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Strangers in the Land (and Humanism in the Arena)

By Benj DeMott


“Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too."

That line from Barack Obama’s speech on his executive order protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation took on a different resonance in the wake of Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island. Obama’s vision of a more empathetic America seemed beamish if you read Darren Wilson’s testimony about why he had to kill the “demon” Michael Brown or watched video of police taking down Eric Garner (then mulling around him afterwards like he was a beast of no nation). The retaliatory assassination of the two cops (and family men) last Saturday in Brooklyn wasn't a blow to empire so much as a blow to empathy itself. Those head-shots went to the heart of the country.

But that doesn't mean the policy and poetry in Obama’s speech shouldn't be news that stays news. And not just for the millions of immigrants and their loved ones who won’t live in fear as long as he’s president. Obama upheld an American tradition of sympathy for the underdog that remains this nation’s richest source of moral capital. When he invoked the story of Astrid Silva—an undocumented immigrant who’d dared to advocate openly for herself and her parents—he made that tradition live again:

Astrid was brought to America when she was 4 years old. Her only possessions were a cross, her doll, and the frilly dress she had on. When she started school, she didn’t speak any English. She caught up to other kids by reading newspapers and watching PBS. And then she became a good student. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mom cleaned other people’s homes. They wouldn’t let Astrid apply to a technology magnet school, not because they didn’t love her, but because they were afraid the paperwork would out her as an undocumented immigrant. So she applied behind their back and got in.

Still, she mostly lived in the shadows until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported. It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her. And today Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree.

Obama implicitly urged Ms. Silva and every American to keep stretching themselves. His language linked advocacy for the undocumented with other campaigns for broad-scale social change. Note his use of the term “out” in the passage above which connects shadows hanging over Ms. Silva’s family with fading stigmas against gays and lesbians. That word-choice amounted to a gentle jab at muy macho prejudices of more insular new immigrants.

Obama founded his brief on American verities (even as he evoked how “who we are” has changed): “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid?” It took a certain audacity to act like that’s a rhetorical question. Obama’s dare was informed by his experience as a political candidate. Americans’ attraction to underdogs/outsiders helped him overcome when he started his run for the presidency by taking on Hillary Clinton—the favored candidate of the Democratic Party establishment (and the Big Dog). And it surely figured in his campaign against that rich sociopath who always “looked like a chandelier was about to fall on his head.” [1] (Obama’s mockery of Trumpery comes to mind as well.)

OTOH, anyone aiming to uphold the underdog tradition has been going uphill in this country since the Age of Reagan. Obama managed to win one for The Democracy vs. The Plutocracy in the 2012 election. But plenty of citizens outside the One Percent wish he’d be a stranger. The thought of Obama and his black family occupying the White House affronts white-is-right dead-enders—especially in the American South. I doubt Obama meant to tweak them when he affirmed undocumented emigrant strivers like Astrid Silva were “as American as Malia and Sasha,” but that line must have felt like a double-diss to American nativists.


A Republican pundit like Timesman David Brooks may not identify with nativists but they’re a key constituency of his party. He’s not about to cross the base. (See this First analysis of Brooks’ polemic against Obama’s executive action.)

Brooks’ instinct is to deflect attention from intolerant angles on the multi-culture that define the GOP as the “Party of No.” In a post-Ferguson reflection, he focused on a different set of cultural contradictions, lamenting “the sharp social divide between people who live in the ‘respectable’ meritocracy and those who live beyond it.” In this strange piece Brooks conflated urban haute bourgeois mores with those of (what sociologists once termed) the “respectable” working class, conjuring up a common culture where:

…almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of non-marriage family types…People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary.

