Sunday, February 1, 2015

Selma: Inconvenient Truths in the Garden of Race

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

"... This is an illegal march. It's blocking the highway," Selma sheriff Jim Clark

"... it means disturbing the peace, it means unrest, it means resistance." -- Martin Luther King, in Selma.

            Among the uncodified civil rights brought home by the movie "Selma" is the right not to be mistreated, beat up or killed by society's guardians simply because the society you are part of regards you as "the other."
            Ava DuVernay's recent film is a largely accurate account of one of the most famous, important battles of the Civil Rights Era, the march from Selma to Montgomery to force a federal law to protect voting rights for blacks in the South.
            One of the truths forgotten or overlooked in our official canonization of King and the era of Civil Rights sit-ins and other protests is how intentionally provocative they were. The movie makes this point very clear. At its start King laments that a protest in Augusta, Georgia, has garnered no national attention because authorities have treated protestors nonviolently and civilly, even while they have refused to give in on the issue -- the minefield of local rules designed to prevent black citizens from registering to vote. We see these voting "requirements" illustrated in an opening scene when a would-be voter is asked to name the 62 district court judges in the state of Alabama. She's already recited the preamble to the Constitution. But the clerk stamps her application "denied."
            But when police don't manhandle protestors, King complains, "there is no drama." You mean, a young community organizer, puts in, "No cameras." That's it, exactly, the movement leaders agree. They then decide to move their efforts to Selma, Alabama, where a particularly nasty, thick-headed local sheriff, Jim Clark, is likely to give them the brutality they need to draw the cameras.
            Now King's movement was famously non-violent, and it's portrayed that way in the film. But the movement's strategy is knowingly to provoke a violent over-reaction from racist authorities in order to show to the world what American's black citizens are up against in the racist American South.
            That is, the protest is intended to provoke the violence. It's the only way to exposes the injustice of a status quo most of the country -- white citizens; white authorities -- allow to stand.
             The Selma campaign's courthouse protest and highway march do provoke the reaction the organizers expect. Brutality, the clubbing of women and old men, police and white citizen violence against defenseless protestors.
            It also leads to some murders. Even before the big march, a smaller local march is broken up by police who chase some demonstrators into a restaurant and shoot to death a young man in front of his family. Interestingly, in view of current events, the officer claims he thought the victim was reaching for a gun. Since I was completely unfamiliar with this crime, I researched its accuracy. It happened -- though the victim took 41 days to die. Perhaps that's why this death didn't get the national play other killings did.
            And after King appealed for supporters from the rest of the country to come to Selma to take part in the march, many hundreds did, mostly white Northeners. Three ministers were attacked by local racists, and one -- a minister from Boston -- died from his beating. Again, the dramatization of this incident in the film is almost exactly true to the historical facts.
            The Selma March was a great victory for civil rights -- but not a bloodless one. The mist of sanctification that hangs over King and his movement causes Americans, particularly white people, to forget other such unpleasant truths. In the film "Selma" as in the national memory, most people, especially Northern whites, were firmly in King's corner.
            However, as Jordan Lebeau points out in an essay on, "Gallup polls, hate mail, voting records, and the desire to keep blacks out of voting booths paint a different story of common sentiment towards King."
            "In the 1960s [Lebeau states] Gallup asked Americans to rate King. If they held a favorable view, they were to assign him a rating between +1 and +5, and, if their view was unfavorable, -1 to -5. In 1963, 37 percent of Americans polled had an unfavorable rating of King. By 1965, it had jumped to 46 percent, and, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view, with 44 percent holding a highly unfavorable view of a man who led nonviolent protests in favor of access to basic American and human rights." []
            As these polls indicated, the majority of Americans did not rush to support the civil rights protest movement. In truth racism was common and widespread in the North, if less virulent and codified in the South. In opinion polls most Americans said the demonstrators "should obey the law" and should not "disturb the peace," and if they did should expect to face arrest. This was largely George Wallace's point of view.
            It took the violent response of many white southerners and racist authorities such as Sheriff Clark of Selma to breed sufficient political support for the landmark legislation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law gave the federal government the power to step in and assure that blacks could register to vote in places where they had been denied that right.  
            The comparison of those times to the troubles of our own times -- when blacks are protesting the de facto racism of police shootings: why is it that the great majority of deaths at the hands of police are black men? -- is apparent to some people. But not, it appears to me, to most.  
            "Today," Lebeau writes, "the hatred exhibited toward those among us who have crafted movements very much in the likeness of King’s, affirms our nation’s hatred of the original King. It also affirms our commitment to his myth."
            Acts of "hatred" to demonstrators protesting the Ferguson case have taken place.
           After the decision not to charge the officer who shot Michael Brown to death (because, apparently, he felt frightened by him), a vehicle drove into a crowd of protestors in Minneapolis, knocking several down and dragging one along the ground. The driver was not arrested. []
            The racism behind the treatment of black men, and children, by police, and by the larger society that accepts it, is harder to address than segregation in the sixties. How American society demonizes black men, especially in the North, is not codified in law, so we can't simply pass a law against it.
            In my opinion, this racism is endemic to American society and goes far beyond law enforcement. It's part of the way we live. For that reason most white Americans will not "approve" of protest actions intended to change it. As Lebeau points out, most white Americans did not approve of King and his demonstrations back in the sixties.            
            To me the unwillingness to confront the enduring racism in our society -- the de facto segregation in where blacks and whites live; the unequal schooling -- explains the widespread "outrage" against the demonstrators in Boston who chained themselves to cement barrels (Jan. 15) and blocked traffic on an interstate: we're in denial.
            I wrote the op-ed piece below in response to that outrage. For the record, I sent it to newspapers. It was not published.

