By Michael Angelo Tumbarello aka Baje One
I write what I write because I love my country and because I know that we can do better.
First things first, as they say. Rest in peace and power, Michael Brown. As the situation develops in Ferguson, Missouri, none of us should forget how this all started: With the murder of an 18-year-old, unarmed black youth by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. This fact should be obvious to us all, but just one week after the killing, many of the basic facts of the case have been obscured by the outrageously militarized reaction to the protests on the part of the Ferguson police. That is, judging from the police/military response to the civil unrest, you would think that Michael Brown killed a cop and not the other way around. More on that later.
As I type this, the internets are flooded with rumors and speculation about the case. One thing in particular stands out to me: The allegation that before he was executed, Michael Brown stole a box of cigars from a nearby convenience store in what the police dubbed a “strong-arm” (no weapons used) robbery. The goal of this allegation, made a full 6 days after the murder, is clear – to let the public know that Michael Brown was in fact NOT an innocent kid, and that he is at least in part responsible for what happened to him. Whether or not Brown had anything to do with the robbery, he was still unarmed, and he was still shot to death by the police. The allegation serves to obscure the fact, well-known to every black American I have ever met, and well-denied by far too many white Americans, that this type of violence (police killing unarmed men of color) is completely and utterly commonplace. It happens ALL THE TIME. According to USA Today, it’s happened twice a week for the past 7 years.
But that’s first-day shit right there, stuff that as an American or an observer of the U.S. you ought to know by now. As I spent the day glued to the screen of my iMac yesterday, I noticed some interesting and disturbing patterns emerging. I saw the images of police using military weapons and tactics in attempts to gain control over the streets of Ferguson. Attempts, essentially, to quell outbursts of “black rage.” Clicking around my news feed, I also saw a lot of interracial facebook ‘friendships’ dissolving before my eyes. I saw black people posting expressions of outrage, sadness and anger, inevitably followed by white people posting comments to those posts about how “Hate is not the answer” and “You can’t stop racism with more racism.” Attempts, essentially, to quell outbursts of “black rage.” As above, so below, as the Vedic saying goes.
Most common, from what I saw in these digital interactions, were comments along the lines of “What we need now is unity, why do you (black people) insist on dividing us?” Sadly, that’s pretty much the same lame shit that Obama said in his speech about the situation in Missouri. While Obama was asking for peace and reconciliation, many of us were left asking each other “Why the fuck do the pictures coming out of Ferguson look like they were taken in Fallujah in 2005? Or Alabama in the 1960’s?”
I wonder, as I did in my last piece, why are we as white people so invested in robbing black Americans of their right to feel and express rage? To answer my own question, I think it is because we have an IMMEASURABLE FEAR of that rage. We deny the existence of institutional racism. We deny the existence of patterns of police violence and racial profiling. We deny the reality of the prison industry complex. We deny our own racist attitudes. We deny, we deny, we deny. Through centuries of denial, we have attempted to lock black people’s rage inside of an airtight box. But every once in a while the lid blows off that box (because matter can neither be created nor destroyed). And if the police response looks disproportionate to the level of community unrest, the difference between the former and the latter can be accounted for by WHITE FEAR. Fear distorts reality. Fear can turn a water gun into an uzi, a wallet into a 38 special, a reaction into a riot, and so on and so on.
There is a pervasive white paranoia in this country, dating waaaaay back to the slavery days, a notion that one day, this is all going to come back and bite “us” in the ass. (Sidenote: my ancestors were not on the Mayflower, and I know many of yours weren’t either, but white privilege is still the realest thing out.) This fear is so present in our white collective unconscious that every once in a while it needs to find release, lest it tear us apart. The release often occurs in the creative realm, and runs the gamut from the grotesque (Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’) to the eloquent (J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’). The sentiment shared by these two works is “They are going to get revenge on us one day for what we’ve done. Be afraid, be very afraid.”
I’m currently enrolled in a master’s program in social work. In social work we talk a lot about the ego, its functions and its defenses. With my background in sociology, and in hip hop, I’m always wondering: How do ego defense mechanisms play out on a societal level? After all, society is made up of people, and all people have ego defenses, so presumably these defenses, located within each individual, play out in group settings, and between groups of people. According to Eda Goldstein, projective identification is “apparent when a person continues to have an impulse, generally an angry one, that, at the same time, is projected onto another person, who then is feared as an enemy who must be controlled.” (Source: Eda Goldstein, ‘Ego Psychology and Social Work Practice’, p. 83). Pretty crazy stuff.
