Darkness Divisible: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and too many others

December 2014 Phoenix, Arizona

I awake these mornings to thoughts of what I have been taught to describe as blackness, darkness, a void where fear and desire intersect on a spectrum that is not universal. This is not really my state, my place, my usual way of being. My usual worries are mundane and not life threatening. They are, in fact, about things that will extend my life, will further me in some way, and my fretting has about it the self-imposed envelope of neurosis. No one in my circle of friends and loved ones is in the direct path of harm, as far as I know. I may wake excited or fretful, but seldom fearful. I can go out in the street with a hoodie over my head and not assume that I will be seen as hiding, as threatening; I risk only being judged as trying a bit too hard to be youthful.

I did not know Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or any of the unarmed black men, most of them young, lives peremptorily ended by an agitated, armed police officer. I know of them, but I do not know them. Or so I have been taught, indirectly, to think. They are the other, from the other side of town, the other side of the tracks, the other side of a spectrum, a theory, an economic, political, and even sexual history that is intractable and impossible to undo. Is it? What is it that we are forcing ourselves to accept every time another such elimination of a life comes across our multiple screens? What kind of ghoulish performance am I giving in my struggle over how best to grieve; march, protest, rebel, throw something at someone(s)? I’m not talking about privilege here; this is America in 2014 and a dwindling few of us feel privileged. We are united instead in a fear of falling, of failing, of being forgotten by a system we accepted but never effectively analyzed. The difference is how far we fall, and whether we were ever in a place high enough from which to truly, disastrously fall. The difference is in the damage, and whether there is something, someone, to catch us. There is also our (I mean white folks’) enormous affinity for the pain and suffering of others. It’s not that we are evil or anesthetized, but that a longing for authenticity is embodied in our acquisitive culture. The agony of others reminds us that we are alive, and can somehow help heal. And then go back to our lives, undamaged, more fully alive, virtuous.

I am filling out a form, so standard and expected that to reflect on it seems a bit precious, asking for my ethnic identity. There are quite a few choices offered. I am asking an arts organization for money to support my current project. I have been educated to know I can ask for specific kinds of assistance and I might actually receive it. This project questions, artfully I think (I hope), much of that very system of privilege and position I am currently fretting over. Or so I am privileged to think. I had earlier questioned someone at this same foundation as to why their denoting of gender on this form offered only the two choices of male or female; what happened to our quite recent, almost fashionable, acknowledgment of trans-ness, of being not one or the other but both or neither? The response was gratifyingly abashed and engaged, and I had a brief moment of feeling heroic. After all, I am quite comfortably male (oh really?) and this isn’t about me… How enlightened of me to notice this oversight! My collaborator on this project, ostensibly as pale as I am, has not completed the ethnic identity question on this form. I assume it’s an oversight and am about to alert him, when I realize this might be intentional. He has a partner who acknowledges his mixed racial identity, and he lives in a city, Oakland, where shifting racial lines are frequently evoked. I, on the other hand, live mostly in Phoenix, a city where whiteness appears unshakeable (for the moment); to be black in Phoenix is to be very much a minority. The ongoing history and agony of this state is written in shades of brown, with racism more likely to manifest itself in death marches across the desert and profiling levels of latinidad. Checking the box on this form has a different history here.

And now a young black man has been gunned down by a cop in Phoenix. This is not unusual, but since we prefer our media to make sense of a senseless world by establishing, and thus reinforcing, patterns, for the near term such deaths are going to get their due. An ongoing outrage is being paid attention to, we are finally hearing the volley of bullets that has been sounding for a long time now. The neighborhood that was not next door, and thus could be ignored, has gone virtual.

And how does one respond to a hale of bullets? How do you fight back when targets are automatically placed on your body? We need to acknowledge fear and paranoia, inherited and unconscious assumptions about threat and the appropriate response to it. We have allowed the white/black binary to become so automatic that far too many of us don’t even recognize it inside ourselves. And if you are carrying a gun in supposed service to the entire citizenry, the only outcome can be catastrophe.

Sometimes marching is the easy part. It’s an action, but one that tends to cause predictable, and not necessarily progressive, reactions. The much more difficult task for all of us is to figure out what our role is, and has been, in the continuation of a catastrophe. A society accepting the systematic death of a specific population is a society feeding on itself. To pay attention to one specific element of our society that is suffering unduly is not to extend privilege or “special rights,” but to acknowledge a pattern we have been far too passive in accepting. Young black men are seen as threatening by a majority of white people. How could they not be? The joint venture of reinforcing blackness as sexually potent (and thus both thrilling and threatening), fundamentally disruptive and violent, has been a cultural meme since the time of “discovery,” colonization, and chattel slavery. How can we possibly expect “our” contemporary police force to respond differently? Sure, they need to be trained better, but haven’t we known that for at least the past thirty years? Are the trainers themselves not admitting having the same fears as their students? As with prison guards and the military, we can simply write off abuses of power as isolated “bad apples,” or we can examine the orchard. We have produced this catastrophe, and we can stop it.

Strategic thinking is difficult, and risks being lost under a fog of fear and tear gas. There is also a time limit to gathering evidence, especially given that a pile of corpses begins to stink. This thinking should hurt, should be at least a little bit threatening, disrupting, displacing. But it should not disable or destroy the imperative for a response, which must be ongoing, intense, and self-critical. We are in a catastrophe, and cannot breathe without acknowledging its chokehold.