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The Violence from Below

Last night, I left work and headed home on the train just as the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement was wrapping up. My loved ones were already in downtown Oakland joining the mass protests. I sat on the train staring at the live reports and feeds, full of horror, fury, shame, and sickness at the predictable refusal of justice. Being on crutches still, I had let my loved ones persuade me that I couldn’t safely or effectively join the protests, but as the horror surged through me it was hard to keep myself from going there. Going home as if it were just another evening felt terribly wrong.

The night was full of outrage. As it must be when violent injustice by the state is being perpetuated. And some of that outrage expressed itself violently. Yes: along with the peaceful protests, there was some looting, property destruction, burning of cars and buildings. That happened.

So let’s talk about looting. I want, particularly, to talk to my white friends who think of themselves as allies and supporters of people of color, or even as activists, who want to support the “protesters” but who wish to distance themselves from the “looters”; who passionately cheer for “protests” but write disparaging tweets against those protests being allowed to turn into “riots”.

Here’s the thing. Communities of color are living under violent oppression every day. Sorry; let me correct that: People of color are DYING under violent oppression every day. This is not a metaphor. This is a people being gunned down in the street by their own state, while also being constantly demonized, marginalized, disenfranchised, silenced, and incarcerated. The Ferguson case is just ONE microcosm manifestation of the police violence that visits communities of color every single day.

And you say, of course you don’t agree with that violence. Of course you want that to change. But you want it to change peacefully. You want to see inspiring peaceful protests that overcome injustice through the power and beauty of love and commitment to peaceful action.  You know, like in the movies about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

In short, you expect the oppressed, struggling, grieving, violated people to behave like saints and martyrs while fighting to survive. Resistance against violent oppression is grand and inspiring – so long as it’s genteel.

But it doesn’t work that way. Ferguson has been in the streets every single day since Mike Brown was slaughtered, protesting peacefully with virtually zero violence. Did they get justice? You say, burning cop cars and looting convenience stores isn’t justice. No, of course it isn’t, and the people who are doing it know that it isn’t. It is resistance against the continuing pressure of injustice – and it’s resistance that, while escalated relative to a peaceful march, is still not escalated to anything approaching the lethal violence being visited against these communities.

“So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue.”

–Tim Wise

This is the violence from above: The state kills unarmed Black kids every single day. More Black kids have been killed by police within the Ferguson area just in the 109 days since Mike Brown’s death. A Black person is shot to death by police every 28 hours.

That these violated communities still limit themselves to occasional property destruction in attempting to finally, finally have their outrage heard in fact speaks to an incredible degree of patience. That’s not enough for you? You need to see a perfectly measured, contained, and absolutely damage-free resistance to state-sponsored killings of people of color or you’ll withdraw your support? Is that what it means to be an ally?

We also need to talk about property. The value of property vis-a-vis the value of human life. The thing is, property is what this society values above all else. Thus, it’s destruction of property that gets heard. This is why looting happens. It is not just opportunistic greed. It is pushback against the violence from above. It is a specific and targeted form of resistance against the regime of property, which has been used by this society to justify the enslavement and lethal oppression of Black people since day one. The specific history of race in America is the story of property being privileged above humanity, to the extent that human beings were made into property, and though that practice was legally abolished, the cultural mores underpinning it remain rampant now. If this was not still our reality, we would not see people who said nothing about the killing of Black youth getting outraged about destruction of property.

So I want to ask you. Go think about what you’ve said regarding Ferguson and race relations lately. Go look at your tweets and posts. Go look back at your friends’ posts. If the first time you bothered to speak out about Ferguson was to cast judgement on looters, then you have some unexamined racism you need to work on. If your friends have responded in this way, then you have some unexamined racism in your social environment you need to work on. If you want to be an ally, go work on that.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I see it crimson, I see it red

The black birds thunder overhead. Below, the combatants gather. They are marked by red. They speak the names of the dead.

It is afternoon and I am sitting quietly in the warm sun. I have taken the afternoon off from working on the book to join a peaceful demonstration against police violence and racism. Around the steps at the front of Oakland City Hall, some hundreds of people have gathered, wearing red clothing and armbands and carrying signs of protest. They have recited softly the names of youths killed recently at the hands of militarized police forces. I am sitting with friends, wearing red, holding up the names of the dead, breathing together in silent prayer.

#NMOS2014 Pic courtesy of Julia Wong ‏(@juliacarriew).

#NMOS2014
Pic courtesy of Julia Wong ‏(@juliacarriew).

 

The demonstration was planned as a “national moment of silence”. Silence doesn’t come, though. Helicopters beat the air overhead. I’m not entirely sure when the official minute of silence begins. I go on praying silently, the peace prayer I use regularly as a meditation: Sid co nem, nem co doman. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.

Beneath the beating wings, the combatants chant battle songs. They cry outrage, clamoring for justice, restitution. Light breaks over them.

The loud minute of silence has come to an end and people are beginning to rouse and cry out and chant. “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” I begin to hear the outrage beneath the calm of the demonstration. “Black lives matter!”

Speakers step forward and begin to address the crowd. I’m deep in my prayer cycle. I’m not sure if I missed a speaker before Alan Blueford’s mother steps forward and begins to speak. She speaks with power about her son, another Black youth slaughtered unarmed, going to his death with his hands raised in surrender. She speaks of her community, their exhaustion with unending oppression, racism, violence, tragedy. She speaks of the end of patience and the need for action. “And I am a mother of action!” she cries out.

