“Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?”

I posit that the reason audiences fail to see the similarities in fictional uprising (which we love) and what occurs in real life, is the absence of that second element. Excluding the most ignorant and racist in our country, Americans generally get a sense that there is a problem with the unjustified killing of innocent black people by unsympathetic police officers. While they may not fully comprehend the scale of implicit bias, they understand that black people are more likely to be treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. So we can check off the first element.

As for the second, black rioters have been called plenty of things by the mainstream media; “heroic” is not one of them. Instead of being depicted as people who are doing what little they can do to bring attention to injustice, they have often been cast off as looters, criminals, “thugs” and miscreants taking advantage of the political climate.

Broadcast journalists contrast the rioters with Martin Luther King Jr. (white people’s favorite civil rights leader) and criticize rioters for failing to adopt MLK’s supposedly superior method of passive protest. All of this rhetoric is used to firmly embed in the minds of Americans, both black and white, that there is nothing noble about those participating in the riots — that what we are seeing on television is not the type of righteous revolution we associate with the civil rights movement — it’s mere buffoonery.

–  Christopher R. La Motte. “Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?” The Baltimore Sun, May 2015.

“…we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions.”

But now, more than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.

I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right.

All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we’re dangerously free to create our own realities.

Jordana Narin. “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” The New York Times, May 2015.

“…we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer.”

James Baldwin’s report on the “occupied territory” of Harlem in 1966 came to mind tonight as I read the reports from Baltimore.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

Authority or Power?

Ta-Nehisi Coates helpfully differentiates between power and authority.

African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson’s account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children “The Talk,” they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.

Those – like me – who aren’t regularly plundered by this country (see this video for examples of what plunder as cultural appropriations can look like) can follow Coates’ reasoning, but there are good reasons why we struggle to actually believe it.

But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.” Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.

I’ve felt this strongly over the past few months, the need to qualify any criticism about unjust policing. There is such a strong pull to limit an unjust situation to its primary actors – a rouge cop, for example – in order to preserve the authority of the overall system. Austin Channing has observed this tendency and points out the regular practice of “balancing” after any criticism of authority: it “becomes necessary to also admit that there are problems in the black community- black on black crime, fatherlessness, poverty, etc…” But she’s not having it:

It is not that I am unwilling to talk about these other devastations that plague some communities of color. In fact, I welcome conversation about these realities. But you should know in advance that I don’t relegate the conversation on race to shootings and incarceration rates. Racism is far too effective, conniving, and complete to define only these. So lets talk about poverty, but lets do so without forgetting about slavery, jim crow, redlining, white flight, contract sales, and the extraction of wealth from generations at the hands of government, courts, real estate agents and landlords.

This is our challenge. It’s nearly impossible, within a society where the majority experiences respectful authority and many others experience oppressive power, to respond to injustice in a manner that will seem balanced to everyone. Thankfully, balance is not the goal for Christians, including we who are cozy with corrupt authority. No, the goal is truth. And if Jesus is any sort of precedent, in our pursuit of truth we’ll reject false authority and find our place on the receiving end of corrupt power. We’ll be in very good company.