Brooks' diagnosis of how “classism intertwines with racism”—“People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.”—implies a measure of self-scrutiny. When the author of Bobos in Paradise starts picking up on “latent and historic racism” and steering readers to Manchild in the Promised Land something black-and-going-on has impinged on his dailiness. But Brooks’ attempt to distance himself from genteel biases seems pretty disingenuous since he supports a party that breaks America into “makers and takers” (and relies on a racist Southern Strategy). His take on the “respectable class’s” meritocratic attitude fails to take in the mind-set of an activist like Ms. Silva (with her 3 degrees). Not to mention college-educated protesters against police brutality who’ve been in the streets lately. Brooks’ reactionary skepticism of leftish demonstrations, liberal governance and unions means there’s not a lot to his new-found clarity about the need for “common projects” that unite blacks and whites.

His recommendation of Manchild is a bit of a tell. That good book, after all, is 50 years old. Brooks hasn’t been keeping up with newer art that proves black lives matter. Or non-fiction that illuminates the back story of everyday people in struggle today such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent case for reparations in The Atlantic. (Brooks’ failure to notice that article—the most acclaimed magazine piece of the past year—despite his sudden interest in the legacy of racism, amounts to another tell.)


Coates has become the most vital public intellectual of the Obama era other than the president himself. His Atlantic posts over the past few years have repeatedly sent readers to writings that get to the root of white supremacy. His links, as well as his own perceptions, have turned his blog into a national resource—though that phrase seems inapt since Coates has been serving as our preeminent critic of “creedal” Americanism.

Coates' polemical reply to the president’s first statement after the Ferguson Grand Jury decision is on point here. He busted Obama for talking around the truth: “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land…On Monday night, watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous.” Coates argued Obama’s even-handed calmatives and willfully optimistic long views were a recipe for despair: “Hope is earned.”

Coates' unillusioned analysis was just. But I want to push back against his truth attack (without suggesting Obama seemed untired that night). Coates is right that Obama’s nods to America’s capacity for change sounded hollow and ahistorical rather than mindful. Yet Obama’s reflections on violence and the American Dilemma were more subtle than Coates allows. When Obama took up this issue, his tamped-down voice seemed to talk back to itself, investing his words with something deeper than their surface meaning:

What we need to do is…figure out how to make more progress. That won’t be done by throwing bottles. That won’t be done by smashing car windows. That won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property, and it certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody.

His emphasis on that end note made it sound like he’d arrived at a first principle—a moral bottom line that privileged people over property. Maybe I read too much into his words because I was watching video of a police car being trashed on a split screen as Obama delivered his statement. That juxtaposition might have made Obama look weak to some, but to me it underscored the wisdom of the (admittedly fine) distinction he’d made between breaking windows and “hurting anybody.”[2] While Obama’s injunctions were directed at African-American protesters, his warnings didn’t offer absolution-in-advance to cops who engaged in the sort of overkill that amped up rioting in Ferguson last August.

Obama has been more forthright lately about addressing police violence. (His recent felt comment on BET about the need to give black youth “margin for error” was right on.) His tone has become more urgent in part because (as he’s said) the Eric Garner video is a teachable moment that confirms black protestors aren’t “making things up.” But it’s not only that undeniable video that’s enabling Obama to ask Americans if they believe cops/prosecutors or their lying eyes. I hear Obama getting liberal with Coates’ radicalism when the president insists suspicion of police in African American communities isn’t a black (or brown) thing but an “American problem.”

Blood and treasure are in the equation here. The sharpest Ferguson-related reporting has followed the money, revealing how African Americans there and throughout St. Louis County are victims of a legal/financial system that treats them as subjects not citizens. This Mother Jones piece focused on how the town of Ferguson imposed punitive court fines on poor residents, turning violations of local ordinances into the city’s second largest source of revenue.[3] This Washington Post piece covered an incredible range of legal rip-offs being perpetrated on poorer neighborhoods of color by municipalities throughout the St. Louis area (where one town “passed a ‘saggy pants’ ordinance mandating fines for parents of children caught wearing droopy drawers”). The author nails a misconception that’s key to these little fiefdoms of fear where most folks think:

...if they can’t pay their fines, they’ll be arrested and jailed the moment they show up in court. So they don’t show up. In truth, you can’t be jailed if you don’t have the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed for not showing up in court to answer a charge. So under the mistaken belief that showing up in court broke will land them in jail, people chose not to show up...which then lands them in jail.

