By Robert Stephens
I’m really tired of people calling for “peace” in the midst of the uprising occurring in Anaheim. Peace, for them, is a return to “normalcy”. Well, normal isn’t really working out. “Peace” is an ineffective and arcane drug policy that disproportionately imprisons poor people of color and subjects the public to the murderous whims of both street gangs and police. “Peace” forsakes resistance, while leaving structural violence intact. Peace is killing us.
During the insurrection, there was a stand-off between police and citizens who wanted to get into a City Council meeting; people hit and kicked police cars as the cars passed by them in the street; trash cans and dumpsters were set on fire; finally, a Starbucks window was broken (a ritual at this point). People are outraged because a Starbucks window was broken during the uprising in Anaheim. Well, I will be sad for a broken Starbucks window after they speak-out against the racially-biased police misconduct happening in their own backyard.
Until then, Starbucks gets the “Kanye shrug” from me when their glass is shattered.
“Although the majority of those who shared, sold, or transferred serious drugs in Seattle are white (indeed seventy percent of the general Seattle population is white), almost two-thirds (64.2%) of drug arrestees are black. The racially disproportionate drug arrests result from the police department’s emphasis on the outdoor drug market in the racially diverse downtown area of the city, its lack of attention to other outdoor markets that are predominantly white, and its emphasis on crack. Three-quarters of the drug arrests were crack-related even though only an estimated one-third of the city’s drug transactions involved crack. Whites constitute the majority of those who deliver methamphetamine, ecstasy, powder cocaine, and heroin in Seattle; blacks are the majority of those who deliver crack. Not surprisingly then, seventy-nine percent of those arrested on crack charges were black… The focus on crack offenders, for example, did not appear to be a function of the frequency of crack transactions compared to other drugs, public safety or public health concerns, crime rates, or citizen complaints. The researchers ultimately concluded that the Seattle Police Department’s drug law enforcement efforts reflect implicit racial bias”- Human Rights Watch
Not only do we know that the races use drugs at the about the same rate, but drug dealing rates were also similar. Yet, arrest and imprisonment for people of color across the nation is much, much higher than it is for Whites.
Manuel Diaz’ mother gave a tearful press conference where she asked that everyone be “peaceful”, to “honor Manuel by doing things within the law”. Although I know the pain of losing a close family member, I cannot fathom what it must feel like to have had your loved one gunned down by police. Respectfully, the insurrection isn’t to “honor” her son. The people who take the streets, in the words of a friend of mine, do so “because they see their own deaths reflected in his”. While her state did seem earnest, it’s also important to note that she has a fifty million dollarlawsuit pending against the city, so she of course has a vested interest in what she called “peaceful justice”.
Diaz’ mother is not the only person calling for peace.
The police shootings and the demonstrations have only exacerbated deep divisions in Anaheim. The city’s western half is poor, predominantly Latino, smoggy, economically depressed and so riddled with crime and street violence that many people say they are afraid to leave their homes. But the eastern half – the Anaheim Hills – is affluent, conservative and predominantly white. Many of those affluent residents were quick to condemn the vandalism yesterday, and to support the police, saying they have a tough job policing the gangs and should be thanked, not criticized, for the way they do it.- Andrew Gumbel, Guardian
What’s worse, the Latino population in the city has limited options if they pursue an end to violence in their neighborhood by going to the “proper authorities”.
Many Latinos complain that their political leaders are out of touch and cannot understand their day-to-day problems. All but one of the city’s five council members lives in the Hills, and none of them is Latino. In fact, in the city’s 142-year history, only three Latinos have ever served on the city council – a by-product of the “at large” voting system which removes the obligation to hold local council seat elections district by district. “A feeling of disenfranchisement pervades the Flatlands area of the city,” said Bardis Vakili, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing Anaheim for violating the civil rights of its Latino population through its voting system. Holding “at large” elections is a time-honored method of disenfranchising minorities, Vakili argued, pointing to multiple examples in the segregation-era deep south.- Andrew Gumbel, Guardian
Besides, people have made efforts to deal with these issues diplomatically. The people in that Anaheim neighborhood have been going to council meetings, meeting with police, and demonstrating outside the police station for years with no reprieve from the killing. Despite these prior efforts, there are those that long for the energy and dynamism in the streets to be quickly redirected to the “proper channels” to be adjudicated by the “proper authorities”.
