After events in Baton Rouge, LA, Falcon Heights, MN, and Dallas, TX, America—in particular white America—sorely needs to take stock of its current crisis in race relations. If it fails to do so, it risks falling into a cycle of violence between possibly emerging enraged, radicalized fringe elements of of the African-American community and the very police forces that are supposed to serve and protect that and all communities, not unlike similar cycles of violence in the Middle East. The current systemic abuses, discriminations, and injustices society and the criminal justice system inflict upon African-Americans are, in a larger sense, to blame for what happened in Dallas, even though on an individual level the responsibility lies with the terrorist shooter. Those larger forces of a sort of state terrorism experienced by black Americans must be confronted head on by Americans, in particular white Americans, to prevent what could end up being an Israeli-Palestinization of American race relations and relations between American police and African-Americans.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 11, 2016
Clockwise: Facebook, CBS News, AP
UPDATE: July 18th, 2016: In light of today’s attack on police in Baton Rouge, I was sadly reminded that my article discussing U.S. and Israeli counterinsurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine discusses dynamics that are wholly applicable to these shooting by and of police in America: Counterinsurgency (COIN) & Civilians: Israeli vs. American Approaches
AMMAN — Yet again, I set to writing my thoughts with a heavy and exasperated heart. Sometimes I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day, one that is decidedly more dark and violent.
A Catalogue of Warning Signs and a Middle-Eastern Mirror
I go back through the articles I’ve written over the last few years, and common themes emerge, common themes of repeated bigotry and violence, fear and hate, ignorance and lack of understanding, terrorism and oppression, and societies tending to react in counterproductive ways to all of these problems. It seemed years ago, we in the West could look at Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, Palestinians, and more recently Syrians and Yemenis, among others, just to use the Middle East as an example, and say “Wow, those crazy people can’t stop killing each other, and sure can’t stop the drivers that lead to the violence and the killing and its cyclical reoccurrence.”
Then the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson happened. Along with the deaths of Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, the earlier episode with Trayvon Martin, and other less-well-publicized killings by police. People were angry. Protests were happening all across the country. The largest civil disturbance in the country since the 1992 L.A. riots. People demanded change. Months, a few years, after these events, more of the same: 123 blacks killed by police so far in 2016, including two of the most recent, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, killed in obviously unjust circumstances that were caught on video, one day after the other. And the day after that, 5 Dallas Police officers were murdered, 7 others wounded, by a man who wanted to kill white police officers in revenge for the aforementioned shootings; 3 days, 3 shootings; those 3 days were unlike any other in America in recent memory.
This reminds me, after Ferguson and other high-profile wrong killings of black men by policy officers, of when two New York City police officers were murdered in cold blood by a black man, apparently in part in retaliation for wrongful police killings of black men, late in 2014. It was small and isolated, but it was a form of terrorism. The Dallas incident appears to be more of the same.
As someone who lives in the Middle East, I find that this series of American events reeks of much of the internecine violence here: some groups, often minorities, have grievances with a state government that abuses them, and a cycle of violence between heavy handed government security forces and enraged members of the victimized community(ies) ensues. Sunnis and Shiites/Houthis/Alawites; Kurds and Turks; Israelis and Palestinians, etc. etc. With an explosion of rage in American, European, and global politics, and more violent behavior than we are accustomed to coming at times from both Donald Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters here in America, with racial resentment, division, and prejudice seemingly on the rise in America, I am really worried that we are standing at an abyss, far too familiar in conflict zones in the Middle East and elsewhere, where we are looking at a transition from semi-regular but semi-isolated violence incidents and transitioning into something of a genuine cycle of violence between relatively small numbers of bad actors in both parties (police and African-Americans) whose gaps between each other politics has failed to bridge. After all, no matter where in the world you live, anarchy and violence are under the surface, waiting to erupt, once the hard-won, painstakingly built yet thin veneer of civilization is removed, even in the United States.
