First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so, we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.
President Obama, 11/24/14, Transcript.
Thus President Obama began his “few words suggesting how we might move forward” after the grand jury deliberating the death of Michael Brown issued its decision. I believe that this “first and foremost” ranking and associated word choices have seriously harmful cultural resonance, and I hope that he abandons them immediately when referring to the nationwide crisis centered upon Ferguson. Although the president quickly, but somewhat superficially, shifted the focus onto the wishes of the Brown family, a giant opportunity was missed to acknowledge at the outset the core principle involved, which was and is not the “rule of law” but “freedom from fear.”
Now more than ever we must begin to know and insist upon our rights as human beings, U.S. “rule of law” be damned. Where human rights are not being protected, as they were not on the streets of Ferguson when Michael Brown was slaughtered, and as law enforcement in the U.S. has shown no propensity to do, suggesting that the rule of law is the defining principle is inaccurate. The rule of law is to avoid compelling human beings as a last resort to rebel against oppression, not to mask barbarous acts of oppression.
While the president is famous for slow starts and strong finishes, now is not the time for a slow start, much less a chide. And, sadly, chide is what he did. Undoubtedly he would have been called a white-hating Kenyan dictator had he begun with the truth, but, as we have learned, he will be called that anyway.
Rather than first voicing the primary need at this time for solidarity with those who have been and are harmed and threatened by police brutality–a fact that President Obama certainly knows based on his own life experiences and years as president responding to repeat instances of law enforcement violence against African Americans–he began with a chide to those who recognize this so-called “rule of law” for the hypocritical mask of oppression that it is.
It was as if the most important message at the time was the need to prevent the breaking of windows, so apparently hallowed under the rule of law and much more important under our system of government than preventing police and police wannabes from killing young African American men. The latter must grin and bear the constant unequal risk that they will be stopped, frisked, and even shot by “demonizing” white cops. But we here in the U.S. of A. expect our cops are going to protect those Swisher Sweets, priority number one.
The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights voices a much more candid message about the pitfalls of proffering a hollow rule of law that does not prevent oppression:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
FDR captured this through the “freedom from fear” concept in the Four freedoms speech, which made it into the preamble:
The ideas enunciated in the Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were the foundational principles that evolved into the Atlantic Charter declared by Winston Churchill and FDR in August 1941; the United Nations Declaration of January 1, 1942; President Roosevelt’s vision for an international organization that became the United Nations after his death; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
While President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 in his state of the union speech was focused on a world at war and accordingly “translated” the concept “into world terms,” freedom from fear definitely applies at the individual “neighbor” level as well as at the international level.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
To that new order we oppose the greater conception—the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.
Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions—without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.
Freedom from fear properly was cast in moral terms, so that, by implication, denying the Brown family and other African American families freedom from fear is itself immoral and outside the intent of having a so-called rule of law. Thus, any rule of law that exacerbates the Browns’ fear and the fear of millions of more families like the Browns is not worthy of respect and we need not and indeed MUST NOT “ACCEPT” IT. So no Mr. President, we do not “accept” the outcome of that grand jury.
While I personally am no fan of Norman Rockwell (I especially dislike his “freedom from want” painting), he did a decent, albeit predictably non-challenging “whitebread,” job of showing what freedom from fear really means in a visual any parent will understand.
The clock of justice cannot turn back to save Michael Brown’s human right to live, but this clock must not remain stuck in the past of a Rockwell painting either. It must turn forward to ensure that tomorrow’s paintings of freedom from fear are not just meant for “white” families.
Indeed, this freedom from fear is a uniting concept that can enable U.S. residents of all “races”/ethnicities to realize their kinship with their neighbors next door and around the world, many of whom like them are constantly living in fear for their own lives and those of their children. As a relatively privileged half “brown”-half “white” U.S. resident, I do not know what it feels like to be an African American parent in the U.S. I also do not experience firsthand what it feels like to be a fearful parent in other oppressive areas around our world, not knowing if a bomb is going to fall on my house or if my kids will arrive home safely from school. For me, the Rockwell painting is more of a reality, but for many people the Rockwell painting I am sure is an ironic disrespecting denial of their reality. Through listening I can try to learn, and I can try to support fundamental changes to address this lack of freedom from fear in the U.S. and wherever it exists.
I recently wrote a piece on dangerous exploitative illusions in Japan and the U.S. The piece incorporated three of Akira Kurosawa’s post WWII social commentary films. One I did not mention was the final film of the series, 1955’s I Live in Fear.
The devastation here is more psychological than physical, as Kurosawa focuses not on a victim of nuclear warfare but on an elderly businessman, Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), nearly paralyzed by fear of the bomb. Inspired by the mass panic that occurred in Japan in 1954 after two Japanese fishermen were contaminated by radioactive ash from American hydrogen-bomb testing in Bikini Atoll and then sold their fish in the marketplace, I Live in Fear is grounded in contemporary anxieties. Tokyo, shot even from the opening credits as a teeming metropolis on the precipice of doom, is the locus of this terror; Nakajima wishes to retreat from such an easy target and escape, along with all of his dependents (including children from his wife and three mistresses), to a farm in Brazil.
The central drama of the film, however, derives less from the possibility of another nuclear attack than from the devastation Nakajima’s paranoia wreaks on his family, who try to have him declared insane. Mifune, with his age makeup, contorted face, and paunchy, crooked gait, makes a splendidly stubborn old patriarch, and though he reigns over his family with unforgiving, iron resolve, he remains the film’s most completely drawn, sympathetic figure. Still, Kurosawa refuses to takes sides on the question of who, if anyone, has the sanest response to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Despite the economic miracle of the mid-fifties in Japan, Kurosawa paints a society connected through unease, its future an ominous question mark.
I think that final sentence captures where the U.S. at best finds itself today, after the unjust outcome that was the grand jury report: “a society connected through unease, its future an ominous question mark.” But in truth, the U.S. is not a society “connected” at all, even through unease. Our unease is in part race-based and divides rather than connects us.
Toward the end, Nakajima, who may or may not have been deluded, realized that he in good conscience could not just save his family and abandon his workers to the nuclear fate he believed awaited them. In contrast, U.S. plutocrats and their mercenaries benefit from the division and are concerned with maintaining as long as possible the privileges of plutocracy rather than with responding to alleviate unease in the human family.
We will not meaningfully address a society connected, or divided, by unease until we address the unease experienced by African American males as they walk or drive down the streets of the U.S. We also cannot expect African American parents to feel the freedom from fear they deserve until we stop masking oppression behind a pseudo-sacred “rule of law” that excuses cops killing their children.
We human beings have life in common as a physiological process but not as a criminological process. We bleed and sweat, live and die, breath and sigh, cry and hopefully laugh. And sometimes our kids may even do things we would rather they did not do, like swipe cigarillos, tell an aggressive cop to fuck off, or smoke marijuana. But they should not have to die because of policing practices aimed at busting them for petit theft. They should not never come home again if they respond to a pushy disrespecting cop with pushy disrespect. The fact that they may have THC in their bloodstream is not justification for killing them.
That is not an acceptable rule of law worth preserving. Killer law enforcement officers and their enabling prosecutors must get their heads out of their self-serving “rule of law” or feel our collective moral outrage–through both indirect action in the ballot box working in our ineffective democracy-lite and direct action in the streets, other public spaces, and workplaces (a general strike being an option that should be on the table). Our president, who otherwise has done so much good on issues of race in the U.S., should not be their mouthpiece, if even for a moment, in anything he says or does. We must not accept a status quo of any parent living in fear for their children or imply that the rule of law ever justifies such a status quo.