The Race Files – Marching for Eric Garner and Akai Gurley

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A Comment on Comments

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After the eventful Mike Brown rally, I was excited to see how much conversation there was in the media about police brutality, over-militarization and the general state of racial injustice that still exists in America. With the decision not to indict Eric Garner’s killers, there was reason for fresh outrage. I also harbored some hope that with Garner, all but the blind would be forced to see the crisis: here was a man seeking only a chance to explain himself, his last moments crystal-clearly as non-violent as Gandhi’s, being killed on a public sidewalk by a police force so out of control with authority and ego that they could not hear the man they were crushing cry out for air.

However, in my perusing, I stumbled across this. As Grand Dragon McManus clearly explains, only Eric Garner is to blame for his own death, as trying to negotiate a peaceful outcome and trying to breathe clearly constitute resisting arrest. The air went out of my balloon as irreversibly as it went out of Garner’s lungs.

Well, I didn’t want one white man’s racist opinion to ruin my mood, but the more I read about the events, the more the shape of the ugly behemoth started to become apparent. I suppose it had always been there, but it was emerging into clarity from the mist now, hideous, threatening and obstinate.

It was the comments that got me. I would read stories about Mike Brown and Eric Garner and scroll helplessly to the comments section, like a moth drawn to flame. This is where the danger lurked. Many of the comments were from the facebook plugin, and featured white, middle-aged men and women saying things that essentially amounted to “Eric Garner got what he deserved.” I was ready for the victim-blaming with Mike Brown. After all, he got into a physical fight with a lone police officer, which in contemporary black life is something like wrestling a bear: If you live to tell the tale, you have been fortunate.

Eric Garner was supposed to be different though. This was (to borrow from Clarence Thomas) a high-tech lynching. High-tech in the sense that although the man was killed in a nearly real-time youtube broadcast, we somehow managed to allow the towering, ephemeral structure of legal, societal, and governmental complexes to stand between what happened that day, and the meaning of what happened that day. For example, there is still no definitive answer on whether the chokehold that precipitated Garner’s death was legal, illegal or “banned.” There is a creeping vagueness surrounding what seems to be very simple evidence, and it is clearly motivated not by simple morals or ethics, but by issues of race and power.

This is why the space alien test is a useful one here. That is, if you showed the tape of Garner’s arrest/killing to space aliens, how would they interpret what takes place in the video? How much context, presented in what way, would be necessary to convince the aliens that it was necessary for Garner to be wrestled down forcefully and and left dying on the sidewalk?

But alas, the commenters. One hallmark of double consciousness is reading subtext into white speech about racial incidents. One of the lasting victories won by the civil rights movement and liberal politics in general is political correctness. People, particularly conservatives, perennially bemoan this concept, but it has undeniable value for the people it protects. There are no effective[1] derogatory words for white people. Really, only minorities and the economically, physically and sexually marginalized stand to suffer from insensitive terminology.

However, the unintended consequence of this progress has been the evolution of hate language. It has become subtle and clever. A recent example is the ascent of the word “thug” to substitute N-word, and the subsequent battle between whites claiming it for continued use, and blacks calling for its retirement.

But beyond simple name-calling, the ideas behind George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton and Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens are still alive and well. The sentiment du jour is an old, depressing one – that poor black males are permanently guilty of some criminality, or else character flaw – one that makes them disdain steady jobs, have children out of wedlock, commit petty crime, and use and sell drugs. Here’s the upsetting part: because of this blanket guilt in the eyes of larger society, any measure of force used to neutralize these “thugs” is instantly justified. This is why the convenience store footage of Mike Brown, and the untaxed cigarette allegations and past arrests of Eric Garner have become such a part of the debate. For many white internet commenters, these pieces of evidence are enough to justify the deaths of both men. Many of the comments surrounding this sentiment has an almost celebratory feel: “There’s one lazy-ass nigger who won’t be picking up his welfare check on the 1st,” is how some of the comments feel like they read – when read through the lens of double-consciousness. Am I being a little defensive? Sure. Paranoid? Definitely not. Some of the messages are subtle in their coding, and some of them or not. Regardless, one can feel the hate behind them like heat off a stove. Most of them say the same thing, with different degrees of venom: Those thugs deserved the deaths they got.

Let’s face it – the police are, generally speaking, the only people who are sanctioned to mete out deadly violence in America’s public and private spaces. As such, one can sometimes get the sense that they are the outlet for many of the violent fantasies that swirl within in the American psyche. This is why such internet hoorahs seem to be going up as the debate continues over Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the countless others.

These hoorahs got me down. Way down. I felt like the enemy had multiplied, to a force far greater than a few wayward institutions. The police may seem like a runaway gang to myself and others, but for many they are still the ideal manifestation of a widespread desire for a well-armed, highly trained peacekeeping force. Their enemy is still a marginalized American who is somehow getting away with something, whether in a literal law-breaking sense, or, more dangerously, in some larger moral sense. The penalty for non-compliance with the judgments exerted on their lives – a steady stream of harassment, suspicion, violence and disrespect – goes up to and includes death. We call ourselves the people and they call themselves the taxpayers. The taxpayers have the police on their side, and they are excited about it.

