Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Exit

I have been plagued recently by a recurring dream: I am in a place, usually a city or town, where I am at first enjoying myself because it seems to be a kind of utopia filled with people who are more or less hip, living an environmentally friendly and socially enlightened life; but then I decide I want to leave so I can tell others only to find that every place I think I can exit turns out to be a cul-de-sac or no exit at all. I begin to panic, increase the speed of my walking and running and searching but all turns out to be in vain: I can never find my way back to the entrance where I entered, nor find another way out. It is about this time that I usually wake up in a sweat.
            At first, I concluded that this dream was a metaphor for my current psychological state: unsure of my next move, unclear how or when or if I am going to publish my next book or whether I have any literary moves left. I know this is a common ailment among writers who always think that the last book will really prove to be the last, that all inspiration has finally left one bereft of ideas and exposed as a fraud. And so I have tolerated these dreams for the last few years, worrying about them some, but not really clear about what, if anything, to do. Then this morning I awoke from another one: same general tone and tenor, wandering through a seaside town, lovely, with nice hip shops of artisans making wonderfully inventive wares and restaurants that offer organically farm-raised or artisan fare. I ask someone the town’s name and I am told “Capistrano.” Nice name, too, I think. I want to meet up with my friends or relatives to show them my great find, so I begin to look for the way out and keep getting caught up in cul-de-sacs or going in circles and then find that I’m being followed by two rather threatening looking guys who begin to chase me as I break into a run, and I end up in a corner somewhere in a panic, grab a nearby bottle, of wine, maybe, and break it over the first guy’s head and am about to stab the second guy with the bottle shard when I wake up with my heart pounding. Again. No denouement. No exit.
            Now I am aware of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, titled, in English, No Exit. And as I remember it, the play depicts three people in a kind of hell, which, in Sartre’s imagination, consists of  “other people.” The three torment each other in various ways, and the whole idea is that hell is simply the place in which one re-enacts one’s characteristic sins or foibles or habits ad infinitum because there is no way out. No Exit from the tormented room of one’s psycho-physical drama. But my take on No exit is slightly different. After the latest dream, it occurred to me that the no exit signified therein may well refer to the inability of any of us, all of us, to escape the existential nullity of our time: death as a full stop, the end of all our striving, with nothing at all afterward. No reward. No punishment. No other people to torment us. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. With no way out of the nothing. And what that does is throw into question everything that we do, that we have done, that we can aspire to. It requires, at the least, a re-thinking of what we are here for, indeed, a contemplating of whether we are here for anything at all. Seriously contemplating it. Seriously feeling deeply, and without artificial lighting or solace, the dark night of the year, the dark night of the soul. Nothing. I am coming to nothing. All I am or think I am comes to nothing.
            What also occurred to me, as I dwelt in this space, was that all religion, all human striving and construction, in fact, is little more than a desperate attempt to provide an exit from this dilemma; a way out. While we can tolerate the fact that all other animals simply die without anything of them surviving in another form, we cannot tolerate that same fact for ourselves. We are the special animal. We are the chosen animal. We are the animal that has been selected to think and to decree that we alone have, deserve the grace to continue. We alone contain some inner core that simply cannot die. It is immortal. It is far too precious to simply end, decay, change into dirt and mud and become a home for slimy crawly things. At least this is the way most religions portray those who choose to, or are born to affiliate with them. Special people with a special dispensation from the deity they have invented to provide them exactly this special dispensation, this exit, this way out.
            But my recurrent dream seems to suggest the opposite. There really is no exit. We are all going to die, and we know it, and fear it, and retain the vain hope that somehow, we alone will get that special dispensation and be spared. Knowing all the while that the hope is vain. There is no special pez dispenser that gives out little pills to keep the inevitable from happening. There is none. There cannot be. Life cannot be without death. Others cannot be without our exit. And we know this. We all know it. We know there is no special part of us that will be allowed to continue. We know it. And yet, we keep hoping against hope. Hoping so desperately that we are willing, some of us, to kill, to kill others, to kill hundreds, thousands of others, in order to keep them from denying us, from pointing out what is obvious: there is no surviving. All changes. All dies. All ends in the same way. Trapped in circular streets, in Escher-like streets that go nowhere. That never provide an exit.  
