Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Ferguson: Do the Right Thing Redux
This has been a busy weekend — dividing time somewhat schizophrenically between participating in one or the other of the many actions sparked by the decision in Ferguson not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown — while at the same time planning an annual Thanksgiving meal. Being a “conscious” political and multi-racial “family”, on past Thanksgivings we often commemorated the day by attending a local American Indian event. As the years past, we reverted to a somewhat more traditional community potluck dinner with friends with turfu, organic dishes, etc. Still later, as biological families divided into nuclear subdivisions with children, somewhat smaller gatherings were held where we would prepare the traditional feast with a nod to and solemn commemoration of the genocidal history behind the holiday and watch a socially conscious movie.
This year, someone suggested that we Watch Do the Right Thing. (In full disclosure, we did not end up watching Do the Right Thing because one young black guest who happens to be gay felt that he had been bullied by his peers in the neighborhood as he was growing up and it would be a painful reminder (he still lives in central Harlem about a block from the National Action Headquarters) and another young black woman felt that she needed a break from the intensity of the explosion of feelings and responses that the Ferguson decision brought on. Life is often more full of contradictions and ambiguities than our political struggle for justice would suggest.
Still, the reminder of the controversial movie, first released to great criticism as to whether it was promoting violence or showing how destroying property was better than killing human beings, reminds us how a cultural representation can help people understand the emotions behind our struggle in a way that facts and figures can’t.
First released in 1989, Do the Right Thing, one of Spike Lee’s earliest movies, tells the story of the racial tensions in the black community in a Brooklyn neighborhood which culminates in tragedy when a young black man is killed by police. The young man’s death results in a night of rebellion in which the people in the community burn down local businesses including the local pizzeria.
The movie was released long after the racial tensions and the riots of the 1960s which it was meant to portray, and before the Rodney King beating in 1991 resulted in the rebellion in Los Angeles. Long before 41 bullets felled Amadu Diallo, the African immigrant shot at his front door by police in the Bronx, or the brutal torture of Abner Louima who was beaten and sodomized with a broomstick by police after he was arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub. (Sidenote: Neither of these later incidents resulted in riots, but in organized nonviolent civil disobedience and, eventually in sort of very limited conviction of some of the perpetrators. It is interesting to note, however, the Louima case only came to light after a nurse reported the incident when he was brought to the hospital. She was the only one of 28 people who had witnessed parts of the incident the night he was arrested. The other 27 people threatened her for speaking out.)
In Do the Right Thing, Lee sets out the many cultural signifiers of the community’s racial tensions that lead to the violence of both police brutality and the violence of enraged communities of color — in other words, the very American history of the culture of oppression in the black community:
Mookie, played by Spike Lee, is the young man who, as the pizza delivery man, is viewed by a frustrated Tina, his girlfriend and mother of his child, as unambitious and unable or unwilling to live up to the model of the father and family man that is portrayed on TV, reflecting the tensions between the sexes in a community held down by racism.
Sal, the pizzeria’s Italian American owner, has been in the neighborhood for 25 years. His older son is openly racist while his younger son is friendly with Mookie. Sal sees himself as part of the neighborhood, but when asked by Smiley, a mentally disturbed young man who is always carrying around pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and “Bugging Out” (described by his name)to put up pictures of Malcolm and Martin on his “Wall of Fame”, along with the Italian Americans such as Sinatra, he refuses because, as he says, he owns the restaurant.
There are many other signifiers — “Da Mayor,” an old alcoholic man who signifies street wisdom and compassion (but who is not respected by the younger generation in the neighborhood), the young men who hang on the corner, the Asian store owner who signifies new cultures moving into the neighborhood and the conflict that brings (but who can hold her own in a swearing match in a confrontation with her black American neighbors).
But most significant is Radio Raheem, a big young black man who supported Smiley and Buggin Out’s demand to post Malcolm and Martin’s pictures in the pizza parlor. Raheem is well meaning, but is always getting into trouble for playing his radio too loud.
