Monday, December 22, 2014

Two Culture Crash Sonnets (for Scott Timberg)

Culture Crash Sonnet #1 (for Scott Timberg)]

Some call it Wild West, others anarchy
But the culture of the Youtube comment
Box has made everyone an expert. When
We vote for sexiest vigilante
And come to a consensus, we could bring
Back the shared Motown Medium and crush
The Faux-populist[1] culture that brought Bush
Through Limbaugh, to the fore. We don’t need bling.
We just hope for a decent place to live.
You know your life’s better when we had some
Say. Oh Facebook, we don’t. We’re part of some
Corporate Person who can lobby. We give
Our politicians votes. They give write offs to
Those who give them our money; bailouts too.

Culture Crash Sonnet #2 (after Scott Timberg)

We may not be called people anymore
But at least we got a case. In my case,
Our culture came first from Motown. I’d trace
 To “I Want You Back.” The pro-DJ door
Shut, but left those who oozed human passion
Flocking to college, and left of the dial
Professors with a ground to stand & smile
Coz songs like “War”[2] had fallen from fashion
But the teachers could narrowcast with ease
(so) many would be DJs got PhDs
to stop the spread of New Hist’ry’s disease
‘til algorithms brought us to our knees.
Human labor may not be obsolete
Lest MOOCs render conversation a tweet!

[1] Timberg, pg. 208
[2]  what is it good for?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Small Talk at 24th and Broadway: A Brainstorming Session

There is so much to be angry about in the wake of the non-indictments. Pick your target. Choose one with staying power. “Racial and Economic Injustice” has lasted more than 400 years—but be specific, because you can see it everywhere. Brainstorm, but if you need a jumpstart, think about some conversations you have with people about this stuff. Often they start with specific instances (current events, social networking clickbait), but these are usually just the tip of the iceberg of structural oppression. Such conversations are a good start, though, and here’s a very loose transcription of I’ve had at the YMCA:

“Look at the picture on the cover of the Dec. 1st Oakland Post that shows protestors blocking off Highway 580….”

“…the only black faces I see in this picture are the cops….And there’s a white guy with a sign that says ALL LIVES MATTER….that whitewashes the message: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

“Maybe that’s the point of the Post….to show how the movement has been coopted…”

“If they wanted a negative image that discredited it, they could’ve shown the white guys ransacking that bakery on 51st street….I think they wanted to show a positive image…

“But for a paper that caters primarily to black folks, they could’ve chosen a different picture…like the primarily black activists who shut down the West Oakland Bart on Black Friday…

“I think you’re making too much of this picture. It’s not viral like something on CNN. Channel your anger in a different direction…”

“Well, I could mention the viral picture of the white Portland cop hugging the young crying black boy, and get deep into the possible motivations behind publishing it. And ask, does it make you more sympathetic to the cops? And does it change how you see it when you find out the cop was a Darren Wilson supporter?

“I suppose you could, but you can go deeper…”

“Speaking of famous pictures in the mainstream media, I want to celebrate the St. Louis Rams for making the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ gesture as they walked out of the tunnel before their game against the Oakland Raiders.”

“I really believe that gesture shows solidarity with those in the trenches…”

“It may also explain why the Rams handled the Raiders their second biggest loss in franchise history. The Rams were so armed, or challenged, by their sign of solidarity and black strength they could channel their anger into an organized show of strength, and play their ass off…

“Well, it was against the Raiders…”

“It would have been great if some Raider had joined in. After all, Ferguson is Oakland, Oscar Grant is Mike Brown…”

“Maybe had Oakland done that, they would have at least scored some points, and Papa would have been able to yell Touchdown Raiders….”

“Did Papa say that?…”

“Not that I know of…but syndicated network sports talk radio definitely demonized those guys. The hatred spewed from the airwaves, their ridiculous interpretation that it was an anti-white gesture!”

“It’s not anti-white, just pro-black. They’re just trying to shout down that it’s a gesture of self-defense, a cry that Black Lives Matter…”

“It’s kinda like the backlash that happened after they raised the Black Power fist in the 1968 Olympics…”

“Whites found the raised fists more threatening…even though it’s not a swung fist in whitey’s face…”

“they found the hands up pretty damn threatening too….”

