Such Things Have Done Harm

We should be willing to demand more than fellow feeling. The New York City Council crowed about its progressivism in passing a billion-dollar reduction in the NYPD’s budget. That number would just about return the department budget to the levels it was under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. It is indicative of a dangerous lack of imagination if the best we can do is make a tacit admission that it was unwise to give the police more resources in the years after the rise of Black Lives Matter.

The only people I ever hear saying the world needs stories are the people involved in telling them

Photograph by Elias Altman.

When people took to the streets of Brooklyn during the last weekend in May in solidarity with the uprisings in Minnesota, it was hard to know what would happen. In many marches I’ve been in, the New York Police Department has typically followed a pattern of arrests and kettle that slowly whittle the protest down until it dissipates. Now, though, we were marching after the 3rd Precinct had burned in Minneapolis. It is one thing to say “stop killing us!” but it is another to say “we will stop you.” Instead of trapping us, the police repeatedly found themselves surrounded and forced to retreat. They met this shift by escalating their own tactics.

On the second day, the police drove SUVs into our march near Grand Army Plaza. I was one of the more fortunate ones who, having heard someone scream, jumped far enough only to be sideswiped. As the driver sped through the crowd, some object was hurled and the car’s back window burst open. The driver sped off. From then on, whenever police cars got too close, barriers and bicyclists tried to prevent them from running us over. As we made our way to Union Square in Manhattan we found that another protest was already hemmed in. When the cops refused to allow the two groups to unite, someone started playing Pop Smoke’s Shake the Room and the hours-long trek turned into a dance party. At some point the police decided they were ready to go home and rushed the crowd, swinging batons at the closest heads. The unlucky were beaten where they were and the rest fled. All around Union Square, police cars went up in flames. The media, and organizers who would later insist on “peacefulness,” would treat this as wanton destruction. There is a more obvious answer to why these vehicles were rendered inoperable—people were taking weapons out of the hands of an organization that had demonstrated its willingness to use them.

These were the nights that were called chaotic, when protesters were chastised for looting and violence. I have nothing to say about the idea that people who are the descendants of property are bound to respect the property rights of Gucci or CVS beyond the desire to point out its obscenity. What was called violence and chaos in any other circumstance would be read as something much simpler: self-defense. The right to save your own life is an intuitive idea, but a tricky one legally speaking. There is no real right to prevent the police from harming you, only the weighing of various risks and strategies. It can be hard to survive these encounters and it is harder still to do so and come out looking reasonable to an American viewer.

Somewhere during the early days of the protests in New York City, Christopher Frierson, a filmmaker whose documentary on the life of DMX had the opening night slot of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival before the pandemic prevented such gatherings, filmed his own encounter with the police. The footage was published by The Guardian. At the beginning, someone just off camera shouts “ain’t nobody goin’ nowhere!” That has more or less been the credo of this uprising. The police clear the streets only for them to fill up again. The camera keeps recording as the police charge, either in response to a thrown object or because that’s what the police frequently did during those nights, and begin pepper spraying anyone near them, including Frierson, who told The Guardian he’d been holding up his press badge. The video cuts to a now familiar image: a face wet with a mix of tears and a solution to rinse his eyes. A gloved hand cups his forehead and lifts his eyelids. “I know it sucks, I got to get in there, though,” the good samaritan explains. “It’s temporary, it’s not going to be like this, it’s not going to hurt you in any permanent way.” Then again a voice off camera calling without response: “No justice, no peace, fuck these racist ass police.”

Frierson returned to the location of his assault two days later, where a line of cops had once again formed and engaged them in conversation.  He begins, “When stuff like that happens, when this guy did that bullshit,” and a commanding officer interrupts, “Which one? The one recently?” Before he can get any further in this conversation, the momentarily friendly officer needs to define his terms—which killing are we talking about?

