18 December 2014

Absolute Powerlessness


by Eve Fisher

Back in August of 1970, when I was 16 years old, I got caught up in a riot in Los Angeles. Wrong place, wrong time. At the time, I had no idea what had sparked it. All I knew was that I was on foot, alone, in a part of the city I didn't know, and couldn't get out of except on foot. (No buses were running, and I didn't have taxi fare even if I'd spotted one.) Meanwhile, there was a lot of action, everywhere I looked, and none of it looked good. There were cops with sticks, cops with guns, cops with tear gas, people throwing bricks, everyone screaming, running, tripping… And then, as night fell, the scavengers came out, and things got very bad.

East LA riots

I was lucky: I found shelter. One of those strange blessings that I could never use in a story (truth is always stranger than fiction), a man came out of a building and said, "You need to get off the street. Now." And gave me his apartment for the night. For free. He even went somewhere else. I spent the night, barely sleeping - I didn't really trust my good luck with him or the mob in the streets - but in the morning, it was safe to get out and go back to my base.

File:RubenSalazar.jpg
Ruben Salazar (1928-1970)
A few days later I was told that it was all about the death of Ruben Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist, back from reporting in Vietnam, and who had turned his attention and articles to the unjust treatment of Chicanos by the LAPD. Naturally, he was hugely unpopular with the LAPD. Anyway, he'd been covering a Chicano march/rally against the Vietnam War and slipped off to have a quiet beer in a local bar. What I was told at the time was that the police had firebombed the bar, killing him, and then claimed they thought he was a drug dealer they were looking for.

What really happened? Well, for whatever reason the LAPD decided to break up the rally, despite the fact that everyone agrees it was peaceful. The police claimed they'd gotten reports that a local liquor store was being robbed; reason enough to declare the rally (20,000+ people) to be an illegal assembly and call out the riot squads. Tear gas, guns, the whole nine yards; the marchers retaliated; 150 were arrested, and 4 killed - including Salazar, who was having a quiet beer in a local bar when a deputy sheriff lobbed a 10-inch, wall-piercing tear gas missile (designed for barricade situations according to Wikipedia) into the bar, hitting Salazar in the head and killing him instantly. The LAPD claimed that they thought the robber had gone into the bar; then they claimed that there were drug dealers there. The deputy sheriff was never indicted or even reprimanded. That part of Los Angeles burned for a while, but that was nothing new. Nobody cared.
"It is a cliche that 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Like all cliches, it has a considerable element of truth. Nonetheless, one of the major purposes of any AVP workshop is to empower the participants, and to teach them to share power in community for the benefit of all. This is essential because the negative side of the old cliche is as true as the positive: 'Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.' All people need, for survival, a measure of power over their own lives and over their own environment... If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power they will use what power they have destructively and with violence." — Alternatives to Violence Project Basic Manual - p. C-2, my emphasis added.

riotsI've been thinking about the underlined passages above for a long time. I've been thinking about it because of everyone raised in homes are virtual prisons of alcohol, addiction, or abuse, as tightly controlled as a tomb. I've been thinking about it because of all the slaves in history, from the days of Gilgamesh to current-day human trafficking. I've been thinking about it because of all the subject peoples of military empires in history, from the Sumerians under Sargon the Great to the current day economic and political empires. I've been thinking about it because of all those who believe, deep down in their hearts, that some people just should not be allowed to have any power, any rights, any pleasures. And work very, very hard to make sure they don't get any. And then are horrified and appalled when the worms finally turn.

Look, fear, intimidation, bullying, all work very well at getting obedience. So does suborning the judicial process, whether within the family or in the town or on up the food chain. You can strip away every shred of power from someone and virtually (if not literally) own them. But rebellion will out. And when there is absolute powerlessness - where there is literally nothing you can do against whatever or whoever is controlling you - rebellion can come in some very strange forms. Rage. Cutting. Depression. Rage. Anorexia. Hostility. Aggression. Rage. Rioting. Burning. Rage. Things will happen.

