Written August 2014:
The following was written (by me) for some friends in St. Louis, about a month before Ferguson erupted, and was to be included in a compilation of memories, poems, etc related to the response in St.Louis to the Trayvon Martin case. This compilation has been put back in the metaphorical cupboard, since current events have obviously gone way beyond what happened a year ago.
July 14th 2013:
The Storming of the Bastille
When George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, was found not guilty I expected there to be riots, like there’d been in 1992 after the release of the cops videoed beating Rodney King. But this is a very different epoch, and Barack Obama played a clever game of sympathising with those who were angry at the result of the trial, just as he had known how to tame the anger of the blacks soon after the killing when he’d said something along the lines of “Trayvon Martin could have been my son, he could have been me 35 years ago”. Something no white president could have even begun to do, obviously (which is why significant sections of American capital groomed him for the presidency). When virtually nothing happened the day after Zimmerman was cleared, I had no expectations of anything. But the reality of expressed anger was fortunately a bit better than that – something between massive riots and everyone stuck at home.
We went along to what I somehow thought was the town courthouse and there was a smallish demonstration (perhaps 250 at first, but maybe it grew a bit). The speeches were being addressed from the stairs to the rest of us. Everyone could use the mic if they wanted (apparently this had very rarely been the case for demos in the past). The speakers were almost exclusively black. They spoke like it was a revivalist church meeting – and many in the crowd responded as if they were shouting “Amen”. I found most of it a performance of anger, not authentically embodied or felt, not passionately put over in any genuine way, a role that people in the States seem to put on almost habitually, like they’ve been raised on Jeremy Kyle or Oprah Winfrey and think this manner is “natural”. Anyway, it seems a more crude internalisation of “correct” forms of social behaviour than the subtler role-playing you get in France (where I live) or the UK (where I come from), but maybe others from outside French or UK culture would find different forms of method acting phoniness in the way the French or Brits express themselves than someone, like me, more immersed in the culture. Personally, being white, with a British accent, having shortly before arrived in the States, I didn’t feel confident enough to speak, particularly as what I would have tried to say would have been a little more incendiary and provocative than the standard speeches about democracy and changing things through a change in governing personnel.
There were a couple of black teenage girls with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Obama carrying a packet of Skittles (what Trayvon Martin had gone out to buy when he was shot). I approached them saying something to the effect that Obama was no better than George Bush, that he was a mass murderer like all capitalist leaders. They told me I was being “totally negative”, the standard response used to avoid dealing with what and how one says something. As if one could be anything but negative towards someone one had called a mass murderer. A bit later, as the demo moved off round the centre of town, a black guy, considerably older than the teenagers, came up to me and said he agreed with what I’d said about capitalism and we chatted for a couple of minutes, making me feel a bit better about the whole situation. The demonstrators were chanting “No justice – no peace” (without the follow-up: “…fuck the police!”), and I pointed out to a couple of women that unfortunately all we’ve got is no justice and far too much peace. They laughed. Then suddenly a contingent of the demonstration ran off – about 100 or so – and I rushed off with them, making sure I caught up with my (at that time) 19 year-old daughter. Somebody had got nicked. The cops had their batons out, but they’d clearly been told to soft pedal the response to the verdict, and weren’t overtly very aggressive. Someone tagged “fuck the police” on the back of a bus whilst there was a lot of running around. Then a really sudden extraordinarily heavy downpour. Within 5 seconds we were drenched like we’d been chucked into a pool with our clothes on. The cops and media disappear with that torrential rain (we know, from the Wizard of Oz, what happens if evil sorcerers get covered in water).
So it’s pissing down and we all loudly head back toward what I somehow thought was the town courthouse, and I go first into the little vestibule banging a saucepan very noisily. Everybody else seemed a little hesitant, like I’d stepped over an invisible barrier that everybody normally respected. But then this was the vestibule of the city jail, and not merely a courthouse as I’d assumed. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The noise we were making was deafening, and seemed to echo into the area beyond the glass doors we were not going through. I suggested going further than the vestibule. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, urging others to join them. Ignorance is bliss. A masked guy (Zorro? the Lone Ranger? Billy the Kid?) ran in and chucked the only thing that moved – a floor mat. When he returned a bit later, and threw in some flowers that he’d just picked from outside the jail, a black woman got upset – “This is meant to be a peaceful demonstration – Trayvon Martin’s family insisted it should be peaceful”. What sad/mad times these are when throwing flowers is somehow thought of as not peaceful enough.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Angels never go to war – they masturbate instead”
We then retreat from the jail as we get pushed out by armed guards. A few minutes later the courthouse is surrounded by heavily armoured riot cops with their sticks at the ready, the TV cameras reappearing for the first time since the downpour. We all go off back to our cars, and then off to a birthday party of a woman friend of my friends. She was born on July 14th, famous in France for what happened in 1789 – Bastille Day – appropriate, since we’d “stormed” the city jail. Well, almost – the vestibule…still, it sounds good – “WE STORMED THE CITY JAIL!!! – ON BASTILLE DAY!!!!!”
This wasn’t great, of course – but it was good because it made people feel good. Something considerably better is needed and even then, it won’t be enough. The days when such incidents are a dime a dozen is still a long way off – maybe so long that they won’t happen in my lifetime.
Or – who knows? – maybe sooner than I or you think. The optimist in me and the perception of a very deep anger increasingly reverberating almost everywhere, makes me think sooner, much sooner than I dare to hope. But either way, it won’t depend on us, but we can certainly have an influence. And we should aim to influence ourselves and others to a point that satisfies us, that makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something significant. Which means persistently experimenting, constantly keeping abreast of reality, and always trying to extend our humanity and lucidity.
Though perhaps the best critique of the cops came from a cop himself, shortly before July 14th: