President Obama this afternoon made some remarks on the why-am-I-not-surprised-failure by the Staten Island grand jury investigating the chokehold death of Eric Garner to indict the police officer who killed him. On videotape. There were several striking features of Obama’s remarks: he refused to say, either in reference to the Staten Island case or to the Ferguson case, which he brought up several times, that anyone actually died. Was dead. Was not merely pining for the fjords. In the Staten Island case we got this: “a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officers [sic] who had interacted with an individual named Eric Garner in New York City.” They interacted indeed, and lo! Garner was dead on the ground. Of perhaps too much interacting.
The President expressed his concern for the decades-long problem faced by “minority communities that feel that bias is taking place.” Further on the President referred to the “concern that many minor communities have that law enforcement is not working with them, dealing with them in a fair way.”
Oh, and I almost forgot, as will so many: there’s a Task Force. Those folks, as the President would call them, if they’d been tortured in US custody, are working on it. They’re going to report to him directly.
Such language of course is meant to, and does, drain these events of meaning, of color, of actual existence on the planet. Dead young men become a matter of feelings, of concerns, of fairness, the work of a task force. He concluded with his strongest remarks: “This is not a black problem, this is not a brown problem, this is not a Native American problem, this is an American problem, when anyone is not treated with equality under the law…” That indeed was the clip circulating in my own social media circles, with words appended, such as “Thank you.”
Cut to Marilyn Monroe sewn into a dress and singing “Happy Birthday”.
This last “equality under the law” reference is perhaps most pernicious of all: it sounds good, it sounds resolute, it sounds wise and fair, but it denies (as Obama has over and over denied, for reasons both political and personal, I suspect) the specifically racial nature of the problem before us. Minority communities don’t “feel” there’s bias: they know there’s bias and they fear for their lives, most especially for the lives of their sons, a full quarter of whom are at any one moment in some form of contact with the criminal justice system, each one able to count himself lucky not to be dead. Because such homicides as we’ve seen in Ferguson and on Staten Island are not merely problems to be addressed under the 14th amendment’s stricture that everyone must be treated with equality under the law — a joke if you know anything of our state and federal justice systems — but a very specific problem seen all over the United States not of misapplied justice but of killing, with impunity, unarmed black men. Killing. Dead. If equality under the law were the problem in these cases then all we’d have to do is instruct the cops to be sure to kill, with impunity, a comparable number of white people.
What Obama once knew but refuses to know any longer is that this country is built on intractable and quite vicious forms of racial inequality, institutionally begotten and institutionally enforced — all of it oriented toward the protection of privilege, wealth and power. The problem at hand in these cases is a racism so thorough and so intricately woven into daily experience we — meaning white people — hardly see it anymore, until someone captures on video a cop killing a black man who’d been selling cigarettes.
Loosies, they’re called, the cigarettes Garner was accused of peddling (he had done so before but it’s not clear he was actually doing so the day he died). Loosies at the bodegas, loosies on the street, because who in a poor community can afford a whole pack? Of course Barack would tell them: best if you quit smoking. He claims he did. The Obamas have an organic garden. They make their own ale. They have a task force.
A note on copyright of images: the two images accompanying this blog post were circulating on social media and were unattributed. I admire both and am not only willing but eager to credit them properly or, if requested, remove them. I’d much prefer the former…..