Look, America. We need to have a chat about what the hell is going on in this country. We need to have a national conversation about compassion, hypocrisy, and face the realities we’re trying so hard to ignore. Baseball might be the official national pastime, but I’m going to throw out the possibility that we have another, more prevalent one:
Ignoring our problems.
Americans don’t like being uncomfortable. We avoid it. We wash out the bad and sanitize the history books (We were horrible to the Native Americans? What? Surely not!). We sanitize the present perhaps even more so. Well, get ready to get uncomfortable folks, because I’ve got news: we’re not really The Land of the Free. More like the Land of the Free If you Fit a Certain Mold, Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Class Status Maybe. And before you stand up and demand that if I don’t like it here I can leave, listen a minute. I’m not saying I’m not thankful for lots of the freedoms we’re afforded here. I am. I know some other places don’t have them. But let’s be real here, these freedoms are not given to everyone equally and though it’s sad but true, we are not the beacon of freedom and equality we were raised to think we were when we stood to recite the pledge of allegiance every day in elementary school. There are other places that rank higher on the freedom and progress scales than we do, and that’s irrefutable. We look down on other countries for human rights violations and yet the United Nations is looking to start a review of whose police practices?
I mean, come on. There were almost as many National Guard troops sent to Ferguson as there are soldiers stationed in Iraq. That says scary things about our right to assemble.
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. All over, there are revolutions, large and small, taking place. In Mexico, where people are furious over the missing (and presumed dead) 43 students. In Hong Kong, where protestors are fighting for democracy. In Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and throughout America, where people are staging walk-outs in solidarity with Mike Brown, Eric Garner and all the other black men and women who are killed by police on what an alarming basis. These are revolutions in the physical streets and in the virtual ones of social media and the wider internet. They are revolutions of the heart and the soul, the voices of the oppressed ringing out with the support of their allies. Yet a great number of people seek to drown them out, whether it’s because the current social order serves them best, or perhaps more widely so, because they are too afraid to face the fact that the only way the world is just is if we as humanity make it so. That’s in our hands and no one else’s. The universe is not magically just, and saying it is means we’re just too lazy to do anything about that fact that it’s not.
In the midst of all this, the third Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay was released. I saw it last weekend, sitting there overwhelmed with a powerful emotion as Katniss filmed a propaganda clip while the remains of a District 8 hospital full of wounded blew up in the background. Her eyes filled with furious tears and she shouted these words that I can’t forget:
“This is what they do! This is what the Capitol does!”
But I wasn’t just upset by what I was seeing on screen, I was frustrated because there are people out there every day screaming and shouting that there are problems, and they get told they’re wrong. I fell asleep that night with the tune of the haunting song “The Hanging Tree” (sung by Katniss in the film) set to images of things going on in my very own country. Over the past few days we’ve watched black Americans flooding American streets, tired of being treated like their lives have less value than white ones, and still there are white people telling them that’s not true. Newsflash: white people haven’t experienced systemic, institutionalized racism. And when you haven’t experienced it, you don’t get to say it doesn’t exist. How on earth would you feel if members of your race were being shot, killed, mistreated and treated unjustly day in and day out, and then have someone not of that race turn around and tell you it wasn’t happening, that it had “nothing to do with race.”
You’d be pretty damn pissed off.
I see white people on my Facebook newsfeed declaring that black Americans are only “playing the race card” but if the positions were switched and a black officer got away for shooting/choking an unarmed white person, they’d say he’s only free because of the race card. How on earth is it okay for the white population to tell black Americans that racism doesn’t play a huge role? I can sure as hell say that as a white woman, I have no idea what it’s like to fear for my life when I see a police officer, I have no idea what it’s like to be profiled and called a thug. Sure, anyone can be a victim of police brutality and the militarization of police forces is a huge problem, but the use of brutality is far more prevalent against the black community.
