Riots in Baltimore, MLK, and (most importantly) Facebook

Copyright (c) 2015 by Kenny Felder

A lot of sources suggest that the media has over-hyped the riots in Baltimore. According to this narrative there has been more peaceful protest, cooperation, and constructive dialogue—and less rioting, violence, and looting—than one would think from watching the news.

I don't have any insider information here, but I find that narrative very believable. So I'm guessing that the Baltimore riots will be over and mostly forgotten fairly soon. They will not be the end of Western civilization as some detractors seem to fear, nor will they trigger the revolution that ends racism and oppression as some supporters seem to hope. They will fade into an historical footnote right next to the Rodney King riots.

So that's really all I have to say about the riots themselves. What I really want to talk about is the reactions I have seen on Facebook. Those terrify me.

I should start by saying that I am not one of those people who reads public comments on news stories, because I don't care what a bunch of strangers have to say. Everything you will see below was posted to Facebook by people that I know, and like, and respect. That's why I care about this so much.

JP is a former student of mine. I always knew her to be thoughtful, intense, and compassionate. I have not seen her in a few years, but I still think of her very fondly.

Please read the post below and the comment trail that follows, because most of this essay is a response to that conversation. I took no part and I have not edited it in any way other than redacting the names and pictures and adding my comments in the margin.

As far as I can tell, anyone who thinks violent rioting is not a great idea is therefore a racist, a bigot, and willfully ignorant. In the unlikely event that JP ever sees this essay, she will probably view me as being all those things too. I'm sure she will not be alone.

That conversation haunted me for days. I didn't just think "I disagree" (which happens to me all the time, in a tranquil and intellectual way, even about violently controversial issues)—I was emotionally shaken up at her vitriolic self-righteousness. I keep picturing her face and hearing her voice and thinking "JP, this isn't you." But maybe it is...? I hope she reads this and responds, and I also kind of fear what her response might be.

From JP I move to NS. She is roughly my age, and we have known each other for over thirty years. She is smart, creative, funny, passionate, and angry. (I never think "NS, this isn't you.") She posted the following two cartoons (not at the same time, but both in the few days after the riots).

NS has made it clear in the past that (like JP) she does not welcome critical or argumentative comments on her Facebook posts. If you disagree with her she prefers you to comment elsewhere, and not to tag her. I do my best to respect that prohibition; I did not comment on either of the two posts above, and she is unlikely to ever see this essay. I know she would prefer it that way.

But I would love to ask her to clarify the point of the MLK cartoon. Clearly "let's all be non-violent like MLK would have wanted" is not up to her intellectual standards, but why? It seems to me that Mr. Paperclip is expressing one of the following three messages.

I honestly don't know if the message is one of those three, or what. It seems to me that what made MLK great is that he faced bigotry and violence and hatred on a scale that absolutely dwarfs what American blacks face in 2015, and in a supreme act of courage he still insisted that violence was not the answer.

Finally, CS, another former student of mine, posted the following cartoon. I did comment on this one (since she had never asked me not to)—I didn't offer any Kenny opinions, but I asked her to clarify if she was advocating violence in the current situation. I genuinely wasn't sure. To my surprise she deleted her post.

Unlike the MLK paperclip, this cartoon and the Tea Party cartoon seem very clear to me. Anyone who objects to property destruction and violence is just being silly; you go, Baltimore rioters and looters! CS never meant it that way (which is why she took it down), but I feel quite comfortable saying that Matt Lubchansky did.

But Lubchansky's grasp on history seems quite weak to me. MLK advanced the black cause with non-violence far more than Stonewall advanced the gay cause with violence.

So now you've seen three examples of the kinds of things I've seen on Facebook recently. (There are others, but I think you get the point.) Here is my summary of the pro-rioter narrative.
  1. A rising tide of racism threatens to overwhelm our country. (In a very nice turn of phrase from In the Heights, "racism in this country has gone from latent to blatant.")

  2. In particular, the rampant swell of racist police violence puts every black man in constant danger.

  3. Decades of "working within the system" and non-violent protest have failed to accomplish anything. So, violent revolution is the solution this crisis demands.

