Thursday 18 July 2013

Trayvon the Gladiator

Throughout history, the poor have been exploited for entertainment. And I just don’t mean the modern examples from Honey Booboo to Jersey Shore to all manner of yahoos wrestling alligators and running pawn shops for the camera. Going all the way back: medieval wars which were pageantry for the rich and slaughter for the poor (and then rape for the sisters of the poor when the rich boys returned from battle ready for more entertainment). Musicians, actors, condemned prisoners, all poor people entertaining the rich.

The best example is of course the gladiators of ancient Rome. The events themselves were surprisingly like modern sports: the games, like the Super Bowl, got bigger and bigger and could last for days of ever more excessive showmanship. Before the events, fans would see the games advertised on billboards and even player product endorsements. Fans of rival teams would arrive and sometimes fights would break out, as scalpers moved their tickets. Fans would buy food, drinks, programs and souvenirs. The proceedings might begin with a Rose Bowl-like procession, and pre-game warm-ups. The gladiators would arrive, in rough intimidating gear and tattoos, burning off the fuel from their special high-energy diets.

But remember that the gladiators themselves were from the downtrodden classes. Some were volunteer fighters but many were slaves, criminals or prisoners of war; the upper classes segregated them and looked down on them, but for many of them, becoming a gladiator was good luck, a way to possibly leave poverty behind. The gladiators were celebrated, gossiped about, cheered, their pictures painted on city walls. Women, including the rich ones, threw themselves at them. They could get big contracts, awards and prize money, and if they were lucky they would live long enough to retire. If you were one of the gladiators who survived, it was a good life for a boy from the poor neighborhoods. But most were still poor boys dying primarily for the entertainment of the more fortunate.

Are we any better?

In America, one of the greatest entertainments for 200 years has been brutalizing and killing members of another underclass, black men. A time-honored spectator sport since the founding of the nation. During the slavery era, slave auctions were big entertainment. Slaveowners were quite open about brutalizing and murdering their slaves, so that everyone could see it, and teaching that as a critical lesson to their children, and to the other slaves. Some slaveowners who didn’t make a show of punishing their slaves were actually punished in court. During the slavery era, two million blacks were killed and millions more were beaten, mutilated, raped, separated from their families. And everyone across the country watched it happen.

Blacks were hunted too, like animals. America passed a law for the express purpose of allowing hunters to track down black people, even into free states, and drag them back down south for enslavement, punishment, execution. And the whole country watched, discussed, argued about it: in a later century they would have made a reality show out of it. Bounty hunters! There was also a spectacular Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled that as a slave, Dred Scott wasn’t even allowed to seek justice in court, and he was returned to slavery – with his whole family. While the whole nation watched. Geraldo and Nancy Grace must be kicking themselves for missing out on Dred Scott and his wife and children.

Even after the civil war, the show never stopped. Killing black men was not just murder: it was a show. From the end of Reconstruction until the civil rights era, forty blacks were publicly lynched in an average year – almost one each week. Thousands more were killed just before the first presidential election following the civil war. Lynching was a spectator sport: families brought their picnic baskets so their kids could see the killing. They took pictures of the corpses and put them in the paper, to make sure other blacks got the message. They celebrated lynching culture in the first famous motion picture, Birth Of A Nation, endorsed by President Wilson himself: people could go see a real lynching, and then go see a movie ABOUT lynching. They set up Klan groups and vigilante groups to organize the killing and the terror, and rigged the legal system to ensure that the law was by and for whites only: the Klan itself was pure Vegas, with the robes, the hoods, the torches, the burning crosses, the absurd code language, as though PT Barnum was running the whole thing.  

Everybody watched, everybody knew. Blacks wrote letters protesting the lynchings, lobbied Congress, staging a dozen anti-lynching plays, Billie Holliday hit the music charts with “Strange Fruit”. Blacks used every tool in their inadequate toolkit, and they got nowhere. Almost two hundred anti-lynching laws hit Congress, and southern congressmen made a great public show out of blocking every one: they were appalled at the very idea that the Federal Gummint had the right to deprive them of the entertainment value to be derived by killing innocent people. And later, making a great public show of filibustering civil rights legislation, in front of a small army of reporters.

