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The Uncivil Servant: The New Lynch Law

Mitchell Abidor
August 19, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor _76934024_76934023THE WAR ON TERROR has seen Americans surrendering civil and constitutional rights — like those against illegal search and seizure — on which we have long prided ourselves. We grumble, but in the end we say that it’s only those doing something wrong who really have anything to fear, and in our search for the chimera of safety we allow injustices to continue. What we have surrendered in fighting crime is far more horrible, and has been brought home over the past few weeks with the killings of Eric Garner by police chokehold in New York and of Michael Brown by police bullets in Ferguson, Missouri: We have surrendered our black communities to the police and told them to do whatever it takes to make us feel safe. We — by which I mean white America — have allowed the police to stop and frisk hundreds of thousands of people; we have turned “broken windows” into a pretext for mass incarcerations; we have filled our jails with not only more people than have ever been imprisoned in one country in human history, but with more blacks than were ever enslaved at any one time. And our drive to bring down crime — which was decreasing anyway — has allowed the police to explain their killing of unarmed black men for fear that those unarmed men were armed — and for that excuse to be accepted, so much do white Americans associate black Americans with criminality. This has turned our police forces into local armies, with the streets of Ferguson looking more like Santiago, Chile during the coup that overthrew Allende than like the suburb of St. Louis that it is. And that’s all just fine with white America. WE ALLOW IT TO GO ON because, just as we think that the infringing of constitutional rights affects other (bad) people, not us, this massive domestic repressive apparatus doesn’t have anything to do with us. While stop-and-frisk was going on in East New York and Brownsville, we could walk untouched in Park Slope and Forest Hills. There is another world out there, a black one, where different rules, different laws apply — and it’s been allowed to go on for years, because we feel safe, and that’s all that matters. Sure, we mutter and moan when the police get out of hand, but that feeling passes. A little-noted fact: Along with the demonstrations and rioting in Ferguson there was also a demonstration in support of the officer who fired six bullets into Brown, with demonstrators saying “We have to support our police” and “This isn’t a racial issue.” In the topsy-turvy world that is American race relations, color blindness is the new racism. During the Jim Crow era, the image brandished by white Southerners was the black rapist. Today all over the country, it’s the young black in a hoodie and loose jeans. Call that progress or call that metastasis: In the past as in the present, when a young black man does match the image there are fatal consequences. Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi in 1955, did allegedly flirt with a white woman, violating the mores of the region and the time. He paid with his life for flirting. Michael Brown allegedly did steal from a convenience store, and for pushing a clerk and taking cigars he paid with his life. But in both cases the penalty for conforming to a caricature was death. Lynch law has changed form — it can be called arresting suspects, it can be called Stand Your Ground — but lynch law is lynch law. White America loves black athletes and musicians, loves to imitate black speech. But white America, be it in the former Confederacy, in fly-over country, or in pockets of even our most enlightened parts, has not changed. It has simply found new — more “legitimate” — ways to show its hatred of blacks. Matt Taibbi, in his recent book The Divide, phrased the situation nicely: “We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail.” We’re still two countries, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Nor will the deaths. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.