There are many who would condemn the young Latino youth who set that dumpster fire, or engaged in small scale sabotage. Some, including people who sympathize, have even fought the young saboteurs. However, if you can vote for president while knowing that he is directly responsible for murdering people, then you can be in solidarity with marginalized youth searching for a way to express their frustration at having their stories of police violence go unheard for so long.
In a separate statement Monday, the Awlaki family said that Abdulrahman (16) “along with some of his tribe’s youth have gone barbecuing under the moonlight. A drone missile hit their congregation killing Abdulrahman and several other teenagers.” Nasser al-Awlaki said the family decided to issue a statement after reading some U.S. news reports that described Abdulrahman as a militant in his twenties.- Peter Finn, Washington Post
As the news cycle covers these events, I anticipate that we will hear the familiar themes that label the participants “criminals” and strip their acts of any political motivation and relevance. We saw a similar reaction during last summer’s insurrection in London. However, we already know that openly conservative groups will promulgate these kinds of narratives. The greater threat to undermine the energy of the present moment are people who sympathize with the cause, but condemn disruptive tactics. Well-meaning supporters of the prevailing order have a long and dreadful history of marginalizing the thoughts, feelings, and efforts of abused and vulnerable people as they struggle to liberate themselves. Dr. King addressed “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” to such people.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another mans freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro the wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
We are seeing the tension over narrative play out in the coverage of the insurrection in Anaheim. The Anaheim police claim that a bottle precipitated the dog mauling and barrage of rubber-coated bullets unleashed on the residents of the low-income La Palma neighborhood. The police recognized that a single bottle could rekindle what years of unpunished beatings and shootings sought to destroy: self-belief. The police know the power in a bottle thrown for the sake of liberation. Their fear dissipated, replaced with indignation as the community directly challenged the police’ legitimacy. Legitimacy is the currency that allows the police to shoot and kill with impunity. The threat to police power wasn’t the bottle itself. The danger was in what the bottle represented. A broken bottle has healed wounded souls before. Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman of color who threw one of the first bottles at the Stonewall riots in 1969 New York, understood that liberation came when submission was no longer an option.
At the moment of these pigs coming in, and the horror that we felt, and all of the sudden, all you saw was people getting beat up, the blood flying all over the place, the horror of it all. But what was the most beautiful part of it all was that we kept coming back for more. We didn’t stop. We weren’t afraid. We didn’t care if we died. We were not going to be oppressed anymore, and I am glad that I was there that day.
In order to paint the Anaheim neighborhood as the helpless victims, well-meaning people have tried to erase, and even condemn, the bottle-throwing incident. If the allegation is true, it makes the people’s cause no less righteous and the brutality no less abhorrent. A bottle thrown at the heavily armored police in no way justifies their indiscriminate use of violence against the crowd of unarmed civilians and children. The police, who had just killed a neighbor and family member, invaded their community as an occupying force, and it was more than appropriate for the community to boisterously reject their murderous incursion. You do the people no favors by constantly placing them in the role of victim, and trying to erase the moments of hostile resistance. These actions demonstrate a spirit of paternalism, not liberation.
People in Anaheim have been calm, and have lived under “peace” for years. Peace is killing them. The current order is predicated on an arcane, ineffective, and racist drug policy that endangers neighborhoods, frivolously imprisons people, and subjects the public to the murderous whims of both street gangs and police. If this is peace, then let it be disturbed. Let there be rupture.