A parenthetical detail hints why you should read the whole article. One small town named (you couldn’t make this up) Country Club Hills, where the population is now overwhelmingly black, “has over 33,000 outstanding arrest warrants, or an astonishing 26 per resident.” The Post journalist brings his analysis back to Ferguson, quoting a young defense lawyer who knows the town from within: “There are incidents of police brutality here, like anywhere else. But the anger in Ferguson was driven by something much more common and pervasive. It’s the day to day harassment and degradation that this system creates.”

Let fury have its hour? Our preceptor-in-chief couldn’t countenance violence in Ferguson. And anyone who talks it up from a distance deserves an ass-kicking. But truth is truth. Echoes from the sound of breaking glass there give the lie to this claim by Darren Wilson (in his recent interview with George Stephanopolous): “Ferguson loves Ferguson.”

I’m reminded just now of video of Michael Brown’s stepfather after the announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision—how he hugged Big Mike’s mother, trying desperately to comfort her though she was inconsolable. When she turned away, he was overmastered by her/his pain and cried out it was time “to burn this bitch down.” I doubt that mad sad man or underdogs who took their cues from him were all “scumbags.” To use the term that African American contrarian Charles Barkley laid on Ferguson’s rioters in a now notorious interview that delighted Foxy types.


Barkley sympathizes with cops who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner and believes those two “big men” bear the responsibility for the tragedies that left them dead. Sir Charles has been sipping that racist/classist brew imbibed in imperial middle America. But I’d bet he’ll have the wit to avoid becoming a folksy rep for David Brooks' “respectable class.” His raps–and America’s conversation on race—would be much enhanced if Barkley (who’s put off by those who Blame Slavery First) picked up on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ efforts to bring home the currency of white supremacy. In the meantime, Barkley’s broadcast partner, sports commentator Kenny Smith, has posted a worthy Open Letter to him. Smith isn’t a writer or scholar. He’s not able to school Barkley about, say, specifics of legalized plunder of black communities in the St. Louis area or the larger history of Affirmative Action for white people in the aftermath of the New Deal. But his letter is memorably lucid about the range of response among ghetto vets confronted by the clampdown: “they can overcome it, challenge it, live in it, or fall victim to it.” His last word should shame Barkley: “For those of us who are decades removed from ‘the struggle’ because of our life through sports or business, we now have to acknowledge every option exists. If not, then we are the ignorant ones.”

It's been a trip to see the wide world through the eyes of ex-athlete Smith and those Afro-American basketball and football players who’ve been wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. Back in the late 60s, someone once mused student protestors were engaging in “modernism in the streets.” I prefer the cultural politics of today’s athletes who are enacting humanism in the stadiums. Their gestures resound (to borrow Stendahl’s phrase) “like a pistol shot at a concert.” Which brings to mind two other acts of protest. The first is this flash mob demo at the St. Louis symphony. (Hat tip to Lex Brown for directing me to the aghast culture vulture at 1:13 who’s been thrown off her feed.) The second is The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered.” I’ve been locked on a live version of that track from an old bootleg of their 1981 Bonds shows ever since I saw the “hands up’ video of two witnesses reacting to the killing of Michael Brown soon after it happened. What makes the song sound right now 30+ years down the line is its great refusal of ambivalence. The band’s wild and tight; singers Joe Strummer and Mick Jones are on the same mic—separate yet co-equal witnesses to: “MURDER!” The Clash sound like men who’ve been given the gift of certainty—“who see that revolution isn’t a word but a pointing toward what obviously, absolutely must happen, and [who have been] lifted up by this sight, by the freshening awareness of how criminally wrong a wrong can be known to be by a mere human beings.”[4]

The kids acting up in the street now don’t have a band commensurate with their acts of witness.[5] But they’ve got those athletes on their side and our black President too. When he invited seven young organizers of the ongoing actions in Ferguson, Columbus, Miami and New York City to the White House earlier this month, he told them to “shoot for the moon.” He also warned them change is hard. His double-truths mean he’s a Peguy guy (whether he knows it or not). It’s the centenary of the great Frenchman's death and there are riffs for our dark times in this undogmatic Catholic socialist’s incantations:

The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion—extraordinary, sudden and serious—in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I live the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship—and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.

