Saturday, June 13: Peace and power

This post is a response, and hopefully a small amplification, of an important message articulated at In The Salt City: Stop worrying about the wrong things, and quit asking if the protests in Syracuse are peaceful.

Asking that question puts the burden on the protesters. It allows people to think of themselves as outside observers and to pass judgment on the protests based on how the protesters act. It puts the protests themselves on trial, and once they have been judged—peaceful, legal, good or violent, illegal, bad—then the neutral observer moves on, having made their decision, without ever actually addressing the content of the protests.

“Peaceful,” of course, is a shorthand for “no white people or property were harmed or threatened in the making of this spectacle.” Not to ignore the fact that minority-owned businesses are often the first to be damaged in riots because of their physical proximity to where riots tend to begin, but this is the heart of the matter.

I’d like to return briefly to the evening of Saturday, May 30, the day that large-scale protesting began in the Syracuse area and in many other cities in Syracuse’s population tier. Because this was the only “occurrence” that was deemed “not peaceful” and the only one that spilled out of the city (“neighborhoods of the black people”) and into the suburbs (“domain of the white people”). And because, for a short while at least, a large, spontaneous march of very impassioned people was headed my way.

I’m old enough to remember the LA riots and how they seemed to just “begin” magically after the Rodney King verdict was announced. Fortunately at the time I understood that there were huge forces impacting humans in L.A., forces that I didn’t really understand. I was a (distant) bystander, but, as one is told by scientists that a large fault line has moved under the sea unseen by you and you can reliably expect a tsunami, I saw that this tsunami was moving through communities in L.A. and carrying many people before it. The shock of the earthquake (the verdict) was so much that few could withstand it or resist this force. It was too late to prevent major violence. The only question was how long it would go on before individuals, and then institutions, had the strength to channel the flow of the earthquake’s power. (The analogy breaks down, of course, because injustice is not a natural event like a fault slip, but a pattern of decisions that humans choose to make.)

Like many interested county residents on May 30, I was following the protests on social media in semi-real-time courtesy of the local news reporters with Twitter accounts. One tweet advised people to tune in to the Facebook stream of Sakia Daye, who was driving along with the marchers. She said, along with other powerful remarks, “We’re going out to Camillus — where the police lay their heads at night.”

This meant the marchers were headed my way — Fairmount! I was not about to sit at home while the most significant march in Syracuse, in my lifetime, was on the move. I threw my clothes on and quickly drove down to West Genesee Street. When might the tsunami be expected to arrive? What would happen when it got here? What would hundreds of passionate people do when they arrived at the vast expanse of pavement that marks Fairmount’s eastern border? Would it be just loud, or something else? Would it be prudent for me to be in a position to flee, or would I be near enough to offer them the water bottles in my car? I scanned social media for clues. They were estimated to be minutes from Solvay. And although I had taken a different route and hadn’t observed this, the Camillus police were scared and were now guarding the mall, just down the road from where I was stationed.

My reaction to the coming march was maybe colored by the fact that I am an amateur historian and that I tend to view everything in a vast context of everything that ever happened in my area — not a really human way to see things, I suppose. Would Fairmount Fair be looted? Write that down in the annals. But even in that detached context, there was no question that power really was on the move that night and that any fear of that power had to be swallowed. There was a not insignificant chance that violence might happen. I knew it, the Camillus cops knew it, the laws of human physics were plain. Yet as an amateur historian I also knew that every specific place has a specific black history; very often, a silent history of individuals, or the history of things that weren’t permitted to happen. Fairmount’s black history seemed about to surface in a major way. To not be at least present, as a historian and as a human, seemed a dereliction of duty.

But the marchers didn’t come. They stopped in Solvay, and then went back to Syracuse, and most of them went home. I went home too. The rest of the night’s story everyone knows — except the one act of destruction that happened that night outside of the city limits. At around 3 a.m., a small group of people went to the Target at Fairmount Fair, smashed a plate glass window and stole some electronics. I’m not knowledgeable about the police investigation, so I have no idea if the thieves were black, brown, white, associated with the city marchers or just some local copycats. But it seems to me that this was a very important window. It possibly was the “high water mark” of the night’s tsunami. (This fact will at least be recorded in the annals as the most important broken window in Fairmount history; and I would argue one of the key broken windows in Onondaga County history as well.)

More to the point of what In the Salt City has stated: We ought to be more concerned about whether a march is powerful or not. Peace by itself is nothing. I was happy to stand with my fellow Camillus and Fairmount citizens in a “peaceful demonstration” a week later; while it was important, there was no power in it, it just gave an appropriate assent to the power in the hands of the citizens marching downtown. While standing alongside the main street of Fairmount, we got many supportive car honks, but every few minutes some men headed out to Camillus would angrily rev their SUV or truck engines and speed dangerously past us in disgust. (One woman, also headed westward toward the exurban regions, riding in her car with several children, drove by slowly and gave us the finger.)

The paradox is that power implies force. The forces unleashed by injustice are blind and can be terrible. But without acknowledgement of the presence of that force in times of injustice, one is marching behind a kitten on a string, not a lion on a leash. As students of organizing know, “Power is not only what you have, but what the [opposition] thinks you have.”

We live in a time when everyone is forced to admit that day and night occur in a particular sequence over which we have no influence. We have had to admit that we are not special and that history is not at an end. We have learned that when you unwisely order your economy and investment in public health, deadly viruses will finally have a field day. We’ve learned (again) that systemic racism left unchecked in our institutions will indeed explode. (We seem to not have learned that when powerful nations stockpile weapons, repress their own citizens, engage in belligerent nationalistic posturing and move their armies into strategic positions, then global conflict will erupt, but we’ll re-learn that again soon, I’m afraid.)

There is really nothing for our community here in Fairmount, which is so physically near to the city limits, to do in these times but to make the road free of obstructions and lie as still as we are able. The “peace” that people demand is incumbent upon us at this moment in time. (And, in the big picture of hundreds of years of racially motivated violence of the strong over the weak, a single broken window of a corporate-owned behemoth does not even rise to the level of an accidental bloody nose.)