I’m not excited about it, and the situation makes me feel unsafe in my own skin. Our struggle as the people is to make everyone, including the taxpayers, understand how unfair this selective security is. If Eric Garner’s death doesn’t make a dent in their front, I worry that it might be nearly impossible for us to get our point across.

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[1]I would argue that in order to actually be hurtful, slurs and epithets must point to either a historical injury or a current state of injustice. Middle class white people have little to worry about on this front, having enjoyed a run of dominance that has made whiteness synonymous with pride, potential, power and privilege. “White trash,” seems like a candidate at first blush, but really that term is just a way of being hurtful about poverty.

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The Absurd Death of Akai Gurley

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When I first read about Akai Gurley’s death, I didn’t know how to react. Sure I was angry, but mostly the incident just seemed darkly absurd. Here are a pair of young officers from the NYPD, simply going about their daily business, and they still manage to kill an unarmed black man, by accident!

The affair sounded like some kind of racially-provocative, slapstick prank gone horribly wrong – a candidate for a Social Darwin award. I could only think of it in terms of a screwball scenario, and although it seemed like a terrible idea, I decided to actually write it out. I still think I’m indulging a stupid, bad idea, but I’m posting it regardless. Consider it a “laugh bitterly to keep from crying” kind of thing. I don’t mean to in any way diminish the tragic death of Mr. Gurley, nor to impugn the actors whose names I used. Consider it my way of expressing my shock and sadness at the state of affairs. One can only hope that justice is served in this case, despite its recent poor batting average.

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No Verticals

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Seth Rogen and James Franco are young NYPD officers. They have been partners for a short time, and as one of their first patrols together, they are tasked with patrolling the Louis H. Pink Houses, a cluster of public housing towers in Brooklyn.

The two are walking a perimeter around the site of the houses. It is early evening. Though alert for developing threats, the two are walking slowly, enjoying the mild weather and having a conversation.

Seth Rogen: So then I said, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you scream or moan can be used against you, blah blah blah. If you cannot afford a contraceptive, one will be provided for you.”

James Franco: Then you put the cuffs on her?

SR: Oh yeah, but then guess what dude, after we were done – and it was glorious, by the way – I couldn’t find the fucking key!

JF: Those things have an emergency release though, right?

SR: Emergency release? They better not [jingles handcuffs on utility belt]. Standard issue. All I did was hot glue some pink fur onto them. Ain’t no emergency release.

JF: [Laughing] No shit dude? Then what did you do?

SR: Well, I had to play it off like I was just messing with her, but all that shit about positive identification and a cavity searches doesn’t play so well when the foreplay was an hour ago, and she’s getting all chilled from the gallons and gallons of love sweat…

They approach a stairwell door and James Franco reaches to open it. Seth Rogen hesitates for a second.

SR: Whoa, I thought we were just doing a perimeter. The sergeant said “No verticals.” I remember it like I remember my first blowjob – “No verticals.”

JF: The first one you gave, or the first one you received?

SR: Haw fucking haw, very funny. Let’s get back to the cruiser and go.

JF: Aw c’mon man! We would be derelict in our duty as police officers if we didn’t secure these stairwells. Who knows what kind of criminal activity could be happening in there.

SR: I dunno…

JF: Dude, the view from the roof is choice. It’ll only take a few minutes, plus, a little exercise never hurts.

SR: [Looks down at his stomach] What’s that supposed to mean!?

Seth Rogen opens his mouth to protest further, but James Franco has already opened the door and slipped through. Seth Rogen lets out a sigh and follows.

The rooftop door opens. James Franco smiles and walks toward the parapet and a grand view of New York. His face is lit by the orange rays of sunset. Seth Rogen takes a few shaky steps forward, before putting his hands on his knees and panting for breath.

SR: [Breathing heavily] Oh holy shit man, I need my inhaler.

JF: Isn’t it magnificent? I wonder if the people who live here even appreciate it. If they did they’d be out here right now. [Pause] I wonder if you even appreciate it, Officer Rogen.

Rogen doesn’t answer, and after a moment James Franco looks back to find him smoking marijuana from a sleek, matte-black pipe.

JF: What are you doing!? We’re on patrol.

SR: Chill out dude. What are you, a cop or something?

JF: [Rolls his eyes] Gimme that. [Shields the lighter with his body takes a hit]

SR: Remember that part in The Matrix where they’re on the roof and Neo dodges the bullets?

JF: [Looking down and puffing] Hell yeah dude. That part was fucking sick. I used to practice that in the mirror in my dorm room and shit. I even dressed like that for a while. I got the long coat and the sunglasses and everything.