The Frustrating Impotence of a Wordsmith?
I’ve repeatedly called for people to take a step back from this abyss, after Ferguson, after San Bernardino, after the Charleston attack, after the Brexit vote, after the Paris attacks, after the Brussels attack, throughout the rise of Trump and Sanders, after Orlando, and throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If I had any illusion of self-importance before, I can report back that, don’t worry, my calls seem to have gone unheeded. If I may pay myself one compliment, however, I cans say that after over a decade-and-a-half of studying, conflict, war, terrorism, and genocide, that even now I can still feeldisappointment, depression, and dismay, and even if my ability to be shocked is being eroded, I haven’t become numb.
Sadly, though, I guess this article I am writing is just more of the same: words from someone who is fairly powerless, calling on all of us and many of our leaders to get our heads out of our asses. I fight my war not with bullets but with words, wondering if much of the rest of the world has lost its mind or not. Not sure if it will do any good, but I write and solider on I must, it’s who I am.
From Despair to Rage?
Black Americans are used to being mistreated in particular. They are used to feeling a mix of impotent rage, deep despair, a choking sadness. Their remarkable patience is being tested, has been tested, will be tested, and, frankly, they have been far more patient than most groups who have suffered such ill-treatment from their own societies and governments. They have every right to be enraged, to express this rage, and with such a long history, it’s hard to blame black Americans if they feel like giving up on the political process, and it should not be so alien as to be able to sympathize, or at least empathize, with those who would explore a continuation of politics by other means, to quote von Clausewitz, especially since America as a nation is one founded on an armed rebellion against and oppressive government.
To anyone in the black community considering giving up on politics and moving to political violence (though I know the vast majority of you aren’t), as a white American, I know it is unfair to ask or expect continued patience with white misrule. After suffering so much and for so long, desires of revenge and resistance and rage are understandable. But what is understandable, what are typical reactions of human nature and human emotions, is often not what will bring about the best result; don’t go down the road of political violence, it won’t help you or your community, and it will only make things worse, as the Middle East shows us.
To African-Americans, I say, the problem isn’t primarily you, it’s my fellow white Americans.
The one positive thing I can say definitively is that there have never, ever before in American history been more white Americans who are more or less with you, and who are appalled and ashamed of whites’ collective past and present mistreatment of blacks and other minorities.
Right now, though, I must sadly say, far too many police offers for far too long have abused and still abuse their legal and physical power over black people, too often lethally (even a very recent non-comprehensive study that raised questions as to whether there was a racial disparity in the general use of lethal force found that there was a tremendous racial bias in the use of non-lethal force), and this abuse produces justified rage. And white Americans are too blithe and complacent—and therefore complicit—about all this. From the time they were first brought over as slaves even through Obama’s election and today, African-Americans and their descendants have been systematically treated horribly by society, individual, and government, and though in recent decades the degree of this maltreatment has been mitigated significantly, the disparity is still so massive on so many levels, and is, in fact, apparent in every possible measurable way, so massive are the inequalities still. While Americans can be proud of the general shrinking of that trajectory, we should still be ashamed of the awful disparities and injustices that are an everyday part of existence for most of black America. Considering all this, I am amazed at the remarkable patience of the African-American community, and am actually shocked that there is not more political violence from African-Americans; most other groups in the world would have and have reacted far more violently under similar circumstances. Whether in the relatively low numbers of slave rebellions, very little violent resistance to the state terrorism of Jim Crow, or the remarkable restraint of the black community today in the face of an epidemic of killings and maltreatment at the hands of officials who are supposed to protect and serve them, this restraint is undeniable.
