Before Ferguson: On life, liberty and property

This originally ran in USC’s Daily Trojan on Dec. 1, 2014

Let’s talk about stealing.

Last Monday evening, the news broke that the grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Riots broke out in Ferguson, and peaceful protests were organized in many cities, including Los Angeles. Stuck in front of a television set on the other side of town, I watched as SWAT teams descended on some of my friends who laid themselves down the 110 Freeway—an institutional disruption that ironically prevented me from reaching the scene.

The next day, as I walked home from campus in the dry heat, a fellow student caught my ear. Speaking animatedly into her cell phone about the more damaging riots in Ferguson, she said: “I don’t think it would be fair to have everything I’ve worked for in my life taken away just because I happen to live in a certain place.”

I was taken aback. Angry, I immediately thought: Well, I don’t think it would be fair to have your life taken away just because you happen to be black.

Then I became interested in her automatic identification with the business owners, instead of the dead teenager: “I…I…I.” It reminded me of watching the local news the night before, when an anchor looked down at the 110 and said: “It’s awfully dark out there. Once you let them get on the freeway….”

I and you and them: which was I? I started following her.

“I think they’re all crazy,” she was saying. “Half of them [rioters] will take advantage of this by stealing when they [business owners] have nothing to do with the cause.”

Then she noticed me, and instead of addressing her, I slackened my pace, crossed the street, and retreated into my apartment to write.

Her words might be lifted from bloviating TV pundits, but the logic behind them is old — too old. In America, private property has always been more sacred than human life.

Spike Lee dramatized this issue in Do The Right Thing, in which Radio Raheem’s murder-by-chokehold launches a riot with a new casualty: Sal’s pizzeria. Lee knew what was at stake when he (as Mookie) threw a trashcan through Sal’s window, but Lee is a filmmaker, not a politician. He wrote a dual tragedy, one that could acknowledge the tension between Raheem’s life and Sal’s livelihood. We still haven’t figured out how to peacefully reconcile this tension off screen.

Make no mistake: the laws of liberalism were written to protect the private property of white men. And yet, our country was founded on the original sin of stealing. Stolen land and African bodies constituted the property of America.

Over the past 250+ years, great progress has been made in the realm of private property in the United States. Women and people of color now have de jure economic rights. Even if systemic discrimination and unconscious biases still prevent us from realizing it, equality is on the books.

And yet, unarmed black men are still shot dead in the street by the law at an alarming rate.

Despite remarkable progress, we are still parsing about the right to life. Rape, sex trafficking, mass incarceration and police brutality all demonstrate that for women and people of color, the body is still a battleground.

Even those who condemn violence often believe that instead of teaching our men that rape is unacceptable, we must teach our women to take down their hemlines, watch their alcohol intake, and look at strangers with suspicion. They believe that instead of teaching our police that murder is unacceptable, we must teach our black men to hike up their waistbands, watch their tones, and walk around town with their hands up.

When the law itself can steal a life while it protects property (Brown had reportedly stolen some cigars), can we truthfully say that we have made progress? Certainly not by Malcolm X’s definition: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out, much less healed the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

Malcolm’s metonymic knife has been pulled several inches out of the social body. We have an African American president, after all. But the wound has not yet been healed, because many still won’t acknowledge the knife.

So when I hear my classmate voice an age-old, bloodstained, unfeeling assertion of value over values, I have to ask whether it’s fair for an 18-year-old kid to have his life taken away because he happens to be black.

Still, we might also ask why rioters are setting fire to property that just happens to be in the line of fire. These are people with no choice, with no legal recourse, with no power except self-destruction. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. told us. If this is the only language left them, we must listen. But if life and property has historically been a zero-sum game, then we can’t keep playing it. We must instead burn with our words. Give voice to those who have been silenced. Racism is an ever-malignant cancer, but it shrinks with every word spoken in the name of truth and justice. The truth is that we have made progress, but left open centuries-old wounds.

So, let’s talk about stealing.

We will never know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. But we do know that Wilson saw Brown as a “demon,” and we know that the sub-humanity of African Americans was literally written into our Constitution.

Wilson bypassed Brown’s right to due process of law when he shot him six times. The grand jury has now abdicated our society’s duty to subject Wilson to that law. Wilson will not be charged with theft. Wilson will not go to jail, and will not need to demand that his warden produce a writ of habeas corpus (“you have the body”), because he remains sovereign over his own body. If the Browns’ civil suit is successful, Wilson will simply pay them some money for stealing their son’s.

I understand why my peers identify strongly with those in Ferguson who have lost their property, but I would implore you to also identify with those who have lost their lives. If your “I” still blindly believes in the founding myth of Manifest Destiny, of the horn of plenty, of universal rights protected by the Law, and if your “I” is not Michael Brown, or a nameless child casualty, be thankful this Thanksgiving that you have your body, and that the carving knife is in your hand –– and not in your back.

Sara Worth
Senior, English literature and political science

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