Friday, May 1, 2015

800 Words: Should I Stay or Should I Go?


Monday Night.

The plane back from Chicago.

There were a number of times when we thought we could see fires from the riot on the streets below. I have no idea if what we were seeing was fire just bright city lights, or the factory smokestacks, or a giant ladybug. There was no way of knowing what we were seeing, except that we were reading ourselves into the Baltimore skyline, and the city we saw was weirdly transformed from the dozens of times we've seen it. Somehow, the view of Baltimore looked different, as though we left a city we knew and returned to one completely different.

As usually happens in my family, it doesn't take much for political arguments to break out. For at least a century, fighting about politics has always been a useful surrogate in our family for fighting with each other, and it would seem that our generation will be no different in that regard. We spent that day talking about Baltimore, about the country, about the hopelessness of a country that is built upon hope, and of course, insulting each other. It got heated, it always does. It's frankly amazing it wasn't more heated, and in the future, there will no doubt be many times when the heat will increase.

I was, as always, the 'liberal' (and allegedly the flaming leftist) facing off during a traffic jam in a mostly centrist car against one libertarian whose views might be considered on the far right in most countries. And of course, any real leftist firebrand would consider me at best a heretic, at worst, a liberal in name only who is a conservative wolf posing in liberal sheep's wool. I've heatedly argued with the entire political spectrum for hours at a time, so I've heard it all...

But the discussion continued, at least in wound-down form, once we got on the plane. On the flight to Chicago, the plane was so overbooked that my brother Ethan was told he had to wait for the next flight. On the way back, we thought about taking a cellphone picture to show how empty the flight was. No more than thirty of us on a plane that could easily hold more than a hundred.

I was being more conciliatory, trying to grant some points, being more sympathetic to family who  determined that they had to drive back to Federal Hill when none of us knew where the rioting would spread. The moment we got up from the plane, I realized that half the plane was comprised of white families like ours, each loudly complaining about how the riots inconvenienced them, loudly speaking about black people as one gigantic mass, and scared (probably unnecessarily) about driving home. The other half of the plane was black people, all of whom were alone, and all of whom had facial expressions that looked like they were simmering. One girl in her twenties had clearly turned her headphones up all the way so as to do her best to drown us out. Another guy in his mid-to-late thirties was still planted firmly in his seat as everyone else got up, staring straight ahead with the kind of poker face which is the look of a man trying to dissociate himself to anywhere but where he was at that particular moment.

When was the last time I felt like such a cretin?


What the hell did these protestors expect?

Of course they have every right to protest for grievances that could not be more legitimate, but when you lend your voice to a protest called 'Shut Down the City', how are some people not going to take this as an incitement to riot? The protest encouraged people to break the law in a city where rule of law is always tenuous. Did Iraq teach us all nothing? Once you throw off a despotic rule, you had better be ready for the ensuing mayhem.

Of course the protestors are not responsible for the actions of rioters. Who knows? Maybe the protests briefly delayed riots that would have been inevitable. But once you assist in taking the lid off society's order, you cannot return to the box what you've released. You better damned well be sure that all the potential violence, all the suffering, all the chaos which you've helped to unleash is not only worth your end goal, but also that your end goal is at all attainable.

Of course the lives lost matter more than the property destroyed in retaliation. But what about the lives ruined by the property lost? What about the people living near CVS and Keystone who can no longer get medication? What about the elderly living in the senior center that burned down to the ground (I know, we're not certain if it's related, but... come on...)? What about the small businesses and homes destroyed that were created over decades? What about the investments in these areas that will now be removed and lost for yet another generation? What about the people who have lost their jobs to the fires, and the untold thousands who will have worse jobs or no jobs because of businesses that will never be established? I've read someone justify CVS's looting by saying that CVS and places like it are too evil to be supported. They're corporations that put Mom-and-Pop pharmacies out of business - as though Mom and Pop can get a loan to build a store to replace CVS so easily in today's economy. It takes one night to destroy what has been built in twenty years. What hope can these protests possibly give but a cruel false one? If there is no police reform, the fascist dictatorship of West Baltimore will grow still more despotic. Baltimore will probably never be like it was in 1993 again. It's more likely that White Baltimore will grow still more prosperous, while the police will make it happen by squeezing their boots onto the necks of Black Baltimore that much tighter.

Of course the police have a vested interest in maximizing the riot's size. The more property is burned and looted, the more they can justify their brutality. The logic the police uses becomes circular in the eyes of the public: "If they're using so much riot gear, the riots have to be horrible! Don't they?" But when the riots began, lots of apologists minimized them by comparing them to sports riots, as though any sports fan but an animalistic one wouldn't be mortified that people would do something so horrible in their name. When it became clear that the riots were more destructive than any sports riot, the apologists changed their tactic to saying that the rioters had every good reason to riot. Well, maybe they do, but even the most flagrant apologist knows as well as I that the riots are only making it easier for the police to crush them with impunity.


And yet...

Maybe I've got this all wrong

The riots of 1968 heralded the conservative resurgence. Demographics of that era showed the 'Emerging Conservative Majority' of Christians, Conservatives, and racists. And the riots were the kindling needed for Richard Nixon to set liberal America on fire.

Let's get real. The chances that Baltimore will be the only city with rioting are infinitesimally small. In Ferguson, the protests were almost all peaceful, and accompanying violence was just a small part of the main story. In Baltimore, the protests were mostly peaceful, but the riot almost completely subsumed the story of the peaceful protests. There are 461,000 police officers in America, and there are 327 million mobile phones. More murders, probably many more, are going to be captured, and the justified rage at this problem will only increase with every new harassment,  every new beating, every new murder captured on camera. This can't not be the issue of 2016. If President Hillary Clinton ever finds herself with a Democratic congress, she very well might be able to push through effective police reform. And even if she doesn't...

Just as 1968 heralded an emerging conservative majority, 2008 heralded an emerging liberal majority. Congress has been redistricted so devastatingly by Republicans that their hold on it is increasingly ironclad. But the new coalition of blacks, hispanics, and white liberals (mostly women) should be enough to hold the Presidency from any but the most devious Karl Rove like Republican maneuverer. And as implausible as it sounds, maybe the next generation of Republicans will tire of the constant social conservatism and race baiting. White America no longer has the country in a complete stranglehold. Perhaps the next generation of whites, unlikely as it sounds, can learn to live with it.

And if they do, the country might have some moments of clarity, and all 30 of the problems that could kill America have a chance of getting resolved. Justice will finally be done, and the white-maned lion will lie with the black-wooled lamb. And if that 1-in-1000 chance for progress we dream about happens, then I will spend the rest of my life remembering this week as a time that I stood in its way. Surely, that 1-in-1000 chance is worth the 999 other voices which tell me I would be an idiot for believing it possible.

If I go to the protests, I'll immediately feel guilty.

If I continue to stay away, I'll continue to feel guilty.

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