When Sal and Radio Raheem get into a fight over turning down the radio and Sal calls him a “nigger,” a fight breaks out that spills into the street and draws a crowd and Sal calls the police. When the police come, they arrest “Buggin Out” and put Raheem in a chokehold which kills him. Once the cops realize he is dead, they beat up “Buggin Out” and leave the scene, leaving Sal and his sons exposed to the crowd’s rath. When the Mayor tries to calm the crowd down, the crowd turns on him. Mookie then picks up a trash can and throws it through the window of the pizzeria and a race riot begins. In the melee, the Mayor saves Sal and his sons.
While this is not a very good or complete synopsis of the movie, you get the picture -Radio Raheem could be Michael Brown — or Earl Gardner, another “big” black man who was selling “loosies” on the street in Staten Island who was killed shortly after Michael Brown by NYPD officers in a chokehold, which was also witnesses by several citiznes (This raised new critiques about the appointment of William Bratton as the new New York City police chief since he has a known history of going after nonviolent offenders for small street “crimes” as well as a bad track record of chokehold deaths under his command)– or Anthony Baez (my neighbor in the Bronx) who was playing football with his nephew when the ball bounced and struck a police car and the policeman (who had already been moved from neighborhood to neighborhood to hide his history of excessive force) put 17 year old Baez into the chokehold and killed him — or 17 year old Jordan Davis who was killed in a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida for playing loud music because a 47 year old software engineer who was a known racist felt that Davis’ refusal to turn the music down “threatened” him and that he was entitled to shoot Davis and would not be held accountable by the police or courts. He was in fact convicted of murder, but 17 year old Davis is still dead.
The fact is, we all have our own memories of the cases that most specifically affected us and there are many other cases across the country and across the years– far far too many to recount here and they seem to be increasing. Which is why it is important to raise the question that Lee asks in Do the Right Thing.What must the black community do to finally overcome, once and for all, the virulent racism that is so endemic in the United. (For an analysis of the importance of the movie and the Ferguson situation to questions of violence, issues of the “Rule of Law” or why it is important not to conflate race and class, read below the fold.)
The two most important signifiers in the movie are the pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X which represent the two different views for social change in the black community. Interestingly, Lee assigned the pictures to a mentally unstable character who is like a prophet wandering around in the wilderness of confusion, frustration and racial tension of the black community holding their pictures aloft as if to let them speak for themselves.
Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disbedience was first used successfully in the 1950s in the early civil rights struggles for the vote and the end of segregated housing, transportation, restaurants and bathrooms. The middleclass Christian background of the early religious leaders led them to model their movement on Ghandi and tolerance of others. Their goal was to integrate the black and white community into the American Dream of upward mobility in America.
King’s philosophy was expressed in the concept that violence only breeds more violence.While King’s goals may have changed after the start of the Vietnam war and his poor people’s march right before he was assassinated in 1968, most of the early movement reflected his assimilationist views and he remained committed to nonviolent disobedience to the end.)
Malcolm X, along with the Black Nationalist Muslim community and the Black Panthers, were the main signifiers of the Black Power movement which erupted in the early 60s. It was the product of both campus youth who were impatient with the slow progress and limited goals of their religious leaders and who broke away to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (still nonviolent but much more aggressive) and the revolutionary groups that formed from the lower classes in the urban ghettos in New York, Oakland, New Jersey and the automotive factories in Detroit among others. The black power movement, a catalyst for a revolutionary movement, was demanding more than accommodation to the existing structure, but a full revolution for human, not just civil rights. And if it took armed self-defense to achieve this, so be it.
The conflict between the two philosophies continued throughout the sixties until the mid seventies. The dominant liberal white middleclass culture, which had only been lukewarm to Martin Luther King’s agenda before, was propelled (somewhat in reaction to and fear of Malcolm’s more militant views) into the King camp, but it also took root among many of the young, who were also disillusioned by the death toll of the Vietnam war. Malcolm X’s philosophy of “fighting fire with fire” gained many proponents.
If this seems naïve today, that it should have been clear that we should proceed with cautious reforms, followed by a period of backlash, followed by another round of nonviolent reforms and that we would eventually win the day (which is what our black civil rights leaders claim today), we have to remember that during the 60s and 70s not only America was in a revolutionary frame of mind but much of world in Latin America and Africa as well. The collapse of the world economy in 1972 deflated much of the revolutionary momentum and the conservative backlash began. As Gil Scott Heron said in his song 1980:
“Nobody can name you, nobody can blame you
If Idealistic was all you turned out to be.
