Teaching Baltimore, teaching the history of American violence

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During this year of police violence, and organizing against police violence, I have avoided blogging about the many issues raised by Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore. I am ambivalent about this decision, because it isn’t as though I do not have a lot to say, and that saying it in this space is not important. Many of these protests occurred in my own city: my students and I marched, and we talked. Urban uprisings have been the most consistent theme of the academic year.

Yet I have been overwhelmed by these events. More importantly, I have also been troubled by the role social media has played in the dynamics of these uprisings, and by the extent to which some academics posture as virtual, semi-professional, urban revolutionaries when they talk to the Internet. Without censuring anyone in particular, it seems to me that Facebook, Twitter, and the range of new media outlets have not always played a good role in creating a national conversation — as opposed to a national shouting match. Academics are, I think, part of the problem and not part of the solution, as we whip up rage among ourselves that has no concrete, or positive, outcome for anyone. Some of assert that this violence is a new standard for justice in a country where justice is failing so many people in so many ways. In the face of all this, I ask all of you to think about the following statement: no one deserves to be the object of violence, not even CVS franchise owners, and I fear that many of my colleagues are taking on an eye-for-an-eye mentality that poses as militance, but is actually just another kind of venting.

This is not to say I am not angry too. I have strong and unresolved feelings about urban insurrections that seem similar, in their form and their causes, to those I observed from afar as a white child in a segregated suburb of Philadelphia in the 1960s. On Monday, when I was returning from Boston and learned that peaceful protests of Freddy Gray’s death had spun out into arson and looting, I became indescribably sad and anxious, and I am pretty sure I was tapping into that personal history. I often see my life nowadays as having come full circle: born into perpetual war in the 1950s, I may die in perpetual war. Born into Jim Crow, I may die in the New Jim Crow.

Furthermore, because I grew up to study violence, and race, as historical phenomena, I have access to even better informed despair than I did as a child. I knew as I read the news on Monday that the vast majority of the people in the affected Baltimore neighborhoods would be community bystanders, already stressed out by racism and poverty, watching hard won resources like the CVS, a senior center and the local mall go up in flames. Even a liquor store is a resource, when it’ the only one; a check cashing store a resource when you have no ID to get a bank account. Only people who live in cities really understand the apartheid-like conditions that lavish consumer outlets, goods, transportation and services on some neighborhoods, leaving householders in poor neighborhoods subject to high prices, as well as long bus trips, for inferior goods and food. If you don’t think those neighborhoods exist in your local city, you aren’t getting around much.

Many of us are now in the part of the semester where bending our roles as teachers to the discussion of these complex events is difficult to impossible. Many of us have finished teaching; others are in the final weeks of class presentations and exams. But what about next year?

Retreating to my role as historian, I have some thoughts about how we can project forward to 2015-2016 when — if the 21st century is anything like the 1960s — these insurrections will surely continue (if you are my age, does the phrase “long, hot summer” bring up memories?) Police reform takes a long time, and many cities have never experienced it in any meaningful way at all. More importantly, the big ship of neoliberal urban policies, militarization, and police violence is not going to turn fast enough for people in other cities, also at a breaking point, not to see mass violence as a strategy for bringing their situation to national attention. So what should we, as teachers, do?

In your class, consider historicizing the direct role that white agitators, and white policemen have played in fomenting violence during urban disorders. Ask students to think about how, and in whose interest, urban space becomes informally segregated to the extent that white people defend it against people of color. Explore the logic, and consequences, of this racism in their own lives as well as in historical events. One reason that the Baltimore Orioles will be playing to an empty stadium for the near future is that, according to one observer, during a peaceful march on the first day “a group of protesters, including myself, marched to Camden Yards, where the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox. As we passed a strip of bars, a group of white baseball fans, wearing both Baltimore and Boston gear, were standing outside yelling, ‘We don’t care! We don’t care!’ Some called us monkeys and apes. A fight broke out, and people were hurt.” We might consider talking to our students about the “fighting” words principle that affects the right to free speech, and how this plays out in parties, sporting events, and residential spaces on campus. We might also think about the ways in which the Chicago white on black riots of 1919 were triggered by white beach goers laying claim to segregated recreation and play. Take your students to a baseball game, one of the beautiful new urban parks modeled on Camden Yards, then set them to the problem of why those baseball crowds are almost exclusively white.

