One of my favorite films is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. I try to see it every so often; it’s a powerful reminder that the people who lock horns in a lot of conflicts are, at their heart, just people. Spike lives in my neighborhood in Brooklyn – I live a ten minute walk from the business offices of 40 Acres – and recently hosted an anniversary screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I saw the film for about the sixth time.
And this time around, something struck me I hadn’t noticed before. Towards the end, Spike’s character, Mookie, touches off a riot by throwing a garbage can through the pizzeria window; just before he hurls it, he shouts, “HATE!” And there has been a lot of speculation about what he meant by this – does he hate his white employers? Is he trying to incite the riot? Is he trying to turn the anger away from people and onto a thing, so the only damage is to property?
But this time seeing him scream that reminded me of an earlier speech from boombox-toting Radio Rahim earlier in the film, about the ongoing struggle between love and hate, as displayed by the brass knuckles he wears on each hand:
One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-hand Hate, K-O’ed by Love.
And then later, the neighborhood watches two overzealous police officers choke Rahim to death, but after they leave, the crowd turns on each other with more of the same anger which lead to Rahim’s death in the first place. And it struck me, this time, that maybe Mookie’s shout is a cry of despair – despair that Radio Rahim was wrong, and that Love is not going to win the day after all.
I started and stopped this post about three times now, because I can’t think how it could possibly help.
I mean, really. Where do I get off speaking about what happened in Ferguson? I have plenty of the advantages Michael Brown didn’t – I’m educated, I’m white, I’m female, and the only spot on my legal record is a single ticket from a New Jersey Transit cop who was in too bad a mood to sympathize with my having lost a train ticket out the window. It is nearly stereotypical how much of a liberal hand-wringing busybody I want to be right now – I’m scolding people on Twitter, I’m tut-tutting about things on Facebook, I’m doing Google searches for “businesses based in St. Louis” so I can start a boycott.
None of which matters a tinker’s damn to the people who actually live in Ferguson and have had to watch their district attorney blithely explain why they’re just going to go ahead and wave away Darren Wilson’s crime. Hell, he even blamed people like me for his choice – people like me on social media blew the incident up into the public eye, he argued, and shifted focus away from the facts, and shame on us and the facts said something different he decided and so there wasn’t going to be any need for a trial, and so somehow my having Tweeted my opinion about this back in August means there will be no actual trial now in November. (…Yeah, I’m not sure I follow that one either.)
And people like me are responding with more blog posts and more Tweets and Facebook posts and demonstrations, and I can’t help but think it all looks so hollow to the people who actually live there. Nasty racist quotes on Twitter is one thing, throwing rocks at reporters and gunshots in the street and closed schools is a bigger problem. Nothing I say is going to matter a damn to them.
But the only alternative to my saying something pithy like this is to say nothing at all – and that would mean just giving up entirely, and sinking into the despair that the America I was always told I lived in is long gone.
I turned away from the news in disgust after hearing the grand jury decision. For a while I was cheered up by a documentary on PBS, about the history of the old Muscle Shoals recording studio – the music hotbed in the middle of Alabama where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, and the like all found their sounds. For a while it did cheer me up – Muscle Shoals was really a melting pot of musicians, founded by four white session musicians who all played on a lot of the R&B classics you’ve always heard of. There were a lot of interviews with Aretha Franklin raving about the session drummer, the head producer raving about working with Wilson Pickett, everyone coming together and collaborating on making some of their own best work.
But then the film stepped back to focus on what was happening in the rest of Alabama at the time, to give the place some context; and they ran the famous clip from Governor George Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural speech, where he declares he supports “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”
It’s a clip I’ve seen before. But I’ve always seen it followed up by footage of the March on Selma or Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and Wallace has always come across as an ignorant buffoon. But last night I was seeing Wallace’s speech after the news in Ferguson. And that just got me thinking of how Martin Luther King was assassinated – and so was Malcom X, and then the Rodney King verdict and then Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown, and those are just the ones I happen to have heard about. All cases where white people have attacked or killed black people and gotten off scott-free.
And in my own despair, I started thinking maybe Ferguson means that Wallace and his ilk all won after all.