The filmmaker continues by asking what it makes them feel like to watch George Floyd die. A black officer responds, “People been painting us with a broad brush for a long time. You know what I’m saying? And not all of us are bad apples . . . and know that we are not all the same. Just like all of you are not criminals and perps.” Quite often political critique, particularly when it comes down to the level of the sentence, can be reduced to “just what do you mean by we?” Here is a black woman in riot gear referring to an “us” that gets painted with a broad brush to mean cops and the “you,” who she concedes are not all “criminals and perps,” to be what? Protesters? Black people? Whoever it is, it is clear that—even in her mind—collective pronouns do not kettle her with the black person speaking to her. A white officer asserts that you can’t create a rule that will instill moral integrity in an individual. He goes on to say that everyone in the department agrees and tries to do what’s morally correct. The video is short and edited so it’s impossible to know if these officers were subsequently asked whether that meant they believed it was “morally correct” to kill someone in Crown Heights and in the Metropolitan Detention Center in the middle of sustained protest against police brutality.

The entire video relies on the conjunctive power and shock of the cut. An image of the police attacking, followed by cops, some of them babyfaced, trying to reflect on George Floyd’s death, on answering the question “where do we go from here?” They seem genuinely bothered to think that this multitude would lump them in with Derek Chauvin as though the tens of thousands that make up the New York Police Department were accomplices. What they cannot comprehend is the obviousness of their complicity. If not to Floyd’s death then to Breonna Taylor’s, if not hers then Layleen Polanco’s, Saheed Vassell’s, Eric Garner’s, or any number of names we have been forced to learn for no reason other than that on some day at some time in some place they were too near the police to survive.

Despite the montage, however, Frierson still concedes—without having been asked—that there are people who join the police to do good. The storyteller, regardless of medium, is perhaps too seduced by nuance, seeking outliers that complicate a simple picture: a people spirited away, bound, bred and worked for profit, hung from trees after emancipation, segregated in a way that required constant low-level warfare against them that was covered up by “nice” words like separation, and still, now, more than a century on, struggling for freedom. In order to make the edges hazy, to follow through on this fetishization of nuance, the storyteller is forced to make structural questions into existential paradoxes. Thus the preoccupation with the black cop, who is frequently presented as a tortured figure divided against himself: How to reconcile being a soldier for the oppressor and the oppressed? They are seemingly the edge case of American blackness. It is difficult to admit that they might not represent anything at all beyond themselves. The black cop’s rise in the ranks is not responsible for meaningful steps towards black liberation and their presence has not tamed their departments. The tension, where it exists, is not social. It is internal. Even so, on film they are loaded signifiers. You don’t need to say much once you can make out yes, it is a black person and, again, yes, they are in uniform. The actor John David Washington broke out by playing Officer Dennis Williams in 2018’s Monsters and Men; before the year was over he would appear on screen two more times as a cop. There is typecasting and then there is the accidental manifestation of a society’s defense mechanisms.

The New York Times found a number of black NYPD officers willing to speak with them about the difficulties they have faced. One says, “As I’m standing there with my riot helmet and being called ‘coon,’ people have no idea that I identify with them . . . I’m here for them.” It is undoubtedly personally painful to be accused of betrayal. It is not as painful as a cruiser speeding into you. The heterogeneity of the New York Police Department gives lie to the assertion that the police just have a demographic problem. It would be much easier if white supremacy were merely a question of the presence of white people. These officers, who complain that protesters “only see the uniform” show the limits of diversity. The ones who look like us are already there. They may express outrage at Floyd’s death, but what does it matter how they feel about it if they will beat people in the streets to defend their right to do it again?

Storytellers, trying to say something about these conditions, have all too frequently confused nuance and subtlety. Cinema is well-stocked with small, charged moments with little explication that are still sharp enough to pierce the skin: a hand along the waistband; a woman leans in a doorway; a body tensed; two gazes meeting one another; a cotton field sliding past so fast it blurs whitely. None of these are opposed to a sober admission of brute facts: lead paint poisoning, evictions, repossessions, chains, cages, guns, a cotton field standing still in the summer heat.

It is true that straight didacticism does not often make for good or illuminating art. But the total willingness to leave stories or films “open” to all available readings for the sake of nuance assumes a viewer who was not already subjected to rigorous ideological formation. We are taught that the police help people, black people hurt people; the police do not lie, black people do. The open “text” has already begun to close before the viewer sees a frame. Giving everybody a chance to talk merely for the sake of it would make more sense in a world where everybody had been muzzled. But the police frame stories in the press, they consult on TV shows, their testimony in court can put people in prison. The police have been talking so much our ears should be ringing.