We might not live in a dystopia (that is starting to feel more questionable by the day), but there are massive, undeniable injustices happening here every day. Yet when people go see Mockingjay they feel terrible for the plight of those characters, in particular for the people in District 12, where people go hungry every day, as opposed to the Capitol, where people take a tonic to throw up what they’ve eaten so they can eat more. But some of the same people would shame the protestors in Ferguson, New York, and all over as rioters, “techie brats”, or as Rudy Guliani and others have put it, “racial arsonists.”
So we have plenty of compassion and support for fictional revolutionaries fighting against oppression and injustice, but we lack it for actual real, flesh and blood, living, breathing people? Why is there this disconnect? How can we believe there are problems in foreign countries but not on our own American soil? How can we believe that when Eric Garner said 11 times that he couldn’t breathe and Officer Pantaleo kept choking him anyway?
How can we believe that when an officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death when all he had was a BB gun? How can we believe that when the officer who shot Akai Gurley dead in a stairwell was busy texting his union officer instead of calling an ambulance? How can we believe it when the officer who shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in a swat raid got off with only a misdemeanor charge? How can we believe that when Darren Wilson shot the unarmed Michael Brown six times and got donations for his trouble? When Bob McCullough, the prosecutor in the case, did everything he could so that the grand jury wouldn’t even indict? When a black woman in Florida got an initial sentence of 20 years for firing a warning shot into the wall to fend off her abusive husband (she is now set to be released in January after serving two years) while men like George Zimmerman walk free after killing someone under the very same Stand Your Ground Defense?
I keep hearing “well, we need to look at the facts.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but these are the facts.
People say that we have laws that protect everyone, and that’s great in theory. But it would be better if it was actually true. Every day in America we tell the black community there isn’t racism, women that there isn’t sexism, poor people that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps when there aren’t any bootstraps left, and members of the LGBTQA community that their identities aren’t valid or worthy of legislation to protect.
Katniss Everdeen is a poor girl (in the books, there are solid arguments to be made that she’s a woman of color, given her olive skin there’s a good chance she might be of mixed race) whose father died, whose mother fell into a depression, leaving Katniss to fight for all of their survival in a district that is poverty stricken. Katniss’ sister Prim is small because she’s been underfed all her life. When we look at these characters, we feel for them. It’s wrong for them to get treated this way, we say, while ignoring the cries of our own oppressed And here’s the real question: if Katniss Everdeen existed in real life, would people listen to her? Or would so many people in our society smear her as they do Mike Brown, who was deemed a “thug.” Would they smear her as they did the father of Tamir Rice accusing him of a history of abuse? Would they smear her like rape victims country wide, rape victims who were “just drunk” or “were wearing too short of a skirt?” Would they smear her like they do these victims and countless others, while white men who commit mass shootings are referred to in the media as “troubled” and “plagued by years of mental illness.”
And here’s something else: racism doesn’t always manifest in burning crosses, white hoods, and the KKK. It manifests in even well-meaning people internalizing systemic negative stereotypes about black Americans. We have to accept this happens and do something about it. We have to examine even our unconscious biases and work on them because “he was a thug anyway” is not an excuse for shooting someone dead. We all say and do problematic things sometimes even when we’re trying because society as a whole is imperfect and we’ve had this stuff beaten into us since childhood. It can be hard to overcome and we’ll mess up, but we have to put in a real and serious effort to keep our minds and hearts open to the people these atrocities affect every day, no matter our own biases and pre-concieved notions. We have to learn and we have to educate ourselves. It can be hard and uncomfortable, but so is almost everything worth doing. It’s vital.
I hear people commenting on the police brutality/racism situation, standing up on their high-horses and condemning the protests as riots, asking people to quell their rage and quiet down. How familiar does that sound? Don’t make noise. Follow the rules. Don’t break the law even if the law doesn’t truly exist for your benefit. Always obey authority without question. Accept the way things are. Or even worse, we’re told that the way things are is right. That nothing is wrong, really. That everything is well and we live in a post-racial society or in a world where men and women are equal. Those people of color and those women and those poor people and those gay people are just complaining and want thing handed to them. All those rich people just work harder and that’s why they have everything they do. The world is just and America is a perfect fucking beacon of equality.
