I love New York City. I enjoy the dynamism of cities as much as I do the calm of the countryside, and NYC’s energy is hard to beat.
A trip there last week, however, shook me up a bit. It seems that not even this irrepressible mecca of human achievement is immune to some of the least attractive and worrying politico-social realities of the country that is trying to be “great again.”
“The worst thing to be in the world is a black American, even in New York,” I was told by a perfectly sane, middle-class professional who one might imagine had got past the growing pains of being a dominant minority. I was surprised, since I saw lots of trans-racial couples and people seem perfectly happy living in mixed neighbourhoods where gentrification continues apace. It was explained to me that many of the black people, a fair number of Caribbean origin going as far back as the 1920s, have sold up and taken their new-found wealth to places like Atlanta where they enjoy better amenities and can invest for their retirement.
Atlanta, I am told, feels safe for African-Americans as they are about a third of the population of the state. Move into another state and that sense of comfort disappears, a university student assured me. Atlanta is where the phenomenally talented and popular actor, writer, TV director and musician Donald Glover, otherwise known as Childish Gambino, hails from. He has managed, in his work, to touch a cord with millions of Americans regarding the complex reality of black life in the US. In an interview he confessed, “The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet. I wish it was just ‘Oh, I’ll be Oprah,’ or ‘I’ll be Dave Chappelle.’ But it’s not that. It’s something different and more, something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honour. Sometimes I dream of it.”
Similar to many people of my age and temperament who are not plugged into the digital underground I have only just heard of this young phenomenon, but one of his music videos on YouTube has over 223 million views, and his This is America has already clocked up 180 million views. Free of fashionable tattoos and bulging muscles that typify the brittle, urban, hyper-masculine specimen, Glover appears more cerebral than you might guess, even counter-dominant. He sings about not being able to slip up as a black person in the USA, of the normalisation of black violence and the collusion of the black artist in being used. It seems to be fuelled by the same impetus of the 1960’s civil rights movement and the #blacklives matter movement that desire empowerment for marginalised sectors of the US population.
It is not easy to achieve. The fear of police brutality and structural racism dog most black minority people. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper points to the fact that young black British people have a nine times increased likelihood of being imprisoned than their white counterparts. The Guardian also recently published a couple of articles about the most sinister of developments in the USA, where African-American social activists are being targeted by US surveillance. It is reminiscent of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.
In December in Dallas, Rakem Balogun was, it is believed, the first person prosecuted under an apparently secretive US initiative to track “black identity extremists” (BIE) for “domestic terrorism.” He learned that the FBI had been monitoring him for years but his Facebook criticisms of police brutality finally did it and he spent the last five months in prison, even though it was admitted in court that no evidence existed that Balogun had threatened to harm police. In effect, he was punished for his political activity.
In another equally worrying case, a black independent journalist filming neo-Nazi violence against counter-protesters at a California rally was stabbed but instead of finding the perpetrator, the police, who had been monitoring his Facebook page, tried to bring six charges against Cedric O’Bannon, including conspiracy, rioting, assault, unlawful assembly. They wiped his camera’s memory card and reported that he had used a clenched fist, thereby violating the rights of neo-Nazis at the rally. The reported number of trumped-up bits of evidence against O’Bannon is staggering, if not beyond bizarre.
Reportedly, a former FBI agent and fellow of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security programme, Michael German, says the case is part of a pattern of US police siding with far-right groups against their critics, leading to the sanctioning and empowerment of “groups that kill.”
Dream on, America!