“Those radio people just bank on the idea that Mike Brown was swinging his fists at the cop….”

“But there’s no proof of that. Of 18 witnesses, 16 said Michael Brown had his hands up, begging for mercy, his life….”

“The media takes the minority view. If it’s not true, they can make it seem true. Black witnesses must be lying. White cops must be telling the truth….”

“Not all the witnesses were black, and why would people ignore evidence to accept the cop’s version as truth?”

“Coz they’re just looking for a convenient excuse. They don’t have to think their bias through. The courts must be right, and anybody who thinks they’re wrong, or who experienced injustice at their hands (when cops become judge and executioner) is automatically wrong….there’s so much ignorance of the facts here…”

“And purposeful obfuscation….These angry voices on sports talk radio are LOOTING the truth with what Kuby calls ‘wildly improper commentary.’ They’re just siding with the cops who demand an apology. How dare a mere football player make a political statement. Shut up and play ball.”

“The Rams used their celebrity. Hell, if you don’t quite see Michael Brown or the Ferguson Protestors as human, or even soldiers, maybe you’re more willing to see your football team---a team you root for, a somewhat desegregated team that’s fighting for you—as football is the most desegregated sport—at least in terms of players if not owners---as human…!”

“The fact that professional athletes are not allowed to speak publicly about their political views these days is virtually the same issue the protestors are fighting for…”

“It’s the black skin they find threatening, much more than either gesture.”

“Yes, Tayvon the Ram could be killed just as Trayvon was, and yes Tayvon the Ram had to sacrifice his right of freedom of expression in order to become a professional athlete, a privilege, one of the few high paying jobs available to a young African American. It was a tremendous risk to make that gesture…The Rams players may have had to promise never to do anything like that again, or they’ll be out of the league….”

“We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

“Can these gestures teach? Can they at least open up a space for rational debate?”

“No one sounded rational on right wing radio.. or even on sports radio…”

“Sports radio’s generally implicitly right wing…Fox Sports may be a more effective propaganda arm than Fox News because it’s ostensibly non-political.”

“It puts the political discussion in a chokehold….we can’t breathe!

“Still, the Rams incident is but a picture, a symbol, a dot must be connected to the larger structural picture…You can’t see the forest for the trees…you need some kind of clearing…”

“But not too clear! Not too abstract.”

“Okay, here’s another tree, maybe even a bigger and better one to bark up. Our President, like those Rams, is a high-paid, high visibility black man….”

“Well, half black…”

“And, in contrast to those Rams, this Harvard educated author and orator’s got a silver tongue. He doesn’t have to play into the white supremacist stereotype of the black man as savage and thug….”

“You could say he went out of his way to err on the other side…white out…”

“And that’s what made him such a threat to Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party….because he speaks their language.”

“But is he really using their language against them, or just playing good cop to their bad cop?”

“Well, I don’t expect Obama to begin a press conference with the HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT gesture…even as one of his little jokes…”

“Sadly, you’re right…but like the Rams, it’s worth talking about him coz he’s a household name. Where does he weigh in?”

“He called it a tragedy, says changes are necessary and he did meet with Ashley Yates and MAU….”

“That’s kind of impressive. Ashley Yates has become one of the most inspiring spokespeople in Ferguson…”

“Yes, but if you look at Obama’s words carefully, he’s siding with the cops and grand jury more than addressing, or really acknowledging the validity of the reality the protestors are struggling for justice….Here, read this quote: “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black. Judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and helplessness.”

“Yes, it’s true…don’t you think that sounds accurate, and cuts close to the deeper heart of the problem?”

“But notice his subtle word choice: “Too many young of color FEEL targeted by law enforcement.”

“Yes, but we do feel that….older men, and women, too.”

“But he doesn’t say too many young men of color ARE targeted by law enforcement….That would be more honest. It’s been going on since the so called War On Drugs in Reagan’s day, which Obama well knows since he was in his 20s when that started.”

“And notice how the President speaks of the breakdown of trust between law enforcement and young men of color, but is subtly claiming that distrust comes from the side of the young men---when obviously law enforcement comes into the relationship already with distrust—the presumption of guilt until proven innocent that leads to a culture of shoot first, ask questions later…”

“It is the police’s distrust of blacks that causes the tension that leads to violence, and, more broadly, it’s whites trained to believe blacks are a threat, that creates this violence. Since the whites started it with slavery, and though they try to tell us they ended being threats 50 or so years ago, they keep starting it, and the cops are more armed and violent than ever.”