Revolution on the real side, per Peguy, requires moony visionaries to become molecular change agents. His a priori patriotism—"citizen"—talks back (from the grave where he rests after giving his life for France on the battlefield) to those who'd prefer to "disarticulate" a domestic campaign against cops-who-would-be-gods from fights against mad dogs abroad. It's a reminder progress at home probably requires a refusal of chic anti-Americanism. (The terrorist attack in the city this weekend underscores the dangers of the lumpen kind.) Mobilizers of the black nation will need to figure out how they can take advantage of the liberal in the White House who wants to be useful. And when local history-makers get down to the molecular nitty-gritty, they'll find unobvious allies among powers-that-be closer to home too.

There’s a good Lieutenant in Ferguson who’s been proving that every night. A moving Times story tells how this white Texan (“with a buzz cut”) has established humane, respectful connections with African-American protestors. He eschews riot gear—breaking ranks with the rest of the force in Ferguson—and (more importantly) he’s ditched emotional armor that fends off democratic conversations.

“To talk on a one on one level does a lot as far as building bridges,” Lieutenant Lohr said. “They may not agree with what I’m doing but at least they know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform...”


Lieutenant Lohr’s personalism amounts to the antithesis of Darren Wilson’s post-Grand Jury presentation of self in his interview with George Stephanopolous. According to Wilson, there was nothing subjective on his side of the gun. The killing of Michael Brown came down to training and survival instinct: “I did my job.” Wilson kept an even tone during the interview though he might have sounded a little icier than he intended when Stephanopolous asked him: “What could have happened differently that would’ve prevented Michal Brown from dying?” Wilson’s keep-it-simple-stupid answer—“Him complying.” — suggested he didn’t quite fathom the difference between an authoritative voice and an authoritarian one. I was struck too by his account of what occurred when Brown turned around and started back toward the officer: “I gave myself another mental check-out. I asked myself can I shoot this guy. Legally, can I?" — The deliberative “check-out” may be evidence of Wilson’s professionalism—his “training taking over.” But it made me wonder if in the moment he might have been an angry cop checking off boxes before paying back Brown for challenging his commands earlier in their encounter. Wilson’s next movement of mind made me wonder even more. “And the question I answered myself with was: I have to. If I don’t he will kill me...” Wilson is not the most verbal fellow. His flipping of the terms question and answer could just be an inarticulacy. That slip, though, may have been a hint Wilson constructed his moral rationale for shooting an already wounded, unarmed Michael Brown in the head (i.e. My life was in danger.) after he determined he had a legal excuse to kill (i.e. The guy resisted arrest so he’s at my mercy.)

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d revised history for the public record. A few weeks back, a young white man named Arman whom Wilson once arrested back in 2013 uploaded a 15 second cell phone video of a sequence that immediately preceded that arrest. Wilson is seen telling Arman: “You wanna take a picture of me one more time, I’m gonna lock your ass up.” Wilson then approaches Arman and appears to accost him before the video goes dead. Wilson’s less than polite language might come as a slight shock to those who’ve only been exposed to the mannerly persona on view in his interview with Stephanopolous. But there’s a more interesting discrepancy. Wilson’s arrest report claims he told Arman to “remove the camera from my face.” But the video shows him to have been at the other end of Arman’s garden path when he first threatened to arrest the man.

Wilson’s sensitivity to putative violations of his personal space seems pretty extreme. Which may be on point when it comes to evaluating his account of how much of a threat Michael Brown posed. In the Stephanopolous interwiew he stated that after firing a second set of shots at the (supposedly) charging Brown: “he stopped.” Which would suggest there might be something truthful in all those accounts by witnesses who said Brown was standing still, staggering or falling down before receiving the final kill shot. But Wilson then reversed himself. “Correction, I stopped [meaning he stopped shooting] and said “Get on the ground. Get on the ground.” He insisted Brown kept running through the pause and the next shots, becoming ever more dangerous.