Consider teaching the dynamics of urban insurrection as intra-racial, interracial, and occurring within more complex class and political struggles that do not map neatly onto a black-white binary. Identity politics was always a fantasy. There is no correct “Black” position on the Baltimore insurrection, regardless of the level to which racism infects the lives of all people of color, however well educated and well-employed. If the mayor of Baltimore has made errors, she has not made them as a Black person, but as a political executive.

At the level of community, one might also point out to students that it is not the white people in charge whose property is stolen and destroyed during prolonged episodes of urban violence. Aside from the local consumers who suffer, the immediate targets of violence reveal other simmering tensions of class and race in America. Jewish shopkeepers were targeted in the twentieth century. By the 1990s, Asian and Asian-American, Mexican and Mexican-American, and now Arab and Arab-American shopkeepers are the secondary, and sometimes the primary, targets of looters. The cross-racial alliances that are so important to us in academia do not exist in any structural way at the level of community or, on many campuses, at the level of student life.

Consider asking your students to imagine the best use of social media in such a crisis, and what the potential consequences of venting, spreading unfounded rumors, or performing other speech acts on these platforms might be. Gossip and rumor have always fed and justified racial violence, whether urban insurrections, white on black race riots, or lynchings. The media has been a crucial player in creating the intellectual conditions for violence against and injustice towards people of color, as well as for fighting such propaganda. But the media has also played unintended, or subversive, roles during active mobilizations as well. During the post-war Civil Rights movement, both in spreading the news of the movement outside the southern states where formal Jim Crow laws became ground zero of mass civil disobedience, and in helping protestors organize (Black owned radio stations played a particularly important role in mobilizing activists, much as Twitter does today.) In the urban riots of the twentieth century, where rumors of a specific event that might have been true only in some of its parts, or not at all, often mobilized crowds.

Consider teaching the civil rights movement as only partly non-violent, and help your class understand strategies, and community groups, that accepted violence as a defense against racism. Historical research has begun to pick out several realities about the movement that are rarely emphasized in civic memorializations of those years. One is that otherwise law-abiding African-American people have been armed for over a century to protect themselves from white people, who were also armed to the teeth and had the police on their side. Another is that there is no “good Sixties” and “bad Sixties,” but rather a series of tensions about violence within what became the New Left. These ambiguities should be explored in history classes at all levels: when you don’t, the logical outcome is that state violence is understood as normative, necessary and unavoidable; whereas popular political violence, identified with that “bad Sixties” is always aberrant.

Consider modeling the behavior on social media you would like to see in your own students and children. I am deeply troubled by the knee jerk responses, and the judgmental behavior towards others, that I am seeing on academic Facebook and Twitter during these crises. Consider the position of safety from which you are applauding or condemning urban violence, and ask yourself why you feel it is your job to approve or disapprove other people’s choices about how to fight racism rather than engage a conversation about it. If we want to be public intellectuals, we need to act like it. Think about whether President Obama’s condemnation of civil disorder that is putting other Black people out of their homes (or confining them to their homes), creating greater stress among bystanders than poverty and daily violence has also caused, really makes him a bad Black person. Think James Baldwin or bell hooks the next time you think you can analyze what is going on in Baltimore in a sentence or two, doing so in a way that is primarily intended to shame all of your (other) white colleagues as racists. If African-American people in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson may have the moral or situational standing to hurl insults at white people as a group, those of us in universities do not. More is expected of us.

Readers, what might you be teaching in the fall? And why? In what courses?

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