Monday, September 10, 2012

The Invisible Man

By the time I saw the above photo, which was posted on the Facebook page of an Occupy group, the photo had been "shared" (re-posted, passed along) 736 times, and scores of comments had been posted about it.

Given what is known about the "digital divide" in America, and about the Occupy movement, it's a fair guess that those who shared, "liked" and commented on the photo were mainly White and "Middle Class." (Digital divide is a term used to describe the gap in internet access in this country between Whites and minorities. We know that whites are still the largest single racial grouping in the United States, and that the Occupy Movement, although it has tried to reach out to minorities, with some success, was begun by disaffected young Whites of middle income background.)

Violence against Occupy-retrieved at
Young White America is getting hip to police brutality. They experienced or witnessed the way some Occupy groups were treated by police from the beginning, with for example, the well publicized instances of police pepper spraying demonstrators in the face, some of whom were already being restrained by police. They experienced or witnessed the Obama Administration-coordinated crackdowns on Occupy encampments all over the country within a span of a week or two, after which many videos were posted showing armies of police rushing crowds of peaceful encampers with their clubs swinging.

I have to comment on the irony here -- two ironies, actually, a small one and a large one -- in young White America's becoming aware, now, of police brutality, and of their expressing it with a sign held up by a Black man.

The smaller irony is that there was a generation of 1960s and 70s young White Americans, the parents or grandparents of today's activists, who knew about police brutality but then forgot to tell their children about it.

Then, many young White Americans got a personal taste of police brutality, most famously perhaps outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention during what a commission later called a "police riot." (On the anniversary of that event, i.e., the 2012 Democratic National Convention, BBC Radio's World Service remembered the 1968 Chicago police riot with a segment that included news clips from the scene and an interview with Tom Hayden, one of the anti Vietnam War protest leaders.)

1968 Chicago Police Riot-Dennis Brac/Black Star
The members of the Counterculture and the anti Vietnam War activists who experienced or witnessed police brutality may have been a minority of their generation, but there were few of the generation at large who weren't aware of the term "police brutality" and of the fact that the police are one of the coercive arms of government. Some were OK with that, but everyone realized it.

The Vietnam War ended, the Reagan Era came, and the 60s and 70s were demonized and ridiculed because of the ongoing resentment by the conservatives who came to power during the Reagan Era over the societal changes that came about during those years. The 60s and 70s eventually were forgotten, in a sense, as, in the intervening years, most of that generation, activists included, came to live what you could term very typical American lives, supporting, either directly or with their inaction, the Reagan Era cultural counterrevolution. There's not a lot of evidence to indicate that the idealists of that time who dropped out and joined the silent majority retain their idealism or told the current generation about it.

An Irony Wrapped Inside An Irony

Twice this year, once in the aftermath of the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Florida and once on a radio program where they were talking about Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Black woman killed in her home by Atlanta, GA police, I've heard Black men talk about how their mothers taught them how to act around the police, so that they would not be "inadvertently killed" by the police.

Karhryn Jonston-Atl Journal-Constitution
The term "police brutality" is probably more fully understood by Black Americans. The term was first given widespread currency when TV images showed Civil Rights protesters of the early 1960s being beaten by police. It was understood by members of the Black Panther Party, who saw their community building and self help efforts, and self defense efforts, stymied when the Party leadership was murdered by FBI agents and Chicago police.

America is a country where privilege and advantages are meted out first to the class of the wealthy, then to the remaining white Americans and finally, if there are any left over, to its minorities. It's debatable whether race or class (or gender, for that matter) has been the predominant force in American society, but it's a valid question to ask whether White "Middle Class" Americans, who adopt a sign warning about police being in the area, are aware of the advantages their status gives them. Class, not Race, is the major issue for the Occupy movement, and it's debatable to what extent young White America is aware of the historic role police have played in the enforcement of the racial dimension of the American social order.

Blacks, until recently the largest minority grouping, no doubt always were and no doubt still are aware of that role, being that they have born the brunt of it, but in the decades after the 60s and 70s, White Americans returned to having a favorable view of the police. TV shows about the police that show police in a favorable light have been some of the most watched shows during this era. Police have had no trouble getting government funding, which is a function of their standing in society and the perceived need for their services.

Although it's never been headline news, it's no secret that police spend a disproportionate share of their time harassing minority neighborhoods and that jails and prisons are filled with a hugely disproportionate number of minorities.