Wilson’s language again called attention to itself/himself during this phase of the Q&A. He described Brown as looking right through him: “the face and the image he was presenting was I wasn’t even there.” Wilson meant to underscore Brown was so far gone bullets couldn’t slow down the maddened teen. But the terms Wilson used were striking since presenting a blank image was precisely what he was doing as he spoke to Stephanopolous. Maybe this wasn’t a projection. Maybe it was Big Mike, not Wilson (after lawyering up), who wore the mask. But, in his interview, Wilson surely seemed intent on coming on empty. He insisted all his responses to Brown were reflexive. He denied having any strong emotions (other than fear). He denied having any second thoughts about what happened. He denied being “haunted” by the experience. By his account, he “wasn’t even there.”

His impersonality might not have been a shuck. A Times piece from last summer about his familial background suggests others found him to be a “bland” and “nondescript” character. But it also indicates that life story didn’t exactly square with his (repeated) avowals to Stephanopolous of his own ordinariness—“I’m a simple guy,”…“we’re everyday normal people,”… “nothing special.” In truth Mr. Wilson’s life history is anything but normal. His mother, who died in her mid-30s (of “natural causes”) was a convicted forger. (The Times reported on her criminal past in the issue where they detailed how Michael Brown was “no angel.”) She ripped off hundreds of thousands of dollars from her neighbors, using stolen credit cards to empty their bank accounts. And all the while, as one of her victims noted, “she’d come over and sit at my kitchen table and chat and say how she would help me with this terrible thing that was happening to me.”

“I’m surprised Wilson passed the background checks to become a policeman,” that victim told a reporter: “People can change but that was a bad home. His mother was a serial con-woman.”

Wilson is a stranger to me. He seems to have been born unlucky. And I don’t want to “oppress” him by assuming he’s a liar like his mother. (That would be un-American.) I don’t know Wilson’s heart. But I think it should have been tested in front of a jury of his and Michael Brown’s peers.


1 Geoffery Douglas’s phrase from The Classmates.

2 As I watched those cop car windows shatter, I flashed on Obama’s account of his first date with Michelle. They went to see Do The Right Thing, which climaxed with the African-American anti-hero smashing a window of a pizzeria owned by his Italian employer. That boss (as you’ll probably recall) had precipitated a racial dispute that had resulted in the death of another brother who got choked to death by cops.

Do the Right Thing’s fictional act of protest must look different to Obama since he became president. “The rule of law” is a shield for a Commander in Chief dealing with right-wingers out to deny his legitimacy. Yet Obama knows why so many African Americans believe the law is an ass and (per those pieces in Mother Jones and the Post) a pig.

3 The Mother Jones piece had this piece of “good news.” Back in the summer, “under pressure from local activists, the Ferguson City Council announced plans to eliminate some of the most punitive fees, including the $125 failure to appear fee and the $50 fee to cancel a warrant. Of course, nothing is set to change elsewhere in St. Louis County. But eliminating some of the most egregious fees in one town is [per one lawyer and community organizer on the ground] ‘huge progress.’”

4 Pace Benjamin DeMott: “Mississippi Learning.”

5 When I first heard the Clash play “Somebody Got Murdered” back in the day at Bonds, it was in the midst of an two-hour confirmation experience that was also a stretch. The Clash's opening act had been a hip hop group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. The overwhelmingly white audience wasn’t trying to hear Flash et al.’s new form of African American culture. They’d pelted the strangers on the stage with whatever came to hand. I almost got in a fist-fight when I argued with the rock and roll nativists in the crowd around me. My impulse to contest wasn’t disinterested. I’d brought a black woman—one of the loves of my life—to that show. It was a romantic imperative to distance myself from haters in the house. When the Clash came on and melded punk protest with their own spin on hip hop, reggae and other Black Atlantic beats, their (early) world music seemed to soundtrack my own attempts to be a traitor to my race and true to my desire.

From December, 2014

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