“And what’s Obama’ proposed solution to restore trust?”

“He wants to appease us with body cameras.”

“Well, that was one of the demands…”

“But it wasn’t the most important one. They can ‘malfunction’ (or be turned off). It wasn’t like filming Oscar Grant being killed changed the outcome of that trial either….”

“Yates agrees. She saw through Obama’s sweet talking ruse. I really hope she can get more airtime because of that meeting…”

“Maybe it could push Obama, push public policy….”

“To what? Maybe one token indictment? Do you really have any faith, or hope, in the system…”

“No, but I have hope for the American people….even white people…to ask questions…to talk back to the one sided TV!...For instance, police may defend their killings on he grounds that their victims had “a history of crime.” But what kind of crime? I mean, shouldn’t they then patrol Wall Street and start choking bankers that caused the foreclosure crisis?”

“Polls show mot people believe violent shootings are worse crimes than white collar crimes.”

“But the latter causes the former.”

Well, Darren Wilson claims that Michael Brown said, “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

But even if Brown did say that, and even if he did steal a pack of cigarillos---both debatable—a cop has no right to shoot someone 6 times, and then 6 more times, dead, and leave the body on the street for 4 hours…just because the cop’s manhood is threatened. Shooting made him a bigger coward! They’re supposed to be trained to expect such taunts and handle them with courtesy, professionalism and respect just like a cashier has to act polite to an angry customer…”

“And certainly the pro-police media scored a coup when they found Pharrell Williams called Brown a bully.”

“That makes me sad. That song “Happy” made many whites and blacks of all ages happy in the last year…even Clay that right wing white Bush loving guy.”?

It made me happy the first 100 times I heard it, but that don’t mean I have to agree with the singer (just like I can still be glad that the Bush-supporting pitcher took my team to the World Series.)”

“Pharrell lives in a bubble of “post-racial” illusions. The New Black? Did you see that picture of him with the Native American headdress? The white power structure just loves that “bully” quote coz it supports the image of the black savage---Hulk Hogan? Do white folks really feel that?”

“Oh yes, and Pharrell’s one if the ‘good ones.’”

“The media loves to set up a black vs black thing so they can step in between it….they can use this to divide and conquer just like when the slave masters created the difference between house slave and field slave.”

“The media also creates the image of the white WIMP to go along with the black savage….so the “average white” thinks he needs protection from the cops…”

“This double standard hurts most whites too (if they really thought about it). That’s what I hope to teach them.”

“No zealot like a convert.”

“Remember when they called the Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman a thug for getting emotional and cussing after making the biggest play of his life against Crabtree last year…and the same week they caught Justin Bieber doing thuggish acts and called him a misguided kid….”

“Sherman wasn’t even making a political point like the Rams….nor was he beating his wife, like that white pitcher from the Phillies (I think Cole Hamels)”

“Don’t even get me started….Remember when Dick Cheney admitted he knew about the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, but they shut that up and then immediately created an uproar about Mike Vick torturing dogs!  They always deflect the attention from they crimes onto lesser ones made by a black man….”

“That’s why I love that Ashley Yates and others say this Ferguson movement is an attempt to confront a feeling among whites that views black folks as savages…”

“This confrontation is more necessary today than it was 50 years ago….in many ways the Civil Rights movement was fighting against the stereotype of blacks as docile, patient-to-a-fault, negroes, or as stupid and lazy. The ‘black brute’ stereotype had gone a little into remission after the emergence of folks like Thurgood Marshall, and MLK…”

“And don’t forget all those mid century award winning writers and public intellectuals—Hansberry, Wright, Baldwin, Brooks, even Ellison….”

“A little…but it never really went away. Look what they did to Mohammed Ali….or Paul Robeson.”

“Yeah, but we became visible in the 1960s—as personalities—more than ever before, and that could be progress. The black power fist was historically important back in 68 to undo the docile stereotypes….Malcolm’s message was loud and clear: I’m a peaceful man, but if you sick your dogs on me, I’m not going to stand there and let you.”

