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The Liberal Media and the Ideology of Black Victimhood

As police brutality and racist violence are once again shunted to the centre stage of US politics, figures such as Michael Brown take their place in a seemingly endless string of victims. From Eric Garner in 2014, Trayvon Martin in 2012, Rodney King in 1991, back to the 1963 execution of the NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers; from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by members of the KKK in the same year, which resulted in the deaths of four girls aged between 11 and 14, to the brutal murder of the fourteen year old Emmett Till in 1955—the thread weaves continuously back through lynching, Jim Crow laws, forced servitude, and slavery. Perpetrators of this violence draw upon a similarly unbroken US tradition, one in which murderers are not justly held to account for their actions. Although the police force is now relied upon to do much of this work, the same narrative of murder with impunity can be located throughout.

Invariably the liberal media makes much of these deaths, connecting individual murders with the broader ‘racial problem’ in American society. The murdered are cast as victims, as the unwilling prey of systemic injustice. Yet for all their compassion, there is a subtle ideology which sours the media’s representation of this violence. Although allowing for minor transgressions, the liberal media is concerned first and foremost with the moral credentials of the victim. To be a true victim, the individual must appear nonviolent: Trayvon Martin, an ‘innocent youth’; Garner, a ‘gentle giant’ – both guilty of only minor infractions. Indeed, even in these cases the media is curiously reluctant to take sides until the innocence of the victim is beyond doubt. The same does not hold true for those who resist, however.

In cases such as the Watts Riots in 1965, the Black Panther Party, or the Attica Prison Riots in 1971, in which 43 inmates, guards, and hostages, were slaughtered by police with state-approval, the liberal media was quick to jump to the offensive. Although the individuals involved were undoubtedly victims of racist violence, by no stretch of the imagination could their behaviour be described as passive or nonviolent (though the nature of their violence was obviously defensive). The tacit ideology which lies behind this pattern of reporting is that when faced with politically motivated black aggression the liberal media is inclined to invert their analysis, from seeing racism as prior to black resistance to considering black resistance as justifying racism. Certainly, part of the reason that organisations such as the Black Panther Party provided so few victims is because of their use of defensive violence in the fight for liberation.

One of the main consequences of this misrepresentation has been that black people appear dehumanized in the media, as either helpless victims or mindless killers. Although this distortion goes back at least as far as slavery – with African-Americans frequently portrayed either as ‘Sambos’ or revolutionaries (with little room in between) – the modern form of this ideology can be situated in the political conflict of the 1960s and 1970s. Black radicalism in the twentieth-century has become a significant source of fear for the liberal establishment, representing a challenge to their class supremacy. Through a critique of The New York Times’ representation of nonviolence and defensive violence in the civil rights and black power movements, this study aims to expand the definition of victimhood to encompass those that sought to defend themselves. Only by celebrating the lives of black radicals, will a strategy for overcoming racial oppression emerge.

The Liberal View of Violence: From the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Panthers

The specific events which catalysed the period of resistance now known as the civil rights movement have been debated by a vast and conflicted scholarship. Some of the frequently cited moments are Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, in which the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in schools; the brutal killing of fourteen year old Emmet Till in 1955 and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers; the Montgomery bus boycott in the same year and the emergence of Martin Luther King – the list of possible catalysts is immense. Many writers have also pointed to some of the psychological effects that made the civil rights movement possible. Rising expectations following a succession of legal victories for black rights organisations such as the NAACP; a sense of entitlement following the African-American contribution to the Second World War; the racial empowerment following the labour struggles (particularly in the Congress of Industrial Organisations and the American Communist Party) in the wake of the Great Depression. However, one common feature shared by all studies of civil rights history is the backdrop of a virulent and often brutal racial apartheid.

Some of most enduring images of the civil rights era come from the 1963 events in Birmingham, Alabama – one of the most racially divided cities in the South. Working in collaboration with the local community, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led groups from the 16th Street Baptist Church to City Hall, where they were to stage a sit-in outside the City Hall. Over the weeks of ensuing demonstrations, the jail cells began to fill up with black activists, until on May 3, 1963, when the local Chief of Police, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, turned to violent repression to disperse the mostly peaceful protesters.

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The power of the Birmingham protests was largely derived from their ability to convey images of racist violence to a national audience – apparently people had no idea it was so bad. The Times, of course, lapped up these images, publishing Bill Hudson’s pictures of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs and other students being sprayed with a high pressure water canon on the front page. In the accompanying article, The Times wrote:

Although 12 blue-and-gray clad troopers refused to allow reporters to follow the demonstrators, they made no attempt to prevent the crowd from streaming over a fence and across a creek to reach the arrest scene.

