The New Rambler, No. 25

Recently I had workshopped a draft of an essay about being a radical, an essay in which I attempted, at one point, to describe something of the world my friends and I live in:

In this world. . . black men get shot on the streets every day, and other black men are put in prison for crimes they did not commit, and the white police officers who fired the bullets are sent out again with a slap on the wrist and a bigger gun.

(It is probably worth noting that I wrote these words several weeks before the acquittal of a white police officer in Cincinnati, who shot a young, unarmed black man to death. The workshop took place a few days after the decision.) The overwhelming reaction of the workshop members to this particular passage was that this was not a radical position and that, in fact, “most Americans believed this” and “prominent people spoke about it.” I was rather stunned. Of course, I remembered, it was true that a hundred or so upper middle class white students at my high school walked out of school on the day of the Rodney King verdict (I did not, nor, interestingly, did any of the other people in Ruth Greenwald’s Geometry Honors class which met that afternoon. We asked Miss Greenwald to tell us about student protests from back when; but I think we all felt, oddly, that protest on that day was futile, and knew, somehow, that Miss Greenwald had something left to teach us–and I think that she did). And it is true that hundreds of people marched in New York after the shooting of Amadou Diallou, and Susan Sarandon and some other “prominent people” got arrested. All this is true, and would seem to indicate that my colleagues were right, that the majority of people share this view of the world that I’d presented. And I think that it is true; I think that a lot of people out there feel that racial profiling exists, that police brutality exists, that the legal systems set up to deal with this are inadequate. But I maintain that there is a difference–not a difference, necessarily, in commitment, or even in effectiveness (for who knows what is truly effective?), but a difference in view.

When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist. –Archbishop Hedler Chamoa Hèlder Câmara I saw that in someone’s signature recently; I don’t know who Archbishop Chamoa Câmara is or when this was said, but it represents, albeit somewhat blatantly, at least part of the difference I’m trying to get at. [There’s no way to talk about this without creating an us/them dichotomy. I apologize–the limits of our language are the limits of our world (I think Wittgenstein said something along those lines, but never actually having read him, I’m a little out of line in attributing–or using–the exact quotation. But the idea is one I’ve had myself.)]

The world I live in is one in which these things happen every day and no one notices. We all know that the majority of rapes go unreported and that many crimes go uncaught. Yet many seem to believe that these undetected, unpunished crimes are only those of the vandals–the petty thieves, the minor arsonists. The idea that undetected, unpunished crimes could be carried out by those in uniforms–whether they be military, police, judicial, Wall Street, G-8, what have you–is one that, for many, is harder to accept. And when they do accept it, it is seen as an aberration, one which will be rectified by witness, by spontaneous demonstration, perhaps by a few celebrity arrests. That these crimes are committed daily, routinely, and that they must be questioned and stopped from their roots, and that that questioning and stopping may well have to take the form of “radical” action, is something this supposed majority seems unable or unwilling to admit.

There was something hopeful in the fact that, after all, four of the twelve members of the silent majority believed us. But four of twelve in the Gallup polls believed in unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam as well. They are willing enough to register their opinions but too defeated to live them. Fascism will come to America by compromise: not through the strength of reaction but through the weakness of the good people.
Tom Hayden, Trial, 1970