  4. Last but not least, in the words of George W. Bush, you're either with us or against us. That is, anyone who does not believe it's time for violent revolution is a racist bigot or, at the very least, willfully ignorant and naïve.
And here is how those four claims look to me.
  1. Of course racism is a huge problem in our country, and we should make all efforts to eliminate it. But is it really on the rise? My father went to a high school with segregated water fountains. My father. I just cannot imagine that world, the 1950s! Today's riots are taking place in a city with a black chief of police, a black mayor, and (oh yeah) a black president. More importantly, we all grew up taking it for granted that refusing someone a job, or an education, or a house, because he's black, is a terrible injustice—perhaps forgetting how recently those were all considered perfectly acceptable things to do, right out in public. I would say about racism what Steven Pinker says about violence in general: instead of just asking what we're doing wrong, it might be helpful to ask what we're doing right, and how we can do more of it.

  2. The police violence thing is trickier. It may be on the rise, although I seriously doubt there is more of it now than there was in the 1960s (when the black panthers started roaming the streets, armed, to protect black men from the police). In some ways it is like childhood abductions, school shootings, campus rapes, and other problems that receive so much press that people think they are far more common than they actually are. Far, far fewer black men get killed by police than by other black men, or by cigarettes, or by car accidents, to name a few. But of course the numbers don't tell the whole story, because when a whole community feels alienated by the power structure, the consequences are far-reaching. Even if this problem is drastically over-estimated by most people, I do think it's a serious problem that we need to seriously address. One thing that I suspect will help, perhaps more than anything the government can do, is the dawning realization that every stranger on the street is probably carrying a video camera at all times.

  3. This is closely tied to Claim 1, of course. I think that decades of working within the system have accomplished an amazing amount of change in an amazingly short time. Once again, that does not mean we should rest on our laurels. But it does throw into question the need for a revolution. And in any case, as I said above, I think non-violent protest has a much better track record than violent protest. I'm not saying that violence never works, or is always wrong: I'm glad we fought the British in 1776, and I'm glad we entered WWII. But you fight a war to win. Violent protest is quite a different thing, and I don't think it has been particularly successful in effecting change. ("Oh, now that you've overturned a bunch of cars and looted a 7-11, I guess I'll give into your demands!")

  4. This last claim is the one that is most disturbing to me, especially coming from people I like and respect. Rational thought is not a white male imperialist tool, and constructive dialogue is not always a response to fear. Lots of people who disagree with you (whoever you are and whatever you believe) are good and intelligent people who are worth talking to and even listening to. This is the reason I wrote this essay, and it's a running theme through many of my past essays as well. If you will grant me this point, I don't much mind if you disagree with everything else.
Finally (and perhaps this should have come first instead of last) I have to admit to the most devastating argument that some people will make against this entire essay. I am in fact a privileged, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, male. Some people will say that this invalidates my right to have an opinion (or, if I may suggest so somewhat cynically, the right to have any opinion except theirs). Certainly my position in our society gives me a perspective that is different from that of a black lesbian or a one-legged Mexican or anything else that I'm not, and I can't help that and neither can they. When I see a policeman I may worry about getting a ticket but I don't fear for my life.

But I look and listen and read and think and reflect and sometimes write, and now you know where all that has gotten me. I would genuinely like to hear where it gets you.


From: name withheld by request
May 2, 2015

I just read your pseudo-blog and I have my own thoughts on the situation that I would like to post there, but I'm afraid of the potential backlash if I do. I DO like engaging in debate, but not when my words are brushed aside because of the color of my skin. I, too, find it perplexing that the opinions of white people are discredited because they are white. I'm straight and cisgender, but does that mean I don't get to be an ally? Why can't we work together or at the very least engage in an open debate. I am white, and I am privileged, and I 100% disagree with all of the police brutality facing people of colors around the nation. However, I ALSO disagree with the violent reactions like the man who sliced open a firehose while firefighters were inside a building trying to put out a fire. What I don't understand is why I cannot believe both of these things at the same time; why so much absolutism? I condemn the use of violence on both sides. It only results in alienation and more fodder for "the other side." Yes, I am white, but as a person in an interracial relationship, I have also felt the effects of racism. When my Asian boyfriend wanted to go as a character from The Walking Dead for Halloween, he made a realistic gun belt with empty bullets, and a completely fake knife that was made from a plank of wood. I had to tell him that, were he white, he could probably get away with the gun belt and police would brush it off, acknowledging that this was simply a Halloween costume. However, as a person of color, this sort of credence would not extend to him, and I feared for his safety were he to go out wearing the gun belt in his costume. Still, when he went out on Halloween, he was stopped by a police officer, and they confiscated his wooden knife, at the same time as they passed by countless white Halloween-goers with potentially more harmful costumes. My boyfriend and I have been debating pretty regularly the Baltimore riots issue and police brutality, and I find myself feeling guilty for believing the way that I do. White people HAVE subjugated African Americans and ALL people of color for such a long time so why should I get a voice in this as a white person who has never personally felt the effects of being discriminated against because of the color of my skin. My boyfriend, I should say, DOES NOT feel this way. He is much more in line with the notion that everyone should have a voice to agree/disagree/be ambivalent towards racial issues regardless of their race.