Amadou Diallo-AP
 Minorities are minorities because they are a minority share of the population, but minorities make up a majority of the prison population. Think about that. It's not just that "society" is discriminatory, that the way laws are enforced is discriminatory and that judges and juries are simply more likely to convict a member of a racial minority. It's more than the attitudes people hold in the secret chambers of their hearts or that emanate up from their unconscious fear of the other. The laws passed by society are discriminatory. For example, the penalties for possession of "crack cocaine," seen as the drug of choice of minorities and the poor, are far worse than the penalties for possessing cocaine, the drug of choice of the rich and well to do.

There are still blacks alive who remember Jim Crow, the name given to the system of enforced racial discrimination in America. All of White society, not just the police, participated in the enforcement of Jim Crow. It was enforced both legally, through such things as discriminatory housing laws and other forms of legal segregation, and illegally, outside the law. The regular lynching -- vigilante hanging -- of Black Americans that were committed in all parts of the country were routinely overlooked by police and other civil authorities, and in many cases police stood aside and allowed lynch mobs to take Black prisoners out of jail to be lynched.

Photo-Justice For Kenneth Chamberlain Sr
After formal Jim Crow largely disappeared as a result of the Civil Rights struggles of Black Americans in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, police again became the sole enforcers of racial hierarchy in America. White lawmakers wrote the laws, but the police enforced them. White Americas dictated the social code, which lawmakers wrote into law and which gave police the go ahead to head for the minority neighborhoods.

Whites dictate the social code that results in, today, New York City's notorious stop and frisk law being enforced in an overwhelmingly discriminatory way, with 87 percent of those stopped and searched being Black or Hispanic. Whites dictate the social code that routinely results in atrocities like the well publicized murders of Blacks by New York City police, as in the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, unarmed men who were not just shot but died in a hail of police bullets. There's the case of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, and Kenneth Chamberlain Sr, the 68-year-old Black Marine veteran in White Plains, NY, killed by police after he inadvertently triggered his emergency medical response device.

The prevailing social code, written by those with the power to write it, dictates that police commit those killings and that they usually get away with it, and it dictates countless killings and spurious arrests across the United States. As noted by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement in its introduction to a report on 120 killings of Blacks in 2012, largely by police but also by security guards and self appointed civilian executioners, "...the use of deadly force against Black people is standard practice in the United States, and woven into to the very fabric of the society."

Shawn Bell-daughter Jada-Bell family
As the news web site Final Call, referencing the same report, puts it, "When George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, killed young Trayvon Martin in March of this year, sadly, members of the Black community were not surprised. In their view, these types of killings were nothing new, the difference in this particular case was it became highly publicized.


Screening Your Radar Screen

The Invisible Man is a mid 20th century novel by Ralph Ellison that describes the social invisibility of Black Americans. It's universally acclaimed as one of the best and most important books in American history.

It's debatable how many of the people who commented on the Facebook posting of a black man holding up a sign about police brutality are aware, consciously, of The Invisible Man and what it signifies, or if these young activists are aware, as they think about the meaning of the sign held up by the Black man, any more so than are Americans in general, of the tremendous amount of violence committed against Blacks by the police, without consequence, historically and presently.

To be fair, young Americans' attitudes about race are better than the attitudes of White Americans of the 1960s and 70s generation. They are more accepting, for example, of interracial relationships. In some ways, perhaps, race has become invisible to young Americans.

Like everyone always has been, young Americans are motivated primarily be self interest. One the main impetuses behind the formation of Occupy was young Whites' anger over the escalating cost of college. Class interest is self interest.

Black Americans are motivated by self interest, too. Yes, there is such as thing as unselfishenss, or self sacrifice, and it was part of what motivated the brave Civil Rights activists who faced the police and the dogs and the water hoses and the billy clubs, and self sacrifice, at least an awareness of self interest, were part of the idealism that informed the anti Vietnam War protests and the Counterculture.

But when I saw all those people commenting on the sign held up by the Black man, I had to wonder how many of the young White American commenters, despite their more enlightened attitudes about race, were aware that what the sign meant to that Black man might be something different than what it meant to them.

I, personally, think it's a good guess that they were not. But then again, the irony might be that I might be surprised, and in the interest of self interest, I hope so.



Douglas Ziegler, highest ranking uniformed Black member of the New York City Police Department.

Ziegler was sitting in his department issued SUV when two white plainclothes officers, thinking him suspicious, approached him with guns drawn and ordered him out of his vehicle.


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