Baltimore, the burden of history and the uses of "violence": A week of fear and hope

Beneath media hysteria and white panic, the real story of Baltimore is about political empowerment and new hope

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 2, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

Police keep riots under control in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 1965; A man stands in front of a line of police officers in riot gear, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore.      (AP/David Goldman)
Police keep riots under control in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 1965; A man stands in front of a line of police officers in riot gear, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP/David Goldman)

Is the media’s exaggerated reaction to this week’s disorder on the streets of Baltimore fundamentally about race? What about the heated and sometimes startlingly tone-deaf debate among liberals and leftists about the meaning and uses of “violence” as a form of protest? (In which a form of action that is never precisely defined is conceived either as a cleansing and purifying force of revolution or as a shameful and self-destructive aberration.) Is that about race too? Are both of these things different sides of the same coin, manifestations of the racial bigotry, racial oppression and racial anxiety that have permeated virtually every aspect of American history? Well, of course. Also, the deeper you go: No, not that much. The basic contradictions of American society and American identity are such, I would argue, that both of these incompatible answers are true.

We cannot afford, in considering what just happened – or what is still happening – to ignore the consequences of our nation’s painful history, which haunt and torment us at every step. We can see what that looks like in the agonized contortions of commentators like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, the self-appointed defenders of white pride, economic inequality and the oligarchic capitalist order, cumulatively known as patriotism. Whatever may go wrong in America’s cities is a “Democrat problem,” the result of misbegotten liberal policies and dysfunctional black self-government. For guys who talk about politics on TV, they seem to have a limited understanding of how it operates in practice. Apparently they believe that the mayors of bankrupt cities whose industrial base and affluent middle classes evaporated decades ago are like feudal lords of the Middle Ages, accountable to no one and exercising absolute power over their domains.

We heard the same response after the literal inundation of New Orleans in 2005, and the fiscal collapse of Detroit in 2013. (Nothing that I have ever written has attracted as much right-wing outrage as this essay linking the two.) History’s bunk; there are no lessons in the past, or at least none before 1980 or so. None of the poverty and crime and social isolation found in urban African-American communities has anything to do with centuries of slavery and systematic discrimination, or with the enormous changes in the nature of global capitalism over the last 50 years. Most important of all, the economic and/or existential plight of black America is unique, and requires a special, quasi-mystical explanation about “values” and “culture” and liberal brainwashing, which always rests on the ultimate notion that “they” do not quite possess the same moral fiber as “us.”

This is the key ingredient in the severing of racial consciousness from any possible version of class consciousness, a central aspect of American political history for more than three centuries. (As the child of an immigrant who was raised to honor the Irish traditions of political struggle and resistance, it pains me to observe how perfectly O’Reilly and Hannity illustrate the thesis of Noel Ignatiev’s controversial book “How the Irish Became White.”) We could debate whether that strategy emerged organically from our history of racial division or was consciously adopted by the Anglo-American elite (and there’s a lot of evidence to support the latter view), but that’s not the important point. If African-Americans are understood to be a special class unto themselves – and by implication an inferior one, although even the Fox talking heads are less specific about that these days – then their situation has nothing to do with the forces that have driven down real wages, stripped away job security and lengthened the work week for the vast majority of the white population as well. To put it another way, the black rage that manifests as a looted drugstore or a trashed cop car has nothing to do with the white rage seen in the Bundy ranch standoff or open-carry demonstrations in Wal-Mart stores. The possibility that those groups might begin to see their interests as similar, or in any way allied, is precisely the possibility that Fox News and the Republican Party must squelch at all costs.

