Some Folks Never Felt Safe: The Truth About National Unity

Published as a ZNet Commentary, October 8, 2001

“United we stand,” comes the proclamation from political leaders and national media. “Americans are pulling together like never before,” say still others in the wake of the horrific attacks of September 11. American flags are popping up everywhere: on lapel pins, car antennae, hastily printed T-shirts, and as inserts in the newspaper; the latter, for those who want to show their national pride but can’t hustle it down to the local Target or Wal-Mart to pick up a fancier version.

And so it is amid this national outpouring of manufactured and marketed patriotism, this presumption of unity, that one might take note of the lingering signs that we are in fact anything but one nation. Osama bin Laden aside, and duly noting the ability of a common enemy to oftentimes paper over existing divisions for the time being, the simple truth is, fissures are everywhere. One such fault line emerged this past week, when Officer Stephen Roach, of the Cincinnati Police Department, was acquitted on all charges stemming from his April shooting of Timothy Thomas: the fifteenth black man killed by police there in the last few years.

Roach, who shot an unarmed Thomas after chasing him down an alley, was praised by the Judge in the case as having an “unblemished” record, as opposed to Thomas, who the Judge stressed, did not. Indeed, Thomas had fourteen outstanding citations, mostly for traffic violations. Apparently, in this unified nation, such misdemeanors are sufficient to justify being killed if you then run from police for fear of being either arrested or roughed up, as Cincinnati cops have been known to do from time to time.

Not only was the negligent homicide charge dismissed, so too was the charge that Roach had obstructed the ensuing police investigation by lying about the incident. Although there was no attempt to deny Roach had lied, first claiming Thomas had “reached for something in his waistband,” and then saying he had been startled by Thomas coming around a corner, the Judge threw out the charge anyway, saying it had no significant effect on the investigation. That such light treatment of intentional police deception might set a bad precedent for future incidents was apparently of no concern to the judge.

Were such things extraordinarily rare, one might be inclined to chalk them up to aberration. But in fact, it is all too common for people of color to be on the receiving end of police brutality, even to the point of death. As the Stolen Lives Project has documented, there are thousands of cases in the last few years of persons killed by law enforcement: an overwhelming number of these unarmed, and black or brown; and it’s the rare instance when even one of these results in anything more severe than administrative punishment for the offending cop. In fact, it is just as likely that the officer involved in such an incident will receive a raise and commendations, as it is that they will ever serve a day in jail.

So despite the rhetoric of national unity, the deep divisions in our criminal justice system — especially regarding police misconduct towards people of color — rear their ugly head again, and remind us that unity is, after all, just a word. Or more to the point, unity is in the eye of the beholder, as are most things. Perspective is shaped by experience; and not just one experience like the World Trade Center attacks, but a multitude of experiences over a lifetime. Perspective grows directly from one’s position, for it is from that position that one surveys the stuff of everyday existence. For those who are used to feeling safe and secure, the events of this past month will no doubt have had a particularly jarring effect. But for others, terrorism from abroad may only feel like a more extreme manifestation of life as usual.

Amid the horror of September 11, many a voice has been raised to exclaim that, “Now we Americans finally know what it’s like” to be the targets of someone else’s hatred. Yet, were it not for the resurgent hyper-nationalism that has characterized the past few weeks, perhaps we might have noticed that some Americans have long understood what it means to be targeted for who they were; to be terrorized, attacked, even killed. All the “we’re all in this together” blather aside, there are millions of Americans who never felt safe or secure, and never assumed that their citizenship protected them from a thing, for indeed it never had before.

For too many people of color, poor folks of all colors, and gays and lesbians, there was no sense of security to shatter, no feeling of invincibility to which Osama bin Laden could even theoretically lay waste. For these Americans, the possibility of being victims of targeted violence or institutional neglect is all too real, and those they’ve learned to fear are hardly foreign.

Whether the violence of individual thugs, organized hate groups, police, or lawmakers who turn the other way as poverty, infant mortality and inadequate health care ravage entire communities, the result is the same: injured is injured, and dead is most certainly dead. Dying as the result of a plane crash or crumbling building may indeed be more dramatic, and the thought of it is certainly more ghastly; but I doubt it is any more painful or final than any of the multitudinous ways that tens of thousands of our nation’s least powerful have been dying for years now.

Of course, a nation that is proud of its selective memory, only remembering the parts of our past that flatter us while studiously avoiding mention of the rest, won’t be able to see any of this. A nation whose dominant majority never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (which wasn’t a riot so much as a white-led orgy of violence against the city’s prosperous black business community) will naturally think terrorism on American soil is a recent phenomenon. A nation whose majority has no idea what happened in Rosewood, Florida, and that has forgotten the lynching parties known as “Negro Barbecues” that were a common occurrence in the South not long ago, will naturally be stunned at the barbarity of the Arab or Muslim “fanatic.”

That white-on-black riots were a common thread linking North, South, East and West for most of the first fifty years of the twentieth century, ultimately costing hundreds of lives and destroying millions of dollars of property remains unspoken, presumably irrelevant in our discussions of terrorism. So too the terroristic enterprise whose actions led to the founding and building of the United States in the first place: namely, the marauding bands of cavalry, assorted soldiers, and so-called pioneers who instigated vicious and depraved attacks on Indian peoples; and this they did, not only to take their land, but also to break down their resistance, instill fear, and force them to retreat against the advance of our collective vision. Truth be told, this is pretty much the textbook definition of terrorism.

I’m thinking here of Captain William Tucker, who in the 1600s, took his soldiers to negotiate a peace treaty with the Powhatans, after which he persuaded them to drink a toast with poisoned wine. Two hundred died immediately and his soldiers killed fifty more, bringing back heads as souvenirs.

I’m thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who a century-and-a-half later, unsatisfied with the pace at which Indians were dying, would write: “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them with war while one remained on the face of the Earth.”

I’m thinking of Andrew Jackson, who supervised the mutilation of over 800 Indian corpses after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, at which time his men cut off noses and sliced strips of flesh from the bodies for use as bridle reins; or perhaps the Third Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, which massacred both Cheyenne and Arapaho noncombatants at Sand Creek, scalped the dead, severed testicles for use as tobacco pouches, and paraded in Denver with severed female genitals stretched over their hats.

Terrorism on American soil is anything but new; and while there are clear and important differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the one hand, and this nation’s founders, like Jefferson on the other, the fact remains, as mentioned previously, that dead is dead. To the victims of the latter, it hardly matters that in his better moments, he might have waxed eloquent about representative democracy.

Just as the heinous destruction of thousands of lives at the hands of hijackers this month will be remembered forever, so too must these other acts of terror. That individually they may have involved lower body counts, and that we didn’t get to see the damage done on live television seems fairly irrelevant. Terrorism is not defined by the enormity of its death toll, after all.

So while the majority of Americans, especially whites, may see the recent attacks as sui generis in their nation’s history, for many Indian peoples, African Americans, and others who have been the victims of targeted, hate-inspired violence, the tragedy, while appalling, had the ring of the familiar to it. Even if it is only part of the collective memory and historical consciousness of such folks, the knowledge that one is never safe so long as one lacks power and resources, is a truism that must inform our analysis.

At the very least, it should give us pause when we presume a national unity, a collective brother and sisterhood, or a common experience. Our experiences are not common, our treatment is not equal, and nothing about that has changed since the eleventh of September.

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