From: Kenny Felder
May 2, 2015

I want to try to anticipate the reaction to the comment above from some readers. It will go something like this: "Oh, you poor white people. We're all supposed to feel sorry for you because now you guys are the ones who get shut out of the conversation because of the color of your skin, and you don't even see the irony. Well, nobody is feeling sorry for you guys as long as you still have all the privilege and all the power."

Having said that, I don't necessarily have much of a response. I'm not feeling persecuted or downtrodden, but I will continue to commit the crime of being white and expressing my opinions, and you're welcome to try to change them with reasoned arguments if you would like to do so.

From: Davis Muma
May 2, 2015

I respect you for many things, among them your desire to make your ideas known clearly and have them best reflect how you honestly feel, often despite the possibility of judgment from others. I cannot agree with your sentiments on most of the posts you cite in this essay, but I may be able to clear up some of your confusions about the posters' motivations:

-For the Clippy MLK Cartoon, the message is none of the three guesses you had. The idea behind it is that MLK has been glorified for "non-violence" and we've been taught that "MLK's way won out," when in reality his success would not have been possible without numerous other pressures on society and those in power, including but not limited to things like race riots, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and civilian unrest. The idea that MLK's philosophy was synonymous with non-violence is also contested: if we take violence to mean an action that brings about emotional or physical harm to another person, how can MLK marching blacks into police lines be considered "non-violent?" From the point of view of the police it could be, as they are not on the receiving end, but from the point of view of the oppressed MLK was MORE violent than others because he insisted that blacks bear all of the pain to correct a system that wasn't their fault to begin with. The notion of his non-violent attitude is in this cartoon treated as a whitewash of his ideas that probably gained ground because our predominantly white society found it easier to deal with him practically than with many alternate black thinkers. He resulted in the least harm to white people and the existing system and was the easiest to compromise with.

From: Allen Smith
May 2, 2015

What he said.. ^^

From: Davis Muma
May 2, 2015

-For the thread started by JP, the reason why she so vehemently rejects KC's statements is because he repeatedly uses arguments that are restatements of common counterpoints to expressions of anger/suffering/discontentment by the disenfranchised in our society and starts from assumptions that are passed along within the systems we have set up for the sake of upholding the appearance of the legitimacy of those systems.To JP, what KC is asking for is not "discussion," but a hollow endeavor that can have no benefit to either of them until he begins to consider a perspective that she can't convince him of in a series of facebook posts. The conception of riots is problematic because condemning them for being "violent" without also equally acknowledging the violence perpetuated by law enforcement, inequity, and public opinions of people of color is hypocritical. A useful metaphor might be two factions going to war and one faction calling for "peace" by condemning the atrocities committed by the other without acknowledging their own just because theirs comes in a different form or with a different assumption of moral authority.

From: Allen Smith
May 2, 2015

You cannot forget that there was a wave of militant black power movements in the 60s that drove the white elite into the arms of MLK. You never see pictures of Malcolm X nor is there a holiday in his favor yet his contribution to the liberation of black people cannot be forgotten.

From: Allen Smith
May 2, 2015

Davis Muma = smart dude

From: Neel Dutta
May 2, 2015

Unless I've completely missed the Mr. Paperclip cartoon "It looks like you've quoted MLK out of context" means 'you'(whomever that is) randomly used an MLK quote that sounds right "Let's not be violent" without realizing or having any prior knowledge on the context of the quote, the meaning of the quote, or the setting the quote was said in. A possible insinuation is that 'you' might not even know if the quote was said sarcastically or not. Compare this to Mr. Paperclip's "the complex reality of white supremacy in America" the cartoon says(somewhat undisputably to me) that 'you' are using/putting MLK and the sentiment expressed in a speech specifically tailored for a specific setting in a separate context as part of 'you'r argument, lacing 'you'r argument with some pseudo ethos provided by the name "Martin Luther King".

