So much to unpack in this image. So terribly, terribly much. First off, Jonathan Bachman deserves a Pulitzer for this. I understand right place, right time, perfect timing on the shutter, but this is an iconic photo. Iesha Evans stands like a perfect statue of peace, eyes closed against the oncoming wave, arms crossed in front of her as if containing her power. Her dress is caught ever so lightly by the breeze, giving her an ethereal, almost angelic quality, as if she’s just landed. The riot officers, (thankfully) slowing, appear to be encountering her aura and repulsed by it.
That’s just the composition.
The reality is that Ms. Evans is about to be dragged down and zip-cuffed by two men more heavily armored than combat soldiers, men both nearly twice her size. She represents zero threat. No reasonable onlooker would conclude that she is armed. She is not in any way aggressive. She is peacefully protesting, but committing the ultimate crime of blocking a thoroughfare. For this, the police deemed greater than military force was necessary.
Putting aside that I’m presented with yet another peaceful civilian being brutalized by a police force unconcerned with “serve and protect” and fattened on years of cheap military surplus, I have a different problem with this image and what it represents. It’s almost too perfect. It might actually work. It might start to change public opinion about how policing is handled. That’s great, but my question is: why this one? Why this image? Why this woman?
Because we’re looking for Black Jesus.
These protests arose out of the general impression that minorities, particularly African-Americans, are assumed by the legal system to be guilty until proven innocent, unworthy of justice if they are, subject to summary punishment, that the system is unaccountable when it errs concerning their rights. I could recite a litany of names here, but it would seem incomplete because there will be another one horrifyingly soon. The largest issue is that even when the dead black (typically) man has done nothing to warrant roadside execution, the narrative always circles back to assume he somehow deserved it, somehow brought it on himself. Maybe he was a criminal a decade ago. Maybe he was rude. Maybe he had a toy gun. Maybe he was being suspicious.
In 1956, Rosa Parks was hauled off to jail for not giving up her seat on a bus. Her’s wasn’t the first case, in fact, there was already a case working through the legal system that would successfully end Montgomery’s bus segregation. But why were the women involved in that suit not raised up as icons of the Civil Rights movement like Parks was? The first one to be arrested, Claudette Colvin, well, she was 15 and girl had a mouth on her. She wouldn’t play well in the media. She wasn’t a good face for the movement. She wasn’t the Black Jesus they needed to show the injustice. Similarly, all of these people who’ve wound up dead after interacting non-violently with police have been somehow less-than-holy. Michael Brown may have robbed a store. Freddie Gray was packing a knife. Sandra Bland may have mouthed off to an officer. Eric Garner was selling cigarettes. Alton Sterling had a record. No qualifiers for Black Jesus there.
Now we have Philando Castille, who, by all accounts, was a model citizen. Gunned down without hesitation in his car after informing the officer that he was going to produce his permit to carry, Castille seems like the perfect person to hold up and say “this man did everything right.” He yielded to the officer when pulled over. He informed the officer that he was legally carrying. He followed all of the motions, and still wound up bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds.
But, like Jesus, he hung out with a woman who may have been less than the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, and if there’s one thing this Christian Nation cannot tolerate, it’s someone who is not white and less than perfect. So maybe he’s not our Black Jesus after all.
It’s possible that Iesha Evans is the Black Jesus of protesters. Maybe not. I’m sure we’ll hear in the coming days how she once got a B on a midterm or said a bad word once, or was in some way less than perfect, justifying her treatment in the scene in which she’s been immortalized. But maybe we need to stop looking for Black Jesus. Maybe we need to stop looking for that perfection and understand that we’ve already seen enough to know that there is brutal injustice going on in this nation. Half of the country lives in fear of the law, lives with a sense that they are not equal under the law, lives with examples that they can be refused justice without repercussions. Even if this is just a perception problem, it’s a problem. We need to stop looking for a savior to be crucified before our eyes to start working for salvation.
Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a hoax bomb. That’s the official reason for his arrest. But that’s not why he was arrested. The why of why he was arrested is a little more complicated, but it boils down pretty succinctly to bigotry, xenophobia, and terrorism.
Let’s get a few things straight, this wasn’t a “post-9/11 overreaction.” This was a number of people actively taking their racism out on a 13-year-old boy. There was, at no point in the ordeal, an actual fear or even belief that he had made a bomb or even intended to make a device that people would believe was a bomb. Ahmed’s English teacher decided that it would be better to err on the side of lynching than let this opportunity to be a terrible example to the class pass by. Upon seeing the clock, the teacher declared that it looked like a bomb, despite Ahmed’s calm protests that it didn’t.