I AM THE MOTHER OF ACTION.

Another voice thunders it behind hers. It echoes silently over my head, over the thrumming of the helicopters, over the crowds with their red ribbons, over Jeralynn Blueford. The Hero’s Light, or something like it, breaks open over her. Anger and passion ripple through the crowd.

I can see that this demonstration is not one that will become a pitched battle today; but I sense a hunger for confrontation here. None of these people want battle for its own sake, but they are hungry for an opportunity to confront those who wield the powers that hold in place the oppressive situation they are living in. They contain an enraged desire to confront those who have brought about all these deaths, and who still refuse to be accountable.

I am starting to grasp why, apart from my own desire to help somehow, I felt the Morrígan pushing me to come down here today.  I grip the devotional stone in my hand and I return to my prayer cycle. The stone is dry against my palm, so dry. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.

NO, comes the voice again. THE TIME OF PEACE IS NOT YET. THERE HAS NOT BEEN ENOUGH BLOOD SPILLED.

There is no bloodlust in the voice, though. I pause, sink inward and mull over what that means. I don’t think She’s saying She wants more bloodshed; the message feels impersonal, like the word of an unflinching observer. I think She’s saying that’s what it’s going to take for us to fully confront what we’re doing. I think She’s saying we can’t have peace until we can face this down, complete the confrontation with the specter of our own horrors. I find myself thinking of the seeress Fedelm, giving voice to her vision of the battle that her people have instigated for themselves.

“O Fedelm, how do you see our host?”

“I see it crimson, I see it red.”

They are all wearing red here today. And they are ready for this fight, past ready. Jeralynn Blueford is still speaking. People are echoing and responding to her words in quick, angry outbursts. I change to a new prayer: one for strength and victory. For justice. That is what these people are crying out for passionately. They are wise enough to know that before peace can come, justice has to come. The signs here say as much: “No justice/No peace” and “There can be no justice without struggle”.

I am reflecting on conversations I’ve seen recently, on the subjects of peace and war, violence and nonviolence, racism and justice. Asa West wrote this blog post, “I Have Conversed with the Morrígan about Gaza” in her blog Jewish Witch. It has provoked conversations in some Celtic polytheism forums about the nature of the Morrígan; whether She would ever advocate for a position of nonviolence as suggested in the blog. Whether it is incorrect to associate Her with peace as well as war. People have their various reactions. I think back on what I have learned of Her, and what I’ve experienced. Does She advocate for war, in Her mythology? Yes, no doubt. She is ever working to bring conflicts to a head. Sometimes, the texts say it’s so that She can revel in the carnage. But much of the time, Her motives are cryptic. Often, I think it has as much to do with observing the latent tension between conflicting forces, and bringing that tension to open battle so that it can be resolved.

There is this: Every time I’ve tried to ask Her about the merit of a particular war my country has engaged in, She has refused to answer. No, She tells me. Your wars are yours to own. Your sovereignty is your own and you must bear the weight of how you wield it. I will be there where the consequences unfold. For me at least, She never seems willing to advocate for or against. In the mythology, She gives poetic prophecies of both war and peace. But where the vision of peace comes, it is delivered together with a vision of conflict and suffering. Always presenting us with the choice, never allowing us to stand down from the consequences of choice.

There is also this I have learned: Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is more rightly to be understood as the condition of being free to live well. Freedom from violence is only one of its elements. That is to say, a situation where there is no active violence happening can still be very far from the peace we would hope for. Injustice may be enforced in the name of preserving “the peace”; but what is being served there is order, not actually peace. Where order comes at the expense of human life and dignity, and relies on coercion and threat, there is already no peace, even if there is no violence yet.  That is a condition that is neither war nor peace – and it is in that charged in-between space where we most hear Her voice inciting toward the conflict.

In Ferguson, Missouri, I’m told there were no homicides this year until the day that Michael Brown was shot dead by police this week. Someone might have said that the town was at peace. No blood had been shed. But look what latent violence was held there: That the white police force could be so tightly coiled in militarized terror and racialized contempt of its own population that the single trigger event could unleash all this violence against the people. That the Black community had been coexisting with a police force that hostile to them has to have meant coping with a constant threat to their ability to simply live daily life. This was not peace. It was simply a latent battle waiting to be unleashed. As are so many of our cities. Ferguson is no different than many places in America. On the same day I went out to the demonstration, I had to engage online with Celtic Pagans muttering veiled criticism against the idea that a Jewish woman like Asa West has a right to worship the Morrígan at all. Racism is in our culture. We cannot call this situation peace. We cannot hide in it from the conflict we have created for ourselves.

“I see it crimson, I see it red.”

I am not saying that I foresee bloodbaths needing to occur. I think we have opportunities every day to choose better ways, to choose for justice, to be more human to each other. I am hoping that the example of Ferguson may teach us something about the costs of choosing order instead of peace. I think part of its lesson, and the message I take today from the Battle Goddess, is that when the existing order has been enforced with injustice, that injustice demands to be confronted before peace can be found. That injustice represents a state of latent violence that must like a spring be uncoiled before the system can come to rest. That conflict and violence are not always antithetical to peace: peace and conflict do not exist in metaphysical opposition, but as coupled aspects of one dynamic.

And this: We have to fight for justice before the time will come when we can pray for peace.