            Perhaps this is freedom. Perhaps accepting this, realizing it, is what at some point frees us from the terror. Frees us from our desperation to find an exit. Frees us to simply live in the terrible knowledge that we are no different from all else: temporary appearances who live out our prescribed days as best we can, with no hope or need for reward, with the realization that the reward is simply this—our daily lives of irrational hopes and irrational fears and plans that we know are vain because what we are involved in is so impossibly huge as to be well beyond our ability to comprehend or control it. Which is the same thing as saying ok to it, ok to it even though our agreement, our acceptance is not required, it matters not to what is whether we accept it or not, but in some uncanny way it matters to us. To accept what is. To accept our entrapment in it. To accept that we have, really, no way out. No way out of our coming; no way out of our going. To accept that all we have, really, is this strange gift: the ability to be there while it happens.
            Woody Allen famously said: “I don’t mind dying so much; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Though it’s one of the funniest things anyone has ever said about this, I think he was exactly wrong: being there while it happens, while everything happens, is really all we have.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Climate Depression

I’m in a kind of climate depression. Yes, it’s an actual term, as you can see if you read a little blog (http://the-mound-of-sound.blogspot.com/2014/10/climate-change-fatigue-or-eco-depression.html) I found describing what happened recently to a Professor Camille Parmesan: she became so “professionally depressed” that, even with a Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Al Gore in 2007 as lead author of the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC), she started questioning her whole life’s work, moved out of the U.S. to the U.K, and doubted that she’d ever return to studying the dying coral reefs that are her specialty. Nor is she alone, she said: “I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost.”
            My depression, though, is not from doing science or even my recent reading of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything (see blog for Nov. 30, 2014). Because the truth is, Klein soft-pedaled the real situation by focusing on what we, the people of the Earth, especially those in developed nations, could do to keep the warming of the earth from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Her implication clearly was that we still had time (though only till 2017); and that if we could just rid ourselves of capitalism and move from an ideology of extractivism to one of stewardship, we could prevent global catastrophe. And of course, we all want to believe that, human brains being wired to believe there is hope no matter how massive the problem, the worst is always in the distant future, yes, we can somehow figure out a fix. An interview that the journalist Dahr Jamail did with climate scientist Guy McPherson, though, dashed that view completely. The title of the piece, appearing on Truthout.org, gives the idea quickly: “Are Humans Going Extinct?” And what the piece concludes is that, yes, the extinction of our species is already well under way due to climate change, and is probably inevitable.
            Guy McPherson deserves some attention in this regard; he’s a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who has been studying anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) for three decades. A lot of what he has been finding and preaching can be found on his website with the apt title: Nature Bats Last (http://guymcpherson.com/). I highly recommend it, though it is not for the faint of heart. Because what he says is sobering indeed—so sobering, in fact, that McPherson, suffering a kind of climate depression himself, has changed his message from the dreadful warnings about what he sees coming, to counseling people to just do what they love because it’s not going to matter much as far as the climate is concerned. Naomi Klein cited a paper Brad Werner gave at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in 2012—“Is Earth F**ked?”—and its title is relevant here; because for McPherson and many of the scientists he cites, the answer is a clear “Yes.” Earth Is Fucked. Or rather, not earth itself—for earth will survive as it has many times in the past; but for the human species and most other life on the planet, Earth is, indeed, fucked. Is, if the numbers are correct, heading for a mass extinction event comparable to the Permian Extinction about 250 million years ago that wiped out 95% of marine and 70% of terrestrial species then living.
            With regard to the 2 degree limit that Klein stakes her whole book on, McPherson and many other scientists insist we’re already there. That is to say, as Dr. Peter Wadhams, one of the most cautious commenters on the climate and head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge, asserts in his August 8, 2014 youtube video: ‘the 2 degree limit was already reached in the 1960s.’ That is, even if we had stopped carbon emissions in 1960, the 2 degree warming would be reached anyway as a result of all the carbon emitted until then. I think this is something not widely understood and it should be: carbon emissions take something like 40 years to produce their effects. So trying for a 2 degree limit now is a fool’s errand; as is creating the impression that we still have time to reach a 2 degree limit, which is really a kind of subterfuge engaged in by governments and UN conferences and the IPCC. And in fact, McPherson quotes Wadhams thusly: “the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, which now exceeds 400 parts per million, is sufficient, if you don’t add any more, to actually raise global temperatures in the end by about 4 degrees.” Again, it’s that 40-year gap between emissions and warming. If emissions up to 1960 are enough to reach 2 degrees, and the emissions we’ve been pouring into the atmosphere since then are greater by many degrees of magnitude, then it’s clear that unless some miracle happens, we’re well on the way to 4 degrees or more by as soon as midcentury (this does not even include the damage done by methane [an even more deadly warming gas] seeps which, on their own, according to one researcher, will raise global-average temperatures by more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2030). And 4 degrees, or 5 or 6 or more, as many scientists project, essentially makes the planet uninhabitable by humans—a “dead planet” according to McPherson, on which no one, not even the very wealthy who think to insulate themselves in safe havens surrounded by their own police, will be safe. (By the way, the base line against which temperature increases such as 2 degrees Celsius are measured is the temperature in 1750, about when the Industrial Revolution began).
            In short, we as a species are fucked.
            Now every fiber in my being rebels when I write this. Even “knowing” what I know (and it should be clear to everyone that most of us really don’t have any firsthand way to verify the effects scientists keep warning us about; we have to weigh the evidence, yield to majority scientific opinion, take into account recent unusual climate events like Hurricane Sandy and the melting Arctic Ice, and act accordingly—which is why idiots like Senator James Inhofe and the hucksters at the Heartland Institute can keep blowing smoke to confuse the issue and maintain that the whole global warming scare is a hoax cooked up by Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand—Inhofe actually said that!—to advance the liberal/socialist agenda), even knowing what I know I want to leave humanity an exit, an escape hatch. Surely there is some technological fix that will save us (Klein debunks this in her chapter called “No Messiahs.”) We are, after all, the quintessence of dust, the paragon of animals, as Hamlet put it. The chosen species, the lords of creation. Which is, in fact, part of the problem. We really do think we are special. We really do see ourselves as separate from all other species—which we lump together as “Nature.” And granted by God “dominion” over them all, inalienable rights over all creation. I was raised to believe this, we were all raised and indoctrinated into believing this. So it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise; to believe that this time, there really is no technological fix (even Peter Wadhams suggests some temporary geo-engineering miracle that can give us time), no god or leader or scientist or group action that can save us. But if Guy McPherson and most scientists are right, that is precisely the ‘fix’ we are in; the hole we have dug ourselves. Our arrogance, our ignorance of the interrelatedness of all species, of our dependence on all others including lowly bacteria and dirt for our sustenance, has led us to think—since Francis Bacon expressed it 400 years ago—that we can and should treat the globe as our own little ball, to be used up and exploited in any way we can imagine to make our journey more comfortable. Blow off the tops of mountains to get at coal. Spread poisons on the soil to make farming easier, to make growth and life itself possible only for those plants that we can consume; those insects and birds and fish and mammals that we consider useful to us. The rest be damned, dammed, including the life-giving waters from which we sprang. Now we are seeing, as McPherson’s website warns us like a siren screaming in the night that Nature really does Bat Last. That we pay a price for imagining ourselves as separate from all else. And that the price may be the ultimate price any species can pay: extinction.
            This makes me cry in the night. This has given me an intense pain in my soul. It has even forced me to reconsider writing this, or thinking about this anymore at all. It is too depressing; too cataclysmic; too destructive of everything and everyone I value. But in the end, I have to conclude that we cannot keep burying our heads in the sand. In the end, we are obligated—even “knowing” that it is futile—to keep trying to know, to ameliorate the situation to whatever extent we can. We have to keep trying to delay the worst effects, by working to browbeat or persuade or legislate or shame others into seeing the truth: the entire human project is in grave peril. Anything we can do to help save something, to delay the worst effects, as Wadhams says, until some solution, some miracle might be found, is worth doing, even if the odds of its working are miniscule. It is still worth doing. For it is no more than what we do daily anyway, in the face of our certain knowledge that we will die.
            Guy McPherson himself has come to this conclusion. After being viciously attacked for years, and seeing the sad effects his message has on people’s hopes, he has modified it: Keep doing what you love to do, he now counsels. Keep loving. Even if the worst happens, at least you will have done your best to create something of value in the world.
            I don’t know what else to say. I apologize if this is too disturbing. I apologize if it leaves you depressed or hopeless. All I can offer is the truth as it’s gathered at the website (which in turn has gathered it from the most reliable sources available) noted above. And the idea, too, that we really do not know the future, cannot predict it no matter how gifted our instruments, how clever our algorithms. We simply cannot ever know for sure what emergent evolution will come up with, what the universe itself will come up with. All we can do is trust that existence involves more than what our little brains can comprehend, and that in that enormous potential inherent in every inch of space lies the something that somehow, for untold billions of years, has been able to go on. And will continue.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Capitalism vs. the Climate

The title above is the subtitle to Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything (Simon & Shuster: 2014). Though it’s not as pathbreaking as Klein’s previous book The Shock Doctrine, it’s still a much-needed review of what global warming really means and what really must happen if an earth hospitable to humans is to have a fair chance of survival. In a nutshell, if our earth is to continue as a human home, capitalism has to go. Or change. Or go through a mutation that would mean it was no longer the profit-driven, growth-mad capitalism we know. This is because the logic of capitalism, especially the “grow-or-die” paradigm that drives modern corporations to put profit and growth above all other concerns including life on earth, is proving to be—especially concerning the fossil fuels that are its engine—hostile to civilization, humans, and life on earth generally. As we all know (except for some of the ‘denialists’ in our U.S. Congress), burning fossil fuels like coal and oil produces an inevitable by-product: carbon dioxide. This has been happening at an accelerated rate since at least the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and its accumulated effects (a kind of CO2 bubble that traps warming air in the atmosphere) are now heating up the planet beyond anything seen since the dinosaurs. The Copenhagen climate conference of 2009 issued the warning that we now live with: if the accumulated warming of the planet exceeds 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it will set in motion unstoppable changes in our climate like sea level rise that will be catastrophic to large swathes of the inhabited globe, not to mention drastically acidifying the oceans (making shells and coral unable to form). In short, anything over 2 degrees and we’re all cooked. The problem, as Bill McKibben noted in his recent book Oil and Honey (see my blog “Global Warming’s Big Three Numbers,” Oct. 23, 2013), is that the proven reserves of the major fossil fuel producers amount to about 2,795 gigatons, which they must, according to capitalism’s dictates, sell for burning. But in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, the planet can only tolerate the burning of about 565 gigatons. That means that the fossil fuel companies would have to refrain from using 80% of the reserves that constitute their wealth; and more, they would have to stop doing what they’re now doing via fracking and tar sands and offshore drilling, i.e. adding to those burnable reserves.  So you can see the situation (and, as Klein vividly points out, the denialists do see it very clearly, which is why the Koch Brothers among others are spending small fortunes to deny and muddle and in any way discredit and short-circuit the science of global warming): it’s either capitalism as we know it, or life as we know it. One or the other has to go.
            Needless to say, this is a most dire situation. International corporations now rule the world. They control governments (like ours), international trade, and can keep and have kept individual countries from doing anything to save themselves (see my Nov. 10 blog, “Inmates Control the Asylum,” which discusses how the WTO ruled that Canada’s use of “buy local” standards to encourage its renewable energy industry was illegal, a restraint on trade). Trying to get them to agree to keep their assets (oil and coal) in the ground to benefit a vast planetary Other seems like the sheerest folly. And it probably is. As Klein puts it early on in her book,
..(this is) what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time (40).

What Klein lays out, however, is first, the urgent need to win that battle and keep that fuel in the ground; and second, the possibility that people power, whole districts, regions, nations of people, could make it happen if they joined forces. Pie-in-the-sky it may be. But what Klein is convincing in demonstrating is that there is no alternative. Either we change the way the world does business, or we die. And ‘changing the way we do business’ means far more than corporations simply refraining from using assets, or finally admitting that global warming is real and their products are responsible.  It means actually using some of their accumulated wealth, our accumulated wealth, to help the poorer nations develop. It means reparations—no other word fits the case, and the comparison with abolitionism and the more recent demands of African Americans is intended—from those who have done most to pollute the planet to those who have already suffered and stand to suffer more if nothing is done. It means paying the climate debt the developed nations owe for the three centuries of pollution by which they grew rich; it means, oh horrible word, redistribution. In other words, either the wealthy already-industrialized nations (Britain, the U.S., most of Europe, Canada) and their corporations agree to help (via donations or taxes, both of money and technology) the developing nations bypass the carbon-intensive stage of industrialization by going straight to renewables and mass transit; or, by refusing to help, guaranteeing that the mass burning of carbon-based fuels by those developing nations trying to catch up (India, China, Brazil, and countless nations in Africa) will push the entire planet into a warming trend that will doom us all. That is the analysis and those are the stakes in this ideological battle. It’s either continuing with the policy known as extractivism (mountaintop removal to get at coal more cheaply; fracking that pollutes precious aquifers; in short, a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth typical of capitalism); or moving to a policy and mindset of stewardship—that is, taking from the earth only in a way, common among indigenous peoples, that concerns itself with fostering the fertility of soil, plants, animals and the earth upon which all depends.
            And impossible as it seems, there are examples, as Klein points out, of small pockets of human communities beginning to do just this. She points to “transition towns,” for example, the first of which in 2006 was Totnes, an ancient market town in Devon England. In a movement that has spread to more than 460 locations in more than 43 countries, “each (transition) town tries to design what the movement calls an ‘energy descent action plan’—a collectively drafted blueprint for lowering its emissions and weaning itself off fossil fuels” (364). Town residents discuss everything from increasing food security through local agriculture to building more efficient affordable housing. Another example closer to home is Greensburg, Kansas. Devastated by a tornado in 2007, Greensburg was almost totally rebuilt by local government efforts on a “green” plan (406-7). The new buildings like the hospital, city hall, and schools have “all been built to the highest certification level issued by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” The town has become a virtual laboratory for low-energy lighting, green architecture, waste reduction, and power generation via wind turbines that produce more than locals need. The other point of hope for Klein is the movement by Indigenous peoples to stop high-polluting energy projects like Alberta’s tar sands (by blocking the pipelines without which the dirty tar sands oil is useless) and hydraulic fracking. Klein cites two important rulings in Canada that offer this hope. First, in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1997, the court “ruled that in those large parts of B.C. that were not covered by any treaty, Aboriginal title over that land had never been extinguished and still needed to be settled” (371). Native people there concluded that they still had full fishing, hunting and gathering rights to that land. In 1999, another ruling, the Marshall decision, established that when First Nations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia signed “peace and friendship” treaties with the British in 1760, they did NOT
…agree to give up rights to their ancestral lands. Rather they were agreeing to share them with settlers on the condition that the First Nations could continue to use those lands for traditional activities like fishing, trading, and ceremony (371-2).

If these rulings were extended to cover the Alberta tar sands region, it would mean that Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere would have veto rights over the use of their lands by corporations that, by their damaging extractive processes, make native use of that land impossible (what use are fishing and hunting rights in lands polluted by crude oil?). As Klein puts it, “No one has more power to halt the reckless expansion of the tar sands than the First Nations living downstream” (375).
            Klein of course has no illusions about how great a shift in power such a transformation (from extractivism to stewardship) would represent in our world. As she writes,
..moving to renewables represents more than just a power shift in power sources but also a fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend. The power of the sun, wind, and waves can be harnessed to be sure, but unlike fossil fuels, these forces can never be fully possessed by us. (394, emphasis added.)

