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  • Writer's pictureAnna Kaminski

The Fire This Time

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

Forty-one shots cut through the night

You're kneeling over his body in the vestibule

Praying for his life

A couple of decades ago, Bruce Springsteen wrote American Skin (41 Shots) about the killing of the 22-year-old Liberian immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Diallo was gunned down outside his apartment building in New York while reaching for his wallet. Nineteen of the forty-one shots hit him, and though the police officers went on trial for second-degree murder, they were all acquitted.

This is a variation on a depressingly familiar scenario in the United States that seems to happen ad nauseam. Over twenty years later, little seems to have changed. In the States, there are many ways for black people to die. Or rather, there are many trivial, everyday activities - that most of us don't ever think twice about - that result in their untimely deaths at the hands of the police and/or vigilantes.

These activities include:

Jogging (#AmaudArbery)

Relaxing in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSeanand#AtatianaJefferson)

Asking for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrelland#RenishaMcBride)

Being in possession of a mobile phone (#StephonClark)

Playing loud music (#JordanDavis)

Selling CDs (#AltonSterling)

Sleeping in one's own home (#Breonataylor)

Walking from the corner store (#MikeBrown)

Playing cops and robbers with a toy gun (#TamirRice)

Walking home (#TrayvonMartin)

Getting a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland)

Being lawfully in possession of a gun (#PhilandoCastile)

Shopping at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)

Reading a book in own car (#KeithScott)

Walking with one's grandfather (#CliffordGlover)

Decorating for a party (#ClaudeReese)

Running (#WalterScott)

Breathing (#EricGarner)

On May 25th, an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, stopped breathing. He died at the hands of a white cop in Minneapolis. Did I say hands? No, he died because the bastard knelt on his neck for nine minutes, in spite of pleas to stop. His crime? Allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill. How do you even get from that to the scene below? How does a police officer decide that kneeling on an unarmed, unresisting man's neck until he suffocates is an acceptable thing to do? And how in the world is it possible for the killing to be recorded on video, and for it to take days of protests before the perpetrator is even arrested??? Why was the killer originally slapped with the weakest charge available - "third degree murder"? Why has it taken a week of worldwide protests for the other three officers to be rounded up and charged? How does the county morgue even bring itself to pronounce that Floyd died due to heart issues and hypertension - forcing the man's family to opt for an independent autopsy, which, unsurprisingly, finds that the cause of death was asphyxiation???

America has been burning since the murder. For over a week now, there have been protests all over the United States, some descending into opportunistic looting and violence (largely on the part of white protestors, and credible evidence has now emerged that the far-right has been hijacking the protests in some instances and trying to stoke their race war), and with the police teargassing and shooting people. There have been curfews in L.A., D.C., and other cities.

For the first time in my memory, police have been actively targeting journalists and television crews, arresting one African-American reporter for CNN in spite of his credentials, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at others. It seems that when the President of the United States spends four years demonising the free press, this has consequences. Police have been brutal with some protestors, driving their vehicles into crowds, pulling people out of cars and beating them up. The only reason why I'm typing this fairly dispassionately is because I'm shellshocked. So much for "it can't happen here."

D.C. is on fire. The White House was plunged into darkness a couple of nights ago, following nonviolent protests out front.

Trump hid in an actual bunker, rage-tweeting; a regular 21st century Caligula:

"The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!"

I pity the historians who'll eventually have to piece together his deranged govern-by-tweet presidency.

On a phone call to various state governors, Trump raged some more, telling them to use greater force against protestors: the National Guard, the armed forces, attack dogs. It's oddly symbolic that in the midst of a great crisis, the White House is dark. No one's home. The wannabe strongman retreats and tweets, and literally no one is looking to him for guidance and leadership. A man who cannot even begin to understand the race-related grievances that he himself helped to exacerbate, he's exactly the wrong person to heal the nation. And there is much need of healing.

