Once upon a time I met an actor with mental health issues. Just . . . save that joke for later; I’m serious times right now. He told me that the Korean government was trying to kill him because of his political street theatre. When I tell this story, it never fails to get a laugh. Political street theatre? Harhar. No one cares about political street theatre that much! Harharhar.
In the wake of the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, protests have exploded all over the country. The internet has also predictably exploded with people condemning the rioting and looting that have been an unfortunate component of some of the protests. The theatre around this issue is fascinating, and enormously telling.
There have been peaceful protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) literally every single day since Michael Brown was killed. Here are some shots:
Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP.
Washington, DC, September 6. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.
Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images. You’ll see Scott Olson’s name on a lot of photos of Ferguson and St. Louis. You’ll also see photos of him being arrested by Ferguson police for taking pictures. Some of his fellow professional photographers caught his arrest on camera. Because evidently we’re the kind of nation that arrests journalists now.
Protestors staging a “die-in” in St. Louis, November 16. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Protests are political street theatre. The last picture shows an example of the kind of actions we’d more normally associate with “theatre,” but a protest of any sort is a performance intended to capture attention and make a certain point. The problem is: the peaceful protests were almost completely ignored. Sure, we saw some pictures early on, and the “die-in” got a little press, but by and large, Ferguson disappeared off the cultural radar within a few weeks of Brown’s death, only resurfacing as the grand jury decision was nearing. Headlines roared impending violence: “Police in Ferguson Stock Up on Riot Gear Ahead of Grand Jury Decision.” “State of Emergency Declared in Missiouri for Grand Jury’s Decision on Ferguson.” “Officials Prepare for Ferguson Grand Jury Decision, Urge Calm.” Everyone knew the grand jury would fail to indict. Even those who still had hope knew. Everyone expected there would be riots. And, amid the many peaceful protests over the past few days, there have indeed been many incidences of property damage and looting.
This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.
Cars burned during the riot the night before in Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Despite the violence and looting, most protesters are still peaceful.
Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.
Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.
The peaceful protests have been nearly completely ignored while America obsesses over the images of violence. That message is loud and clear: WE WILL NOT PAY ATTENTION TO YOU UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING DRASTIC. And when you do something drastic, well, then you lose our respect and your issue becomes secondary to our scorn.
A significant chunk of America is terrified of the future diverse America they can do nothing to stop, or don’t care about people of color, or any marginalized people, and are livid that the culture is slowly lumbering towards expecting them to care. They’re in a flat-out panic trying to stop immigration (but only from the brown countries), trying to roll back the gains of feminism either overtly (denial of birth control) or covertly, pretending it’s all about a different issue entirely (Gamergate), trying to roll back marriage equality, trying to roll back the separation of church and state, trying to roll back diversity anywhere they find it. These are the people who use “social justice warrior” as a pejorative. The terrified and the indignant.
That chunk of America is comforting itself with those images of African American looters. They make an enormous amount of theatre about the rioting and looting– little performances on TV, social media, blogs– scolding African Americans, claiming they’re demeaning their cause with riots, or that the cause itself is just a fabricated excuse for violence and looting. Thousands of little performances that accuse Black people of expressing “sadness for a death” by rioting. Performances where Martin Luther King is trotted out to posthumously scold Black people. (White people always reach for MLK when they want to scold Black people without looking racist.) Performances scolding Black people for “honoring Michael Brown with looting.” Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend this is about the death of one man, an isolated incident. Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend the looting and property damage are the most important aspects of this cultural moment.
These performances deliberately miss the point because they are only meant to comfort that terrified and/or indignant chunk of America. If the protests are just senseless riots and looting, then nothing is actually wrong and nothing needs to change. They were right all along. Case closed.
