Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What is Christmas for Mike Brown's Family?

Black Friday in downtown Seattle was like a scene out of the Hunger Games. 

The urban landscape glistened with spectacles of holiday cheer, corny Christmas music, and advertisements.  Like the Capitol in the movies, the city core is designed to pacify people, to entertain us so we can forget about the suffering and rebellion happening all over the world.

Downtown Seattle is one of several real life Capitols,  controlling nodes in the network of global capitalism.  It is the heart of the Empire, a glittering, hyper-surveiled metropolis designed by and for the world's wealthiest people - the owners and executives of Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstroms', Starbucks, and  other corporations headquartered here.  This is the spot where these capitalists make their plans to turn entire regions of the world into mining districts, factory districts, and deindustrialized zones of unemployment and mass incarceration such as Ferguson and Detroit.  These various zones are color-coded by race and are controlled by police.



Every year, the Seattle ruling classes put on a spectacle at Westlake Park, allowing the masses to congregate on Black Friday to vicariously inhale the aroma of wealth and splendor, spending our money at the mall while we're at it.

This is a ritual, part of America's civil religion.  Money is God, and this is how we are supposed to worship it.

Like opiates, these rituals bury our anxieties about global warming, racism, and our declining living standards.  Bands play, children sing, fireworks cascade down the side of Nordstroms, credit cards swipe, and a giant Christmas tree lights up.

Only this year, the tree was surrounded by Seattle cops, posing grim- faced like little toy soldiers.

Photo by Alex Garland
They were there because Ferguson, Missouri is in flames, and Seattle is starting to get restless too.  After the grand jury refused to indict white officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown, riots and protests erupted across the country, including here.

Sign at Monday, Nov 24th march in Seattle after the grand jury verdict

On Black Friday, people of various cultures and nationalities travelled from their color-coded zones across King County, converging on Westlake Mall.

Young Black folks from the zones of oppression were on the megaphones, bringing people together and advancing strategies of disruption.  This rowdy crowd occupied two malls.  Several workers, whose labor keeps the Holiday spectacle running, walked off their jobs to join the crowd, with their uniforms still on.

Photo by Alex Garland
The crowd stormed the transit tunnel, which police proceeded to shut down.  We also picketed nearby Capitol Hill businesses that support racial profiling of East African youth.

Police made several brutal arrests and deployed pepper spray and flash bang grenades, attempting to stop the crowd from returning to Westlake mall for the evening tree lighting ceremony.

After hours of marching and evading police violence, a remnant of the crowd got back to the mall, occupying the space between the tree and the balcony where the ceremony was being held.

With fists in the air pointing up at the bourgeois spectacle on the balcony above, we chanted "Black Lives Matter" and "What is Christmas for Mike Brown's family?"  Eventually protestors stormed the balcony stage, causing the high priest of the ceremony to give up and end it early.   

Photo by Alex Garland
The gods of capital did not get a proper sacrifice this year.  Their invisible hands do not value Black lives, but there are clearly people in the streets who do.

In fact, we value Black lives over capital. Black Friday sales across the country were down 11%, after similar actions happened in multiple cities. 

In response to the Seattle action, our opponents have criticized us for disrupting a "family event". Apparently several children were crying, and  a children's choir didn't get a chance to sing. Some people are acting as if this is a bigger injustice than the murder of Mike Brown.  

The crowd did not hurt anyone.  The only people making threats were the police.  Maybe fewer kids would have been crying if their parents weren't acting like they saw the Ghost of Christmas Future when Black folks in front of them were chanting about the value of their own lives.  What lessons are these parents teaching to their kids?  Shouldn't this be an opportunity to talk with their children about the importance of equality and freedom?  It doesn't help children to shelter them from realities they will need to face sooner or later.  

And that conversation is much less difficult to have then the one that Black parents are forced to have with their kids, the conversation about how they will be targeted from a young age by police, and what to do about it.  Black communities don't have the privilege of sheltering their youth from the realities of the world, not in a society where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by police for holding a toy gun.   In this powerful spoken word poem, Javon Johnson narrates the heartbreak and anger that he experienced when he had this conversation with his nephew: 


And then there is Mike Brown's family, whose son was taken from them.   What will Christmas be like for them this year?  If this question makes people uncomfortable, perhaps it should.  Sometimes discomfort is the beginning of empathy and solidarity.  