White racists couldn’t admit that they caused a catastrophic civil war to defend their perceived right to brutalize and murder millions of innocent people, so they either claimed they were fighting for states rights instead, or they peddled the notion that blacks deserved to be treated that way, by turns under-intelligent and scary-dangerous, not to be trusted with full citizenship, freedom, equality. Fear and hate of blacks became part of their sheet music, and black inferiority as well. They peddled fear of black male sexuality, blacks voting, blacks competing for jobs, blacks joining unions, blacks thirsting for long-overdue revenge. The Klan worked specifically to see to it that blacks didn’t acquire guns – just as the NRA today celebrates white people buying up guns but is totally silent when the prospect of armed blacks is raised.

So the black face became America’s boogeyman, the go-to scare story for the media, for entertainment, for policemen and prosecutors who want to make a name for themselves. America loves a good scare. All across the country there are district attorneys, mayors, attorneys general, governors, presidents, who made their bones early in their careers by hunting down black men and bringing them to, pardon the expression, American justice. Hunting blacks is a great career move. And looks great on camera. And it is all rooted in portraying black men as scary predators, so that no one realizes that, if anything, they are prey, and always have been. Hunted. 

Who was the star of the 1988 presidential election? Not Bush or Dukakis. It was the bloodied face of Willie Horton. His face was on television every night for two months, on campaign literature, everywhere. 

Arguably the biggest entertainment phenomenon in the last twenty years was the OJ Simpson case, about a black man who was actually guilty and incredibly famous: all the cameras in the country stuck to him through the Bronco chase – which was such great entertainment that they actually broke into the NBA Finals – and no less than three different court cases. Pathetic nobodies like Marc Furman, Lance Ito, Kaeto Kaelin, and bunco artists like Johnny Cochran, became stars thanks to The OJ Show. Greatest show on earth. For something like a year, Jay Leno and the like had the go-to joke to put in their monologues, about the guilty-as-hell black athlete.

And it continues today. In every major city, on every major station, at eleven o’clock, the first thing you’re liable to see is The Black Hunt. A black face in the corner of your screen, over the shoulder of the anchorman (who ironically is probably black). The mug shot. Blacks followed and frisked at many times the rate of whites exhibiting exactly the same behavior, blacks arrested and beaten at many times the rate of whites, blacks jailed and killed at many times the rate of whites. The big news events in Texas and Florida: seeing a black face on the TV screen at 11:01, with a report of a black man executed just in time to make the news. To lead The Show. In the last few decades, 400 blacks executed and another 1300 waiting to die.

And then cut to a commercial showing Samuel Jackson and Jamie Foxx in a shoot-em-up movie, and then back to sports where RGIII is being carried off a football field, injured. Like the gladiators, today’s black men use sports and entertainment as a ladder to climb up out of their backgrounds. When they’re not being hunted.

As Maximus said, bloody, in the arena – “Are you not entertained?”

And then Trayvon. Killing him wasn’t bad enough. For months white people turned on Fox and Headline News to see white talking heads bloviate about why this child did not deserve to be avenged in court. He was in the wrong neighborhood, he was wearing the wrong jacket, he was violent, he might have smoked dope, he scared the local gun-loving cop-wannabe racist….these well-fed white blowhards just decided that this child just didn’t measure up. That he didn’t deserve to live. These television people got eyeballs, ad dollars, ratings, by going on the air and saying this child deserved to die. And the jury and the state saying…it’s open season. May the odds be ever in your favor!

And Fox and the gang made a point of stressing that Trayvon looked like a "mature" child. Dangerous AND VIRILE. Coming for our wimminfolk! So he can offer them....Skittles.

And you just know Fox is praying for another black kid to get killed right on camera. Double score!

So this is what is going to continue in this country, for as long as we allow it. Black men being harassed, brutalized, killed, all for our entertainment. And being informed by Anne Coulter that they haven’t yet earned the right to be treated like human beings. No matter how often black parents tell their kids to do all they can to not “star” in the show – stay out of the white neighborhoods, don’t stay too long in the grocery store, let them see your hands, don’t walk too fast, don’t drive too slow, don’t hang around in groups of three, don’t wear hoodies, don’t wear your hat on backwards, don’t play your music too loud, don’t dare buy a car or a house or a suit that’s too uppity or they’ll want to know how you got it….

“So, Mom, what do I have to do, to not die out there? How do I not get hunted?”

Within the hour, some rightwing nutjob is going to come in here and screech “yeah, and all those southern racists were Democrats, hardy har!!” Nice try. They WERE Democrats. They switched to the Republican party forty years ago. So they’re your responsibility now. These hate-filled troglodytes are not only members in good standing of the GOP, they are actually the backbone of the party.

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