Saturday, August 23, 2014

Resisting Arrest

For my people

I. Resisting

From the latin resistere: meaning, can't stop, won't stop. The redoubling of efforts against. Entry, reentry and exit...

My grandfather, Elias Sanchez (pictured here with La Alfarona X, the left one in the bottom right tandem), passed away in January of this year. He was 92, nearly 93. My grandfather left no significant financial inheritance for his progeny. It would have been near impossible for a short, slim man of African descent transplanted in New York City fresh from Santurce, Puerto Rico to have accrued wealth enough for succeeding generations. What my grandfather left instead, for his children, for his grandchildren, and perhaps his great grandchildren, is an enduring legacy of resistance and resilience.

I want to begin with my immediate past in order to weave an idea of our present, which has now become an impossibly retrogressive nightmare. The world will burn for hours while I gather my thoughts, and while I write this. And after, it may continue to burn. But there is an obstinance in me which enables the belief that the world can and will wait while I gather something lucid for myself and those like me. So I begin with my grandfather. 

Music was an integral part of my grandfather's life. He was a singer, first and foremost. In the secular world, the world of his youth, this meant primarily ballads with forays into bolero, and (to my chagrin) merengue. But the great work of his life was spiritual, gospel music which he wrote, performed, and recorded (with help from his children, grandchildren, and brothers and sisters from the church community)
Si la gente comprendiera
el dolor de mi señor
cuando clavado en la cruz 
He sang until esophageal cancer took his voice at 92. Even on his deathbed, as my mother sang to him, he had energy and wherewithal enough to correct the slightest misstep in her singing. He pointed for her to go up a note, where she had instead gone down. My grandfather seemed never so confined to/by the finitude of his body.
If people understood
the pain of my lord
when nailed to the cross
These are the opening lyrics of a song he wrote. The last extant recording of my grandfather singing this song (Si la gente comprendiera) features the oft-cracking, aged vocals of a man near the end of his life. Still, in its way, this recording represents the pinnacle of his skill, his passion, and his aesthetic craft. So brilliantly marred by life and sustained by his love of God and the singular gift bestowed him, my grandfather's voice is richly textured, making use of tremolo, vibrato, legato, some variation in phrasing (although he was generally leery of wild, jazz-like phrasings and disapproved of my trumpet imitation of Sonny Rollins's 'Moritat').

These lyrics are clearly devotional and steeped in Christian theology. To individuals raised in the Church these are not unusual or particularly poetic lyrics. These are, admittedly, straightforward contemporary Christian lyrics. Still, it's the straightforward lyric with generous vocalic consonance that allows the singer to demonstrate his skill. When I hear my grandfather sing this song, these lyrics, I am reminded that he was not singing solely of Christ's suffering, but singing sympathetically with, identifying with the suffering and martyrdom of Christ. I hear my grandfather's soul, which is also my soul, my suffering, and more importantly my triumph.

His voice breaks occasionally, but is never broken. This is how (and why) he taught me to sing. He insisted on his spirit as a means of transcending the short-comings of his finite body. Not in a bid for immortality, but as a means of living more capably unhindered by the inevitability of death. 

This was my grandfather's legacy of resistance, one which he obliquely imparted to me. A mode of resistance which has ascribed to it no language because it exists independently of language. A mode of resistance which is neither heroic, nor cowardly, but insistently present. A mode of resistance which is the embrace of one whole and unbroken spirit. 

Resistance may mean fighting, often evasion, or a kind of solitude--which is not hiding. Not hiding because one is aware of and engaged with the things of the world, actively keeping the world at arms length (knowing well that the world will eventually come spilling in against every bulwark erected against it) Resistance may mean wearing a mask. Adopting a persona. If only to preserve one's sense of divine wholeness which recognizes no language or paradigm greater than the primacy of what we are empirically born with. Being.

Each of us daily practice this resistance, a metaphysical immune system. We parse what should not be heard, what should not be seen. We try to parse/ignore/dismiss what should not be experienced (which is sadly impossible--sad in that we cannot guarantee the protection of those we love) We build form out of chaos and stand [defiantly] in community and support. We insist on the significance of our lives by choosing authenticity, by being creative, by sharing, shading, and inviting. 