“But they don’t teach that in the white-run schools, or show that on TV. They twisted it all around. More visible, but our message got distorted. They started showing Superfly and black gangsters who wanted to be like white mobsters…the most visible got shut up or bought off.

“They tried to make us forget our great African American culture, and assimilate, and fall for integration, which is nothing but the illusion of inclusion…They’ll let you shop anywhere if you can afford it, but making enough to afford basic necessities is a whole other issue…..”

“If they couldn’t make us invisible again, they could at least change the nature of black leadership so it was no longer responsible to the community, but baptized in the white ideologies of individualism and bling bling materialism.”

“Now the kids in Ferguson are really questioning that. They know the “thug” image was made by the media to dehumanize blacks who had become more humanized as a result of the wealth and richness of black culture…and helped make America the envy of the rest of the world….”

“In the 50s and 60s, blacks led and many whites eventually followed…even if they couldn’t totally admit it to themselves that that’s what they were doing. The white middle class did better because the black middle class did better.”

“Beware of a white man who knows as much about black history as you.”

“I saw the backlash firsthand. In my generation in the 80s when the hip hop and rock and roll started cross-pollinating, and uniting against corporate music. Hip hop and rap were somewhat united on the street via graffiti, and an allegiance to local culture….”

“and to some extent drugs…(though the whites didn’t get put in jail as much)”

“But the man needed to divide this from above, and they did it by making a select few in both genres more popular. Soon indie rockers were dressing more wimpy than they really were, and MCS and DJS had to pose more thuggier than they really were on the cover of the same magazines…

“And is it really an accident that Cobain, Tupac, Easy E, and Biggie were all dead by 97?”

“They haven’t gotten Chuck D yet.”

“But they did manage to reduce his achievement in their official histories. More importantly, they used hip hop to feed the corporate behemoth! And the prison-industrial complex!”

“I still have hope that Jay Z’s black capitalism can do some good.”

“But like Baraka says, our enemies have created our spokemen”

“And this is part of what the Millennials are fighting against by fighting for a self-determining culture, without the white voice over. To do away with the need for white sanctions, white approval (since the whites clearly don’t have any equal need for black approval)”

“These kids know about the Sisyphus Syndrome. They know how the boulder has been rolled back down since the Civil Rights generation.”

“And they know about the Seinfeld Syndrome

What’s that?”

“The way the power structure used a TV show to make the American city a place white post-industrial people would want to live in again, after abandoning it a generation earlier….Seinfeld, and Sex In The City, and Friends, was really a commercial designed to promote the city as the rightful home of the elite.”

“Yes, that was the ideology that allowed gentrification to break up the Chocolate Cities George Clinton bragged about...they priced us out.”

“And made the cities dreadfully boring. See that new shared work space that just opened up. This used to be funky broadway….back when it was still auto row.”
“You know, I was one of the first black mechanics to get a job on auto row. I had to fight for that.”

“When was that?”

“In the 60s.”

“And I was the one who put together the “don’t shop where you can’t work” rallies….

“They called it revitalization, getting rid of blight, urban renewal.”

“Urban removal…It ain’t funky broadway anymore”

“We’re funkier here at the YMCA”

“Not as funky as when there was a church here.”

“I didn’t know their used to be a church here.”

“This urban removal is at the heart of what is being protested about, and I just hope those with their ALL LIVES MATTER signs get that.”

“Maybe they can even look in the mirror and ask themselves: “Have the police been working for me? That maybe these “bad cops” are doing exactly what they’re PAID to do, protect their property, their opportunity that is based on excluding us….Are they ready to consider that….and change it? I don’t think they got the message yet.”


Such conversations are a necessary breaking-up the ground, an important first stage of planting seeds, or organizing. Many deep points are touched are, in the midst of some more trivial ones. Obviously all the 5 or 6 participants are somewhat caught in the heat of the particular moment, and respectfully deferring to each other. So the conversation may go around in circles lacking a forward movement, or stay a little too much on the surface, but this sharing of perspectives has advantages over stale, sterile, monologues, and invite the reader to insert himself or herself into the discussion. Still, these every day people talk about issues of race and class with a candor that is often lacking in the national discussion, and raise some points and perspectives that need to be considered more deeply.