When it became abundantly clear to them that the master cared more for the primary stock of his cash crop than the secondary stock of their lives, they had no choice. They had to cripple the system, undo by force the shackles on their lives. Consider the era of the plantation. There are records of slaves working for and buying their own manumission. There are records too of slave revolts, riots, the destruction of plantations. A violent bid for manumission—taken when it would not be given. The difference between manumission given and manumission taken is a legal one. Even then, in both instances, as a friend reminded me recently "A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect." (W.E.B. DuBois)
The riot of/in the new world (as opposed to a riot in something like East Berlin) is the rapturous swan song and night terror of modernity and modernist systems—though not necessarily of capital and capitalist systems. The riot is a form of failsafe derivative of settlement, colonial, and slave plantation epochs. When an oppressed group or class of people realize their collective value within the system to those in authority, they can then exercise a form of power or privilege. It is an essential manifestation of the American way—a nation founded on the death of millions, in the poetry of a self-righteous coup.
Amir Rice, the twelve year old found holding a toy gun, was fatally shot by officer Timothy Loehmann within two seconds of his arrival on the scene. In two seconds Timothy Loehmann assessed and accessed an entire history. All it took was two seconds to make the decision to fire upon and kill a twelve year old black boy.
In matters of life and death (of which the gun is perhaps our most fraught symbol) we are not very reasonable people. We respond on primal hard-wiring which is dependent upon quick sensory input, synapses which invoke more complex processing schemata, et al. One thing is clear. The officer's hard-wiring, his snap judgment, was to fire upon, subdue, and ultimately take the life of a boy he assessed as a threat. And for the most part, it seems, this is how America is scaffolding collective (and individual) psyches. There is a general refusal to empathize, to stand with and within the body and soul of another American who is, in some way, perceived as different. This is called ignorance.
If modernity is the construction toy model of a city you imagined and built, the riot is your sibling disallowed the privilege of voicing her opinion in its conception. The sibling who was asked to help, but barred from making constructive changes. The sibling who decided she could run right over the city, demolishing the skyscrapers and municipal buildings you were so proud to have invented. The riot threatens to undo that which has been built to preserve a semblance of order, convenience, and the fantastical mode of progress we call modernity.
But the riot is, in my assessment, only a form of combustion. A diversionary tactic. Because no catalyzed reaction has such self-sustaining energy that it continues perpetually. And when the smoke clears, what, in actuality, has been changed? Because the self-perpetuating secondary stock of the body is the primary means of capital, people always return to the system that meets their basic needs.
The riot does not constitute a movement. This is a common misunderstanding. The riot is prelude to a movement. Riot is to scalar measurement, what movement is to vector measurement. The movement has direction, has intended aims, is purposefully driven toward significant and longitudinal systemic change. The riot is concerned with oppression as it has manifested itself in the present. The movement is concerned with oppression and its affects on succeeding generations.
What we need now, with this excess of energy and consciousness, are leaders capable of galvanizing people toward positive political action. There are, in my assessment, three things that would constitute a vision moving forward.
1. Addressing varieties of Hypervisibility and Invisibility.
2. Addressing what it means to envision a new people. Post-post-racial dialectics.
3. And a sincere reassessment of the language that structures who we are.
The issue of hyper visibility and invisibility exists first and foremost in my mind as a question of perception and imposed gaze. We cannot escape the gaze of others. We can, as Toni Morrison was so capably wont to do, change its focus, reimagining a centrality to the marginalization of our reality (an idea we can return to) But when confronted with the harsh reality of oppression, brutality, profiteering... When the wounds of old are opened again by the cruel ignorance of others... The pain turns a glaring spotlight on the day to day lives of individuals trying to make it honest.
Claudia Rankine's sui generis collection Citizen: An American Lyric (2014; Graywolf Press) includes a brilliant essay (see Be Angry) on the politics surrounding hyper visibility and invisibility via sports stars like Serena Williams. In it she expresses, "Bodies are the thresholds across which each objectionable call passes into the consciousness of your being—" In a primal sense, it all begins here. It begins in the two seconds needed to perceive a twelve year old black boy as a threat. Just as Rankine's Citizen elucidates the conundrum of black hyper visibility, Ellison's Invisible Man is a text paramount to our understanding of the fundamental social invisibility of blackness. Of basic and universal human rights.
In some capacity this is a question of media and how representations of blackness scaffold and generate a subliminal/subconscious image of those perceived as black. We cannot continue to support media that paints a picture of blackness which is less than whole. And we cannot simply allow it either. There has to be some generative push against depictions of blackness which further undergird latent and overtly racist behavior.
This requires not only legwork, protests, lobbying, legal action, but individual vision—it starts with vision. Those among us who are artists should be duty bound to share the truth, just as Morrison did. And this does not mean engaging the notion of post-racial society. Dr. King's oft misquoted vision of being judged "not by the color of [your] skin, but by the content of [your] character" is not a pronouncement of a post-racial social, but a yet unrealized vision of an egalitarian America. An America which has addressed and reassessed unjust social strata.
The notion of post-racial society, like post-modernism, implies an estranged relationship to that which it moves in reaction to. The hyphen visually, conceptually, ethically, philosophically, in actuality represents an extant attachment to race. Just as post-modernism could not exist without modernism. The sad irony of race and institutionalized racism is that race fundamentally divides people, creates a perverse order based on biology and sensory distinction. The fact that genetic differences between people are remarkably, infinitesimally few is undone by a race based system intended to divide and conquer. Dr. King's vision remains unrealized, and, surprise, its actualization was not contingent upon race or post-racial ideology.
We are still struggling with the specter of race in the collective psyche. And Dr. King's vision will not be unrealized until we can undo those psychic harms.
But what will it take? As a poet I am always concerned with language. Language structures our self-image. Language structures our relationship to psychical and spiritual world(s). Language is the intermediary between intimate knowledge of self and the soliciting presence of the universe beyond. If we can sincerely and with love undress the language that continues to confine and impose upon us a damaging perverseness, we can begin to consciously address who we are. What returns us to post-racial notions (and with good reason) is the deconstructionist caveat that completely severing our ties to trauma, our small hyphen, in an act of forgiveness, would mean ultimately forgetting. And the risk we run in forgetting is repeating the same violent atrocities. Derrida on Forgiveness is an excellent example of this conundrum.
It's hard to say that any proactive effort to restructure our language and self-image as a nation will yield anything more than bitter fruit, but this is what it takes to heal wounds, to break yokes. Morrison conceived narratives whose characters were honest representatives of her history, her mythos, her family, her loves. Language is a strange and yet potential thing. We can imagine a world beyond our own traumas without abandoning the wisdom we unwittingly acquire from the experience.
Do you remember the feeling you first had when you watched Mookie (Spike Lee) throw the garbage can through Sal's (Danny Aiello) pizzeria window after the murder of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)? Their strange and beautiful tete-a-tete the following morning revealed no actual love lost between the two characters (Mookie and Sal) Mookie knew he could never return to Sal's and Sal knew he would recover something of his losses via insurance. But both sustained severe losses (albeit one's life vs. one's inanimate livelihood) and everything was inexorably changed. Change is an unavoidable fact of life, and part and parcel of change is loss. But nothing is lost without something potentially gained. To make gain from loss takes vision and imagination.
These riots are the first energetic steps toward positive political change. And if we never galvanize and make purposeful movements we may continue this vicious cycle of violent riots every decade—burning down already dead and decaying things to make room for gentrification and property speculators. We may burn down our plantations, but we have not yet burned down the system which engulfs even the plantation—capitalism. The only way is to make cogent demands on a flawed system—to mold the system to our needs.