Sound familiar? Do you hear President Snow’s disturbing whisper in your ear? It’s horrifying isn’t it? Well it’s a thousand times more horrifying when it happens in real life, and it is happening.
These stories, these fictional tales of revolution aren’t just stories: they were written for a reason. Why on earth do you think people in Thailand used the three-finger Hunger Games salute and it frightened the government so much that they actually banned its use and arrested protestors for using it? Why do you think minimum wage workers used it when fighting for higher, livable pay? Why do you think Ferguson protestors spray painted Katniss’ famous words from Mockingjay, “If we burn you burn with us!” on property. Why do you think protestors in Hong Kong used the famous “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Mis in their chants? These stories hold up mirrors to our own society and force us to examine the real-world injustices that take place every day, except somehow we’re missing the point. It’s true that there have been so many people standing up in light of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents, it’s true that there has been a massive outcry and those people are brave and their work important and inspiring. I have hope that those people will help change things. But it disturbs me just how much backlash there is. It disturbs me that people can go watch Mockingjay and then go home and condemn people in the real-world for standing up for what’s right, condemning them for daring to go against the system in place.
All of this said, I find it a little strange that a country born out of protesting by doing things like say, dumping tea into a harbor? Or you know, rebelling against the largest empire in the world, has issues with civil disobedience or even breaking the law. The Founding Fathers committed a little something called treason, so when I see people saying “well they shouldn’t have broken the law” as a cold excuse for someone’s death by the hand of the police (regardless of whether or not they actually BROKE THE LAW) I can’t help but feel the hypocrisy stick in my veins. But oh, was it okay for them to break the law because they were white?
Ironically, America has a long history of disliking the idea of revolution. A few months ago I was reading a book on Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America if you’re curious), only to discover that those in charge of the Centennial celebration wanted to step away from any hint of radicalism so much that they referred to the Founders as “statesmen”, and never as “revolutionaries.” In fact, Robert C. Winthrop, a Boston conservative was quoted as saying the Revolution was “no wild breaking away from authority” and that “no incendiary torch can be rightfully kindled at our flame.” He said the Founders were breaking away from the “radicalism” of king and parliament. Except, you know, breaking away not only from a mother country but also from monarchy itself was what someone might call, oh, I dunno, RADICAL. And ever since, Americans have shied away from radicalism, and told oppressed people that under no circumstance were they oppressed, that the status quo was the way things were supposed to be. Because of that, said people have fought tirelessly to gain equal rights, and that is still true today in 2014. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.
Listen to the people who are being oppressed, because their voices are key. Stand in solidarity with them, let them lead, and also watch this excellent video about being an ally (with a bonus defintion of what privilege is!):
Listen to black Americans. Don’t try to replace #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter, because the black community is the one being targeted here, they’re the ones being hurt. They’re the ones watching their loved ones get beaten, arrested, and shot down in the streets by police and then watching the officers walk away. Don’t be like the NYPD police union, who kept reciting the fact that the officer who killed Eric Garner was an Eagle Scout and therefore somehow incapable of error. It’s obvious not all cops are the devil incarnate, and feeling the need to say that takes away from the fact that there is a real and serious problem with the way our country is policed. It takes away from the fact that protestors are being tear-gased and beaten, it takes away from the fact that people are dying. It hearkens back to the #NotAllMen campaign that took place after the Eliot Rodger shooting in California, which was met, in turn with #YesAllWomen. Stop trying to make things about you that aren’t. Instead, open your mind and do what you can to help.
So sit down, America. Listen. And when you’re sitting there watching Mockingjay or any other similar movie, remember there are real people out there who deserve your ear, your compassion, and your support. Literature is so often a reflection of our society, and if the Hunger Games trilogy is any indication, we need to get busy fixing things. As my favorite band Bastille might say, your voice is a weapon, and we need all of them to start making change happen. There is hope for a better America and hope for a better world, but that hope is in the hands of people, in the human race’s power to change things. It’s time to stop backtracking, and instead, move forward.