Blood stained the street a few days before we moved into our home in Hartford, CT. in 1997. Our welcome block party was to be a vigil. It smelled of something rancid perfumed in eulogies of self-righteousness.
The corner down the street had become a transit point for the drug trade, already in its decline. One of the residents, Jay Boland, had taken on the role of vigilante for the street, defending it against the predations of the gang members. He carried a .38 calibre Smith and Wesson, once made down the road in Springfield, MA. Boland, the gangsters later said, used to sit in his car on the street with his gun in his lap. If any of them walked around, he’d threaten them. They claimed that on at least one occasion, Boland had used racist language against them. One hot August night, Boland returned home at 1am, confronted Samuel Davis near his home and –as Maxine Bernstein of the Hartford Courant wrote the story – “at least one neighbour heard an exchange of words, followed by one gunshot, a pause, and then a burst of gunfire.” The police accused Davis of shooting Boland first, and then Boland returned fire with his gun. Boland died in a neighbour’s arms, while Davis, bleeding, made a getaway, only to be later arrested.
In court, Davis flailed about, calling the Judge a Nazi and suggesting that the police had given the actual killer a deal while stringing him up. The press at that time characterized Davis as someone out of touch with reality. Another way to see it is that Davis well knew what was coming – he got a 100-year sentence. “You did post-graduate work in street crime,” said the Judge. It was open and shut.
No candle at the vigil was shaped like a .38, nor was one burning out the obscenities that might have polluted the languid air. It was clear to my neighbours that Boland was the hero, and that Davis the criminal. Even if Davis was a “post-graduate” in street crime, what made Boland a hero? The West End of Hartford had become a bastion of liberalism – lots of college professors and social workers, liberal preachers and massage therapists. The red meat of conservatism was not to be found here. “We moved to Hartford,” a man told me proudly. It was enough of a badge to live here, even with this anxiousness, to prove post-racism. It is the urban way of saying “we have Black friends,” which is now politically expressed as “we have a Black president.” Because these things happen – where you live, who your friends are, who your president is – seems sufficient to inoculate one from the structures of racism that encage not only our homes but our imagination. What was a Connecticut Yankee doing, sitting in his car, not far from Mark Twain’s home, with a police special in his lap, threatening drug dealers as they strayed from the corner?
What was George Zimmerman doing in his Honda Ridgeline, driving around Sanford, Florida, looking for trouble? If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a suit and driving a BMW, Zimmerman would have resented him – envy refracted through an enduring sense of racial hierarchy. That is why so many wealthy African Americans in fancy cars find themselves being unduly pulled over by white police officers – just checking, I suppose, if the car has been stolen. But Martin, age 17, had on a hoodie, which does not evoke resentment for the racist consciousness – only a strange mixture of fear and anger. If it were fear alone that struck Zimmerman, he would have turned off and driven home, left a lot of distance between himself and the person who he would have seen as a predator. But the racist consciousness does not experience fear without anger – it is the latter that forces him to go on the hunt. He had to get the target.
Zimmerman forced the confrontation, held out the gun and pulled the trigger. That is beyond question. What he did had been legally sanctified by the State of Florida. Zimmerman was Florida’s domestic drone, hovering around in his Ridgeline, looking for the “bad guys,” asking the home base – in this case the local police station – for permission to engage and then going in for the kill. Nothing he had done from the minute he began to stalk Martin was illegal, just as nothing is illegal to the drone operators as they set their Reapers into flight and let loose their Hellfire missiles on some unsuspecting “bad guys” who are en route to a wedding or just going out to get some kebabs on the ridge. Black youth on American streets or “military-age males” in the badlands of Af-Pak and Yemen are in the strike zone – combatants, as the White House put it of the latter, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” If there is such intelligence (over the killing of 16 year old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in 2011, for example) the US does not apologize for it, but in private the President says he is “surprised” and “upset.” No one was charged with Abdulrahman’s murder, and if they were, they’d say that they stood their ground in killing all in the strike zone. Zimmerman and the drone operators fire the shot – but the ideology comes from above their pay grade.
Long before the financial crisis of 2007, it was plain that the US economy was in disarray. Jobless growth and credit-funded consumerism fuelled the growth rate. But beneath that lurked a growing social divide. During the Clinton years (1993-2000) society was laid on the rack as the new economic policies ratcheted widening social inequality. The elites knew what they were doing – in a landscape of joblessness, they cast off the indigent (Welfare Reform) and sent them to prison (Crime Bill). The future was left to the resilience of families and communities and to the underground economies (legal and illegal). Chronic joblessness, with a collapse of state institutions to expand the social wage, is met by an increase in the means of repression (police and jails) and the ideology of consumerism. It is a dangerous social soup. Michaelann Bewsee of Springfield’s Arise for Social Justice calls these neighbourhoods “an economic dustbowl.”
Parallel to the defeat of the US working-class in the 1990s, thrown into chronic unemployment and debt, was the rise of multiculturalism. To actually settle the aged question of racism, the State and society would have to uncover and unravel the ligaments of power. But this was not possible short of a major social transformation. Instead, the State and society encouraged a mild social policy – multiculturalism – which afforded the most talented and fortunate of the oppressed populations to become shining emblems of racism’s end. Look, these darker bodies suggest, we have arrived. But what is always in question is what this we refers to – to those few who have arrived or those many whose Sisyphean journey to the American Dream is to be short-circuited by someone else’s arrival. Obama is the president, ergo racism is over. What had succeeded over the course of the 1990s and into the 2000s was not anti-racism, but multiculturalism, whose success did not undermine racism. In fact, multiculturalism’s success sharpened racism. Obama’s ascent sharpened resentment, as does the sight of a Black family in a fancy car. What we live in now is what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the stagnant equality of sameness.” Integration with resentment, King suggested, is not a community. It is stagnant because there is little hope of transcending the resentment. It is sameness because there is no understanding that ancient inequalities that have now hardened cannot be simply wished away. They have to be confronted and overcome.
Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were teenagers, young children eager to make something of themselves in this world. To the eyes of the racist consciousness neither were human – they were threats to be liquidated. The awful immediacy of vigilante justice is back, with bearers of this terrifying reality being its executioners – a Zimmerman here, a drone operator there. In a society that seems to only doff its cap to the military and the police, it is no wonder that ordinary civilians want to be associated with that kind of heroism. They believe that heroism is to be found on the trigger end of a gun or a missile. But real heroism might be found elsewhere – in the byways of US society where ordinary people are working hard to transform this ghastly jobless growth engine into something meaningful. The real heroes are the one who will organize the Justice for Trayvon rallies, raising awareness amongst their neighbours of the social costs of the policies plotted by the elites. If people like Zimmerman dreamed a little less about being a hero in the conventional sense, he’d have lived a more generous life. As someone put it on Twitter, wouldn’t it have been nice if on February 26, 2012, a man in a Honda Ridgeline pulled up beside a teenager out to get some snacks in the pouring rain and asked him if he wanted a ride home?
Vijay Prashad will be in conversation with his editor Andy Hsiao (Verso Books) at the Brecht Forum on July 24 in New York City on his new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.