What do we get instead? We get Trump posing in front of a church with a Bible after having military police teargas peaceful protestors and the priests from said church, thereby politicising a God he doesn't believe in and a faith he doesn't possess. I seem to recall that in 1989 he thought that the Tiananmen Square massacre was a good thing. It figures. The first quote that came to mind when I saw Trump desecrating that poor Bible was: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Last night, the military/National Guard (it's unclear - they wear no insignias, and they refuse to say to whom they answer; they maintain they are with the Department of Justice) has been parked outside the Lincoln Memorial, because Trump chose to desecrate that too.

It feels like that moment in The Handmaid's Tale, just before things go to hell. The place is a powder keg.

I don't know how this will end. All I know is that it's baffling, enraging, that it's been over 50 years since the Civil Rights movement, and there is still no equality. No justice, no peace.

A while ago, I got into an argument with a friend of mine over Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism. Or rather, I told him that I didn't care for Corbyn for a number of reasons - that he sides with terrorist groups such as the IRA and Hamas, that he's a war crime apologist who excuses atrocities committed by the likes of Putin and Assad because they are not 'Western imperialists', that he undermines international liberal efforts to protect the oppressed and vulnerable by siding with oppressors, such as the Iranian government - known for executing children and gay people. My personal bone to pick with Mr "there are no mass graves in Kosovo" is that he'd allowed antisemitism to flourish within the Labour Party, and is himself an antisemite. Perhaps not a virulent one like Nigel Farage, but one nonetheless, who is unable to recognise an antisemitic mural for what it is, and whose utterance regarding how British Jews are incapable of recognising irony has immediately "othered" every Jew in Britain, and made Corbyn come across as some xenophobic golf club bore who simply doesn't like Jews very much. Corbyn welcomed all sorts of far-left cranks, genocide deniers and war criminal appeasers into the Labour Party, a number of whom I clashed with on Twitter. I outlined the verbal abuse I've been subjected to at the mouthpieces of the so-called Corbyn outriders. In turn, I was told: "I'm sorry that you and other British Jews have been duped by the media" and then proceeded to 'Jewsplain' to me that what I, a Jew, took to be antisemitism isn't antisemitism at all. Um, what?

For the record, the guy isn't Jewish. And what really got my goat wasn't just his patronising tone - as if I'm not a reasonably intelligent, educated human being, able to reach my own conclusions based on information available - but also his outright dismissal of my life experience, and the assertion that his world view is the only correct one.

And yet, in my life, this is a minor and rare occurrence, whereas black people - in the States, in the UK - get this sort of crap all the time, even from well-meaning people, who simply cannot relate to their life experiences or the challenges that they face, and are just not interested in trying to do so.

Take the Black Lives Matter movement. It was created precisely to highlight to ongoing inequalities when it comes to the treatment meted out to black people. I personally know some people from the #alllivesmatter camp, who make fun of #blacklivesmatter, because they seemingly can't get their heads around that the movement exists for the same reason there are Pride parades - not because black or gay people want special treatment, but because they want to be treated equally. There is still no equality and this needs to be addressed right now. The poster below, that a New York friend saw at a recent vigil, explains things rather succinctly.

My parents emigrated to the UK because, as Soviet Jews, they know what it's like to grow up as a second-class citizen in the country of your birth, and they didn't want my sister and me to experience the same discrimination that they'd faced their whole lives, such as getting abuse from strangers in the street and being barred by institutional racism from various professions.

Forty-one shots

Lena gets her son ready for school

She says: "On these streets Charles you gotta understand the rules

If an officer stops you, promise me you'll always be polite

And that you'll never ever run away

And promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight"

I find it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that for some of my African-American friends, their kids coming back from school alive is not a given, because the police are notoriously heavy-handed when it comes to black kids. White privilege - the protection that being pale-skinned can bring - is a very real thing. I've been travelling solo for many years, and there have been countries where I felt conspicuous (Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Papua New Guinea), being in the pale-skinned minority. But I never figured that there's a possibility I might die due to the colour of my skin. The peril of being dark-skinned was brought home to me by several friends of mine. An African-American friend who works in the fashion industry in Japan was looking for someone to join him on a cross-country road trip in the States. Because a black man driving a car is in far greater danger of being pulled over than a white one. Even in the UK, where one is far less likely to die for "walking/driving while black", another friend of mine - an award-winning performance poet - told me with some bitterness of his childhood in South London, and how the older brothers of his friends were routinely stopped and frisked by the police. Because they were black.