There are more complications and contradictions here than can possibly be untangled, including the fact that African-Americans really are a unique demographic group within American history, for a glaringly obvious reason that the Sean Hannitys of the world almost never bring up, except to dismiss as old news best forgotten about. Asians and Latinos and Jews and Italians and other groups (yes, including Hannity’s ancestors and mine) have faced virulent discrimination at times, but none of them were brought here in chains or held in bondage. The bewildering conservative dogma that blacks are somehow distinctive – but not because of that! -- reminds me of a dark witticism found in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 essay “Elements of Anti-Semitism,” where they observe that the Jews “are indeed the chosen people,” in the sense that they have been “branded as absolute evil by absolute evil.”

Another aspect of our historical conundrum lies in the well-known tendency of Americans to inflate our own importance, one of the things that makes us so beloved around the world. This long-running current of “American exceptionalism” – the belief that our nation holds a special place in the eyes of God or a special role in human history – is by no means limited to flag-waving Tea Party patriots. It can also be found on the left, although in attenuated form and often as a negative image. In this reading, America is a damned nation, rather than a sanctified one. Our history is uniquely poisoned by the legacy of slavery and racism and by the Native American genocide, as though those crimes were without parallel or precedent and had no connection to larger global patterns. Quite likely it is less dangerous to become mesmerized by this reading of history than by the whitewashed Fox News version, but it is no less limiting in the long run.

I would draw a parallel, in fact, between these two versions of American exceptionalism and the models of white rage and black rage I mentioned earlier. Whatever you make of the spectacle of African-Americans destroying a police car or looting a CVS store in West Baltimore, we can say this: Those people attacked a visible symbol of the local power structure, in the first instance, and violated the core social contract of capitalism in the second. Whether you think those were honorable or constructive things to do, or are likely to improve life in that community, their metaphorical meaning was pretty damn clear.

White rage is harder to discern, because it is almost always depicted as a series of unconnected incidents rather than evidence of group pathology. (We are only at the beginning of a historical moment in which white Christian conservatives conceive of themselves as an identity group, an embattled minority rather than simply “Americans.”) But if we make that conceptual leap and connect the dots between the anti-immigration movement, the gun-rights movement, the pro-police movement, the resistance to same-sex marriage and other manifestations of ideological whiteness, the targets appear incoherent and ill-considered: Muslims and Mexicans, urban liberals and the “media elite,” the government in its administrative and regulatory modes (but not law enforcement or the military), corporate capitalism when it is seen as caving in to political correctness or restricting “freedom,” but never as an oppressive or predatory system. One would almost say that white people in America are deeply confused about who their enemies are.

Too much of the Baltimore discourse, on all sides, has been afflicted by these varieties of historical myopia, and by what might almost be called theological error. So far as I know, America has not been cut off from the rest of human history and human society, as the evil and fallen Earth is exiled from the heavenly cosmos in C.S. Lewis’ science-fiction classic “Out of the Silent Planet.” Our nation plays an exaggerated imperial role in the world, as a military and symbolic power. Its belligerent global misdeeds and internal contradictions look especially stark set against its grand rhetorical claims to be the cradle of liberty and democracy. There can no doubt about that. But in the long run we can only make sense of our history, and our current crisis, if we wriggle free from an egotistical national mythology of good and evil and search for a broader perspective.

Let’s talk about “violence,” a term that has been defined downward, in contemporary American discourse, until it means almost nothing. If you want to see violence, look at Yemen, where nearly 600 civilians, at least 115 of them children, have been killed in the past month alone, casualties of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that goes almost unmentioned in the American media. Look at Nigeria, where fighting between the government and Boko Haram militants killed more than 6,300 civilians last year. Look at Iraq and Syria, where unknown thousands of people – more likely hundreds of thousands – have been killed by their own governments, by the zealots of ISIS or by American bombs and drones.

You can find violence in the headlines, all right: In Istanbul, 10,000 riot police with tear gas and water cannons were deployed on May Day to crush anti-government protests. Violence of a different sort was reported from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where nine young people have killed themselves in the past four months and dozens more have attempted suicide. By those standards, what violence did we see in the streets of Baltimore?

