Having faith in Baltimore’s ‘criminals’

To my brothers and sisters on the streets of Baltimore, to those standing up against the irrevocable violence of police forces across the United States: Your heroism gives hopes to millions around the world. You are not alone in your struggle. Little black and brown boys in ghettoes from Amsterdam to refugee camps in Palestine are paying attention to you and how you resist. They know that the forces that confine your existence and limit your destiny are the same that they are contending with.

Amidst otherwise commendable comments about the events of Baltimore, the president of the United States, has called the looters and rioters among you criminals. But, like the poet Suheir Hammad, I have always loved criminals. Whether migrants slipping across borders as a means to survive, Palestinians resisting the occupation of their land, or those of us for whom sex was illegal in the United States until 2003. I thank God “the criminal” has never been a stranger to me. I have never embraced the sterilized faith that poisons our relationships and regards one as holy and the other as stained. Jesus was a criminal.

You’ve been castigated because in our society, private property has incredible value. It represents the accumulation of wealth; it embodies generations of labor and toil, a livelihood and security. It is with this vantage point that a well-intentioned public respond with horror to the vandalism and destruction that some have unleashed. Yet, in a system of economic exploitation as pronounced as ours, no reasonable person should expect you to have that vantage point.

The contradictions of Baltimore, a city were our ancestors were once traded, are rooted in the fact that we were once private property; once we ceased to be, once we began to live as free persons, our value diminished in the eyes of some of our fellow citizens. It has not mattered that the architects of evil systems of oppression are long dead. The new schemes of warehousing our bodies in (private) prisons and turning us into the loyal consumers that we are, have not been dramatic alterations of a system flawed from inception. They are part and parcel of a society hell bent on maintaining a status quo that is built upon denial — denial of history, denial of suffering and the denial of our humanity.

Thus, I am not angry that some, in grief, anger or opportunism are destroying private property, which is quite reasonable for you not to value. I will not join the chorus of voices denigrating you or reducing you to “criminals,” for to do so would be to perpetuate the same tactic that has been used to dehumanize the very young men that lay dead from police violence.

I do believe the rioting and destruction should stop, and I support what so many courageous young brothers and sisters have attempted to do already to slow the destruction. I think that we should police ourselves until it ends. I don’t seek an end to the rioting in order to appease the majority, who regularly ignores your existence, and would rather you demonstrate your discontent in a manner more palatable to their tastes, but because destruction is easy, and what we really need to do is much harder. We need to develop a strategy to ensure that this ends, forever. Destruction is what those whose interests are tragically represented by the police forces occupying your neighborhoods and terrorizing your communities have been doing to us for generations. If we must succeed at anything, we must succeed in not becoming them. We must not succeed in mimicking their capacity to destroy.

Of course this has already been done to a significant extent, and you know this, because the police and judges, parole and corrections officers look like us, and “us” and “them” have become far more complicated than they are often presented as being. The truth is they have always been complicated. This is yet one more reason not to focus on our capacity to destroy because our opponents are clever and resilient. If we direct our destructive capacity towards a goal with a faulty or half-reasoned analysis we run the risk of destroying ourselves or weakening our own capacity to resist.

This country is so obsessed with that word: criminal. They use it as if to say that he is no longer human, he no longer bleeds or feels, or screams in anguish when his spinal chord has been severed and larynx crushed, because he is a criminal. His mother will not grieve, because that is a human activity and she is a criminal. His father will not mourn because he too is a criminal and criminals are not human the way we are. The depth with which they believe these lies and deny our humanity are evidenced by the caprice with which they take our lives and tell your mother, driven mad by grief, or your brother who wishes to set a police car ablaze to “calm down.”

I do not wish to echo those voices asking you to calm down. If you had remained calm, we would not know about the life and tragic death of Freddie Gray. Yet the struggle that we are up against is tremendous. It has existed since before we were born and we must do our part in our time. It will not be over tomorrow. To win, we need to be focused and I believe our best revenge is to achieve and cultivate a humanity that our oppressors have not reached. This is among the most important ways that we have resisted, by achieving the humanity that we may be uniquely capable of accessing — a humanity that we have heard in the depths of our music and glimpsed in the radiance of our art.

It is true that this humanity has the capacity to redeem your tormentor, but it is not to be pursued for the sake of his or her redemption. His redemption is not to be presented to you as your responsibility. If the police officers who killed Freddie Gray are to be redeemed, then this is God’s responsibility, not yours. If our nation is to be redeemed it will be a byproduct of God’s grace and your own pursuit of love.

It’s love that has gotten us as far as we’ve gotten, not this or that tactic, not this or that choice of violent or peaceful protest. It was the choice of our mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, fellow gang members and strangers who loved despite the forces of disintegration. It may seem quaint, but I understand it to be revolutionary. I believe it to have the power to transform fragmented individuals into a force more powerful than the systems of hate that oppress us. Thus, my brothers and sisters, looters and rioters and those who “acted right,” resistance necessitates an end to the attempts of some of us to prove ourselves respectable, safe and loyal to an evil system by attacking our children and allowing them to be reduced to “criminals.”

And yet, as I write this, I am no longer certain whether “criminal” is a word of reduction or exaltation, as I am certain that Jesus is a criminal.

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