In truth, no one actually believes this is just about Michael Brown. I think, by this point, everyone understands that it’s about Michael Brown AND Amadou Diallo, John Crawford, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Kendrec McDade, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Wendell Allen, Trayvon Martin, Travares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and, just the other day, little Tamir Rice. AND MORE. So, so, so many more cases of white people killing unarmed African Americans, usually young men, because we have a culture that frames Black as a symbol for IMMINENT DANGER. White people imagine guns in the hands of unarmed Black men while they would never imagine such a thing in a similar situation with a man of a different race. They imagine a Black man walking towards them is a threat, a Black man adjusting his waistband is reaching for a gun, a Black man standing on the street is a weapon just waiting to be used against them.
I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine the anger of a community whose youth are routinely seen this way, and subsequently gunned down in the street, more often than not with impunity or the lightest of sentences, whose pain goes completely ignored or even contradicted– the terrified and indignant love nothing better than a performance about how wonderful things are now for people of color, how people of color are upset over nothing, how Black-on-Black crime or Black-on-Caucasian crime is the real issue (as if those two types of crime erase the problem). I know it’s hard to focus on a Big Problem that needs Big Work to solve. But we MUST.
I’m exhausted by people who think the riots are the most important aspect of this cultural moment, who ignore everything else. I’m exhausted by those people both because they’re using the riots to comfort themselves into believing the cause itself is worthless, and because they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: IF YOU ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO VIOLENT PROTESTS, THEN PEOPLE MUST RESORT TO VIOLENT PROTESTS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION.
African Americans are just 13% of this nation, and this issue directly involves white people. White people MUST be involved if we’re going to have justice here. Most white people completely ignored the peaceful protests. They sent their last fuck off to seek its fortune with a knapsack and a pocket full of dreams two days after Brown was shot. The ONLY thing that got their attention was violence, and the ONLY reason they suddenly decided to pay attention was that violence gave their inattention a REASON. They couldn’t post “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because the idea of losing my privilege in the face of equality terrifies me,” or “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because I don’t give a shit about social justice or racism and I’m pissed that you expect me to care.” They stayed silent until the violence gave them a handy reason not to care, and then they finally erupted in thousands and thousands of little performances demonstrating why they didn’t need to care.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King. When no one pays attention to peaceful protests, that anger, depair, and rage will boil over into violence. But MOST of the protestors, remember, are still non-violent. Most of the protest performance is still peaceful. Not that anyone notices or cares.
Of course you can decry looting and property damage while simultaneously fighting for justice. But I don’t see that in the many little performances blowing up social media. The most common theme in these is open racism. Many of the memes created aren’t even using images from Ferguson– they’re using images from other places and times. I’m seeing little racist performances like these everywhere:
“In memory of how Michael Brown lived his life. Looting isn’t a crime! It’s a tribute!”
“Not a single pair of work boots was looted in Ferguson last night.”
“The best way to end the rioting and looting in Ferguson is to hold a job fair. They’ll scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on.”
There are more. I won’t link to any of them. You’ve already seen them.
If you want to decry riots and looting while simultaneously working for justice, then by all means, do that. In actual fact, that’s what most people who support this cause are doing. While we recognize that riots, looting, and destruction of property are the language of the unheard (see Tea Party; Boston), we’re still working in peaceful ways to bring about change. But right now, we’re forced to push against a monolith of people using the violence to comfort them in their terror and apathy, and/or using the looting and property damage as a vector through which their racism can be channeled.
I wrote an article about how our culture frames Blackness as a symbol for potential danger, and how we as artists can work to change that. I’d be thrilled if you read my own little protest performance. I’d be even more thrilled if you shared it. But I’d be THE MOST thrilled if you wrote your own.
YES. WE. FUCKING. CAN. Change the country, create justice, and end racism. It’s a Big Problem that requires Big Work, and that’s scary and intimidating. You can’t do a Big Work all on your own. But a million small works add up to the Big Work. Create your own protest performance, even if it’s as small as a single meme, a single article, a single sign. Do what you can. Together, we can create so many they can’t be ignored. Let’s do this. Drown out the apathy, the fear, the hatred, the racism.