Push comes to shove but once in a lifetime
And there is no way back to 1975 much less 1969
God will continue to take care of the children
But the fools will have to look out for themselves.”
The movement to end police brutality is obviously not new. But when we look at the movement developing out of Ferguson, there is a new energy among young people for a deeper change. That accommodation to the existing system in not enough. Some of this stems from the international awareness of globalization brought about by the “Arab Spring” as well as the financial meltdown brought on by outsourcing and other forms of globalization that has led to the increasing inequalities in the United States (the 1% and the 99%)and the development of our own class contradictions leading to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Within this context, the trajectory of the Black community has been somewhat different. The civil rights movement did win some gains — we now have a black president and black officials (even a couple in Ferguson) and we have the brass ring of upward mobility and a permanent black middle class. But integration into the American Dream is still integration into a capitalist system where only a select few can reach the top and a few more can reach the middle (less of the black community since they must compete with the white working class community who has a 400 year head start on the climb up that hill as well as new workers flowing in from other countries. Although there are glimmers within the OWS, union and immigration movements of workers who will join together with other workers to fight for the 99% against the 1%, many in the black community, particularly the 10-20% who made it over during the civil rights movement and are in positions ofpower, cling to the reform movement and the ethos of capitalism. Many white workers will not give up their edge without a fight (i.e. tea party).in the inner cities or the new suburban ghettos in places like Pennsylvania).
Once again we see signs of debate as to which approach we should take to social change. Many of the gains made by the black (and white) communities are rapidly disappearing — from the protection of voting rights, to the availability of good paying jobs with healthcare benefits and job protection (which were only available in limited quantity and for a short period time to the black community).
Obama has been trying (most notably with healthcare reform) but he is definitely in the
reform camp with the idea of fair play and the “Rule of Law” as his mantras. But which “Rule of Law” does he support? The Supreme Court decision that gutted voting rights? The Ferguson Grand Jury which attempted to replace a trial by jury and, for the last four months, was respected by the Federal government who refused to file a federal civil rights case while we “waited” for the grand jury verdict (and the elections)before we responded. Do we respect the laws that continue to redistribute wealth to the rich and white (not only is there a growing inequality in wealth in general, but the inequality between wealth for black and white families has grown sharply since 1980. Over the past 25 years, in large part due to the imprisonment of small time nonviolent offenders under drug “laws” which targeted racial minority and poor communities, millions of black and latin bodies have been incarcerated, many in solitary confinement or subject to the death penalty. Some cynics would say that this policy was an intentional fix for the unemployment problem –unemployed minorities in the inner city could b e shipped off to new prisons in the countryside, creating a whole new job market for unemployed rural whites as prison guards.
Back to Ferguson: When the demonstrations erupted after the verdict, Obama was front and center announcing to the world that we still had racial problems that must be addressed and was applauded for his courage. And then he added that we must always respect property and destruction of property was never acceptable. And then it hit me — Obama and the media as a whole have been appeasing white America by condemning the destruction of property during the brief rebellion (as have the middleclass civil rights leaders) when several buildings were burned and shots were fired. This is not the way to make change, they say, only reasoned nonviolent civil disobedience can achieve our goals. Which seem to be the protection of property or capital above all. Don’t get me wrong — I have practiced and advocate nonviolence. But when I hear them condemning the destruction of property more than the destruction of human lives, whether through day to day eroding poverty or killing our citizens in the streets (or in wars since Iraq and Afghanistan are both back) or imprisoning them, it gives me pause.
In 1968, speaking just weeks before his assassination in response to the London riots, Martin Luther Kings, Jr., an advocate of nonviolence until his death, said:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots.
It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without at the same time
condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.
These are the conditions that make people feel they have no other alternative
than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
(P.S. My favorite action and response from a bystander during the protests here in New York: At one point a bunch of audacious young people blocked the Lincoln Tunnel. When a reporter asked one middle class white woman who was sitting in her car stuck in traffic, a reporter asked her what she thought of the action expecting I am sure to hear her complain about their unruly behavior.
“I’d sit here all day”, was her response, “if it meant that it would lead to change. There have been too many Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and In am disgusted.”
(In 1999 DTRT was catalogued in the Library of Congress as culturally significant and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.)