The point she is making, though, is that if we humans want to live in a hospitable world, in the world as we have known it for thousands of years, we have no choice. We must either change worldviews—from one based in the unbridled individualism that undergirds Western culture, that sees the earth and all other animals as exploitable, buyable objects unrelated to us, to a new/old view of the “collective, the communal, the commons, the civil and the civic” in which we see ourselves as embedded in, as continuous with the earth and all her creatures—or perish from our arrogance. In order to make this momentous shift, Klein, again employing the comparison with abolitionism (Chris Hayes first made this argument in a 2014 essay in The Nation, “The New Abolitionism”), insists that rather than using economic arguments (carbon trading, renewables are cheaper), climate activists must use moral arguments to define the struggle. She quotes David Brion Davis (historian, author of Antebellum American Culture):
“The abolition of New World slavery depended in large measure on a major transformation in moral perception—on the emergence of writers, speakers, and reformers, beginning in the mid-18th century, who were willing to condemn an institution that had been sanctioned for thousands of years and who also strove to make human society something more than an endless contest of greed and power.”

That, Klein writes, is what those who argue for sweeping changes in moral perception must do if humanity is to survive this latest threat. And indeed, they must do more than argue. They must use every tactic known and unknown—protests, blockades, sabotage, more—that will resist and overcome the money and corporate and national/international power that will be galvanized to oppose them. For it is already known to what lengths entrenched power will go to stop the people of the world from gathering, feeling, and exercising their strength to close the gap between rich and poor individuals, rich and poor nations. Abolition required a deadly Civil War after all. Here, though, the stakes are, if anything, far higher than ending the horror that was slavery. Here, the stakes involve the death and destruction of entire islands, entire populations, entire species, the planet as the life-giving source we depend on, that we, in fact, are. What, in the end, could be more crucial than that?

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, Oh Ferguson

The airwaves have been, are still being filled with the news: The Grand Jury empaneled in August to decide whether Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, has made its decision. No, Virginia, there will be no indictment. The decision was announced to the public last evening (7 pm Pacific Time, 9 pm Missouri time), though why the County Prosecutor waited until after dark to announce what he knew would be an inflammatory decision (and it was) is beyond all imagining. A couple of things about the press conference alleged-Prosecutor Robert McCulloch gave in presenting the decision are noteworthy. First, according to the 11/25/14 New York Times, there were 162,500 grand jury cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in one year (2009 to 2010), and a grand total of 11 cases ended up without an indictment. Eleven! So this was not quite business as usual for the American justice system. Second, the website Daily Kos pointed out that McCulloch is the son of a police officer killed in the line of duty, so he is not exactly an impartial prosecutor where police shootings are concerned. This helps explain why his presentation made him sound like what he was: the prosecutor not of the murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, but of the victim, slain teenager Michael Brown. In fact, in his presentation the prosecutor sounded more like the defense attorney for the police officer, laying out the probable cause for why he “had” to shoot this menacing teenager whose crime—if there was one—was jaywalking in the middle of the street, or perhaps stealing some cigarillos from a convenience store. There is a great deal of dispute, in fact, about whether Wilson knew of the robbery before he confronted Michael Brown: in the early days after the shooting, the disclosure of Brown’s part in the robbery indicated that Wilson did NOT in fact know about the robbery when he first confronted Brown. But in his presentation, McCulloch made clear that what he presented to the Grand Jury was that Officer Wilson had received the information beforehand, and allegedly confronted Michael Brown as the probable suspect in the robbery—thus presumably justifying his decision to use deadly force on a criminal.
            But in truth, the details of the alleged crime and the killing of the black teenager are not the real core of the story. The core, as it is for most black communities around the nation, is the fact that once again, a white police officer has arrogated to himself the right to act as judge, jury and executioner of a young black man, and the so-called justice system in a society supposedly based on the rule of law and the presumption of innocence until a trial proves otherwise, has judged that police officer, the murderer, innocent—justified in shooting to kill in a situation where he claimed to fear for his life (though how an armed police officer can fear for his life in the face of a supposed threat from an unarmed teenager in broad daylight would seem to defy logic.) And, by default, has judged the unarmed victim guilty. If this were the only such case, it would perhaps not appear so startling. But such a scenario—of white police officers killing young unarmed black men—has become so common as to become one of the defining marks of our society. The situation is always said to be the same: the officer (or self-proclaimed vigilante as in the Trayvon Martin case), felt himself threatened and feared for his life. Therefore, he had no choice but to shoot. And shoot to kill. Very American this—in any situation where police are involved, or where American soldiers in any of our far-flung “police actions” around the world are involved, there is never any choice but the deadly one. We kill at the drop of a hat. Or a shadow. Or a dark face. Often enough these days, in fact, we kill without ever seeing the face. We kill from the air. We kill with robotic messengers of death called drones. We kill anything that looks suspicious on our magic screens thousands of miles away. When I was in the reserves many years ago, I remember how shocked I was at the bayonet training we briefly received: “What’s the motto of the bayonet?” our sergeants would bellow. And we would shout our response: “Kill! Kill! Kill!” It has become an American mantra, only now enforced with far more lethal weaponry than the homely bayonet.