"These people are ruining our white Christmas"
White families in particular need to meditate on this.  People who value their own children's choir singing over Black children living are showing they are only able to love their own blood.  That's white supremacy, plain and simple.  Just because it comes in liberal Seattle packaging does not make it any less evil.

From the Jewish prophets through Jesus of Nazareth, it is love of the stranger that marks someone as holy, not simply love of one's kin.

It is that kind of love that protestors of various backgrounds showed toward each other when folks de-arrested people and cared for each other after being pepper sprayed by the cops. One friend even called those moments a "baptism".

This is how strangers become accomplices in the struggle for freedom.  It is an ancient and dangerous alchemy, an ancestral knowledge that is drowned out by the spectacle of American civil religion.

While it's legal to practice something called Christianity in this country, it is illegal to practice Jesus' teachings. Perhaps we should call those teachings the Way of Illegal Love.

After all, Jesus himself was illegal, persecuted by the law from birth to death.  He was not a white baby in an peaceful, pastoral scene.  He was a poor, bronze-skinned,  undocumented migrant from a rebellious people, colonized and oppressed by the Roman Empire.   

Jesus' birth represented his people's hope for liberation from this empire.  That's why the state had every child in his community murdered to suppress the coming insurrection.  Jesus narrowly escaped, and probably grew up traumatized.

His teachings were not sentimental.  He was trying to show fellow traumatized people how to love our way through the deep darkness and pain of our lives in this world.  This is the holy night, the dark night of the soul, that he was born into.

If Jesus comes again, he very well may be born in Ferguson.  Or Ayotzinapa, Mexico.  Or Palestine, his old home.  Or any of the other places on this planet that are occupied and terrorized by the authorities.

picture from Angela Harris 
In any case, the people in the streets of Ferguson right now are much more likely to understand the meaning of Christmas than bourgie white people shopping at a Seattle mall.  

After all, Jesus' message was addressed to people in their situation: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18).  Jesus's mother Mary was also part of this rebellion when she proclaimed that God  "has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed." Luke 1:52-53.

America's civil religion is one of passivity and shopping, not rebellious love.  These two spiritualities are mutually incompatible.  As Jesus said, you cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time.

Despite their claims to peace, America's rituals are shot through with violence.  From the stage, the emcee at the tree lighting ceremony shouted "there are more of you then there are of them." By them, he meant us: the people chanting "Black lives mater".  Was he calling  on his congregation of good Americans to confront us?

If so, he failed.  Most of the people there for the tree lighting looked more puzzled then angry.  Perhaps our action was prompting them to reflect.

The emcee's crass taunting was particularly outrageous to some of us, because our friend Matt E, (aka stage name Bypolar the Toxic Cherub) was recently attacked by vigilantes in that very park.  He had been filming the police to stop them from harassing a young man of color, and a pro-cop mob began to threaten him with weapons.  He was later sentenced to four months in jail for successfully defending himself.



As a Black man in America, our friend had to choose between jail and possible death.  We are demanding the mayor's office investigate the police involved; we suspect there may be corruption and divide-and-conquer tactics wrapped up with the Seattle Police Department's so-called "community policing" efforts.

More broadly, Westlake and Pacific Place malls have a long history of surveilling and policing homeless youth and Black folks.  This summer, mall security pepper sprayed a Black man after he was attacked by a racist white man.  This sort of thing happens all the time, as more and more public space is privatized and gentrified.



This is the violent infrastructure behind the Christmas tree lighting.  This is what peace,  civility, and American family values look like in practice.  The Empire's rituals glitter with tinsel and perfume but inside they are hollow and rotten.

This winter, there are a lot of dark nights in America.  But these are also holy nights, simmering with hope blazing out of Ferguson, the love and good news that can only be found in rebellious crowds.