From Rage to Radicalization? The Middle East vs. America
But I am truly worried that a small number of extremists could begin to start targeting police and others in revenge for abuses by police and others. It is clear that much of white America already has too much racist paranoia and prejudice regarding people of color, too much ignorance about race (most whites remarkably think white people suffer from discrimination as much or even more than black people suffer from it), and even in 2016 the gap in views on race and racism between whites and black is astounding. And society, including even black Americans, are conditioned by society to feel prejudice towards blacks. This problems cannot be underestimated; if white people were being killed in the same proportions as black people by police, there would have been outrage and massive change already. But as D. L. Hughley pointed out on CNN in tears, white America is just too complacent with these black deaths, too willing to accept these killings. Under these circumstances, and in our time of rage, when social media and the internet tend to bring out the worst in human nature, when our nation by far has the highest per-capita civilian gun stockpile in the world, I fear the likelihood of violent terrorist reprisals against police and others is too high for us not to worry.
As situations in the Middle East have taught me, radicalization and terrorism are processes that often stem from long exposure to mistreatment with a feeling that there is no serious way to have your grievances redressed through peaceful political means. From Hamas and the PLO to even ISIS, from the PKK to the Iranian Revolutionaries to the Mahdi Army and others, I see violence—often through small violent radical movements or even from a significant number lone-wolf violent individuals—arise that generally succeeds in poisoning politics even more so than they were before and in pushing people farther away from each other, making them less receptive to each other’s narratives and less willing to compromise, let along consider “peace.” The intensify conflicts and make them much harder to resolve; and in the end, nobody seems to really “win” much anything.
Even a very tiny increase in the number of killings of police by black perpetrators in revenge would significantly increase what are already serious problems with white paranoia and anxiety over their status and also police militarization. And it would not matter if the vast majority of blacks would be opposed to this rise in violence; white America would look at black people with even more suspicion and unease, including the police; mistreatment of blacks would increase, leading to even more violent extremism from a fringe movement of blacks, and that fringe movement would likely grow, still a fringe, but a bigger one; white people would be less sensitive to the grievances of the black community, than they already are, seeing accommodation as giving into “terror,” and so on and so fort, to more hate and violence, to more political stagnation.
Think this sounds like it couldn’t happen here? Trust me on this, I’ve seen this sad sitcom play out in the Middle East over and over again. And in the year of Trump, we must extend the horrible depths of our imagination and consider what was recently unthinkable. And then, we must act to prevent such unthinkables.
A Week of Shootings and Possible Israeli-Palestinization of America
More than any other single act in recent memory, the terrible shootings—terrorist shootings—of the police officers in Dallas right on the heels of the shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights are a reminder that the chances of such violence increase the longer legitimate grievances continue to be unaddressed or even have their existence denied.
Looking at Israel and Palestine, Israel occupied Palestinian territory starting in 1967, and began harsh military rule over Palestinian Arabs that denied that basic human rights and dignity, a rule designed to nip any peaceful, let alone militant, formation or organization of Palestinian nationalism in the bud, and, eventually, designed to facilitate the colonization and settlement of the territory by thousands of Israeli Jews, not subject to Israeli military law like the indigenous Palestinians, but to democratic Israeli civil law, an apartheid like-double standard. For the first 20 years of this occupation, only small groups of Palestinians, generally based and operating outside of the occupied Palestinian territory, conducted terrorist and guerilla attacks, but they were small and sporadic and the occupied Palestinians were not engaged in such activity on any significant level. But after 20 years of living under such a system, the Palestinians themselves erupted in a grassroots, spontaneous, violent uprising—and intifada—late in 1987, their patience with such treatment having reached their limit, catching both the Israeli authorities and Palestinians leadership by surprise. This uprisings, later ones, and later violent resistance would grow to include terrorist attacks on civilians that would leave hundreds of Israelis dead over the next three decades, and Israel’s responses often amounted to collective punishment of millions of Palestinians civilians and included military actions that generally kill far more civilians than militants, with thousands of Palestinian dead over the years. Now, chances for accommodation, let alone peace, seem further off than before, with hearts hardened, each side exhibiting an almost pathological ability to dehumanize the other side and an inability to empathize with or understand it.
