Yesterday, I wrote, Sam Harris’ Limited Tribalism. In it, I knocked him for starting the course of injustice at the attacks on 9/11 — as though there were no history before that. Any reasonable person should understand that the people who attacked us — rightly or wrongly — thought their attacks were justified by earlier actions. Similarly, the United States always dated the Cold War back to the Soviet takeover of East Berlin. But the Soviet Union dated it back pretty much to the beginning of its own existence. The same thing goes on in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This isn’t to say that one starting time is more valid than another. But the starting time determines who the heroes and villains are.
As a result, I was very pleased to see that last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, The Clock Didn’t Start With the Riots. Obviously it didn’t. But just as obviously, those who claim that it did are trying to define a narrative. To take an extreme example, I’m sure that throughout the German establishment in the late 1930s, people referred to the Jewish resistance as a bunch of terrorists. And just like now, the establishment wants to claim that while the African American community may have some grievances, this violence is unacceptable. Of course, when the violence was being acted on the African American community day after day, the establishment didn’t care enough to make grand pronouncements about how violence is never acceptable.
The following cartoon featuring Martin Luther King Jr has been making its way around the internet. It is from the time when he was doing all the work that people now whitewash into inoffensiveness so that even Republicans can celebrate him. It features a reporter talking to King, who says, “I plan to lead another non-violent march tomorrow.” Around them is a city on flame. What’s even more interesting is that someone at the time wrote on it, “How can you, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, be such a deceitful hypocrite. You’re not fooling anyone but yourself in your nauseating talk about non-violence.” There is more, but you get the idea.
When I look at the history of African Americans, I see a continuum. It is much the same as the treatment of the poor generally, in that it shows how the power elite manage to constantly adapt to threats they see. But for black citizens, it is at a much worse level. First there was slavery. Almost immediately after its abolition, other means of control were established — most notably Jim Crow laws. After the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s, the power elite again adapted in the form of economic segregation, the “war on drugs,” and the continued assault on voter rights. But these don’t lead on the evening news. In fact, they are never even mentioned.
My older sister — who doesn’t pay attention to politics — asked me why people were rioting in Baltimore. She had heard about that and that it was based on the police killing some kid. But she asked, “Don’t they see that this is counterproductive?” That’s the way most people look at it. Of course, the protests were going on for more than a week before there was any violence. It just didn’t get the kind of blanket coverage that is necessary for it to become big news.
The main thing is that the protests — peaceful and not — are based on a longer view of history. America generally has the memory of a scorpion. If someone hits us, we have no memory of doing anything to have caused that — because we have no memory at all. But we need to develop a memory. Because lacking a memory just allows the power elite to continue to oppress us. We don’t treat the African American community in Baltimore bad because of the way it sometimes acts out; it sometimes acts out because we treat it badly.