The race lines are even starker during the pandemic, with black and Asian people two to four times as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people. I've read an article that talks about Vitamin D, how those lacking it due to different rates of absorption by darker skin are more likely to be severely affected by the virus. But one can't help but think of social factors, which are particularly stark in the United States: higher poverty rates, poorer diets and heart/respiratory issues as a result, higher numbers working in jobs that can't be done from home and higher rates of being exposed to the virus on public transport because you're less likely to own a car. The British government, spooked by the protests in the States, decided not to publish a report on Covid-19 effects on the BAME citizens - a cowardly decision that places them at greater risk.

Where do we go from here? It's clear that things are not working as they are. Bruce Springsteen has long been vocal about America's failure to deal with the "original sin of slavery" and concluded in American Skin that we're baptised in these waters, and in each other's blood. It will take a massive effort by society as a whole to untangle the centuries of damage and degradation.

When Colin Kaepernick and other American football players took the knee in protest over police brutality, they were derided for it. "It's disrespectful," they were told. Yet the same people who derided their peaceful protest are now saying that they're totally cool with peaceful protests, but marching and shouting slogans is apparently not cool. How do black people secure their rights?

The heavy-handedness of the police in the United States is nothing new. They are often armed to the teeth and seem to have no training in how to deescalate a situation. There are often few or no legal consequences to killing a suspect, and even it comes to trial, they are often let off. (The police officer who killed George Floyd has had over 20 complaints of misconduct during his Minneapolis career, yet none have been addressed). It's clear to me that police reform is required and that immunity from prosecution must end. It's a disgrace that the killers of Breona Taylor, an emergency medical technician, still haven't been arrested, three months after they mistakenly burst into her apartment and riddled her with bullets. And it's quite telling that in New Jersey, where considerable effort has been put into police reform, this week the police either knelt in solidarity with the protestors or marched with them.

Police marching with protestors (photo in the Guardian)

Those of us who are not black can march in solidarity with our black friends (as a number of my friends have been doing in the States over the past week).

In Louisville, Kentucky, white women formed a human shield between the police and the black protestors, which is a terrific way of using one's white privilege. (While domestic violence seems to be prevalent among American police officers - up to 40% of them are reported for it, they prefer not to beat up white women on camera).

But all this aside, mindsets need to change. I've been raised by decent people (parents and teachers both), who taught me that racial prejudice is both real and wrong. And yet even my parents, who are pro-social justice and equality, used to harbour some really outdated Victorian ideas about race until my sister and I educated them. Those ideas - that certain ethnicities are more predisposed towards anger, or that intelligence can be measured by the shape of one's skull - are clearly bollocks, but they made the rounds in the Soviet Union, and my parents subconsciously absorbed them. Until moving to the West in their mid-forties, they never came into contact with people of colour. And it's easy to believe crap about people you don't know and therefore don't understand.

When I did some work for an American lawyer in Ukraine, we ended up staying on a boat hotel in Kyiv, and a black bellhop carried our suitcases. Our unenlightened Ukrainian driver made some loud offhand remark about black people being lazy. That baseless, offhand stereotyping really bugged me. I ended up talking to the bellhop later and apologising to him for our driver's remarks (turned out that he fled the war in Angola, made his way to Ukraine and taught himself Ukrainian and Russian). I could only imagine the hardships that he must've had to overcome just for a chance to carry luggage at a Ukrainian hotel.

My aunt, who lives in New York, proclaimed in 2008 that she wouldn't vote for Obama "because we're not South Africa." When I came to stay with my cousin in NYC in 1999, I was told not to go to Harlem "because it's full of scary black people", so of course I made a beeline straight for Harlem. :-) Several years later, her husband made some comment about a nightclub that he drove past in the evening on his way from work, that "there were a lot of black people standing outside". He was talking about a salsa club that I went dancing at with my then Haitian paramour. So one does not have to be bound by the prejudices that pop up even in one's own family.

