“What’s changed after The Uprising?” That’s the question everyone seems to want an answer to. It’s been asked over and over in articles and listicles and think-pieces and commentary.
“Nothing” is the answer. Nothing is different. The full acquittal of officer Caesar Goodson last week is ample proof of that point, but it should in no way come as a surprise to anyone. Business as usual started again the day after the curfew ended.
I read once that “Hell is the futility of action” and, at the time, I thought that was just some pithy shit to say when you wanted to sound scary in a conversation. But recently I’ve come to think a lot about its meaning.
What if all our actions are, as Macbeth said, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my sister shortly after The Uprising. We were talking politics and social issues and I asked what scared her. Her response stuck in my head.
“It’s entirely possible that the ‘1984’-esque impossibility of meaningful revolution or resistance is already here,” she said. “That the true measure of the completeness of our inability to do anything is how openly and loudly we’re allowed to piss and moan because, ultimately, it’s just the manifestation of entirely impotent rage.”
That scares me. I believe it more each day. Because of course I do. Of course so many of us are starting to, or already, hold that belief. It’s horrific to say, but we’re used to this. This is normal. Killing black people and getting away with it is a long established and well respected tradition in this country and, sad as it is, that’s not hyperbole. We’re especially used to it here in Baltimore. This is where I would usually link to numerous cases of cops killing citizens and getting away with it, but, again, this is Baltimore. In 2010, this city put its first cop on trial for killing a man in 13 years (his name was Edward Lamont Hunt, and he was shot while running away from a cop — who was acquitted too).
That the city hadn’t put a cop on trial in 13 years was not because they’d been operating with a sterling record. It should be shocking that I even have to point that out, but of course it isn’t because the injustice is obvious to everyone who’s not pretending to be blind.
Gray’s death was not an accident, it was ruled a homicide, yet he’s fast becoming another magical instance of someone responsible for their own murder in police custody. We can talk the specifics of Goodson’s acquittal, namely the embarrassingly shoddy prosecution, but there’s no denying the greater context. So far, in the Freddie Gray murder trials, there’ve been two acquittals (including Goodson’s) and one mistrial, with four trials upcoming. In the trials for people arrested amid The Uprising, during which time no one was killed, we saw vastly different outcomes.
For example, Allen Bullock was convicted and sentenced for the oh-so-heinous act of breaking the windows of a cop car, for which he took a plea deal on a twelve-year sentence with all but six months suspended. Still, Bullock was sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service.
And then there was Antonio Jackson, who was caught with a pair of sneakers with a price tag still on them amid The Uprising. Jackson was arrested for looting and given a $50,000 bail price tag until the courts noted he also had a “fail to appear” charge on him as well, so they upped the ante to $100,000.
Business as usual.
My feeling of hopelessness feels validated by nearly everything in our history.
I feel it’s important here to clarify that “hopeless” doesn’t mean “unimportant.” This is all quite literally “life and death important,” but there is no end in sight to the current state of affairs. Friday’s verdict in the Goodson trial is just more proof of that. And no, I don’t believe there is any help coming—not for me, not for anyone who looks like me, not for our children or our grandchildren or even our great grandchildren.
It’s a quintessentially American idea that “things get better.” Outside of this country that idea isn’t held so strongly. This country has a weird sort of amnesia about its own age. We forget that we’re very young as a nation. In other countries, older countries, people have seen and are still seeing all these same problems—economic perilousness, state brutality, intransigent politics, justice systems in service to money and power—stretched over millennia. On that timeline, the “it gets better” mentality seems more fool’s gold than legitimate hope. Ask a low caste woman living in poverty in India if things get better. Ask any kid in Sierra Leone who survived the civil war only to lose their entire family to Ebola while the world turned a blind eye—though ensuring treatment for the white medical volunteers—if they think help is coming. Ask a Palestinian father whose children died when their school was bombed by the Israeli military what his dreams for the future are. These stories are extraordinary in their horror, but not in their occurrence.
At one point selling the lie that “things get better” is, quite frankly, to be complicit in continuing oppression. Like telling people salvation will come in the next life—a sentiment which does nothing to help the issues of right now. Like telling people to keep marching and chanting.
A year ago we marched callouses into our feet, screamed our throats hoarse, clogged the streets with bodies. And before that my parents did the same, and my grandparents did the same, and my great grandparents did the same and so on and so on and so on.
Admittedly, I’m far more pessimistic than most, but I think believing things will get better is naïve. Monumentally so. The reality for most people in this world is that things don’t get better; they stay the same, just with different scenery.
Call that pessimistic if you want, I’m going to ask you to point out the tangible differences though. Things have not gotten better for Sandtown. If anything the area is even more depressed. Shutting down schools, thereby making students walk a mile through an open drug market where kids are actively recruited for the trade, isn’t a step towards making things better; it’s a system meant to produce exact repeats of the Freddie Gray story. Gilmor Homes still looks like every other deeply impoverished public housing complex. A settlement was reached in the sex abuse scandal and that’s great for those specific women. Now what’s being done to make sure it never happens again? You’d be the acme of naivety to believe that such tales of horror and abuse are isolated. What are the institutional changes being made to the police departments and justice system to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all citizens? Especially while legislators and city builders hover over their plans for rich, white Port Covington?
See, we marched again last Friday, a small handful of us; really no more than a dozen. We marched to City Hall and down to the Inner Harbor. We were yelling, “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray” and as we passed the people dining and drinking outside I watched the eye-rolls and shaking heads and looks of annoyance. And on top of that I heard some of them calling in response, “We don’t care, we don’t care, we don’t care.”
Things don’t get better. We have to make them better. If we abdicate that responsibility it means we don’t want change, either because we benefit from the way things are, or because we’re too cowardly to address the problem face-to-face.