The idea is not that music will save us. Perhaps the idea is that I draw life from knowledge of my sires, that I draw life from a connection to and with and for my narrative, my lineage, which has fought to survive, thrive, and allow me to be. Wherever you are and whatever your level of investment or participation in these recent events and their aftermath, remember your responsibility to self and other. Remember who depends on you for life and love and care and explain, in no uncertain terms, their significance. Turn away from that which threatens you, careful not to lose sight of where (or who) you came from and the direction in which you are progressing. 

Because resistance, above all, in the face of oppression and violence, is an insistent joy. Not happiness per se, but joy which comes from purpose, meaning, love—which gives shape to life after trauma—this is indefatigable. And not for sale. 

II. Arrest 

Our present social and national reality has been skewed so far as to resemble an American past and an American psyche thought long dead. Peacetime officers have been mobilized against citizens in Ferguson, Missouri; citizens mourning over the unwarranted murder of a young man's life, Michael Brown. And we are still mourning the loss of Eric Garner (43) whose death in Staten Island at the hands of NYPD was reminiscent of Radio Raheem's death in Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing'. More painful still is knowing that these are only two incidences in a terrible string of police brutality cases--reported and unreported.

In a video recording of the fatal encounter, the officers, in plainclothes, can be seen engaging Mr. Garner after accusing him of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. When Mr. Garner refused to be arrested, Officer Pantaleo swung an arm around him and brought him to the ground. Mr. Garner, who weighed well over 300 pounds, can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” over and over as officers subdued him. -NY Times

What I want, what many of us want in response, is not immediately a just legal verdict. In the wake of undue violence and hatred the first response is sympathetic, autonomic. We respond on an individual and basal level to an injury sustained on the surface of our collective psyche. To entertain this trauma on the legal level requires agency, forethought and planning, expertise. When a wound is opened, a terrible wound, the first response is to stop the bleeding. 

When I saw Michael Garner's autopsy report (accidentally via twitter feed) my initial reaction was to resist and dismiss the image. I wanted to expel the image from my system, but I was also drawn to it. In many ways attached to it. I could not let go of the image. The more I tried to let go, the more painful it became for me, the more I held on to it. Certainly parallels have been drawn between this image and the image of Emmett Till's open casket, images of Trayvon Martin's hoody. The truly chilling thing about this image is the impersonal whiteness of the rendering. Its cadaverous, resting expression. Naked. Riddled with holes and devoid of life. His right eye shot through. All submitted as a matter of fact for judicial interpretation. Diagrammatic law. 

If you are not nauseated by this image, then I am not writing for you. But if you feel this in the pit of your stomach and find that feeling radiating into the extremities of your body until what animates the essence of your being begins to ache, then you are sympathizing. To sympathize is to also come under arrest. To join the other, who is one like you, in carceral suffering. We are under arrest. We are riddled with holes--entry, reentry, and exit perforations--which will never, in this place, close and to which we can only respond with cadaverous, abject horror. 

I hesitate to speak of my own failures to fight the law when the law has failed to recognize my humanity. In every instance where I have been unjustly targeted I should have, as a college graduate from a middle class family, voiced my opinion and made known my situation. It's my right to do so. But I was afraid of what would happen if I did. I fought only as far as I could without being confronted with the gun affixed to the law. 

I will say that I fought a recent ticket and lost my appeal. Clearly it was a case of selective policing. A European couple committing the same "crime" was dismissed immediately while I was detained. The night before appealing the ticket I dreamt I was in a correctional facility with my step-father.

[Just so you know: most of the people in my family have worked for New York City's Correctional Department--a strange and significant circumstance of my life. I suppose, in good humor, I can say I've been under arrest for most of my life.]

In the dream a handful of inmates were preparing to attack me and my step-father, a retired Corrections Captain and the man who protected me when I could not protect myself, who always stood up in my defense (and occasionally continues to do so today). But I realized that my step-father had aged in the dream just as he has in life. He was not the young man he once was and, more importantly, I am not the little boy I used to be. So I elected to defend myself, standing in my step-father's way, grabbing the nearest object to defend myself. And the fight ensued. Until I could fight no more. Then I woke up. 

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