal charging and grand jury process, can convene another grand jury and do it properly the next time. That’s probably as unlikely as Beijing giving in, but it would be something specific to ask for.)

Be informed. One of the other things you might notice about the Hong Kong protest is that protestors could speak knowledgeably about why they were protesting and what they wanted. Not to keep picking on our Occupy movement, but if you asked a hundred protestors about what it is they wanted, you might well have gotten a hundred different answers.

Be patient. Perseverance furthers. The U.S. civil rights movement took decades to achieve its goals, though some would argue that in fact the spirit of those goals is still far from being reached. Globally, movements for change are like the tides, in and out, high and low. Just this week, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was cleared of criminal charges in the deaths of protestors at Tahrir Square four years ago. Today, in terms of democracy, Egypt looks different than but the same as it did then. Perseverance can further, but it is no guarantee. Even without certainty, though, organized, disciplined, specific, informed, patient nonviolence remains the best that can be done.

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The NFL and Ferguson

Roger Goodell NFL

NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée/now-wife unconscious inside an elevator in Atlantic City. Police officer Darren Wilson shot dead an unarmed teenager in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri.

(To Rice’s credit, he had the courtesy to drag her body out of the elevator, while the Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body on that street for hours.)

These two incidents are so much the same and so different. They tell us things we don’t want to hear, know, or think about. They also tell us one surprisingly good thing. The establishment interests can be just as committed to privileging a black American as killing him ruthlessly, under the right circumstances. Especially if there’s big money at stake. So we learn that ignominy is race neutral at last.

Until yesterday there was no publicly available video of the beating, though it was apparently available and seen by various authorities. The only public video until then was from the outside of the elevator, merely showing Rice dragging the body, not beating it. As one journalist now explains his defense of Rice’s mere two-game NFL suspension and not being charged with a felony:

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head [emphasis added]. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

Fell and hit her head. That reminds us of nothing so much as the stories reported by battered children (and wives and girlfriends) who “run into doors.” Except this is a journalist using his best investigative and inferential skills to draw an “obvious” circumstantial conclusion. He could be forgiven for drawing the same ridiculous conclusion as law enforcement, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens. Except that some or all of them had the inside the elevator video or at least more detail, and still came to the same conclusion, at least publicly.

There is no video of exactly what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, though there are witnesses to pieces of it, an audio recording, and more than one autopsy. There the instinct on the part of vested interests and the establishment was to wait and see, but really to stonewall, cover up, and put the best light on the situation. That turned out to be a disastrous approach, but at least it got people talking about former unmentionables. Small consolation.

How is this any different than what is going on with Ray Rice? The vested interests tried to put the best light on his situation, and despite outrage, almost got away with it. How are the people who up until yesterday circled the wagons around Ray Rice, giving him the benefit of the doubt and a slap on the wrist, any different than those who have been circling the wagons around Darren Wilson, giving him the benefit of the doubt?

One difference is that Ferguson is a small predominantly black town with a small almost entirely white police force that appears to have some race issues, while the NFL is a huge enterprise predominantly owned and run by white people with a pro game substantially played by black men that appears to have some race issues. It’s those issues, along with other social, legal and moral ones, that have us all talking. About policing. About the NFL. About race.

The victims were both black, one a kid possibly involved in petty crime (there’s a video of that), the other a woman engaged to a professional warrior who could have easily killed her, rather than just beating her senseless after she “provoked” him (there’s now video of that).

Maybe from the first, Ray Rice should have taken the approach that will certainly be at the center of Darren Wilson’s defense, assuming he is charged: I was in fear for my life. Up until yesterday, lots of people would apparently have been willing to accept a story like that, if it served their interests. Thankfully, they now all have to stop pretending, and we can start asking what it all means.

Newark and Detroit: The Long Hot Summer of 1967

Newark 1967

The last post about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) skipped a beat about what happened next. What happened in America was the race riots between 1964 and 1966 (including Watts in Los Angeles), culminating with the so-called Long Hot Summer of 1967. During that summer, among the many cities affected, the two disturbances that stand out are Newark and Detroit.

Baldwin did not overstate any prophetic intention in his book. Instead, he simply opened with this epigraph, from which he took the book’s title:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!

Newark, July 12-17, began with the arrest of a black cabdriver for passing a police car. The riots left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

Detroit, July 23-27, began with a police raid of a black drinking club. The riots left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

There are at least three reasons we don’t hear much or talk much about that summer in the context of Ferguson.

We are abysmally ahistorical. If it isn’t in the latest Twitter feed, it may already be old news. Things that happened forty or fifty years ago might as well be from the Middle Ages.

We want to highlight and not overshadow the clear progress that has been made. Progress to be sure, as reflected in the photo of a black President talking to a black Attorney General about the events in Ferguson.

We are afraid. Afraid that the progress we have made may be as illusory as it is real. Afraid that we solved the easier problems, leaving us with stubborn, intractable ones that are beyond comfortable solutions. Afraid that we may not be as good as we think we are. Mostly afraid that history is TMI, telling us way more than we want to know, showing us images not from the distant past but from tomorrow.

Ferguson and The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin - The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time may be the best and most eloquent statement of relations between whites and blacks in America ever written. From the publisher:

The appearance of The Fire Next Time in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans’ refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Critic Irving Howe said that The Fire Next Time achieved “heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing.”

Baldwin was one of the great writers of his or any other American generation. He shouldered the burden of being a triple threat to America of the 1960s—a black man, a brilliant and outspoken intellectual, and gay. This he did with unequaled prose grace, and this work and others are required reading for anyone who wants or claims to be a writer.

The first of the two essays is My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. Brief and unforgettable, it is a summary of how things are and why his teenage namesake cannot give up and in. It does no justice to this book to excerpt it; it stands as a whole that must be read—not the least of all because with the real progress we have made, we are foolish and destructive to over-measure how far we have come. But here is how the essay closes:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your uncle,
James