My fatalism helps me to stay sane. In a world where unspeakable violence is commonplace, inequality is endemic, and rapacious greed is steadily rendering our planet uninhabitable, acceptance that we are, as a species, pretty much screwed, is often the only thing between me and debilitating depression. My fatalism isn’t nihilistic; I still believe that our individual actions matter. I think that changing one person’s life for the better – even if only for a moment – is worthwhile. But my hope for lasting, systemic change – and thus my political involvement – is minimal
Sometimes, though, an event is so outrageous, so sickening, that I am unable to remain detached, even if I have little faith that my actions will have any effect. Such was the case with the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, three unarmed black males (one of them a 12-year-old child) by police. As of this writing, grand juries have acquitted the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner of any wrongdoing.
These are, of course, not the only instances of police brutality and inappropriate use of force against unarmed people of color in America. This shit happens all the time, every day. But the high-profile nature of the recent cases penetrated my apathy and made me feel the need to do something.
So I went to a protest.
We met at Westlake center; there were maybe seventy people present. We marched through downtown, chanted, held several “speak-outs” and “die-ins,” during which we lay down in intersections for four and a half minutes, in remembrance of Michael Brown (whose body lay in the street for four and a half hours after he was gunned down by a police).
During the speak-outs, the person who wanted to talk would yell “mic check!” with the crowd echoing their words so that everyone could hear them. Among the moving exhortations and cogent points, there were more than a few off-topic rants and rambling soliloquies. There were lots of young people, a few anarchists, and some revolutionary communists. I was there to protest racially biased policing practices and the deeply entrenched racism that lets murderous cops walk free. But there were a few people there who sought nothing less than the complete overthrow of the U.S. government.
For the duration of the protest, we were surrounded by cops – mostly on bicycles, though there were some officers on foot and on motorcycles, and police vehicles circled the periphery of the march.
A 2011 Department of Justice investigation found that the Seattle Police Department regularly engaged in unconstitutional use of force and biased policing practices. However, the cops last night demonstrated restraint and professionalism. At one point, a young white guy screamed in an officer’s face, demanding his name and badge number. Although I certainly agree that police are not above the law, that they are obliged to display their name and badge number in accordance with policy, screaming directly into a cop’s ear struck me as counterproductive and at odds with the spirit of peaceful protest.
During one speak-out, another young white man yelled, “I am not afraid of the police!” Neither, apparently, was the guy yelling at the bike cop. The irony of this was apparently lost on them: because they are white, they have the luxury of acting out their juvenile rebellion against authority by intentionally provoking the cops. It made me intensely uncomfortable to see an officer being confronted and yelled at; he was just doing his job, and made an admirable effort to retain his composure. Doubly uncomfortable, though, was the realization that, had the kid been black, the interaction probably would have ended very differently.
During the march, one person was arrested: a petite sixteen-year-old white girl with a cute face and long blond hair. She’d been trying to get people to surge past the police lines and take over the sidewalks. As the police pinned her to the ground and cuffed her, one protester (another young white guy) yelled, “She’s a hero!”
It’s necessary and legitimate for white people to speak out against systemic racism and injustice; that’s why I was there. But, intermingled with protesters who were genuinely concerned with police accountability in the cases at hand, there seemed to be a few white kids who were mostly interested in testing authority and trash-talking the cops. I’m sure the girl who was arrested meant well; but from my perspective, her actions seemed superfluous and attention-grabby.
At the end of the protest, when all but about twenty of us had peeled off, a guy started singing “Jesus loves me;” the march’s communist organizer shook his head in disgust, saying, “Oh HELL no!”
I was left with a vague feeling of unease. I was glad to have participated, to have lent my voice to a collective outcry of rage and grief. And yet… there were some unsettling aspects. The lack of organization and seemingly divergent aims of the participants. The troubling nature of some of the slogans: I felt really weird chanting “I can’t breathe!” At first, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” seemed like a poignant reminder of the fact that so many people of color wantonly shot by the police are unarmed. But, as discussed here, it is also a gesture of defeat, in stark contrast to the defiant power of a raised fist.
I believe that public protests are worthwhile – and necessary. I believe in exercising my right to speak out against injustice. Non-violent protest can be a driver of profound and meaningful change. But I have to admit that last night didn’t exactly deal a blow to my fatalism…