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Government and Economy

“To proclaim liberty to the captives” -- Police Brutality, Riots, and the Twilight of American Democracy

Manuel Yang
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

On March 3 of this year, when I moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo, I opened my Facebook page and the first posting I saw was an aftermath video of a murder scene from Skid Row -- L.A. cops had shot Charly Keundeu Keunang, a homeless man from Cameroon, to death.

When I visited Japan in late 2010, a leaked video of a clash between Japan Coast Guard's patrol boat and a Chinese fishing boat had garnered wide public attention, but what caught my attention was news from the U.S. Midwest, where I was living at the time. A police had raided a poor black family's home in Detroit, shot up the place randomly, and murdered a seven-year-old girl Aiyana Jones. The killer cop Joseph Weekley was tried three times but was never punished.

From the 1980s to 2015, when I lived in the United States for more than thirty years, such police brutality was always in the back of my mind. Living in the suburbs, I couldn't do anything but its reality, even at a distance, had a sobering effect on the way I looked at the world of race and class, which are indivisible in the U.S.

A white classmate in high school introduced me to NWA's Straight Outta Compton (1988), which expressed in a viscerally confrontational rap the rage and resistance simmering in the L.A. slum. Its most controversial track “Fuck tha Police” took on police power in a humorous allegory that turned the U.S. court system upside down -- instead of the ghetto youths systematically criminalized and thrown in jail, the people's court meted out justice on racist cops:

Fuck the police comin straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority

In 1992, four years after Straight Outta Compton was released, riots erupted in the same area. At the time I was working part-time at a Japanese restaurant ran by a Japanese follower of the Unification Church. The restaurant owner condemned the participants in the L.A. rebellion as a lawless mob; I remember retorting that the poor had their own reasons for doing what they did. It was later in college when I learned about the social structure and the historical background that constituted the basis of these reasons. But I had already encountered an accurate summation of the L.A. riot in a poem by Charles Bukowski, the poet laureate of the L.A. underclass workers, whom I discovered around the time of the riot.

I've watched this city burn twice
in my lifetime
and the most notable thing
was the arrival of the
politicians in the
aftermath
proclaiming the wrongs of
the system
and demanding new
policies toward and for the
poor.

nothing was corrected last
time.
nothing will be corrected this
time.

the poor will remain poor.
the unemployed will remain
so.
the homeless will remain
homeless

and the politicians,
fat upon the land, will live
very well.

“Riots”

Although twenty-some years have passed since then, I find the clear-sighted class resignation indicated here far superior to any progressive philosophy paved with good intentions that expect too much from politics and social movements. As we are struggling, we need to take into account defeat and self-destruction -- otherwise, as with a way of life which fails to presuppose death, we're bound to develop sickness unto despair or blind faith hardened with bricks of delusion.

Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot the eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, was not charged and, in August and December of last year, protesters from across the country converged on Ferguson. The police mobilized tanks and scattered the people who were exercising their democratic rights. On April 12 of this year, after a similar case of police brutality (twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray died in custody from injury sustained during his arrest) occurred in Baltimore, the popular rage for justice developed into a riot.

In Customs in Common, a classic of social history that analyzes the English commoners' eighteenth-century food riots, E.P. Thompson defines riots as “a highly-complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives”, not a spasmodic phenomenon that responds randomly to economic factors (50). Thompson called the highly complex popular consciousness and intelligence, cultivated by tradition and custom, driving the riots “moral economy”.

In 2005 -- about midway point between the 1992 L.A. Riot and the 2015 Baltimore Riot -- when I was living in Toledo, Ohio and learning history from Thompson's direct student Peter Linebaugh, I saw a riot shake the city. It was a direct popular action that not only rejected the neo-Nazis marching through an area inhabited mostly by African-American workers but also rejected the everyday police violence and the entire power structure that enabled it.

As I was writing this column, nine people had been shot to death at a black church in Charleston, North Carolina (June 17). A white supremacist youth has been arrested as a suspect. EAME (Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal) Church, the murder scene, was founded by Denmark Vesey, ex-slave carpenter who plotted insurrection in 1822 to liberate the slaves of Charleston. Thirty-five people, including Vesey, were hanged on the charge of conspiracy. According to Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, Vesey's revolt “brought together a coalition of different workers -- agrarian, artisan, and nautical -- from the different traditions of Africa, England, the West Indies, and America” and “expressed the power of transatlantic pan-Africanism” which “frightened the slaveowning ruling class” (299).

What echoes from EAME Church and the blood-stained streets of Compton, Toledo, Ferguson, Baltimore is a Biblical verse from Isaiah 61:1 that inspired Vesey to armed insurrection: “The Spirit of the Lord God...hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”.

Unless the original sin of the entire social system, concealed under the politicians' rhetoric, is redeemed by the moral economy of riots and insurrections, the legacy of slavery that built American democracy and its national wealth will not disappear.

Manuel Yang
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Born in Campinas, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Manuel Yang grew up in Kobe, Los Angeles, Taichung, and Dallas, and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin (majoring in history and English). He completed his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History Department at the University of Toledo. He specializes in comparative social and intellectual history. Some of his recent writings are published in The Doors: Fiftieth Anniversary/The Most Radical Legend [Doors kessei 50-nen/mottomo kagekina densetu] (Kawade-shobo-shinsha, 2014), The Annual Review of Radioactive Society (Shin-hyoron, 2013), Trespassing Journal (Winter 2013) , Lawrence Normand and Alison Winch, eds., Encountering Buddhism in Twentieth Century British and American Literature (London: Continuum, 2014). His translations include Yoshida Jun’s Yoshimoto Taka’aki (Kawade-shobo-shinsha, 2013) and Roger Pulvers’s Illusions of Self: Reading Takuboku in English (Kawade-shobo-shinsha, 2015).