This teacher, this brave first responder, then had Ahmed taken out of class. Note that the teacher didn’t immediately call for a lockdown and evacuate the class. The teacher didn’t actually think that it was a bomb and the teacher at no point believed that there was any danger. The teacher was (to use the accurate terminology) a fucking asshole racist bigoted xenophobe who had found the perfect excuse to toss the local Muslim kid to the wolves. But the fun didn’t stop with Ahmed’s English teacher.
Upon being escorted to the office, highly not dangerous clock in tow, the police were called. Someone in the office called the police on a 13-year-old with a clock. They did not call the police and say HOLY FUCK THERE IS A BOMB HERE SEND HELP, because a few officers showed up in orderly fashion, not the entire bomb squad. Helicopters did not circle. Students were not evacuated. CNN was not on scene in minutes. No one at any time actually thought this was a bomb.
Ahmed, for his part, consistently maintained that he had made a clock. He did not mention to anyone that this was a device intended to emulate a bomb.
The police arrived, and began questioning Ahmed, who asked to speak to his parents. That request was denied, because he was “in the middle of an interrogation.” I understand that the maximum IQ for a police officer is at least 24 points lower than the minimum to get into Mensa, but even the most barely-functional police officer should know that this is a blatant violation of a person’s Constitutional rights. So it’s safe to say that the intent here was not to discern whether there was any threat here, it was to intimidate. The interrogation was simply to send the message “your freedom is at our whim.”
After the interrogation, this cooperative, whip thin 13-year-old boy, who could have been snapped like a twig by any of the officers, and that everyone knew was not building a bomb, was handcuffed, “for his safety and for the safety of the officers,” in full view of his peers, and frog-marched to the local precinct, where he was processed and charged with creating a hoax bomb.
He was wearing a NASA t-shirt. I don’t claim to know a lot of jihadis, but I can bet that none of them have screamed “DEATH TO AMERICA EXCEPT FOR YOUR SPACE PROGRAM!”
The charge was, of course, bogus, and quickly dismissed after social media turned up for the circus that the authorities were putting on. The media, for its part, immediately began pushing the narrative that Ahmed had been arrested for making a hoax bomb. But he wasn’t. He was arrested for being brown. The clock is even incidental here: when the first police officer saw him, his reaction was “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” He wasn’t expecting the quiet white nominally-Christian boy who is far more likely to be a mass shooter. He was expecting Ahmed. They wanted to arrest the brown kid. They wanted to haul in the Muslim like he was a trophy.
There’s another part to this story, one that actually involves terrorism. Ahmed’s father is a political person. He’s a vocal opponent of anti-Islamic activity in America who happens to live in a town with a mayor who is leading the charge against “Sharia Law,” as if that’s actually a thing that is happening in America. He often returns to his native Sudan to run for president. He has debated notorious bigots. He’s outspoken in claiming his rights.
And now, seemingly out of nowhere, his son has been rounded up, had his rights violated, and been accused of egregious crimes that no one involved actually believes he intended to commit. They weren’t even polite enough to disguise it. “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” the police said. They knew who this was. They knew what they were doing and who they were targeting. This arrest was an act of terrorism.
the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
This was unambiguously the use of intimidation (and, it could be argued, violence), in the pursuit of political aims. It doesn’t matter that they tried to do it under the color of law, this was thuggery, pure and simple. This was an act of terrorism, against American citizens, on American soil.
The real crisis that we face is that, even though Ahmed has been invited to the White House, even though he’s going to be held up as an example by well-meaning groups, Ahmed case isn’t unique, and his case is not an outlier. This happens every day. Ahmed is fortunate that his interaction with police didn’t involve a coroner’s report. The media isn’t going to call this an act of terrorism. Even people who should be calling it an act of terror (people like the President and even Ahmed’s father) don’t recognize it as terrorism, because they don’t recognize that it is, because most Americans can’t even think in those terms. Terrorism is something that happens over there or is perpetrated by people who aren’t white.
White terrorism is never called terrorism. We need to start calling it that. We’re going to keep seeing stories like this, stories like the shooting in Charleston, stories like the shooting in Oak Creek, and we’re going to keep viewing them as isolated incidents. They’re not. They’re fomented by a culture that gives implicit backing by ignoring what they are. They’re abetted by an investigative and preventive framework that refuses to accept that they are actual politically-motivated threats to public safety. This is terrorism. We need to start treating it like terrorism.
