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End the Occupation

(Photo accompanying Bridget Brennan's article "America is facing a 'double pandemic,'" ABC News, Australia)

“First, let’s get one thing straight. I’ve never set foot in a war zone.” Those were the words that began my last post on this site, on May 23rd, two days before the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. At that time, I wanted to be explicit about the real limits of my knowledge in the area I have spent most of the past two decades researching, teaching, and writing about—the representation of war. Having spent a good deal of that same period in the former Yugoslavia, I have learned a little something about the lessons of lived experience—as opposed to the sort of knowledge that is merely academic.

During the ten days since, I’ve been meditating on an additional layer of meaning in my opening salvo: to be blunt, what I said is clearly, irrefutably, and irredeemably an expression of White privilege. After all, over a thirty-year academic career, I have travelled widely across this country and visited many major cities, Minneapolis included. I also grew up in Lansing, where Malcolm X’s father was murdered by White supremacists. I’ve spent plenty of time in downtown Detroit, and in Atlanta I was once even stupid enough to try and walk back from the King Center and Archive to my hotel. On that occasion, I got lucky: I was in the middle of a conversation with an African American vet, probably homeless, when suddenly there was gunfire nearby. He knew instantly what to do; we ducked down together in the narrow space between two parked cars, until the shooting stopped. For historians, that Atlanta conference became notorious for other reasons: that same day, a plainclothes cop threw a famous Oxford don to the ground and cuffed him—an elderly, half-Spanish Brit, arrested for jaywalking. Apparently, when ordered to show his ID, the prof had had the temerity to ask the law officer for his…

So, no war zones? Really? It’s been almost six years since Michael Brown was murdered, and the whole world is still watching. Why else would there be protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in various European cities, or in Australia? Ferguson made it obvious to all that this country is chock-full of war zones; for Black lives most intimately, and for BIPOC collectively, the front lines are potentially anywhere and everywhere. And this is by no means a traditional war; it’s a form of military occupation. There is no way that the military or a militarized police force can end violence that it itself has made. As Interlink publisher Michel Moushabeck wrote in a recent newsletter, what we’re seeing today is a form of insurgency, an “American intifada.” Soon, I expect, we’ll get a late-night tweet recycling Governor Reagan: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” People like me have to stop imagining the war zones as elsewhere, with other people as their targets. As long as we think that way, systemic racism will never end, and the fault will be ours.

In the “War Stories” course I teach, connections between the US history of racism and genocide and our country’s recent military adventures are inescapable. Not just the US war in Vietnam. When my students read a story where a random, rock-throwing kid in Iraq gets wasted by one of our boys, and then the same thing happens, that same week, in California, it’s harder to see differences than similarities. When performance artist Wafaa Bilal stands off potshots from a paintball gun, shucking and jiving, even taking a pratfall, because that’s what his audience expects, you can only call it minstrel theater. That does not eliminate the distance between watching it and living it; you can’t teach what a mother feels when she can’t let her son train for track, because she’s afraid he’ll be gunned down. That difference is real, it’s categorical, and it must be respected. When I say “I can’t breathe,” it’s a figure of speech.

One thing, however—once it is made visible—can be taught. And not only is it a lesson worth learning, I believe it is being learned. As Rebecca Solnit comments in a recent article in The Guardian, “Property destruction and harming human beings are profoundly different actions, and with a few exceptions . . . virtually all the violence visited on human beings during this round of civil unrest across the US has been inflicted by police.” Like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump was schooled in politics by Roy Cohn, so it’s likely he believes that today’s popular uprisings will be good for him, and that a “law and order” message will work now, as it did in ’68. How the current administration could be seen by anyone as either lawful or orderly is another question, and not easily answered.

As we know, the last great wave of social unrest to sweep this country followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. That violent protests would ensue after the assassination of the world’s greatest leader of nonviolent resistance since Gandhi should hardly have been surprising. There is hard logic behind today’s uprisings as well, but the current struggle has its own history, and the differences will be impossible to forget. The pandemic laid bare the long-term toll of racism. We know why this country has responded so shamefully—despite the most resources, the fewest effective measures—to this viral threat. For the politicians and corporate robber barons, the lives the disease has taken matter little compared to their other concerns, which are what they always are, their money, their power. As Solnit comments, it’s “important to be clear about who is violent and what violence is.”

Every person of every color, creed, and class, in this country and across the world, has witnessed the trail of Black bodies that brought us to this day. We have also experienced a global lockdown, so today no one can reasonably say that everything might not be different tomorrow. And it must be different, radically different. The occupation must end, and white people must support their brothers and sisters of color, with their bodies and their ballots. If right-minded people do not stand shoulder to shoulder like sardines, the violence will continue and, once again, nothing will change.

Leaving things as they are would be worse than giving the nuclear football to Goldwater. And just how many petals are left on that daisy, anyway?

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review

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