SR: Remember the part right after that?

JF: Hmm?

James Franco raises his head to feel the tip of Seth Rogen’s gun resting directly on his right temple. Rogen stands to Franco’s right, his arm fully extended. Rogen is wearing a serious expression and there is a strange light in his eye.

SR: Dodge this.

JF: [Jumping back and coughing on smoke] Jesus fucking Christ dude, don’t fuck around like that! Goddamn it man, you ruined my high and shit.

SR: [Laughing] Chill out dude, the safety was on. If that freaks you out, what are you gonna do when you’re in the bathtub and there’s a shotgun barrel in your mouth – the cold steel hitting you in the teeth and shit.

JF: Did you just sit in a separate room and watch movies, while the rest of us were actually training to become police officers?

The two finish the bowl and walk back to the roof access door. James Franco pulls out his firearm and flashlight and holds them in the distinctive arrangement he learned in training.

SR: Geez man, what are you expecting? You didn’t do that on the way up.

JF: [Staring straight ahead] Well it’s pitch-black in those stairwells, and thanks to you I’m feeling pretty fucking paranoid right now.

Seth Rogen shakes his head and opens the door for James Franco.

The officers descend. Their chatter has been reduced to short, terse exchanges. They pass through the door to the 8th floor landing, and as James Franco rounds the corner to the stairs, his gun goes off. There is a bright flash and the black pistol seems to jump in his hand. There is a distinctively human “urk” sound from the bottom of the flights of stairs, followed by rustling, thumping noises, and what sounds like the low but frantic murmur of a woman’s voice. The cops retreat in a flurry of panic, finally both getting behind the door and closing it.

SR: Jesus fucking shit man! What the hell was that!?

JF: It was an accident! I saw a silhouette!

SR: A silhouette!? What the fuck is this, a burlesque house? The Phantom of the Opera? You saw a person is what you mean, right?

JF: I – I don’t know what I saw… What are you doing?

SR: [Packing the marijuana pipe] I can’t fucking deal with this man. I’m freaking out.

JF: So you’re just going to fucking smoke a bowl right now?

SR: Hey. You’re the one who might have just shot somebody, why don’t you go see if they need help?

JF: …Fuck you dude.

SR: [Exhaling smoke] Fuck me? This isn’t about me. You’re the one who wanted to go creeping around like Max Payne and shit.

JF: [Grabbing bowl and lighter] Gimme that. [Handing cell phone to Rogen] You text Bartlett.

SR: Bartlett?

JF: Yes, fucking Albert Bartlett, our union rep. You met him after commencement with me. He shook our hands and said “If you ever need anything, just get in touch with me.”

SR: …We should really go check on that guy.

JF: What guy? I didn’t see a guy. Just fucking text Bartlett and tell him there was an accident and that we’re going to need the union’s unequivocal backing.

SR: What’s the address here?

JF: I don’t fucking know. Pink House number goddamn infinity plus one. All these shithole rat’s nests look the same to me.

Seth Rogen looks up briefly, surprised to hear his partner talk this way. He is still texting when a woman’s wail rises from the dark stairwell.

SR: [Presses send] Jesus Christ. This is not what I signed up for. Not what I signed up for at all.

James Franco grabs Seth Rogen by the collar. His face is half in shadow.

JF: Listen to me, we’re in this together alright? You got no choice, I got no choice. Whatever happened happened, and there’s no going back now. I know you might feel like we’re buddies Rogen, but you don’t really know me at all, and I can assure you that if you decide to act funny, there’s no telling…

Another wails sounds from the stairwell, louder this time. Seth Rogen knocks aside James Franco’s hands and reverses the collar grip.

SR: There’s more to me than meets the eye too, Franco. I’m very, very stubborn. If I make up my mind to help you, I’ll be with you till the end. But if you decide to go against me, I’ll fight you until the end of the world. Now listen to me. It’s time for us to be public servants, and go down there to assist the person you may have just shot. Got me?

JF: [Taken aback] Yeah – Yeah you’re right. [Smiles slowly] And hey man, we’ll be alright. We’re proud officers of the New York Police Department, remember? The whole precinct’s got our back. The fucking union too. Plus, you saw what happened, it was an accident. This shit’ll blow over without us ever seeing the inside of a courtroom, and before you know it we’ll be fighting the good fight again. In the meantime – paid leave dude. Let’s take a trip to fucking Morocco or something. I hear you can buy hashish in one-gallon tubs over there.

SR: [Quietly] Yeah. Morocco. Hashish.

Seth Rogen releases James Franco’s collar and pulls out his flashlight. He leaves his gun holstered. James Franco holsters his gun and readies his flashlight. Seth Rogen speaks into his radio – which has been chattering away quietly for several minutes – then opens the landing door. The officers round the corner and start downstairs, yelling “Police!” and “NYPD!” as they descend.

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