It is said that violence begets more violence. As I read news reports of turbulent protests, police officers outfitted in full riot-gear, and a city on the brink of tearing itself apart, I am convinced that the old saying is true. The question I’d like to address here is why violence tends to trigger more of the same and, more importantly, what methods can we use, right now, to replace violence and aggression with love, compassion and understanding.
For those unfamiliar with the events leading to last night’s civil unrest, here’s the short version:
Following a confrontation on BART on January 1st (that’s, Bay Area Rapid Transit, our version of the subway), Oscar Grant and several of his friends were detained by BART police. Handcuffed and on his stomach, Oscar sustained a bullet wound to his back that ricocheted off the concrete and re-entered his torso. It was the second wound that killed him.
Last night, not far away from my loft in West Oakland, protesters took to the streets to voice their anger and outrage over Oscar Grant’s death. Some sat on turnstiles at the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant died, while others marched in the streets. The street protests turned into attacks on police cars, private businesses and private property. The image above is of a car set ablaze in downtown Oakland. After smashing in the window of a small business one protester was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying the owner of the business “…should be glad she just lost her business and not her life.”
The protester’s sentiment, the violence of the protests and the killing itself are all heart breaking. While I too feel Oscar Grant died unjustly, I also believe that the anger and frustration motivating the riotous social unrest that coursed through Oakland originates from the same place as the feelings and thoughts that led Johannes Mehserle to shoot an unarmed man in the back.
Now, I don’t claim to be a mind reader, nor do I claim to know exactly what Johannes Merserle was thinking in the moments leading up to Grant’s death, but I do know that fear, anxiety, resentment, agitation and dissociation lead us to consider ourselves wholly separate from other people. That feeling of separation generates an “us versus them” and a “me versus you” mentality, which disables compassion, kindness and love, all of which cultivate connection and kinship.
It seems to me that the kind of policing we have come to know in the United States is founded on this incorrect view, this sense of fundamental and qualitative difference between police officers and those who are policed. (Never mind the “protect and serve motto.” Police patrols in the U.S. were established to protect property, not people. In fact, the first patrols were slave patrols: men on horseback patrolling the countryside for runaway slaves. The continuity should not be lost on you.) Policing agencies of all sorts (and here I also have military forces in mind) are trained to search out “criminals/enemies” and prevent them from doing “harm” to the larger group. However, histories of racism, political repression and antipathy toward poor people, have created a situation in which policing is infected by these deep-rooted animosities, and leads police to presume they know (consciously or unconsciously) who the criminal/enemies are in advance. Those of us who grew up in, and or, currently live in, heavily surveilled neighborhoods know quite well that we are seen as pariahs, seen as embodied blight, or simply seen as “the problem.” We are not, in short, seen as human beings who feel the same joys and sorrows as those sent to watch over us.
This knowledge has effects.
It breaks hearts, spirits and the will to be anything other than what one is socially expected, or assumed, to be. Of course, this is not true for everyone, but it certainly helps to explain how masses of people, namely, the impoverished and people of color (which is often one and the same), come to tautologically confirm the popular and scholarly analyses of their so called pathological lifestyles. With little genuine love directed at these communities from those who are ostensibly nothing like them, it follows that little love is returned. Consider the confusion young children feel when they are the targets of anti-black racism, or, in another context, anti-Palestinian violence. How are they to process such hatred, such anger and violence when they have done nothing wrong; when they have done nothing besides exist? Consider the suffering one feels when being subjected to homophobic violence. In each case, we have seen that those who suffer from violence often respond in kind: “Well, I hate Israelis; or, I hate white people; or, straight people are homophobic assholes!” Often we think these responses are justified, but it seems to me that another response is possible and necessary.
Another response to systemic hatred and violence is necessary because riotous protests only increase hate and fear-based policing, which in turn triggers more outrage and social unrest. Last night shows us that social unrest is read as mass criminality to be stamped out with tear gas, rubber, then metal bullets, mass incarceration and wholesale repression.
We must all take the anger we feel and transform it into love for those who commit acts of violence. We must reconceive the source of violence so we see it as the outcome of unaddressed pain and suffering, and the outcome of a misconception about the interconnectedness between self and other. In so doing, we can begin to understand that addressing the root pain is more effective than meeting violence with more violence. Indeed, we can begin to see that the “other” is not so different from ourselves.
We have the ability to do this right now. We can begin to see that what makes us human is far more unifying than the list of things that make us different kinds of humans. We can begin to do this with little things: the person who bumps into you during your commute; the person who cut you off on the highway; the person who was rude to you on the phone. In each case, the person on the other side of your pain is also suffering; suffering from worry (“I’m gonna be late to work!), from anxiety (“If I don’t pick up my kid in the next five minutes the daycare will charge me a $50 late fee.), or from frustration, (“I wish I had a better job.”) All of these feelings are ones we have felt before, perhaps under different circumstances, but they are not wholly foreign. In moments such as these we can be aware of the infraction and wish that the person be free from the suffering that led them to hurt us. Responding with loving-kindness may not stop them from hurting people completely, but it certainly plants the seed. More importantly, it helps you not escalate the immediate situation in which you find yourself.
We must begin to replace violence with love, and a willingness to listen and be open to that which we do not fully understand.The teachers of nonviolence like MLK, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, all understood this principle: violence cannot be eliminated by force, it has to be loved out of existence.
This is the lesson we should learn from the unfortunate death of Oscar Grant.