            But of course it’s not just that large percentages of the police forces on our streets get their initial training in weaponry and attitudes in our military (thus does every war eventually come home). It’s also the history. Hundreds of years of slavery—the forced servitude of one group by another, justified by the alleged racial superiority of the one over the darker other—leave their mark. They indelibly brand and warp oppressor and victim alike; the victim, with what Joy DeGruy calls “post-traumatic slavery syndrome;” the oppressor with the never-departed fear that, without invincible shields and ever-more lethal weaponry, the rage their enslaving has instilled will result in mass revolt and the mass slitting of their throats. It lies at the back of every uprising from the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina to the riots of the 1960s in Watts to the similar riots after the slaying of Martin Luther King on up to those in response to the Rodney King and Oscar Grant verdicts and now the one in Ferguson. And that Stono Rebellion, according to historian Sally E. Hadden, assistant professor of history and law at Florida State University, marked the beginning of what really lies at the base of all our police constabularies since then: slave patrols. Her book bears precisely that title: Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard U Press: 2001); and what it points out is that though slave patrols probably stemmed from the laws many sugar-growing (and hence slave-owning) Caribbean islands adopted, and though Virginia had actually adopted slave patrols by 1727, the real impetus to a fully-formed system of slave codes with formal slave patrols to enforce them came in South Carolina after the aforementioned Stono Rebellion. As Hadden put it in an interview about her book, “Slave patrols amounted to an unequivocal manifestation of white fear.” In response to that fear, the new slave codes initially made it mandatory for all white males to do slave patrol duty, punishment being a fine for non-fulfillment of that duty. Eventually, though, with the growth of Southern cities, some slave patrols were replaced by regular full-time police, while other cities simply gave the slave patrols additional police duties such as arresting suspicious characters of any color and capturing those who broke the laws. Of note to anyone interested in language is the fact that the slave patrols were often called “paddyrollers,” a reference to the groups of white men charged to keep slave revolts from happening. This also seems to be the origin of the word “paddywagon;” not, as some have claimed, because early lawbreakers were often Irish or “paddies,” but because the origins of police forces can actually be found in the slave patrols or “paddyrollers.” After the Civil War, of course, most overt slave patrols had to be disbanded, with the result that their functions were split into two: law enforcement was taken over by regular police forces, while the terrorizing, vigilante functions were assumed by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, we can see clearly that the genesis of modern American policing, like many other aspects of American society, has deep roots in slavery and the fears it generated among those who held, sold, and otherwise abused slaves.
            We can also see this legacy in Ferguson. A majority-black city in Missouri is governed by an all-white administration, and policed by a nearly all-white constabulary. And the same fear seems to operate in the police force as in the original slave patrols. The citizens they must most often police are blacks like Michael Brown, whom Darren Wilson referred to in his testimony as a “demon” (here a literal “demonizing;” in our foreign ventures, a more symbolic demonizing). It would appear that the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, saw the victim through this same lens. It would also appear that a huge percentage of the white police forces in the United States of America shares this same perception, and the resultant corollary: when confronted by a black man, shoot first and ask questions later. Unless and until that perception, that shoot-to-kill mentality is educated or mandated or shamed out of our system, the mass incarceration of as many as one-third of young black men, and the senseless killing of many others, promises to continue.

Lawrence DiStasi