Martin Luther
Of course, none of them are the right things. Whenever there has been an attempt at redress of grievances by the underlings, the people in power have always considered it outrageous, unjust, ridiculous, insane, criminal, animal, and generally unacceptable. Violent protest is ipso facto proof that the protesters are wrong, aren't capable of reason, and should not be listened to, only punished. I read the comments on-line calling the Ferguson protesters dogs who should be shot, and it didn't surprise me at all: In 1525, during the Reformation, when the German peasants revolted against their lords, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet telling the nobles to kill them: "It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you." Yes, Luther was a social conservative. No, nothing much changes in history. During the American Revolution, the "Sons of Liberty" were seen by the British as "truly nothing but a drunken, canting, lying, praying, hypocritical rabble without order or cleanliness" who needed to be shot on sight.

Mr. Gandhi
Nonviolent protest doesn't earn any more respect. Listen to Winston Churchill on Gandhi: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir [which Churchill pronounced faker] of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Martin Luther King, Jr. received constant insults, arrests, death threats, and was eventually assassinated, as were Medgar Evers and others. It's no better on the family level. The person who leaves is always a selfish traitor who should have stuck it out to the end; the one who tries to live a separate, different life is stuck-up and needs to be brought down a notch. And, if it's an abusive marriage we're talking about, there's a good chance that the spouse who leaves will be harassed, assaulted, stalked and even killed.

So basically, from the point of view of power, neither violent nor nonviolent protest are acceptable: instead of protesting, trust the existing system to dole out rights, etc., as the system deems appropriate. And, of course, if there is no protest, then nothing is wrong, and nothing needs to change. "But you never complained..." "You never said a word about this when you were a child!" "She never said no!" "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!" "S/He never told me to stop…”

And that is what makes people crazy.

Meanwhile, there is the alternative of "shar[ing] power in community for the benefit of all." That's hard for many people, who see life as a zero-sum game, and are terrified of having to share their toys, their power, their breathing space. But we had all better be prepared to do this, because no one - I repeat, NO ONE gets to hang on to all the cookies forever. Every empire has collapsed and/or been conquered. Every tyrant - whether they ruled empires, countries, kingdoms or families - has died. And there are no U-hauls behind hearses. When the last rattle comes, we are all absolutely powerless.

drawing by Allan Fisher©

8 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Police find themselves in a no-win bind having to decode the definition of ‘the right thing to do.’ Sworn to uphold the law, they technically don’t have the option to decide whether laws are good or bad. If a city council orders harsh measures against the hungry and homeless, and they are paying the police, cops may find themselves no longer working for and protecting the citizens, but handling security for the ‘elite’, whatever that may mean. Naturally, those disadvantaged citizens turn their ire against the most visible symbols of their immediate pain, the police.

It doesn’t help that the president of Cleveland’s police union, Jeffrey Follmer criticized and demanded an apology from Cleveland Browns player Andrew Hawkins who questioned the shootings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, indicating Hawkins had no right to complain. The union president went on to say “police run things,” implying the public should stay out of their way. Such statements hurts the image of police, rather than helps. (Personally, I thought Andrew Hawkins’ statement was thoughtful, sensitive, articulate, and above all fair and reasonable.)

Looking at the bigger picture, I wonder if the US is flirting with what it once despised. When I studied early federalism, I couldn’t help but wonder if our founding members weren’t struggling with feudalism, or at least feudalism without a king. At times, we seem to slip back into the rĂ´les of nobles and warriors, vassals and peasants, forgetting the lessons once learned.

janice law said...

Thanks for a thoughtful piece.

Melodie Campbell said...

Very interesting for a Canadian to read.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully, beautifully said. I may have to link to this on my FB account. May I have your permission to do that?

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, a thought provoking piece. Seems that when people get to the top and have everything, many of them go off on power trips. A quick, easy modern example is the nut rage incident on the South Korean airline. There was no reason for it, except for a display of "I have the power to make you do what I want."

Anonymous said...

"What … apologists can't seem to grasp: It doesn't matter how many good cops you've got as long as they don't get rid of or punish the bad ones." (Facebook blogger)

Louis A. Willis said...

Well said.

Eve Fisher said...

Anonymous, please feel free to link this piece.
Thank you all for your comments.
Leigh, I think our FF's were indeed struggling against feudalism, or at least the English class system - and at least for the white propertied males among them. And some Native Americans.
I do think the problem is that classic dysfunctional method of control: how dare you complain/no complaints means no problem. I saw it back in the 60s, with the civil rights movement, the 70s with the women's movement, and still on going. Well, we'll see what happens.
By the way, I promise to lighten up for New Year's Day!