By Tony Fitzpatrick
One of the more confounding and compelling foundational myths about the Obama Presidency is that it has somehow squared the racial and class-based inequities that plague our country. That we were now, as the pundits coined it, “post-racial.” (You know we’re fucked when political hacks start borrowing terminology from the art world.) We were now past the 400 years of oppression that singlehandedly created at least fifty generations of poverty. Yet I still hear whites say “Hey. They got theirs. They got their president, what are they bitching about?”
When I hear this I cringe and I realize that questions about race and class in our country were in no way mitigated by the election of Barack Obama, only brought into larger alignment.
One needs to look no further than the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to realize just how far in the weeds we are with the realities of class and race in Obama’s America. That unless young black men are dribbling a basketball or dropping beats, our fear of them paints a target on them.
You kill Suzy Creamcheese in America, you’ll probably get the needle or a gas-chamber bounce. You kill a black kid packing Skittles, odds are, six months later, you’ll be signing autographs at a gun show for shit-kickers named Homer and Squinty.
Were I Obama, I’d have been in Ferguson the Monday that the grand jury’s decision was announced. I’d have also insisted the bill for indictment be announced in the middle of the day or, better yet, first thing in the morning. Or whenever there was daylight. Making this volatile public announcement at night put their own law-enforcement professionals at great risk. As well as the citizenry of Ferguson—this whole sorry enterprise could have gone off with much more possibility for a more rational conclusion with the benefit of daylight.
The decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for at least involuntary manslaughter will come back to haunt this community. Officer Wilson said he was terrified and I believe him: Michael Brown was a big guy and Wilson was ill-equipped to get physical with him, which begs some more troubling questions. Why do it? Why not radio for back-up and wait for help? When Officer Wilson describes his terror and feeling like a five-year old trying to subdue Hulk Hogan, he underlines a serious lack of fitness for the job itself. The police have tasers, mace and an asp—a steel baton that turns big boys into little boys.
The media outlets Fox and CNN spent no small amount of time showing photos of Officer Wilson taken after his confrontation with Michael Brown and, to he honest, I’ve hurt myself worse shaving. It is unfathomable to me that the only alternative at his disposal was lethal force. We don’t empty a clip into people for stealing cigarette papers in America.
The whole atmosphere of the events on November 24 seemed staged to produce the most catastrophic coda possible. Why not wait to announce the bad news until the morning? Why the confrontational show of force building up all day? And when a gaggle of cementheads like the Klan show up, why not designate them the domestic terrorists that they are and lock the assholes up?
I also looked to our president to be presidential that day. This reckoning was one that could be seen coming from a long way off: Ferguson has been a festering wound of racial hatreds and class bigotry since the August 9 killing of Michael Brown and at NO point did it seem to be getting better. This is where a president can exert a calming presence. People are oddly well behaved in the presence of President Obama. At the very least he could have blown in a phone call and ordered that this announcement happen in daylight.
I also believe there were no shortage of provocateurs present to exacerbate an already bad situation, some of them the same variety of scrawny white douchebags with bandanas over their faces or Guy Fawkes masks trying to entreat the cops into violent retaliation during the Chicago G8 Summit two years ago.
The president could have gone a long way in diffusing this matter had he chosen to be present. In 1965, when Grand Isle, Louisiana was hit with a disastrous hurricane, so severe was the damage that a bunch of people decided to hide in the basement of a church. Five hours later a man showed up in the basement and shined a flashlight into his own face and announced: “I am your president and I am here to assure you this misfortune will be met with the full force of the federal government. There will be no red tape.” And Lyndon Baines Johnson, good to his word, rebuilt Grand Isle.
The coverage of the events of Ferguson was and is equally appalling. You expect Fox to be biased and idiotic and indulge in all manner of race-baiting, and they did not disappoint, stressing over and over how Mike Brown’s eyes “made him look demonic.” Whereas over down the dial at CNN, Don Lemon (aptly named) went out of his way at every opportunity to be as contrary an asshole as humanly possible in every interview in an effort to perhaps remind people that’s why they’ve never seen him before. The whole coverage from every bit of media I watched—end to end—was so bad that it would be funny were the real-world consequences not so damnably sad.
Our president can be a marvelous communicator when he needs to be, though none of this was in evidence late Monday night as he sputtered with platitude after platitude about the difference between protestors and rioters. At this point the town was in flames and it was time for a more forceful and assertive brand of statesmanship.
I believe, had he gone to Ferguson Missouri, he could have added a much-needed balm to this fractious community and maybe have gotten all of the factions involved to finally hear each other. But he stayed in Washington. Instead, we the people stared into the flames while an American town burned.
A week later the police who killed Eric Garner walk away. I finally got around to seeing the viral video and was shocked. No less than six times does Garner warn that he cannot breathe—and the cops persist. That he was arrested is idiotic in its beginnings—allegedly for selling loose cigarettes and after breaking up a fight. On the tape he is pleading to not be fucked with, referring to the police as ‘”officer” and trying to not let the panic overtake himself. Five minutes later he is dead. What is even more unnerving about this video is the absolute absence of any ambiguities over what is occurring: Eric Garner was executed for having the temerity to question why he was being harassed. In Williamsburg, the cops catch you drinking on the street and they write you a ticket and everyone goes home alive. I guess there are different rules in Staten Island. And sadly, our leaders don’t have any real currency in the way of leadership this week. Or anything salient to say.
One thing we’ve learned in “Post-Racial” America in the past week or so is if you are poor and black in this country, you are in exile.
UPDATED December 4, 2014