During the first full week of protests, New York’s Police Commissioner Dermot Shea gave a press conference and defended his officers by saying, “They look like you. They bleed like you. They cry like you. Their tears fall off their faces like you.” Shea’s near-Shakespearean oration did not get far enough to ask hath not a cop hands, organs, dimensions, affections, passions? “We are human,” he reminded his audience. Here is the common ground. As the saying goes, we are all one race, the human race. So if we can admit to that much then we can build from there. Mayor de Blasio days earlier made a similar plea, saying, “We all better get back to humanity . . . if we are going to move forward as a society, we got to stop dehumanizing.” He went on to point out that there was “a dehumanization of black men by white America,” but also complained that some were “dehumanizing the people who are here to protect us,” by which he presumably meant the police.

It is flattering to our history and to artistic practice to say the problem resides in an inability to recognize humanity. It is a mode of politics that stopped reading the Merchant of Venice after its most famous speech and never reached the antisemitic conclusion where Shylock’s villainy is expunged by way of his conversion to Christianity. If only we could empathize, could see that we all bleed and cry, then the real work could be done. The storyteller depends on this belief. It is a humanism of the stubbed toe, hoping that if you saw someone radically unlike you, hopping on one foot and cursing, you too would grimace and feel their pain. What goes without interrogation is whether a shared humanity was ever the problem to begin with. In Colin Dayan’s The Law Is a White Dog, she describes how there was a problem with totally reducing slaves to property, because they still had to be legally liable for their actions. She quotes from An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America wherein Thomas Cobb writes, “The theory of a complete annihilation of will in the slave is utterly inconsistent with all recognition of him as a person, especially as responsible criminally for his acts.” Even during the time of chattel slavery there was no real confusion about whether these people were human, but about whether that mattered. Property, even of the animate kind, cannot be guilty of anything at all whether we fear it or not. It was easy to settle on an answer. They were human enough to be culpable but not enough to be innocent. This has long been the bind of the law: black people are left free to choose criminality but they cannot choose liberty. Or perhaps better to say, we can become a human being when we cross the law, but when the law crosses us we are nothing at all. “Stop resisting,” they shout now, as if that were possible.

What use is it for the mayor of Los Angeles to say “we have to figure out a way to humanize both sides of the barricades right now?” Who exactly is unclear that those with badges and without are hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases? Certainly not the protesters passing out masks and hand sanitizer to anybody who wants them. Not human is necessary to defend a moral vision of human, which occludes the very real role of class conflict, of power and its preservation. It psychologizes material facts. It says never mind who has the guns, the question is whether you have hate in your heart. Years ago, Barack Obama released a statement about the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge, saying, “These are attacks on public servants, on the rule of law, and on civilized society and they have to stop.” The death of an officer is an attack on all of civilized society. But when a black person is left dead in the streets of Louisville for twelve hours no one mentions the jeopardy this poses to society or civilization. “Black lives matter” is an attempted speech act trying to call into being a world we do not inhabit. “Blue lives matter,” its reactionary détournement, has the distinct benefit of being true here and now. That is likely why it took so many so long to recognize it as the fascist formulation it was. And it still takes time for many to recognize that they’ve been more or less comfortably living under these conditions of “civilization” without examining their complicity in perpetuating them.

Adrienne Rich, thinking of a different kind of guilt during her marriage’s disintegration, wrote:

