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February 16, 2005

The Coalition of the Damned

People in Lebanon are attending the funeral of their former prime minister. He was assassinated by a suicide bomber with a car bomb. People in Los Angeles are attending the funeral of an anonymous 13 year old boy. He was shot dead by police after a car chase.

Tony Muhammad, the local leader of the Nation of Islam, brought the congregation to its feet when he vowed to hold city leaders accountable for Devin's death and said that it "will be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

"It's time for black people to stand up," he said. "We'll police ourselves! Look what this little brother's life has done — it has brought together Muslims and Christians and Jews, Bloods and Crips."

I feel a bit hesitant to walk over a delinquent kid's dead body to make a point about the politics of protest, but it's clear that there are people who a great deal more shameless than I. Ultimately, there's not much to make of this matter, that is to say there shouldn't be. You swim in dangerous waters when you choose to make somebody a symbol of heroism or victimology or whatever. Symbols are made to be slapped around like a hockey puck. Somehow, I know Devin Brown's mother isn't up to that.

Should there be a black Elian Gonzales, a black Jeffrey Dahmer? No. There are already many black symbols. We have a goodly share that over the years have ossified in the public consciousness as representative of the trials and achievements of African Americans in our unique history. Mohammed Ali is probably one of the greatest symbols of triumph, but we have our symbols of failure and oppression too. When it comes to the devaluation of black life, several come to mind.

The essential problem here is that Brown doesn't measure up as a symbol in the pantheon of black symbols, and the fact that so many folks are willing to represent him as one waters down the impact of whatever movement they expect. This is a small tragedy written in large print devaluating black politics. The very idea of Crip and Blood unity having any significance outside of itself played out 14 years ago. But this is where the Coalition makes points.

A generation ago, this kind of grandstanding could be parlayed into real political capital. Many asked and recieved patronage in the form of political appointments. But blackfolks have already marched in every major city and black police chiefs have already been tenured in every major city. We are in the second generation. Indeed Bernard Parks was sitting in the front row of this congregation, clearly working his angle for his upcoming mayoral bid (which was doomed long ago if you ask me). They are fishing for trout with a boat anchor baited with the dead body of a boy who lies in the shadows of Medgar Evers, James Byrd and yes Emmit Till. This kind of trolling will make no one fishers of men. They need to throw their nets on the other side of the boat.

On the other side of the boat are people like me who are struck with the awful fact of a fatherless youth speeding away from police in a stolen car at 4 o'clock in the morning. As one who is willing to let the past good be remembered in acceptance of a harsh present and an empty future, I'm completely willing to hold no hope for Michael Jackson. He crossed a line that may make sense for some, but most of us know that's something is radically wrong. When a middle school kid is out on the streets driving a stolen car at all hours of the night, something is radically wrong. Sooner or later that kind of life catches up with you, or as Gil Scott Heron said, "Down some dead end streets there ain't no turning back."

Every man's death diminishes me, and every child's death is a tragedy, but every tragedy does not have a silver lining big enough to be counted as progress. Especially not for an African American nation of millions, although perhaps for a ragtag few in South LA who marvel at gang peace this might be enough. Were I part of a community that daily sees its youth go down in flames to all of the ailments that plague our society, I surely could see some sense of victory in the death of one that fuels righteous indignation against a police force in dire need of change. But I am part of a community that expects much more from youth and gets much more from police. I am not without sympathy or understanding, I am without political support or ascent to such tactics as grandstanding at funerals.

Like many, I have watched funerals throughout the 80s become a rallying point for black South Africans. And I witnessed the triumph after decades of struggle by millions of black South Africans for democracy and freedom. Here in the US we have democracy and freedom, so what is a funeral for? A funeral is for mourning the loss of a loved one and an opportunity to take the lessons of one life gone and apply them to those who must carry on. Devin Brown's life, to my ears, has no great lesson, only a small old one which is that the family comes first.

Whatever coalition forms from those political mourners is a poor one. For there is little in the symbol that they can use to gain popular sympathy. If Americans know anything it is how to pimp a symbol and how to dash one to the dirt. These folks would be much better off leaving Devin's mother to ordinary grief instead of the inevitable letdown she will feel if she believes the hype.

I have written that we have yet to reach the point at which black rage can be co-opted by the mainstream, and so black political rage becomes discounted in the scheme of things. If it takes the death of youth to gather such coalitions as this, then that will continue to be the price of the ticket. History has given us the proof, here in Los Angeles. Where is the coalition of LaTasha Harlins, Ron Settles? Where are the friends of Rodney King? They are nowhere and nameless. It's just 'black SouthCentral LA', whatever thousand show up when somebody gets beat down by cops. What do they have to do? Show up at First AME, wail and promulgate ignorant conspiracy theories. Call in to talk radio and rant irrationally. Cry at funerals and pour a drink in the street. It's as familiar as The Color Purple, sentimental, heart wrenching and ultimately politically useless. This is not the currency of political progress, and yet it continues to be saved up and spent.

My gut tells me that everyone who is making a mountain of this tragic turn has spoken for themselves and have as much representation as they will ever get or need. Just as there will be some permanent league of sweatshop employees and their complaints will ever be the same, there will be some permanent element of African America who lives in fear of police and despair of change. Thoughtful people will come to their aid and we all have some measure of responsibility to them. This is what we expect of the politics of progress. So the rest of us have our work cut out for us. We must be responsive and see that appropriate reform is carried out. Then one day, hopefully soon, a funeral can be just a funeral.


Jack Dunphy takes out some rage against the LA Times for supporting these sorts of politics. LA Observed, observes.

Posted by mbowen at February 16, 2005 10:24 AM

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Tracked on November 29, 2005 10:49 PM