… ‘Get the goddam communists!’, shouted a white as the commissioner gave the order to arrest the marchers.

‘Throw them Niggers in the river!’, yelled another.

‘Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!’, screamed a woman with plastic curlers in her hair.

The article is notable for its relatively disinterested depiction of events, free of journalistic rhetoric, grand statements, and dramatic hyperbole – an objectivity rarely found in reports of black self-defence.

The philosophy of ‘nonviolence’ achieved significant victories in dismantling the legal basis of racial discrimination in the South, i.e. the Jim Crow Segregation laws. These successes, however, came at a cost for the trajectory of the movement as a whole. It was, in a sense, very easy for the liberal media to get on board with the idea of redemptive suffering. Jim Crow was clearly racist and southern blacks were clearly the victims of this racism: black and white, so to speak. Nonviolence meant never having to pose the question of the relationship between antagonistic violence and self-defence – thus the liberal media was able to remain silent on this important issue.

Would poor blacks fighting against discrimination still have been supported if they reacted violently to racism, if they sought to defend themselves? If the treatment of militant black figures such as Robert F. Williams (who was suspended from the NAACP because of his beliefs on the right to armed self-defence) was anything to go by, then probably not. On August 29, 1961, in an article concerning Williams’ alleged kidnapping of a white couple in Monroe, North Carolina, The Times reported that ‘Williams has publicly advocated violence as a means of ending racial restrictions.’ The following day, shortly before his reappearance in Cuba, Williams is casually referred to as a ‘Negro extremist leader’. In neither article, however, is an account given of the racist violence persistently visited upon the black community in Monroe – the fact that a city with a population of 12,000 had an estimated 7,500 members of the Ku Klux Klan is given no mention. Indeed, the report also quoted local Police Chief, A. A. Mauney, a known segregationist and racist, who stated that he received a phone call from Williams confessing to the crime. When black people defend themselves, context takes a vacation.

The media’s representation of black self-defence in the South was to provide a crucial intimation of the more complex urban confrontations. After migrating to cities in the North and the West to fulfil a need for wartime labour, blacks were first to suffer the economic consequences of post-war deindustrialization. Most of the remaining jobs followed white communities into the suburbs, leaving impoverished black ghettoes in their wake. Unemployment and poverty became the rule in the urban North and West, and as political disenfranchisement increased so did crime. President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on colour meant little to northern blacks, who were faced with de facto segregation. Rather than remedying the lack of economic opportunities which led to this state of affairs, the state responded by increasing the police presence in the ghettoes. In August 1965, inaugurating this new era of black insurgency, the Watts neighbourhood in LA exploded into six days of riots— what Huey Newton would later describe as ‘proto-political resistance’ – after an unprovoked police attack. At its end, 34 (almost all black) were dead, 1,032 injured, and over $40,000,000 of property was damaged. In the wake of the Watts Riots, black-led Community Alert Patrols (CAP) were set up across LA to observe police interactions and to dispense legal advice.

The Black Panther Party was a black nationalist-socialist organization which emerged out of this political tumult. Inspired by the CAPs and the long history of black self-defence, the Black Panthers exploited local gun laws to defend themselves from racist violence. However, unlike in the South, where the main problem was vigilante violence, the Black Panthers were faced with a threat which was cloaked in the legitimacy of state authority: the police. Thus, according to Lance Hill, whilst self-defence in the South ‘rested on a belief in constitutional rights (obedience to federal law and authority)’ in the North it rested upon ‘revolutionary rights (the right to disobey law and authority).’ Although the Black Panthers were also involved in community projects such as ‘breakfast clubs’ for children, free medical clinics, and lessons in politics and self-defence, it is in the former capacity that they are best remembered… or maybe, in lieu of The Times’ persistent misrepresentations, how they are misremembered.

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Throughout the 1960s, The Times was undoubtedly one of the most important newspapers in setting the national news agenda. In spite of its links with the political establishment it also maintained a strong thread of liberalism throughout its pages. The Times was a firm supporter of the civil rights movement and, by 1969, had also come on board with the anti-war movement. However, its representations of the Panthers strongly demarcates the limits of its toleration for political resistance. From lauding the civil rights movement, or what it perceived to be the King’s ‘legitimate’ civil rights movement, the liberal media sought to quell the rising tide of active black self-defence. The Times refused to accommodate the perceived insurgent threat of black power, and thus characterized black violence as prior to police repression through much of its reporting.