The image

isn’t responsible

for our uses of it

It is intentionless

A long strand of dark hair

in the washbasin

is innocent and yet

such things have done harm

Frierson did nothing wrong by documenting his attack and filming the follow-up conversation. The way the footage has been deployed is another matter. Asking someone why you wanna treat me so bad? does not reflect poorly on the questioner, but on the respondent. In his interview with The Guardian, Frierson says, “You sign up for the police force, maybe thinking you are going to help your community, and you find the good ol’ boys prevent you from doing the good work you intended to do.” It is a restatement of what he offered to the police in the moment. It is a vision of a rotten system that is somehow also bursting with do-gooders. Without this generous gesture of good faith it would be impossible to have a conversation at all. So they talk in the way that equals do, only curiously one side is still dressed for battle. The publication, dissemination, and consumption of this encounter stems from a larger desire to see an image like that and call it harmony. Why are the kneeling cops, the hugs between police and protesters, the one-on-one conversation such fodder for coverage and virality? The spectacle of reconciliation is irresistible. There may be a war in the streets, but from time to time there is a Christmas truce and we are to take those as visions of a better, calmer future. Here is the coming peace without all the grisly details that prevent us from getting there.  Yet these images of reconciliation are more familiar than those of victory. The friendly officer who is open to conversation is recognizable. Flames engulfing a precinct while black people raise their fists is new.

The stock photo that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees located when he wanted to walk back his failure to support his own teammates’ wish to protest peacefully and symbolically, by taking a knee during the national anthem, was a black hand and a white hand clasped together. The image is intentionless, but its use less so. Holding up a picture of black and white people together intimately, in camaraderie, or even just mutual recognition and respect, as proof of something “possible” implies an otherwise brutal vision of the world “as it is”—one where a step forward is bodily contact. Imagine black and white hands meeting and no harm being done. It is not hard to imagine a hand offered tenderly; it happens every day. It is harder to picture white power and black power meeting without invoking words like “genocide.”

My fear is that the storytellers have fooled themselves into believing that it is narratives, image-making, representation that offer a way out. They envision reconciliation before the cessation of hostilities. Shortly after Trump’s election, an email circulated among my former film school classmates. It announced that there would not be an election party after all, considering the result. But there was reason for optimism: “Stories are the most powerful things on the planet,” it read. “We need to become the best storytellers we can be, and to ensure that the stories we tell reach the largest amount of people possible . . . the storyteller shall inherit the earth.” I had largely decided during my time in the program that most fights weren’t worth the energy I would put into them. Previously, when we brought up the possibility that there might have been some racist incidents during our time there, a faculty member asked me if that was really something the whole class felt or if it was only the opinion of five people. Five was a funny number, being both a small percentage of the student body and also the total enrollment for black students in our year. Nevertheless, at that moment I was in no mood for optimism. I pointed out that we were talking about white nationalism, that people couldn’t even confront their family or their faculty but now wanted to talk about their art as a way forward. “We will not inherit the earth,” I wrote back bitterly, “we have to fight for it.” Although it sparked conversation, I am not under the impression that my email changed very much. I said it because I wanted to say it, not because I thought it would lead to filmmakers making less racist movies.

One of the dangers of being professionally involved in “representation” is that it can become difficult to tell the difference between the white lies of framing and editing and the bigger ones we repeat when we try to answer: “What are we doing here and why are we doing it?” The big lie is that the world needs us. What we do is noble, we think, before ten- or twelve-hour work days. Yet the only people I ever hear saying the world needs stories are the people involved in telling them. There is no need to defend the necessity of making art. It is not necessary—not like food, water, shelter, affection. It does, however, seem to be a fundamental activity of human societies. Filmmakers make films because we have the technology to do it and it is the kind of thing that people do. The motivations vary—profit, entertainment, compulsion—but it is not out of a need to save the world.

A popular way to defend film as a socially important form is to rely on Roger Ebert’s formulation that film is an “empathy machine.” The idea of a machine producing empathy is already a strange dislocation of a cognitive miracle. It is observed in a wide range of animals including rats, elephants, and dolphins. It seems to be somewhat of a necessity for sociality and is a central component of learning. We don’t need machines for that and we do not face a deficit. The problem is not a lack of the ability to perceive and feel another’s pain. People watch football and recoil when a black player takes a bruising hit; they look away when a black MMA fighter takes a shot to the head; they gasp when a black basketball player’s leg gives out beneath them. But when a Target burns, some forget that the reason we are at this juncture is because people were murdered. What could a movie do about that?

