I was fortunate this week to attend a couple of performances of the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, where over 400 young people in 72 teams from around the country spilled their guts in highly sensitive, creative, politically-charged, original poetry. No one read their poems; they all recited, with shamelessly strong emotion. To get a sense of what they were doing, check out Button Poetry, where you can subscribe and receive a daily poem video, or check out Youth Speaks.
Most of the performers were people of color, and several of them expressed their grief and anger over the repeated police killings of unarmed people. I want you to know that when one of the poets spoke of “human sacrifice,” everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.
So I really must ask the question: “Do black lives matter?”
I must remind you that every 28 hours, an African-American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. 80% of the victims are unarmed. When this happens to white people, you can chant “All lives matter.” Until then, show some respect.
Now let’s move on. Of course, no one with a heart can open him- or herself to the reality of violence and racial prejudice in this nation and not agree that black lives matter. That is, anyone who can still retain the basic human compassion that they were born with. That category should include the vast majority of Americans, even those (the Republican core constituency) who have been so dehumanized by the propaganda machine as to support the con men who promise to relieve their anxiety with the rhetoric of hate.
Unfortunately, however, I’m not talking about actual, feeling human beings; I’m talking now about those sociopaths who control the reins of power at the corporate, military media and political levels. I’m talking about advanced capitalism in a world of tightened budgets and lowered expectations; a world – or at least a nation – where the population greatly exceeds – and will continue to exceed – the available jobs. From this point of view, the American population includes a very large number of essentially useless people. These are people who have no marketable skills in our service economy and – because of a failed education system and the exporting of jobs to the Third World – will never have those skills.
In the eyes and schemes of our corporate masters, such people can be allowed to exist only as canon fodder or as consumers. But a person without a job doesn’t qualify as a consumer. So millions of them, primarily people of color, have become, quite simply, expendable.
Capitalism no longer needs them as it needed their grandparents who worked the factory jobs that once sustained a middle class. From that point of view, it makes no difference whatsoever if people starve on the streets, with one exception: they can still fill our prisons. In this sense, they are neither producers nor consumers; they are the raw material, the natural resource (exactly like oil or slave-produced cotton) without which our massive and lucrative prison-industrial complex could not exist.
But please don’t allow yourself to think that these sociopaths act in a vacuum. They are the extreme expression of our mythology. They act in our name.
They act in our name in other places as well, such as Israel, where the planners of the ongoing blockade of Gaza have calculated the precise, minimum amount of calories a Palestinian can be allowed to consume before starvation sets in.
But why do police everywhere apparently feel free to murder them in broad daylight knowing full well that their actions are being recorded by bystanders with cell phones? A year ago, as I wrote that we are really speaking about state-sanctioned human sacrifice, people everywhere were chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” We don’t hear those words any more; they’ve been replaced by “Black lives matter!” Why? Because the earlier chant was ironic; it was intended (like the old chants of the Civil Rights movement) to shame the nation into moral action. But in this dark time, we have become shameless.
This is where mythology adds another, if equally dark, dimension to our analysis. When we think in terms of the myths that govern our thinking at the deepest levels and provide a sense of identity in fast-changing times, it is difficult not to conclude that black lives do matter – but only as the Other. To perpetuate our sense of white American innocence, we will always need a dark, demonized other to measure our own lightness by. In religious terms, we need to know, to see exactly who is not worthy of being saved in order to convince ourselves that we among the elect.
As our own repressed responsibility gnaws at us, it gets harder and harder to do that. So we, like the Aztecs of the 16th century, push away the guilt more and more often by killing more and more of the Other. We need the Other. Black lives matter. What would America do if it didn’t have them available?
If we have to, let’s reduce this to simple economic terms, supply and demand. What would defense contractors do if all the terrorists gave up and went away? What would the security and prison industries do if the government ended the War on Drugs? What would the cancer industry do if it acknowledged the many proven and inexpensive cures that already exist? What would happen to Big Pharma’s stockholders if their drugs actually defeated disease? Or Big Insurance, if we switched to single payer? Or Big Oil, if we got serious about reversing global warming?
What would happen to the American Empire and its generals if young people lost interest in sacrificing themselves for “freedom”?
What would happen to the whole, wasteful, soul-killing edifice of consumerism if, as the 18th-century poet Novalis wrote,
When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once more
To unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken.
Cut bono: follow the money. The simple truth is that, in order to remain “America,” this nation requires a population of suffering – deservedly suffering – Others within the borders just as it needs an identifiably evil population of terrorist Others outside the borders.
Now we can revisit that question of “All lives matter.” In the relentless, cold logic of late capitalism, no lives matter, unless they can be forced into one of the few square holes of the system: consumer, producer, entertainer (which includes almost all politicians, journalists and news broadcasters), prisoner, enforcer or scapegoat. Life itself is of no value except as a natural resource.
UPDATE April 2018 – I wrote this essay in 2015, when many progressive people were able and willing to deny what was right in front of their eyes. The mere existence of a Black president, even one who served Wall Street, Israel and the Pentagon, was enough to keep hope alive. Now no rational person can pretend that the worst extremes of white supremacy have been given permission to burst out of the national unconscious.
So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they, the haters, can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. Representatives of the National Security State, from local courtrooms to the White House, will protect them.
I’d like to offer something positive, and here is the only thing I can think of: societies engage in mass human sacrifice when their mythic worlds are collapsing. Think Aztecs, Nazis, Hawaiians (yes, Hawaiians). We can’t yet see what the new mythology will look like. But as America turns its violent gaze back upon its old, tried-and-true human scapegoat, we know that the old story no longer works for most of us.
I doubt if I’ll live long enough to see the new story emerge fully. Perhaps my grandchildren will. And I know that even that statement is an expression of white privilege.
Meanwhile, seeing young people offering their visions through slam poetry is one of the few things that gives me hope. But to be in their presence requires being present, as they tell their grief in hopes that we are listening. The most emotionally moving poem I heard at the Slam festival was told by a black woman who phones her brother every day – just to find out if he is still alive.