In order to distort reality in this way, The Times frequently omitted important pieces of explanatory context in their articles on the Panthers. The trial of Black Panther founder Bobby Seale, as one of the Chicago 8 is a case in point. The Chicago 8 was a case in which the state tried to prosecute eight high-profile activists—including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Seale himself—on charges of criminal conspiracy. The trial was widely considered to be a public relations exercise following the violent repression of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. In an attempt to justify the police’s actions, the state took up a lawsuit against a group of activists ostensibly involved in the clash. These individuals were tried for crossing a state line with the intention of inciting a riot, and became known as the Chicago 8 (later becoming the Chicago 7 when Seale was tried alone).

The Times provided a lot of coverage of the Chicago 8 trial, but paid particular attention to the prosecution of Seale. One incident in particular, which coloured the whole proceedings, was widely misreported by The Times—that is, Seale’s wish for self-representation. After Judge Hoffman denied Seale’s plea for a six week continuance – his lawyer, Charles R. Garry, had just undergone a gall bladder operation – Seale requested that he represent himself. This was denied by Hoffman. Seale continued to protest this decision as ‘unconstitutional’ throughout the opening weeks of the trial until, on October 29, Hoffman ordered that Seale be gagged and chained to his chair. In an article entitled ‘The Media and the Movement’, Nick Sharman has provided a trenchant criticism of The Times’ misreporting of these events. There are two points that are highly relevant for the present purposes. First, The Times persistently misrepresented the reasons for Seale’s complaint, stating on September 27, 1969:

The dispute over which lawyers should represent the eight leaders… reached an emotional peak when Bobby Seale, a defendant who is national chairman of the Black Panthers, told the Judge: “If my constitutional rights are denied, I can only say that the judge is a blatant racist.” (Lukas, 1969a, p. 1)

The real reasons were not, of course, that Seale demanded the right to be represented by his favoured lawyer, Charles Garry, but that Seale demanded the right to represent himself – a right that is protected by the Sixth Amendment. Second, Sharman observes that Seale’s highly confrontational language was given disproportionate coverage, especially as compared with Hoffman’s ‘own caustic and partisan responses’. The effect of this bias was to frame the trial in terms that presented Seale as a trouble-maker, rather than an individual with legitimate grievances – indeed, an individual whose constitutional rights were being violated.

Perhaps the worst example of The Times’ representation of black self-defence occurred in the 1971 Attica prison riots. Roughly two weeks after the murder of Black Panther member George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison by white guards, around one half of Attica’s 2,200 inmates seized control of the prison taking 42 members of staff hostage. As with most ‘correctional facilities’, African-Americans made up the majority of the prisoners and the guards were lily-white. Racism was severe in Attica, with beatings so frequent that the guards referred to their batons as ‘nigger sticks’. The prisoners had been protesting the inhuman conditions at Attica for some time – variously citing the poor food, the lack of basic educational resources, and the appalling treatment by members of staff. The requests, however, had been met with a mixture of platitudes and silence; the prisoners were forced to take action. In the struggle to take over the facility one guard and three inmates were killed, the subsequent stand-off between the prisoners and the state lasted just four days.

After successfully gaining control of the prison, the inmates invited a group of observers, including a reporter from The Times, into the prison grounds. With their video cameras and pens, the observers documented the conditions inside the prison – by most accounts the hostages were well looked after, given the circumstances. After seeking council from the Black Panther Party, the prisoners began to draft a statement of demands; however, although agreeing to 28 of the requests, the authorities refused to grant an amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover and the removal of the virulently racist superintendent. (Without an amnesty from further prosecution, those involved in the riots would be condemned to spend the rest of their life in prison, as, indeed, most did.) As negotiations broke down, on September 13 Commissioner Oswald sent in over 1000 heavily armed National Guardsmen, local police, and (controversially) former prison guards to take back control of the facility. Guards reported seeing hostages with their throats cut – a position quickly reiterated by Governor Rockefeller, who had not even bothered to visit Attica. As it turned out, all 43 of the dead, including the hostages, were killed by the police.

The following day, September 14, The Times contained no less than seven articles which directly referenced the Attica prison massacre. In examining these reports, it is not so much the fact that they reproduced Rockefeller and Oswald’s version of events that is important – many newspapers were similarly duped – but rather the spirit in which these lies were propagated. Of the seven reports, only one small quotations suggested that the state may have been responsible for the massacre, and even this came only in the form of a Bobby Seale quote – a figure that The Times had spent years trying to discredit. More typical, however, were articles which categorically denounced the prisoners. One of the most inflammatory articles was entitled ‘Massacre at Attica’, which highlighted the brutality of the prisoners and implicated Seale and the Black Panther Party in the events:

The deaths of these persons by knives . . . reflect a barbarism wholly alien to civilized society. Prisoners slashed the throats of utterly helpless, unarmed guards whom they had held captive through the around-the-clock negotiations, in which inmates held out for an increasingly revolutionary set of demands. . . . What began last Thursday as a long-foreseeable protest against inhuman prison conditions, with an initial list of grievances that many citizens could support, degenerated into a bloodbath that can only bring sorrow to all Americans. . . . The contribution of Black Panther Bobby Seale seems to have been particularly negative, that of an incendiary, not a peacemaker…. The State had responded positively to every reasonable demand put forward by the rebels.