The insistence on empathy and representation for both politicians and storytellers is a way to avoid reckoning with a moral catastrophe. It is not that people have treated each other this way simply because they do not recognize another person’s humanity, but that humanity is no shield against untethered power. We should be willing to demand more than fellow feeling. The New York City Council crowed about its progressivism in passing a billion-dollar reduction in the NYPD’s budget. That number would just about return the department budget to the levels it was under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. It is indicative of a dangerous lack of imagination if the best we can do is make a tacit admission that it was unwise to give the police more resources in the years after the rise of Black Lives Matter. Displays of communion between individuals are not worth more than those funding decisions. We are talking about the authority to take life and to structure it. The handshake, the hug, the celebration of negotiations point towards an unspoken need for mercy. We show a rapprochement and it is used as proof that there may be salvation for the souls of the people who continue to show up for work in the face of their institution’s utter corruption. There is a world where all might be forgiven.

James Baldwin knew what a story was, he knew what a film was, he knew what a revolution was and he may have known forgiveness, too. In Take This Hammer, he is every bit the camera-ready intellectual. He gesticulates, bobs his head back, forward, and side to side, but he never strays out of the frame. At one point he says, “White people invented [the nigger]. If I am not the nigger and it is true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?. . . He must be necessary to you.” There was, in the eyes of the planters, a necessity in producing the slave who was a human but only fully so when it counted against her. Blood has been shed to undo this snare, but it is still here. The American yearning to see those who kill for white supremacy forgiven is frequently temporarily fulfilled by depictions of a black person, often Christian, offering exactly that. During Dylann Roof’s first court appearance, many of the relatives of the victims of the massacre at Mother Emanuel told him that they forgave him and they would pray for his soul. The footage is disquieting. It shows an affectless murderer being told again and again by the community that they do not hate him. America, a nation which constantly trumpets its Christianity, was shocked to see someone love their enemy and hurried to disseminate the footage of these true believers. Whatever faith drives some individuals to pardon the white supremacists who have brought suffering to their lives is between them and their god. But I would add to Baldwin’s provocation: having gone so far with such an invention, why do white people need them to be saints, too?

The story of an ever more perfect union depends on this constant process of absolution. We cannot paint a picture of the world as it is: one of struggle and backlash, where you can call a period of time “The Nadir,” referring to the era that came after chattel slavery. Yet whatever the ledger says in terms of which party is owed what, the proffered hand of amity has more often than not been a black one. In the 2017 documentary The Force, which chronicles the Oakland Police Department’s attempts at reform, there is a minor character whose trajectory has gnawed at me. Pastor Ben McBride is first introduced as a community liaison for the Oakland Police Department. He tries to bring concerns about racism to the police during their training. The documentary is not about him, but the OPD, and so he disappears from view. By the end of the film several police chiefs have resigned, numerous scandals have burst into public view, and one of the main subjects is involved in a shooting. As it concludes, McBride is shown with a group of protesters blocking the freeway. There is sweat streaming down his head and he leans towards a microphone to threaten, “If you refuse to do what it is right, we will pull down your department brick by brick.” Here was a man as conciliatory and churchgoing as they come, working inside the department to affect change. He found himself blocking the road promising destruction. The ties of reconciliation, it turns out, can be undone.

The tenor of the protests in New York has changed since their explosive beginning. More people have flooded into the streets and with them a broader range of politics. The mayor put in place a curfew that provided a pretext for the violence the police were already engaged in. It is easy to continue saying “the protesters” and describe the group as peaceful and united. Of course those two things never meant very much. We are not united, but we are largely in solidarity with each other. People still work it out in intersections, under constant threat. On the night that the police attacked at Borough Hall, a young man chided me for using the word “pigs.” He told me to remain nonviolent, by which he meant I should avoid insulting the police. He warned me we wouldn’t get reform that way; I said I wanted abolition. The exchange went in circles before being cut short by an approaching phalanx of riot cops. Moments later, while somebody tried to negotiate with a commanding officer, the police charged at us. They threw people to the ground, clubbed them in the head, shoved them over bicycles. In the scramble for safety, I lost sight of the man who had accused me of committing an act of violence.

The mayor of this city, who ran as a reformer of the police, who paraded his black family around as proof that he got it, spent a week denying that New Yorkers were being beaten senseless by the department he warned his son about. It is unclear whether he would not or could not stop this nightly exercise in terror. The governor denied that the police did anything wrong, but also promised that there was already an independent investigation into their conduct. A nightly game was played where City Council Member Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams came out and negotiated with the police commanders in a bid to “deescalate.” The game ended the same way—the police attacked the protesters later on.