Throughout my life, I've made a real effort to educate myself about other cultures. Travelling a lot and being naturally nosy/curious helps, and I was lucky to have grown up in multicultural Cambridge and gone to the multicultural Warwick University, where I made friends from different corners of the world. The Caribbean Riddimz had the best music and food, and the Sri Lankan Society had great curry socials. I don't always get things right, and I do sometimes put my foot in it (like asking an Australian Aboriginal artist whether she speaks the Yamaji language, and being told that no, she's part of the Lost Generation, forced to attend missionary schools and didn't learn her family's language as a result) , but by and large, I do my best to listen to other people's experiences and to try to empathise. I would like to say that I'm reasonably woke. It's a lifelong process, and it's something that most of us can work on.

And on the subject of racism and wokeness, I'd like to finish with some thoughts from an American friend of mine in her 40s:

"White friends, especially white American friends, and especially white American friends who are my age and older: this is what I've been thinking about racism recently.

As someone super-attuned to how people use language, I have noticed a chronic miscommunication over the past decade or so when it comes to discussing racism.

[Edited this convo to flesh it out a little. Maybe it is now more recognizable as one you might have had, rather than its bare-bones exchange before.]

Person A (wincing): "Ooh, could you maybe not say that? That's racist." Person B: "But I'm not racist!" Person A: "I didn't say that. I said you shouldn't say what you said. It's racist." Person B: "I'm NOT racist! I [have black friends/voted for Obama/am very kind to immigrants/etc]." Person A: {DEEP SIGH} *END OF CONVERSATION*

This is a language problem!

The word "racist" has had a massive public shift/expansion in meaning since I was a kid in the 70s. Time was, a racist was someone who approved of segregation and used slurs with relish. They were easy to spot! They spoke with a twang, voted right-wing and set German shepherds on black kids. Maybe they wore Klan hoods. By that definition, I'm not a racist, and you're probably not either. And of course we would strenuously deny being one of these people, if so accused.

WELL! In the ensuing decades, a broader definition of racist and racism has come into wider use. Racism, as it's talked about now, by "young people" (anyone who's been to college in the last decade) is the whole dang system we live in in America: sprung from our history, propped up by laws and policies and learned prejudices. It was devised by white people, and it favors white people in ways most white people don't even notice.

Now you might be thinking this is dumb. We're all racist, then, by this definition. So what's the point of anything?

Well, sure, but:

The GREAT thing about this new, broader definition is that, by extension, "that's racist" -- or even "you're racist" -- no longer (usually) means "you're a horrible, irredeemable person."

Now "that's/you're racist” (usually) means "You don't appear to be aware of how this American system has affected your thinking about race." If someone takes the effort to tell you this in person, they may very well be doing it because they think you *are* redeemable. They're bringing it up because they think you're a decent person who didn't actually intend to sound like a jerk.

In this light, if you can just get through the awkward moment of someone questioning your behavior, you can consider "that's / you're racist" not as a personal attack, but as a call to look around you more. Read more. Think more before you repeat some weird joke you once heard. Listen and learn.

I was raised by good people who explicitly told me that racism and prejudice are wrong. But I STILL have absorbed all kinds of weird ideas, wrong facts, gross jokes--just by wallowing in four-plus decades of American culture.

Occasionally these weird ideas pop to mind. Occasionally I've said things that seemed like a funny/clever/right thing to say at the time, but once out of my mouth made me wonder, WHERE the hell did that come from? WHY did I feel compelled to say that?

GREAT questions we can and should always be asking ourselves. Consider it a mindfulness exercise. Be aware of your thoughts when you react to the news, or simply see a stranger's face on the street. The more you're aware of them, the more you can examine them -- think back to where you might have learned these responses.

It's an ongoing process. There's no end point when you're cured, as far as I know. Sometimes this process is uncomfortable. Then again, sometimes it's surprisingly satisfying to realize you've been dragging around an assumption for years, and you just don't need it anymore. And it works for all kinds of -isms, not just racism.

Tl;dr: listen to others if they tell you you're doing something racist. And learn to listen to your own thoughts."

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