Although The Times issued a correction in the following day’s paper, the language of the aforementioned article, as well as the unsubstantiated connection between Seale and an explosion of prisoner violence which never took place, reveals the true face of The Times. The author is unflinching in their portrayal of the prisoners as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized’ and the state as progressive and well-meaning. Indeed, in the same edition, an article by Police Commissioner Oswald was also published, in which storming the prison is rationalized by way of the inmates barbarism – their ‘behaviour was not different from their behaviour on the street, where several were convicted of serious assault, manslaughter, and murder.’ This sentiment is also echoed on the front page article of the same day which portrays the even-handedness of Oswald in the face of the most appalling prisoner violence.

A comparison with the corrective article issued the following day helps to illuminate the hypocrisy of The Times. On September 15, only four articles were published on the events. Two provided (very unforgiving) profiles of some of the prisoners, one provided an overview of the ‘powerful’ role of television in conveying major ‘tragedies’, and just one corrected the previous days headline (albeit on the front page): ‘Autopsies Show Shots Killed Hostages, Not Knives’, the headline read. Drawing upon interviews with Commissioner Oswald, coroner reports, and other medical professionals, the article systematically goes about deconstructing the narrative they were only yesterday trumpeting. The language, however, is notably lacking in the grandiose rhetoric of the previous day: ‘Attica, N.Y., Sept. 14—The nine hostages killed in the uprising in the Attica Correctional Facility dies of bullet wounds, it was reported today after official autopsies.’ What yesterday was framed in terms of barbarism and civilization, has become a very dry account. The Times’ continued to report on Attica in this way for some time. Apparently barbarism is something only certain sorts of people can do.

More mundane examples of The Times’ misreporting can be seen in the casual decontextualization of black resistance. Writing for The Times on October 26, 1970, Martin Arnold describes the climate of ‘mutual fear’ which characterized the relationship between the Panthers and the police. According to Arnold, ‘the beginning of the conflict can be traced to a day in 1966 when Black Panthers founder[s], Huey P. Newton… and Bobby Seale… started hawking copies of ‘The Red Book’, quotations of Mao Tse-tung, outside the University of California gates at Berkeley.’ Arnold concludes that ‘the purchase of guns with the proceeds and the Panthers’ verbal assaults on policemen amounted to a virtual declaration of war.’ No mention of the massive impoverishment of ghettoes; no mention of President Johnson’s decision to send police rather than aid; no mention of the extreme violence visited upon the black communities by these very same police – the origins of the present situation, according to Arnold, were when blacks started to fight back. Black resistance is positioned as prior to racism.

Conclusions

As with so much of the racial tension in the United States, the origins of the present situation can be traced back to slavery. In his ground-breaking work on the American slave system, the historian John Blassingame has suggested that black passivity in the antebellum South existed primarily in the minds of whites—on the one hand, to justify white paternalism, and, on the other, to dispel the fear that they felt toward slaves: ‘Like a man whistling in the dark to bolster his courage, the white man had to portray the slave as [passive].’ Although, of course, much has changed since the transatlantic slave trade, there is no reason to suspect this ideology has been altogether vanquished. The underlying cause, it seems, is still fear – a fear which drives liberals to identify black victimhood only with the passive. However, fear does not only manifest itself as whistling in the dark, or in the lies told to maintain high spirits, but also in the clenched fist – poised, ready to defend. The liberal media’s bitter condemnation of black radicals as mindless killers is the expressive form of this anger, of this perceived insurgent threat. And so they should feel threatened – they have no stake in eliminating racial oppression. It is, simply put, not in their class-interest.

Though, of course, the Eric Garners and the Trayvon Martins of history are deserving of immense respect, and their murderers bitter condemnation, we must not be fooled into canonizing only those who the liberal media consider to be true victims. In the fight against racism in the US, it is frequently those who fight the hardest, who in every respect give their lives to the struggle, that are excluded from the liturgy of black victims. Indeed, such individuals are frequently portrayed as the opposite, as perpetrators of unjust violence. The ideology of black victimhood which predominates in the liberal media would have us believe that only the helpless can be victims – on the contrary, I argue that those who use violent methods in the struggle against racist oppression are victims nevertheless, and worthy of remembrance. To be sure, it is only through an appreciation of such individuals that a legitimate strategy for racial equality will emerge.

Remember Garner, yes. But also remember Little Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X.

Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker

 

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Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker

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