Black people have long been expected to negotiate with armed men about the terms and conditions for our right to remain alive. Real change, we are told, is incremental and legislative. Politics is what happens in City Hall or the State Capitol and therefore at the ballot box. This year, New York saw a bail reform law pass and get repealed in the span of a few months. There was no appetite for incremental change. Yet, when the police found themselves confronted every night with thousands who were unwilling the cede the streets and were willing to meet their escalations, the impossible became common sense. Still, there is no politician in this city who proved themselves to be as effective at preventing the police from cracking someone’s head open as the act of pulling a trash can into the road.

The New York Police Department may have brought the mayor and governor to heel, but they appear to be one of the few veneers of democratic legitimacy the police have left. News organizations that have long quoted cops uncritically and cast aspersions on their victims found it harder to deny the nightly ritual, especially when it included the constant attack upon even those journalists bearing an NYPD-issued press badge. The day after we were rammed by police cars, the streets were lined with people cheering us on in the same place where we had been running for our lives. Everyday New Yorkers leaned from their windows banging pots and pans as they had done for months for essential workers. The mayor stands alone. His police force only superficially reports to him, being unwilling to even do so much as wear masks during a respiratory pandemic. Hundreds of his staffers have denounced him, thousands jeered him on the bridge and at George Floyd’s memorial. His power now is violence and the small hope that people will grow tired. The people were already tired; that is what brought us here.

In these circumstances, filmmakers and our institutions must decide whether we are even serious about responding to white supremacy, or any of the forms of oppression that structure our lives. If we are, we must stop asking what our stories can do. The artist rarely outpaces the people in the streets. We can honor the tremendous risk they have taken on and we can do so by trying to make work that speaks as clearly and honestly about power as the internal movements of our psyches. But we should be humble before the centuries-long persistence and mutation of this deadly idea and we should be humble before the actions of a group of people in Minnesota who made it feel as though a new world was possible. It is a good thing that there has been some movement in the last decade towards increasing diversity in the industry, but if black people are going to take to the streets every summer, risking their freedom and their lives, the great change cannot be the lives of professionals and what gets greenlit. Although they were responding to the pandemic-induced collapse of our industry, The Cinema Workers Fund and Field of Vision’s fund for documentary workers are honest answers to the question “what should filmmakers do?” We cannot fall into the trap of believing that a system willing to humiliate, harass, gas and murder fears a good movie, much less a rise in the ambient levels of empathy. “What can we do?” already admits a realm of impossibility. It is better to ask “what are we willing to do?”

I do not want to speak for everyone who is out protesting right now. There is a broad range of politics and goals. Some are pushing for repeals of certain laws, some for a reduced budget, some for the abolition of policing and the entire way of life that is dependent upon it. Still, I believe there is a moment, at night, that most everybody can feel. The police tighten their grips on their batons. Stone faces begin to snarl or, worse, smile. Then there is great violence. If people flee, the press paints them kindly. If people smash a window, push someone, block a road, the protest is said to have “turned violent.” It is often left unsaid who did the turning.

There is no such thing as the right to self-defense against the police. One is supposed to acquiesce to whatever punishment is meted out and hope to live long enough to settle a lawsuit with the city. It is this right that the mayor defended when he said there was no problem with the NYPD’s response to the protests. There definitionally cannot be. There is no such thing as police violence, only criminal violence, and it is the cop who catches the robber, not the other way around. There is no common ground between the baton and the skull. Every night one might see the snarl and wonder, “Is this when they start shooting?” It is reason enough for people to stay indoors, to obey curfews, to acquiesce. But many of us have lived our entire lives knowing the shooting can start on any night. There are differences now. I am more clear-eyed about what I am walking towards and I know its risks. In the lulls, I think about other things: my hand just above someone else’s knee in a restaurant late at night, making conversation with a friend’s toddler, coffee spilled down the front of a new shirt, a novel I have just finished reading—all the rest of trying to lead a life. Then the world speeds up and a nightstick is swinging towards me.  We are human and they are human, but we cannot be reconciled, because the war has not been won.

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