The first time I was aware of myself as a white person was shortly after the Rodney King verdict—which is an odd thing to call it, since four police officers were on trial for beating Rodney King.
At the time of the trial, I was living in Germany as a military brat. I loved being an ex-pat. It was like living in the Epcot Center version of America. The school I had left behind in Maryland was not the safest place in the world; it was the days when people were murdered for their sneakers. The Department of Defense School that I attended in Germany was amazing—the teachers were engaged, the students were attentive, and most people remained frozen in the fashion moment that they had last been in the United States.
I had faith in institutions then. I had a sort of liberal slant on a conservative ideology. I disagreed with the Supreme Court decision that had allowed religious clubs in school, but I supported the Supreme Court being able to decide, so I became the only Jewish student to attend the Students for Christ club. I was that sort of kid—acting on principle, while hoping my principles held up.
The news of the Rodney King verdict would have reached me through the Stars and Stripes—the English language newspaper favored by service-members abroad. In fact, I would have delivered the paper before I read it, since I was the local paperboy. Did I mention I was also a Boy Scout and taught Hebrew School?
When I found out about the Rodney King verdict, I was surprised, but I had faith that the Justice System should be trusted. It seemed like any other day. But at school, something was definitely wrong. In Science, there were four of us who sat in the front and did more advanced work than the rest of the class. One of my friends asked me if I’d heard about the verdict, commenting on its unfairness, and I said something about the justice system having decided, so that’s that. She shushed me. And for the first time I noticed that the four of us were white, and most of the other people weren’t. They were upset, and we weren’t. Nothing violent or spectacular happened—it was just the mood that shifted that day. Still, I had never seen a situation fall out along racial lines before. I didn’t know what to do with the observation, so I filed it away for later.
I got a push notification from the New York Times on my way home Monday night about the verdict in Ferguson. It felt very much like hearing about the verdict in the Rodney King case. I want to say that the Justice System did it’s justice-y thing, and we set up the rules so we have to play by them, but I don’t really believe that anymore. Or, rather, I still believe it, but it’s a painful belief.
You don’t blow stuff up until it’s so bad that it’s better to live in a bombed out hellscape than to continue living the way you are. If you smash the windows, you have to live with them. If you loot the stores, you have nowhere to shop. Power is pretty good at punishing the people who try to overthrow it. The police go where the riot is. The chances are that if you’re rioting, you’re rioting where you live.
Rodney King was the beginning of how we now experience media. Video cameras had only just become portable enough for the spontaneous capture of police brutality. It’s not that today King’s beating would be tweeted or vined or facebooked, but that the ability to distribute information has accelerated, and in many ways, that makes it much easier to shame those in power, but only those who are easily shamed. Less than a week after Daniel Handler made a clumsily racist joke at the National Book Awards Ceremony, he had apologized and donated money to support minority authors. He was shamed because he was shame-able.
In Ferguson, on the other hand, a billboard to read, “Pants Up Don’t Loot”—a rhyming critique of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”—has been crowdfunded. Like George W. Bush’s lack of shame over the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the people who should have expressed shame over Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown have retrenched. Thanks to the Supreme Court having struck down the Civil Rights Act, those who feel unashamed of covert and explicit racism are gathering more power. It would be nice to think that spreading information easily and quickly will lead to a decentralization of power and a higher standard of accountability for institutions. So far, it hasn’t.
Grief is a hard thing to handle. Anger and violence are simpler emotions to act out. After 9-11, we barely stopped to grieve before we began to call for revenge. On the streets of Los Angeles in 1992, the violence spread and reenacted some of the abuse that were being protested. One of my students once recounted being pulled from his truck and being beaten into a coma during the L.A. riots. The problem with anger is that you can’t unhurt someone. Rodney King can’t be unbeaten, and Michael Brown can’t be unshot. Justice matters, because revenge is impossible. And when justice isn’t done, it’s hard not to blow things up. But remember, you still have to live there.