There’s a joke you can see almost anytime there’s breaking news about violence. Some Auburn fans beat up some Alabama fans before the Iron Bowl, say, and a sour journalist quips, “When will moderate Auburn fans condemn the actions of extremist Auburn fans?” Repeat for any topic. This framework comes most recently from the tired conservative refrain, “Why won’t moderate Muslims condemn extremism?” (They usually already have.)
This is an old trope, one in which the American media demands that any non-hegemonic group leaders — from any racial or gender or social minority — condemn the actions of any hammershit fool who does anything ugly while existing within their demographic. This is often the initial engagement of any minority, regarding any minority action, regardless of the merits of that minority action. Thank you for being on our show, and we’ll get to your concerns in a moment, but first, apologize and explain yourself. Like the old political line, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” By the time they’re done defending their mere existence, there’s no time left for their points. You can silence any problem by running out the clock.
But maybe this is all rather abstract, so let’s make fun of Wolf Blitzer.
Blitzer is a man of breathtaking stupidity, who daily belies his catchphrase of “watching very closely” with a myopia that dwarfs Mr. Magoo’s. He once famously racked up –$4,600 on Celebrity Jeopardy! a version of the show dumbed down to raise extra money for charity. This is a man who broadcasts information for a living. Compare that to one of his opponents — Andy Richter, whose job is portraying an everyman for laughs, and who tells Mike Ditka stories in the middle of the night. Even after producers zeroed out Wolf’s debt and gave him $1,000 to bet with, Andy ultimately beat him by $66,000.
Blitzer’s service seems to be offering permanent credulity to power and permanent skepticism to its challengers. He can be induced to parrot talking points by even junior-varsity hacks. During an IDF-guided gee-whiz tour of Hamas tunnels during the most recent bombing of Gaza, he would have thrown more elbows if he’d said, “I like to be the little spoon when we sleep, but I roll over a lot.” He once displayed outright alarm that WikiLeaks information would fall into the hands of journalists. If he could reanimate the corpse of someone shot in the back by police to ask one question, it would probably be, “Why did you do this?”
So his interview yesterday with community organizer DeRay McKesson about Monday night’s rioting in Baltimore couldn’t have been more Blitzerian even via the intervention of a force foreign to him, like effort.
Raw Story posted highlights and video, so click over if you want a fuller experience. After asking McKesson about his plan for the day’s protests and ignoring his reply, here are Blitzer’s questions, in order:
1. “You want peaceful protests, right?”
McKesson seems a little stunned, then agrees, then goes on to cite both how police departments have been anything but peaceful and that there had been days of peaceful protests in Baltimore and around the country. Blitzer replies:
2. “But at least 15 police officers have been hurt, 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires — these are statistics. There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?”
McKesson then replies that there is also no excuse for the seven people killed by Baltimore PD in the last year.
3. “We’re not making comparisons. Obviously, we don’t want anybody hurt. But I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
It’s all right there, everything in the Dealing With Aggrieved Minorities Playbook, a script even a Blitzer can read.
First, McKesson, a guy who is not a national black leader, has to explain himself. He’s there, so now he’s the representative — because, connect the dots, while that rioting happened, McKesson was also black at the time — and it’s implied that he has to account for things here. It doesn’t matter that McKesson had fuck-all to do with it and lacked the clout to stop it, let alone any contact with the people responsible; he’s on TV.
Second, there’s the instant begged question that what happened must be disavowed. Blitzer hasn’t the capacity to engage the idea that legitimate grievances might underpin what happened in Baltimore, that fire and rage might be ugly manifestations of a greater truth, that rage might have a fuel from an outside source. It has to be condemned first. That’s the only purpose for this segment. That it will be ended before any greater systemic discussion occurs is almost a given; just get the condemnation on the record, then — oops, will you look at that — we’re out of time, back to the studio.
Third, the moment McKesson can use the language of outrage at violence to impugn a system, Blitzer immediately declares that “we’re not making comparisons.” The ominous reading of a moment like this is that CNN is an instrument of American power that silences any impeachment of it. The likelier is that networks like CNN have seen the lefty outrage that MSNBC broadcasts have flirted with and seen ratings plunge, then warned their anchors to avoid topics unpopular with white viewers like, “The police might engage in racial terrorism to protect the interests of those who benefit from racial and economic inequality.” The likeliest is that Wolf Blitzer is an idiot reading a prompt of statistics, is terrified of journalistic bugbears like “context,” and just wants this remote “hit” to fulfill the production quota of, “Find a black organizer who says what happened was bad.” Whether the impulse to that third bit is fueled by an institutional dedication on CNN’s part to either the first or second depends on your level of cynicism.
(It’s probably the second, if only because the second item concerns advertisers.)
Fourth, there’s the Martin Luther King shaming. There’s always the MLK shaming. We only make mascots of our enemies when they no longer have the power to hurt us. The Indians, the Redskins, the Braves — the Army airborne yelling “Geronimo” when jumping out of a plane. Hell, when they rename the Redskins, they might as well make them the Washington MLKs. The man was not only a socialist but widely considered one of the most dangerous men in America, condemned by taking softheads and stalked by the FBI, which tried to incite him to suicide. He became a saint the moment his martyrdom outweighed his being a problem. So every time someone demands a black activist cross his heart and promise to be more like MLK, you should root like hell for him to just say “sure” and leave it at that.
As tempting as it is to keep shitting on CNN and this segment in particular, it only exemplifies a bigger problem that all the networks exhibit. Think about what you remember seeing most of the rioting in Baltimore, and it’s probably the same two things: a car or cars on fire and a CVS Pharmacy on fire. And there’s a reason for that.