Very few Israelis acknowledge that the period from 1967-1987 was a window in which Israel had both the ability and responsibility—as the party with virtually all the power—to avoid the explosion of rage and violence, a twenty-year opportunity to treat the occupied Palestinians as humans and with dignity, to accommodate their legitimate aspirations and desires, to address their legitimate grievances. They absolutely failed, and failed miserably in this regard. And violence has now become the new normal between Israelis and Palestinians.
White America better realize that its window will not remain open forever, that the time to act and accommodate is now; I hope with all my heart that historians won’t be looking at America in this current period and say that the rise of a fringe black militancy that poisoned race relations and tore American society apart was born out of white American ignorance of and complacency with a status-quo that was unbearable for African-Americans, the way that Israeli-Palestinian violence was borne out of Israeli ignorance of and complacency with a status-quo that was unbearable for Palestinians. It would take far less than a Palestinian-style intifada to wreak havoc with what is already a fragile and weakening American social fabric.
For the lessons Israelis and Palestinians and others in the Middle East teach us is that once real momentum behind violence grows and a cycle of violence emerges, the Pandora’s box of recurring civil conflict is extremely difficult to lid shut.
Yes, there is a very real chance that the state terror meted out by local police and the government on people of color in America could result in a response of long-wolf or even budding terrorist organizational terrorism. Obviously, such violence should be condemned and this would be an awful choice made on the part of such self-styled “insurgents,” just like it is on the part of Palestinians under Israeli control. But arguably even worse would be to deny the state terrorism being carried out against black America of structural and, yes, physical violence, a state terror that for roughly a century was in large part deliberate by meticulous design, and though today it has been significantly mitigated and is now largely a unconscious program on the part of government and society, that it is no longer an excuse to ignore, be ignorant of, be complacent with, not take responsibility for, and not confront it head on, especially since for so long, so many voices in the black community have been so vocal in denouncing this system creates very oppressive conditions lived every day by millions of African-Americans for anyone willing to listen, but have been so long ignored or dismissed by white America.
Time for White America to Wake Up and for Whites Who Get It to Make Sure That Happens
Now, white America has a choice that only it has forced itself into: galvanize America’s political systems to act now towards justice, or set the stage for what could be a new normal of civil political violence, something of an Israeli-Palestinization of race relations and government-minority relations; few things are ever simply black-and-white, but this clearly is. To avoid a specter of significantly increased likelihood of the latter nightmare, a civil war needs to happen: not between white black, but within white America, between those who accept the clear reality and those who willfully and foolishly deny it. This fight will not be a physical one, but will be fought on Twitter and Facebook, on TV and in newspapers, on the phone and at the dinner table, during work breaks and city council meetings. Those who understand the reality must challenge the misinformation, mythology, and ignorance of those who would deny it and would fight necessary and just redress at every turn.
Again, that is not to say that black-Americans are, as a group, threatening violence, but political violence would be a natural occurrence if the path of inaction is maintained. And there is nothing wrong with accommodating legitimately aggrieved groups to defuse tensions and potential conflict; doing so—doing the right thing—should never be thought of as “rewarding terror.” After all, what is politics but the chance to resolve disputes and solve problems peacefully? If peaceful means continually fail to bring about needed change, well, that is the story of the failure of governments all over the world, including democracies, and of the roots and emergence of violent conflict, themselves the natural byproduct of the failure of politics and governments.
Right now, America is on the wrong path, and certainly not on the path to addressing the legitimate concerns of African-Americans. At a time when the world is exploding into rage, racism, violence, and terrorism, the right path forward in the near future is clear: serious, meaningful policing and criminal justice reform nationwide, at a national level or in a massive well-spring of local and state-led initiatives or both. As with so many things these days, the question is, will America—will white America—do the right thing? Or will it give in to ignorance, fear, hate, and violence? That, of course, remains to be seen.
See related article: A Ferguson Intifada: Why African-Americans are America’s Palestinians
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