                                    Our Northern Way of Life

Why should we all have to wait, hundreds and even thousands of us, stalled in traffic because some black men have been killed -- perhaps unnecessarily, certainly in eyebrow-raising circumstances -- by police officers and because American society does not hold the officers, or their superiors, accountable for these misdeeds? OK, let's admit it, if you're a cop you get away with murder, as long as your victim is black.
But what good does it do to take down a busy highway at commuter time and ruin everybody's day by making them late for work, for appointments, for important meetings? Besides, at least one person in an ambulance who needed emergency medical assistance was caught in that traffic. What an outrage! I certainly hope that no ambulances tried to get to a hospital via Route 93 during evening rush hour on Martin Luther King Day, because my wife and I were on that road and traffic was not moving. This happens, I understand, with great regularity.
Nevertheless we are sensibly outraged by this wholly unnecessary, self-indulgent "protest" by a few way-out extremists on the morning of Jan. 15. This nonsense ruined our whole day and -- we are quick to add -- it was dangerous too. We know what else is also dangerous: being black and male while encountering a police officer.
But we are not particularly outraged by a phenomenon that has, after all, been going on for decades. We are particularly outraged -- to the point of ramming new laws limiting free speech (hard on the heels of "Je Suis Charlie") through our legislature -- by people who stop traffic on an interstate screwing up our whole day.
Admittedly, other causes for outrage exist. American police officers tell us that their number one priority when they strap on their gear each day is to protect themselves. We may have naively assumed their number one priority was to protect others, including those they believe they must arrest, such as Eric Garner, who was choked to death when he didn't go along quietly to an arrest for supposedly selling loose cigarettes. Or Michael Brown, who was shot to death for jaywalking. Sorry! But that's not what we're outraged about.
Cops in America should be outraged that they to worry about their safety. They police a civil society in which laws make it easy for any nut to have a gun (such as the one who recently killed two officers in New York City) and even supposedly sane people make a practice of carrying guns around. Americans could do something to make their jobs safer: we could pass a few gun safety laws. Oh, right, we can't do that, because in America the gun industry makes the gun laws. Well, we could all just throw our guns away! OK, that's probably not happening either.
But we're not outraged by that. We're outraged because a bunch of extremist protestors who stopped a highway on rush hour. Hey, they broke the law!
So did Martin Luther King, now that I think of it. Black Americans held prayer meetings over segregation until they were sick of the sound of their own voices. When they took the law in their own hands -- this is forgotten today -- white Americans (in the South) hated those first public protests or strongly disapproved (other regions). White Americans said that police have to enforce the laws, that sit-ins and unpermitted marches disturbed the peace, so if civil rights protestors were arrested and often beaten it was basically their own fault.
Now we say that it was all right for the civil rights protestors -- in the South -- to break the laws because their protests were non-violent. The militant protestors who chained themselves to cement barrels were also non-violent. But we still have a right to be outraged because -- well, we're us, we're not the terrible South and what they did interrupted our lives. Our whole Northern Way of Life. Getting to work on time, cramming the highways, taking care of business, taking care of ourselves.
It's outrageous! Let's pass a law against it. Let's get back to business. Let's go Pats!