From: Sarah Stroud
May 3, 2015

My thought is with regards to the Lubchansky cartoon. And I just wanted to point out that (while of course reading your post was very engaging), I think that to boil the artist's message down to "you go, Baltimore rioters and looters!" misses the nuance. If I'm not mistaken, what that cartoon is intending to show is something called "respectability politics," in which the oppressed class in society (gay men in the '60s, Haitian slaves in the 1790s), would never have achieved the desired changes to their qualities of life or social stations by asking nicely. Because they were engaging with people who fundamentally denied their humanity. And yet, anything short of full on rebellion (and maybe even the act of rebellion itself) would be filtered through the lens of the ruling class. "Sure, you can be freed as long as the reason is good enough for us" is sort of what I thought the cartoonist was saying. This might have relevance for the JP/KC conversation, in that JP seems to have absolutely no time or brain space to devote to what KC THINKS about the various actions of black Americans in Baltimore (be they rioting, rebelling, peacefully protesting) because in her mind the very existence of the classes as they are already partially precludes a conversation in which KC fully acknowledges her humanity and him being willing to pop up on her personal facebook page and say "Hey I hope you know what I, KC, think about this, which is that it's '[assaulting] innocent people' and '[accomplishing] nothing'!" KC didn't just ask for discussion, KC commented on something JP OBVIOUSLY feels strongly about by first condemning it, then attempting to backpedal and ask for discussion.

Aahhh and also one more clarifying thought because I don't think my thoughts were very coherent: "respectability politics" as depicted in that cartoon denote a situation that is a catch-22 for the oppressed citizen because to have to ASK NICELY or even in some cases PEACEFULLY PROTEST the violent killing of innocents on YOUR side by the other side is to acknowledge the superiority of the oppressing class. To ASK them to be treated as human validates the fact that they are holding your humanity above your grasp in a way that benefits them. It reinforces the established power dynamic.

From: Alex Dunham
May 3, 2015

Thanks for posting this! Here are a couple of rambling thoughts:

1. Nobody here would expect JP to "discuss" and be civil if KC had commented "I hate black people." The exchange wouldn't have been nearly as upsetting as it was to you (and me) if that's where KC had started. I imagine you agree with JP in general that minorities don't owe privileged people a "discussion" when their basic enfranchisement/legitimacy/identities are what's being "discussed." You just don't think that discussing whether nonviolence is effective amounts to that, whereas a small but growing group of people seem to put any position to the "right" of their own into the category of un-discussable.

I think it is very true that "lots of people who disagree with you are good and intelligent people who are worth talking to and even listening to." I think that it is very true that many discussions are "petty and useless" and "really just synonyms for white tears." There are many disagreements that fall into the first category, and there are many disagreements that fall into the latter category. Nobody should pretend that only one of the categories exists. Which disagreements fall into which of the two categories is a difficult question requiring careful thought.

2. What if KC were black and from Baltimore and owned a shop that was looted and was a veteran of Civil Rights battles and was an expert on the history of non-violent protest etc. etc. etc? It is pretty obvious that JP would not have reacted as she did. So what does JP think? That nobody with that background would ever conceive of saying that "wanton destruction of the city and assaults on innocent people and their property accomplishes nothing"? After all, the majority of the protesters were nonviolent, Freddie Gray's family members have rejected the violence, etc. Why does JP know better than them?

What really concerns me (and it applies to far more social issues than this one) is that JP equates "I don't need to 'discuss' with white people whether it's ok for black people to be violently upset about being oppressed" with her actually knowing anything about policies, about criminal justice, about the effectiveness of social movements, about politics, etc! Identity and experience are extremely important, and discussions are rarely neutral towards them. But they do not replace knowledge and thought. Sooo many of the facebook posts about Baltimore come from people (and I'm one of them) who just aren't knowledgeable enough about the relevant issues to have anything interesting or valuable to say. We should spend our time finding and reading the experts on the issues we care about, if we're going to pretend to be part of any activist movement.

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