For one thing, it’s hard to get exciting and memorable footage of systems. Systems take a lot of time to identify and study, and their scope spans more than a day. They take time and perspective to explain. And they’re not very sexy. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” covered two centuries and required nearly 16,000 words. Techcrunch’s history of redlining and racial exclusion in just the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area took nearly 12,000. And you can report those only once. 60 Minutes, after all, doesn’t run the same newsmagazine story weekly. A fire is different. A fire can burn for days. A fire is instantly interesting in a way that those stories are not, and a fire has the gift of being in some ways self-explanatory. “Why are we looking at that?” Because it is fire, and we all are Beavis. “Why is the fire there?” Because something was lit on fire.
For another, we can all understand a thing on fire or a thing destroyed, because we all to some extent own things. There is an immediate calculable worth or sympathy to the destruction of a property, and almost always our attitude toward that property’s purpose is neutral, meaning that its destruction can always be fascinating but can quite often be pitiable as well. We can project the relative worth of our things onto any property and gain a sense of proportion as to what was lost. Moreover, the destruction of a thing can rarely be blamed on the thing itself, making it (usually) morally neutral and the harm brought to it almost always the agency of someone else. This, amongst other reasons, is why we have a “Broken Windows” police policy instead of a “Broken Peoples” policy. We implicitly understand that someone broke a window, and that it is not the window’s fault. Fixing broken windows is good. A broken person can be blamed on just about anything, but in a pinch, we make it easy on ourselves and just blame them. Fixing them is now a moral hazard.
The resultant constant murmur of this kind of opportunistic filming and morally null thinking is basically “property, commerce, property, commerce, property, commerce” running like a dull pop-punk bass line. That this dovetails with most social critics’ view of the role of police might just be coincidence. They would tell you that the police exist to protect property and the people who own it from the people exploited by those owners — that law and order is just the enforcement wing of capital. They would point you to a war on drugs that targets lower-income minorities instead of much higher drug-use areas like the affluent, politically compliant suburbs. They would point to a war on drugs that funnels minorities into for-profit prison systems owned by the same people whose kids are using all the damn drugs. You can believe them if you want.
The effect, however, is unmistakable: Freddie Gray went into Baltimore Police custody and then died of a nearly severed spine; many people protested peaceably for days; then, when buildings and cars were lit on fire and bottles thrown, CNN and other network helicopters circled the fires, delivering hours of looped footage of blazes and of bottles bursting. If there was a crime committed, it was against property, and by bad people. It wouldn’t matter how high the helicopters rose or how wide the lenses on the cameras, there wasn’t a picture big enough to capture the functions and depredations and even crimes of systems. Not in a looped 10-second clip, and not with eyes that myopic. Once you have a fire, that’s the crime, and whatever came before it is the anathematized, long-winded, ratings-deadly non-punchiness of context.
That’s what Blitzer is talking about when he starts rattling off his prompt about 144 vehicle fires, 200 arrests and 15 officers hurt. All the networks besides Fox News have the wit to not obviously fall onto the fainting couch about the profaning of property, but that’s what those stats are about. One-hundred forty-four pieces of property were destroyed. Two-hundred threats to it stopped. Fifteen guardians of it harmed in their duty. (The police are people, though, and we will find out more about them. There will not be time for profiles of the rioters, or “the rioters” or “whomever was arrested for being near a cop at the time of a riot.”)
That’s what DeRay McKesson has to lament and vow not to harm, even though it’s not his job. Baltimore Police have a history of brutalizing detainees and suspects, but the victims didn’t wind up on tape, and in any event, viewers at home might blame them and resent the implication that the BPD did something wrong. DeRay McKesson’s first job when he appears on TV is to representatively reject context. Somehow powerful enough to speak for a whole demographic, he is also too impotent to convict the system it lives within. Unable to raise his arms above his head, his task is to punch down.
And he must heed the spirit of Martin Luther King to remain legitimate in a mainstream discourse that has selectively canonized the most exculpatory statements of a man now dead enough to no longer post a threat. You’ve probably seen this quote on Facebook multiple times already, but MLK famously said, shortly before his death:
I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.
And he’s right, but endless things intensify the fears of the white community, and endless things relieve its guilt. Legal immigration intensifies its fears. Illegal immigration intensifies its fears. Gay marriage, mixed neighborhoods, higher college admission competition, Affirmative Action, welfare, banning assault rifles, UN environmental regulations, Muslims, saying “Happy Holidays,” unisex bathrooms, hashtags on coffee cups, a black kid with Skittles, a black kid with a toy gun, a black man with a toy gun in a store that sold toy guns, a black man with a broken taillight. And it doesn’t need help relieving its guilt. It will find a way. It will always find a way. That black kid with Skittles? He fought the armed domestic-abusing psychopath who stalked him for no reason. Those other black people? They didn’t obey.
Depending on your friends, you probably didn’t see the rest of the MLK quote on Facebook, but he goes on:
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
We already construct an elaborate public security theater to stifle demonstration, distance it from the discourse and marginalize participants. We already demonstrate such low, anxious expectations for black dissent that any outburst confirms a preconceived disdain. Then, when someone like McKesson appears on TV, rather than listen, a sack of duh like Wolf Blitzer denies him the chance to speak for those he’s organized, instead makes him an avatar for a much larger community, then expects an obeisance to an order that has co-opted certain symbolic civil rights quotes for its preservation. DeRay McKesson might as well have not even been there. If, following the institutional reading of that first MLK quote, a riot delegitimizes itself, it renders itself silent. Media’s focus on photos and property over people and systems does much of the rest. Overtly and implicitly, we’ve already built such a beautiful cage of silence for the black community that, when it comes to McKesson, or Baltimore, or the next man or the next city, it would be such a pity if we didn’t put them in it too.