Well, Freddie Gray was a victim of state-imposed violence, to be sure – and in a welcome break from our normal routine in these cases, his death is being treated as a crime. A few police officers were attacked and injured during the protests that followed Gray’s death. I do not defend those actions or hold them up as brilliant political strategy, but anyone who acts shocked that such things happen in this context is in deep and willful denial about the depth of anguish in black America. Beyond that, where was the violence? That now iconic police car and that lone CVS store? If that was the worst urban rioting in more than 20 years, as more than one commentator pronounced, that tells us what a strangely cosseted and peaceful era we live in. I know that sounds contradictory or absurd amid a mood of national crisis, but it’s true.

What the word “violence” mostly indicates, in the media discourse of 2015, is fear – to be specific, the exorbitant measure of fear provoked by minor acts of resistance to the regime of private-property rights and consumer capitalism that the police are hired to defend. There is no question that violence, or the threat of violence, has played an important role in numerous American social movements, from the labor unions of the early 20th century to the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s. Without the long guerrilla struggle led by the ANC and other resistance movements, the white apartheid regime might never have surrendered power in South Africa, and the IRA’s crude and frequently indefensible bombing campaigns unquestionably shaped the political settlement of 1993 in Northern Ireland.

A few black people stomping on cop car do not resemble any of those things, except on a metaphorical level. They stand for a widespread popular uprising that has not actually happened – and does not look especially likely to happen -- but that O’Reilly and Hannity and the forces they represent have long anticipated with the kind of abject terror that verges on erotic longing. On the scale of real urban political violence that transforms and scars societies -- the scale of the Paris Terror or Belfast during the Troubles or Mexico City in 1968, Baltimore in April 2015 does not register at all. Even on the scale of property destruction or urban rioting within recent American history, it is no more than a blip.

The Watts riots lasted for six days in the summer of 1965: At least 34 people died and nearly 1,000 buildings were looted, burned or destroyed. Two summers later, the urban riots in Detroit and Newark dominated the news for an entire month. Almost 70 people were killed (nearly all of them black), thousands more were injured and arrested, and something like 3,000 buildings were destroyed. If anything even close to that scale happened today, the Fox News studios would combust in flames of sheer orgasmic terror. If Bill O'Reilly survived the resulting series of aneurysms and cardiac arrests, he would call for a permanent military dictatorship, the summary execution of all hoodie-clad “thugs” and the internment of the entire African-American population, with the possible exception of Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson and Charles Barkley. It would literally be a dream come true.

Some apocalyptic vision of “the fire next time” is certainly possible in America. That possibility, glimpsed momentarily in Baltimore, is the implicit power that lies behind the #BlackLivesMatter moment. We are a troubled and divided nation with a highly uncertain future, plagued by political paralysis, economic decline and a wide range of internal contradictions. But despite the night-terrors of right-wing troglodytes (and the fantasies of Internet revolutionaries), 21st-century America is also a distinctive and dynamic environment where leftover dogmas from other eras mostly don’t fit. Our racial problems are challenging enough, but they bear almost no resemblance to the conditions of racist brutality and ruthless exploitation that Frantz Fanon observed in colonial Africa, and that led him to extol the liberatory potential of violence for “The Wretched of the Earth.”

To elaborate on the famous aphorism of Clausewitz, violence is one form of political action: It's a form that cannot fail to be noticed, but is not always the most useful or most effective. In that context, the modest scale of the rioting in Baltimore, and the way the city’s African-American community came together to contain it, point toward an emerging sense of political consciousness and political empowerment. (Elements that were also eloquently captured in Larry Wilmore’s recent conversation with a group of Baltimore gang leaders.) The African-American activist reawakening of the last year or so began in response to violence visited on black people by the armed agents of the state, and was founded on powerful emotions of grief, loss and righteous anger. It has been a model of restraint, a source of inspiration for all Americans, and a wellspring of unexpected hope.

Andrew O'Hehir will be on vacation the next two weeks. His column will return on May 23.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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