However, the struggle against structural violence and state-sponsored murder requires honesty. We have to embrace the fact that many incidents of police brutality do not fit nicely into comfortable narratives for middle-class sensibilities. We have to stop trying to turn people into martyrs for the “liberal cause”, and embrace the reality that some of the people murdered by the state were first preyed on by policies like the “War on Drugs” and the prison-industrial complex. Many of the people who wore the “I Am If Troy Davis” t-shirts would cross the street if they saw him and his friends walking towards them. A lot of people who sympathize with the Anaheim community would clutch their purses if they had seen Manuel Diaz walk by. You can’t wrap their stories up nicely and put a bow on them. These are stories of pain and survival in a culture where murder could meet you around any corner. In such a context, and after being ignored for so long, the uprisings are often visceral and intense.
In Dallas, a man named James Harper was killed by police on Tuesday. His mother cried out, “He’s dead over a sack of weed, that’s a damn shame. He’s 31 years old, he’s gone. I won’t see my son no more.” This mother’s tears should be no less devastating just because her son participated in the drug trade. There is a tacit assumption amongst well-meaning people that if the person sold drugs, and was murdered by police, then they deserved their fate. The simple truth is that murdering citizens is not a necessary aspect of policing. As I’ve argued before, in 2011 the entire German police force only fired 85 bullets at civilians, 49 of which were warning-shots. Ultimately, in the U.S. the issue isn’t the murdered or beaten individual, it’s the violence and the institutions that enable it.
In addition to people with good intentions who call for calm, there are also those who wish to preserve the status quo at any cost. The following is a comment from, my first story on the Anaheim Insurrection:
These riot rats are taking the police away from helping keep the good citizens safe… maybe a few more shootings will let those that don’t want to follow the law know the police mean business and aren’t going to take anymore crap !! If you don’t like our laws move somewhere else !!
The person’s comments reflect a simplistic good/bad narrative about these issues. There are “good” citizens that need police protection, and there are “bad” law breakers who deserve to be shot. There is nothing to be gained by pandering to people who have their minds set against truth. Yet, time and again, we throw the most marginalized groups under the bus in order to attract people that don’t actually want liberation.
Sylvia Rivera, who after dedicating her life to gay rights, was pushed out of the very movement that she helped birth.
Sylvia joined the new Gay Activists Alliance and began working furiously to pass a gay rights bill in New York City. She was even arrested for climbing the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to crash a closed-door meeting on the bill. Yet, despite her heroic efforts, within a few years GAA had eliminated drag and transvestite (as they were then called) concerns from its civil rights agenda. Drag rights were also dropped from the proposed city gay rights bill to make it more acceptable. “When things started getting more mainstream,” Sylvia told Michael Musto in a 1995 interview, “it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more.’ ” Her response was to do what she did best: fight back. “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned,” Sylvia warned.- Riki Wilchins, Village Voice
History reveals that solidarity across struggles and between identities is the best way to sustain movement and yield results. Desmond Tutu, a well-known South African pacifist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, never condemned those who used sabotage and violence in the struggle against apartheid.
We in the South African Council of Church have said we are opposed to all forms of violence – that of a repressive and unjust system, and that of those who seek to overthrow that system. However, we have added that we understand those who say they have had to adopt what is a last resort for them. Violence is not being introduced into the South African situation de novo from outside by those who are called terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on whether you are oppressed or an oppressor. The South African situation is violent already, and the primary violence is that of apartheid, the violence of forced population removals, of inferior education, of detention without trial, of the migratory labor system, etc.- Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Speech
Nelson Mandela, the first military commander of the “Spear of the Nation”, was convicted for sabotage and sentenced to prison for his violent efforts to destroy the Apartheid regime. Due to attitude’s like Tutu’s, a spirit of compassion and cooperation across tactics took root and Mandela was able to return from prison and be elected president. If we want to succeed against police brutality and the structural violence that creates it, then we are going to have to move beyond a good/bad narrative. We have to be honest about where this violence comes from, and we have to stop trying to contort every story in a way that doesn’t offend middle-class sensibilities. There is no change without rupture, and the wheel doesn’t turn without friction. Solidarity is not merely spoken, it is practiced. So, don’t let good intentions get in the way of progress.