March Sadness

A month full of dark milestones reminds us how the Bay Area’s progress in tackling racism still has a long way to go.

As the month winds down, and the first day of the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a close, it occurs to me that March 2021 was marked by many milestones for the Bay Area, the nation, and the world at large.

Some flew under the radar, like the 50th anniversary of George Lucas’ debut feature THX-1138 (shot partly in the then-unfinished BART system). There is, of course, San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recent push to make outdoor parklets permanent, which is both a welcome development for local restaurants and a grim reminder that we’ve been locked down for a full year.

A couple of national milestones were more unsettling.

The month began with the 30-year anniversary of Rodney King’s videotaped beating by four Los Angeles police officers. The eventual acquittal of said officers led to public outcry, protests, and, eventually, violent confrontations with police.

Three decades on, it’s easy to find info about the L.A. riots. One detail that’s often forgotten is that the San Francisco protests were so widespread and disruptive that the Giants cancelled a number of games just to be safe.

Speaking of peaceful-protests-turned-violent-by-police, March 7 marked the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That was the day nearly 600 civil rights activists — led by the late Congressman John Lewis — peacefully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only for Alabama state troopers to sic dogs, aim fire hoses, and violently attack the protesters. (Demonstrators at a May 29, 2020, Black Lives Matter demonstration in San Jose received similar treatment when law enforcement fired on them with pepper balls, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets. On March 11, 2021, some of those protesters, and local civil rights organizations, filed a lawsuit against the city of San Jose.)

And, lest we forget, March 13 marked one year since Breonna Taylor, an essential frontline worker helping COVID-19 patients, went to sleep for the last time. That night, four plainclothes officers — who were at the wrong address — used a no-knock warrant to burst into her home. Her boyfriend, thinking they were intruders, fired at them. They fired back, killing Breonna. The officers’ only punishment has been for damage to a neighbor’s property.

I could go on.

The THX-1138 anniversary is interesting when one remembers just how cutting its social commentary was. The film portrayed police officers as near-faceless automatons who speak in tranquil tones as they beat and incarcerate dissenters. Perhaps the most damning example (in hindsight) of the film’s commentary is the way the white characters only experience Black people through the television, which has evolved into a screenless holographic system. As Robert Duvall’s title character flips through channels — eventually landing on one of a naked Black woman, so as to pleasure himself — he briefly stops on a show that’s just a video loop of an android cop using its baton to beat a Black man curled into a fetal position.

The image is unsettlingly close to the video of King being beaten 20 years later. Hard to believe it came from the same guy who would later create Jar-Jar Binks.

We, however, live in a world where police officers haven’t been replaced by machines (yet), so their actions can’t be blamed on faulty programming in defective units. As many have said time and time again (myself included), the problem isn’t that we citizens fail to recognize the humanity of those in uniform, it’s that they fail to return the favor. Being an officer means being an enforcer of a broken system that protects those in power while punishing those least capable of defending themselves from the machinations of the carceral system. 

Mayor Breed has made many-a-declaration to wipe out corruption and racial bias within the S.F.P.D., but we’ve yet to see any of those reforms in effect. That same police force had no problem racially profiling three young Black men who were out shopping at Saks Fifth in Union Square on March 3. There’s no evidence that they took, tried to take, or had any intention of taking anything without paying. Yet, the image of them on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their backs is an all-too-familiar sight.

Incidents like this and a recent report examining the Oakland police department — which concludes that less than 4 percent of 911 calls are made to report a violent crime — merely add to the evidence that we need more alternatives to cops. Responding to each and every problem with an armed member of the state is more than a disaster waiting to happen; it supports the idea that the will of law enforcement can and should be enforced through violence and intimidation. That’s a systemic problem, not a personal one.

Of course, dismantling a system is never easy. The whole reason it’s called a system is because everyone relies on it to work in order to get things done. Even if it’s corrupt, plenty will prefer it to the unknown. Taking it down means not only pulling apart its active function, but also the very idea that it’s all-powerful and sacrosanct.

Don’t believe me? Consider the protests and counter protests that often erupt when a municipality or state moves to ban the display of the Confederate battle flag or seeks to tear down a memorial to Confederate soldiers or officers. Similarly, the San Francisco Unified School District faced public outcry when it sought to cover up a controversial mural depicting what many interpret as a romanticized portrayal of the European conquest of the Americas. The district has faced a similar backlash as it considers renaming many of its schools. Critics of these actions are quick to whine about the consequences of erasing history, but they do this in defense of historical figures who committed wanton acts of genocide. When did celebrating America at its worst become such a priority?

People of Color are rarely represented in history as anything other than subservient or assisting the “great white men that built this land.” We’re done celebrating that lie. If you’re honestly more comfortable with a genocidal racist than an abolitionist hero on your 20-dollar bill, you have a problem. And that problem is what makes a bad system even worse by justifying its biases.

Combine the system with anti-Chinese scapegoating and you have a history of anti-Asian violence. Combine it with anti-Black profiling and the result is the tragedies of George Floyd and Rodney King. Combine with misogyny and the result is the tragedy of Sarah Everard.

We don’t need that kind of system.

March also marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, created by and starring former San Francisco cable car gripman Melvin van Peebles. It’s about a Black man who witnesses another Black man beaten by cops, so our hero turns his rage on the cops. Half-a-century later and it’s hard to think of another work of art that so accurately captures Black frustration with police brutality.

When I think of all the times I’ve been told to revere law enforcement and “the great nation they represent”, I can’t help but think of how my being on the wrong side of police intimidation — despite having never committed a crime in my life — was the system’s way of telling me my mere existence was a problem. I can’t help but feel that idea was confirmed when I read how the police department of my birth city isn’t seriously investigating whether their sworn officers took part in the Capitol riot in January. It’s as if they were saying, “Why would we punish would-be insurrectionists if they still showed up for work the following week?”

It’s been nearly three months since the Jan. 6 riot, another unsettling milestone in a month full of them. The people defending murals and statues may be making this argument in bad faith, but they’re right that even the ugliest parts of history should be remembered. Where they get it wrong is that they’re in favor of celebrating those horrible moments and people. This is all the more hypocritical considering that so much of the controversy involves educational institutions.

The point of learning ugly history isn’t to celebrate it; it’s so we know not to repeat it.

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.

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