The word of the day is ruthless. It’s not a word I can use to describe Baltimore protesters. It’s the word that comes to mind when I see things like #bluelivesmatter. When you see people “rioting,” that’s anger. That’s desperation. Ruthless is the people who will do and say anything to hold on to power. Never confuse the two.
If you study history, you know how the movie in Baltimore is going to end. Riots aren’t new. Gangs have united before, only to go back to war once the outrage died down. No power shifts hands. Rinse and repeat.
That said, I can’t condemn the protesters. Black people are literally being hunted by so-called “law enforcement.” The local government officials, police spokespeople, white supremacists, and talking heads are doing everything they can to further fan the flames.
But at the end of the day, the result is just spectacle. It’s a battle we continue to win in a war we continue to lose. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Boots Riley of the Coup speak at the University of Oregon. One of the points he harped on was how many of today’s protests are about spectacle instead of results. We’re great at getting the word out. Perhaps so good that we forget winning the media war isn’t the end goal. There’s a difference between getting 1,000 people to say “That’s fucked up” on national TV and all the workers at a factory going on strike until the company provides benefits. That’s the difference between anger and ruthlessness.
Quiet as kept, Black people, and Black Americans in particular, are the most benevolent people on Earth (that is, unless we’re dealing with each other). Take Oregon for example. In terms of political capital, we’re at or near the bottom in just about every aspect of society. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because our voices aren’t being heard. Actually, we’re quite loud and pretty persuasive. It’s just that no one gives a fuck.
The Black vs. white narrative ignores the fact that politically, other ethnic groups are making gains and building power through good, old fashioned ruthlessness. Whether it’s local government, schools, small businesses, etc., they have political capital because they look out for themselves. They stopped waiting for the arc of the moral universe to bend towards justice. Instead, they took what they needed and more power to them.
If you think I’m bullshitting, go investigate for yourselves. Go to a Portland Development Commission meeting and see the difference between when they talk about messing with an area important to Black people versus one important to Latinos. Stop taking the words of teachers unions and administrators for fact and actually observe the racial factions in Portland Public Schools operate on a daily basis. Travel around the state and tell me where you can’t find a Thai restaurant. Who do you see getting all the construction contracts? Or better yet, who isn’t?
None of this is an accident and very little of it makes for good spectacle. Power is seized quietly. There’s a reason you don’t announce a coup.
Police brutality protests, ultimately, are about power. Systemic police brutality is a symptom of a lack of power and Black Americans, as a people, don’t have any. We’re speaking in morals while the rest of the country is speaking in capital. Then we wonder why nothing ever changes.
It’s very tempting to go with the wave during times like these, especially when that wave is right and every time you flip on the TV, you want to break a talking head’s neck. That’s why it’s even more important to pay attention to what’s not on the news–what’s not all over the media. That’s where the real moves are happening.
To be clear, I’m not against protests, or even rioting in theory (Full disclosure, my uncle is a Maryland police officer and no one can tell me not to worry about my family’s safety. But aside that and resources important to the community, everything else is fair game if you’re trying to make a statement). But understand that if the goal is results, riots are just the diversion. They’re the cloak. People making moves while the public is mesmerized by the spectacle–that’s the dagger.
It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about power. At our most furious, we never stopped playing nice. It’s about time we started getting ruthless. The fastest way to get anywhere is a straight line. We can keep trying to MAKE a statement, or we can decide to TAKE power.