Back just before the election (October 26th, to be exact), one of my favorite political cartoonists, Matt Bors, published this cartoon:
Matt was running a Kickstarter to raise money for an upcoming book at the time, and one of the donors, someone he considered a friend, retracted his $250 donation and cut off contact over this. $250 is a big chunk of change to fork over for a book. It’s also a big chunk of change to take back over an opinion, especially when you consider that Matt was no stranger to taking Obama to task for drone warfare.
Now that we’ve established that, according to the Democratic base, criticizing Obama was off-limits in the run-up to the election (not to mention strongly frowned-upon for the entirety of the past four years), when is it acceptable? Now that we no longer have to worry about electing or re-electing the first Black president (or any of the other insane justifications I’ve heard), can we criticize him for what his administration has done?
Back in 2008, I put a lot of thought into the candidate I was backing from among the initially crowded Democratic field. I examined my priorities and weighed them against the stated positions of the candidates, and came up with Bill Richardson, who agreed with all of my deal-breakers except capital punishment. He dropped out early, so I shifted to John Edwards who agreed with me slightly less than than Richardson. Once Edwards bowed out, I grudgingly moved my support to Obama. I did not donate to the campaign, and I did not volunteer for the campaign. I voted for him, but I wasn’t going any further than that.
Fast-forward to 2012, by which time I was so disgusted with the administration that I refused to repeat that vote (I voted for Jill Stein). I had a host of reasons – Indefinite detention, drone warfare, milquetoast healthcare “reform,” repeated capitulation in the face of an increasingly shrill and out-of-touch minority, especially when he had the mandate and numbers to quash their obstruction, and the ever-increasing seizure of power by the executive. When I voted for Obama in 2008, there was one thing that made it all OK – he was a Constitutional scholar, a professor who intimately understood the document and promised to return to its precepts after the eight years of shredding it took. That lasted all of a few months. Nearly all of the Bush-era abuses of Constitutional authority remained, and a number were expanded. I was not about to vote in favor of that.
Now, I was told by many people (including my State Senator, who described my position as “masturbatory”) that a vote for “Not Obama” was exactly the same as a vote for Romney. I viewed this as the height of flawed logic. I understand that we’re kind of stuck with our first-past-the-post system, but that doesn’t put the onus on me to vote for one of the two major parties simply based on a blind taste test, especially when there were three other parties on the ballot. The onus is on those parties themselves to make themselves palatable. Just because one party took positions favorable to rape and murder is not enough, should not be enough, to compel me to vote for the other party – which, incidentally, itself took a favorable position on murder, as long as the murderees were brown and in other countries.
So, getting back to the question – is it safe to come out now? Can I openly criticize the President and his horrifying policies, or is that setting up Democrats for failure in 2014 and 2016? And if not, will it ever be safe to express an opinion out of lockstep with the party and not be branded as a country-destroying lunatic by people I who might otherwise agree with me if the President doing these things was a Republican?
A friend of a friend on Facebook said “It’s an unexplainable and senseless act of violence” in regards to yet another massacre. I really detest that sentiment. My response was this:
No, it is explainable. We just don’t have the explanation in front of us. Saying that it’s unexplainable means we’re washing our hands of ever finding that explanation and any hope of preventing a repeat. This is not just a side effect of living in our society. This can be stopped. This doesn’t need to happen again.
We don’t know what happened in the mind of the shooter. 150 years ago we didn’t know what an electron was. Our knowledge of concussions and repeated brain injury has increased by leaps and bounds in just the past four years. Everything has an explanation. We need to find it.
We need to understand and be able to avoid these tragedies from occurring.
One of the first things we can do is to stop dehumanizing the people who commit these acts. At the point where you are ready to walk into a school or a mall or a theater or a place of worship or restaurant (to name just a few of the locations that spree-killings took place in America in 2012), you have ceased to be a rational person. Something has broken very deep inside you. Unfortunately, we rarely get the chance to analyze these people because most of them take their own lives in the process. There’s a big leap between becoming so filled with despair that you end your own life, and deciding to take as many people with you as possible. These must be two different things. One way or another, though, viewing these people as any less than human is rather medieval thinking. Dehumanizing them allows us to place the blame for their actions solely on their shoulders, completely absolving and ignoring whatever treatable and preventable cause pushed them to that point. When we do that, we simply ensure that tragedies like this will continue to happen.
Adam Lanza was a person. Something inside him went terribly, terribly wrong. Let’s not forget that he was a person. A beautiful, unique individual with people who loved him, who are now wrapped up in the horrifying hell of being connected to what he did. We need sympathy and compassion for everyone.