Sound familiar? It does to me. White fear might in fact originate from white rage. Peep: Angry white cop kills black man. White cop disowns his anger, as the anger is too scary to accept. Attributes anger to black man / black community. (“He was dangerous, he deserved it, it was either him or me.”) White cop fears community response to his actions as “they” are the angry ones, the dangerous ones, not him. Calls for backup and crowd control instead of calling for an ambulance. Stuffs body into trunk of car instead of waiting for medical authorities. High tails it back to police station and goes into hiding. Other white cops, the ones in charge, refuse to release the killer’s name due to fear of reprisals (fear of imagined “black rage”). Then, actual “black rage” erupts (along with peaceful protests as well). Cops saddle up in military gear and hit the streets ready for a conflict with enemy combatants.
It should in fact come as no surprise that the Ferguson police are outfitted the way they are. They are not gearing up to protect and serve the people of Ferguson, they are gearing up to square off against an enemy, one who needs to be both feared and controlled. And in this incredible process of projective identification, where white rage is made invisible and black rage becomes the focus of white attention/fear, this basic fact of the matter is lost: The original perpetrator of the violence was in fact a police officer, a servant of the state, and – supposedly – of the people too. (It’s the same logic we can see at play when our government frets over the notion of ‘rogue’ nations having access to nuclear weapons, when in fact OUR country is the only one in fact to have been so barbaric as to actually USE nuclear weapons.)
The scariest thing I saw in the news yesterday was a quote from county police chief Jon Belmar who praised his officers for showing “an incredible amount of restraint” while they fired tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and flash grenades at protesters and journalists. (Quote source: ABC News). I guess restraint feels different when you’re the one on the inside of the tank. Belmar’s statement was eerily and disturbingly similar to the remark made by Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer who was quoted a few weeks ago saying that his army deserved to win a Nobel peace prize for employing “unimaginable restraint” whilst killing upwards of 2000 Palestinians in that conflict, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians. (Quote source: Salon.com, Statistic source: Aljazeera). Again, restraint is apparently in the eye of the beholder.
Look, while I can place myself in solidarity, I am not Michael Brown. I have never been in danger of being killed by the police. (I have been physically manhandled and verbally harassed by police, and I’ve had a few guns pulled on me by non-cops, but if you grew up in NYC in the 80’s and 90’s then you probably did too). But it doesn’t mean that I don’t give a shit, or that I don’t have a part to play here. Michael Brown could have been one of the kids I grew up with, one of my clients, one of my friends, one of the young men I play basketball with.
And I can’t speak on why other people are mad. I can explain why I am mad though: I am mad because I have been sold the idea that police violence against people or color is somehow being done for MY own good, to keep me, as a white person, safe, to keep me free. I do not feel safe, and I certainly do not feel free. And no citizen of this country should feel free when the police have the right to do whatever the fuck they want to just because they have that sorry little badge on their chest.
To quote a long-dead white man, the homie Ben Franklin said” Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” In terms of the media and “freedom” of speech, what’s happening in Missouri right now is the culmination of all the small and not-so-small concessions that we gave to our government over the last 13 years since 9/11. I don’t blame the corporately controlled U.S. government for thinking that they have a right to treat us like subjects. Because we allow them to listen to our phone calls, read our emails and text messages. We allow them to tell us when it is and when it’s not ok to protest their abuses. We allow them to use our tax dollars to fund wars overseas that make us less safe at home and which also use up the money we desperately need to repair the center of this crumbling empire which some of us call home. We allow them to use those same tax dollars, OUR MONEY, to terrorize a large percentage of the American population on a daily basis. So when a police officer murders an unarmed black youth in Missouri, and then calls for ‘crowd control’ instead of an ambulance, then stuffs that body into the back of a car, when that police department refuses to release the information of the murderer, when a newly militarized police force is called in, when reporters and protesters are fired on with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets… this is simply the natural behavior of a group of people who feel entitled to their power, regardless of how much they abuse that power. It’s time for the power balance to shift significantly in this country, back in the direction of the people.
A quick word of advice to white people who don’t want to lose their black friends in real life or on the facebook: Just accept and acknowledge the anger, sadness and frustration caused by this shit. You don’t need to control anyone’s anger, and you don’t need to understand it to know that it’s real. If you have real friendships and real relationships with people of color, those friendships are not going to evaporate because the police are racist. They police have always been racist. Every time a white cop kills a black person and gets away with it, there is a powerful reinforcement of the basic and fucked up white supremacist notion that white lives are worth more than black lives. Similarly, in a much less extreme way, not allowing somebody to just be angry is a way of denying that person their full humanity. If you acknowledge the humanity of your black friends and the humanity of black people in general, you can allow your opinions and your fears to take a back seat for a few minutes. In other words, if you really want to help, one thing you can do is shut the fuck up and listen.
Like I said before, I write what I write because I love my country and because I know that we can do better. And one more time: Rest in peace and power, Michael Brown. Please like, share, or copy and paste this link if you feel me.
Michael Angelo Tumbarello (aka Baje One) is an armchair cultural critic and a real-life cultural contributor. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY.