Feel the Burn

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This column first appeared on Latino Rebels.

 

Even before George Floyd got killed in front of the country, if asked to draw oppression, most people would’ve sketched some variation of a boot on some poor bastard’s neck. A psychic might’ve had a policeman’s big stupid knee in place of the boot, but everyone else who saw it would’ve readily agreed, “Yeah, nailed it! That’s exactly what oppression looks like.”

At first the powers in Minneapolis were pretending that what Officer Derek Chauvin did—pressing his knee against the right side of Floyd’s neck for almost nine whole minutes, squeezing the life out of him till the paramedics came to take the body—was in no way illegal, that it was textbook department procedure. But as the video made the rounds on social media over the next 24 hours, and as more and more Americans viewed a modern-day lynching, the powers in Minneapolis worried that even white citizens would start to think, “Shit! If that’s legal, if cops can kill a Black man for trying to buy something with a fake 20-dollar bill, then the racism in this country just might be as bad as Black people have been saying it is.”

They fired Chauvin and the other officers with him. But they only charged Chauvin, only after Black people in Minneapolis took to the streets, and only with third-degree murder, I guess because Chauvin didn’t mean to kill Floyd when he sat on the man’s neck for nine minutes while Floyd was choking, saying, “I can’t breathe!” “Don’t kill me!” and calling out for his dead mother—he only killed him accidentally.

In America a cop has every right, and is well within his authority, to kill someone accidentally, especially if that someone is Black.

Meanwhile, good luck accidentally bumping into a cop on the sidewalk; that could land you in jail, with an accidental bruise or black eye.

Now there are riots in almost every major city across the country—peaceful protests and riots. The difference lies between the two types of oppressed person: the one who can suffer peacefully, secure in his or her own righteousness, perhaps dreaming of some future paradise after this hellworld is shat behind; and then there’s the one who doesn’t believe in heavens or hells, only in what hands and feet can do right now. Of that second kind, there are plenty on both sides of a riot, among the rioters and the riot police. A citizen is no angel, but a badge isn’t a halo either.

I’m supposed to feel bad about the fires, the broken windows and the bloodshed, but I don’t. Not that I’m callous; I’m just not one for appearances. We’re so caught up in what things look like, at least most of us, that we rarely see things as they are. There have been fires burning, windows smashing and blood running in the streets of America’s soul for a long time, since the start; these visible fires are merely symptoms of the invisible ones. If you wake up one morning to find your city has been smashed after a clash between your fellow citizens and the police, and the stores are all gutted because looters ran off with the merchandise, then things haven’t been good in your city for a while.

I would feel bad if I could for the millions of Americans who genuinely fear for their country in the midst of all this outward chaos. But their fear now is a result of their long years of indifference, all those times they chose to look away, out of convenience, and privilege. According to them, their country was doing fine when Rekia Boyd got shot by Chicago PD back in 2012 (to keep things recent), or when Eric Garner got choked to death by NYPD for selling loosies two years later, or when Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson PD not a month after that, or when Cleveland PD killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice later that year, or a few months later when police in South Carolina shot Walter Scott in the back as he fled a traffic stop, doing fine when police up there in Minnesota killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016, fine when Alton Sterling was executed by Baton Rouge PD only a few days later, fine when Stephon Clark faced an impromptu firing squad in Sacramento in 2018, or when Officer Guyer accidentally entered Botham Jean’s apartment and shot him dead because she feared for her life in his home—that’s good, fine—like just last year when Fort Worth PD shot Atiatana Jefferson dead through her window, or when Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down in Georgia this past February, or in March when Louisville PD served a “no-knock warrant” and ended up killing the girlfriend, Breonna Taylor.

That’s all America as usual, fine. Good. Oh, but as soon as they see Black people fighting with cops on TV and breaking stuff downtown in anger and desperation, that’s when things are finally bad.

Call me cynical, but I’m not that bothered by a bunch of smashed windows and gutted stores along Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The way I see it, that’s just the price of doing business in neoliberal America, especially in the way a lot of those companies do business. “I’m takin’ from them,” as Tupac so succinctly put it, “’cause for years they would take from me.”

What I hate to see is a Black-owned, Brown-owned, or just a plain poor-owned business burned to a crisp. That’s someone’s hopes and dreams, their livelihood, and their whole life, too. Poof! Gone. My grandma owned a storefront in Chicago, along Ashland Avenue just south of Polish Square, and she built her business up from nothing, just like she did herself, a poor girl from Central America with no shoes.

I understand the anger, the rage, the desperation —and, as a former pyromaniac, I definitely sympathize with the desire to see things burn—but I wish these rioters picked better targets. Why is it the poor people who see whatever neighborhood they have go up in smoke whenever there’s an uprising? Is nothing flammable on Wall Street? Does nothing burn in Palm Beach?

I don’t know how to end this damn thing, but I don’t think the protesters do either. What’s the immediate endgame here? Destroy the city so that City Hall does… what exactly?

The only immediate good I see out of all of this is that we’ve been flooded with images of cops—not all, but some—showing their true colors all across this hate nation, to the point where even a lot of white people are feeling queasy. And you got a lot of big-named celebrities, the only people the average citizen listens to, giving full-throated condemnations of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and that orange oaf in the Oval Office. I even saw Taylor Swift tweet something about sending Trump home to Florida this November. Trump lied when he promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington; now he can live in another one, his natural habitat, with gators, snakes, capybara, and all the other slimy, cannibalistic reptiles and rats—he’ll fit right in.

But it’s very important that Taylor Swift said that, because she’s America’s Sweetheart—even if she hasn’t dropped a banger in ages—and I get the feeling that a Venn diagram of her fans and Trump’s would show a good deal of overlap.

Look, I’m not for violence—I guess you can say I’m an atheist Christian anarchist, for now—but I’m not against oppressed people resorting to violence as a final option. The right to use force against an oppressor is a human right, probably even a biological right, the right of all living things to meet force with force, a physical or material right.

But are we all out of options? Really? I don’t think so. Not when Latino voter turnout has been stuck at 50 percent for the past few elections—that’s the percentage of Latino people who can vote but don’t—and Asian voter turnout is the same, and Black voter turnout is less than 70 percent. And liberals and progressives are losing elections by slim margins in a few key places, where at least a decent turnout rate among Blacks and Latinos would’ve made it a landslide victory.

Should we burn America down because voting is a bit of a hassle?

Either way, if the powers want to keep the rest of their stuff, they better find a way to stop killing Black people, and Brown people, and Native people, and trans people, and ignoring poor people of all colors, and messing with the poor people abroad. You can’t keep pushing down on people without them pushing back. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

That isn’t a physical right—that’s the law.

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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