In April, like millions of others, I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I saw it with, among others, my father, whose politics I can safely call far-right, and my brother-in-law, who is somewhere between the two of us. (As for me, I represent Truth and Common Sense. Duh.)
As we were walking out, my dad made a shrewd observation: Here is a film with heavy political content that had been very carefully structured to appeal to three guys of very different political persuasion.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Winter Soldier goes a lot further than most action movies in critiquing the national-security state. It even critiques earlier Marvel Comics films by revealing SHIELD, the superpowered CIA of the Marvel universe, as the stooges of a fascist group known as HYDRA. The near-omniscient spy technology that helped the Avengers to hunt down Loki in their film, with nary a raised eyebrow, was, here not just a potential ethical problem but unambiguously the work of evil people. The film even took that archetypal hero of so many proto-fascist Hollywood action films (many of them produced by cynical or clueless liberals)—the Grizzled Realist Who Does What Has To Be Done, Rights Be Damned—and made him the single most evil person in the film. And yet the film threads its political needle very carefully—dad, Tom, and I all loved it. One nasty remark from Cap about the Pink Bureaucracy State or gun control would have spoiled it for me. (Guns are meaningless as a guarantee of popular sovereignty when the other side has drones and chemical weapons and nukes!—but I digress.) Equally, one remark from Black Widow about how Bush Started All This (he really didn’t) would probably have spoiled it for dad and Tom.
You can call this Hollywood calculation, and it is. But it’s also a reflection of the fact that there really is a large popular consensus against a government that can do anything to anybody unless they’re a TBTF bank. But the other feeling that the movie reinforced for me (I’ve had it for some time) is the sense that the battle is largely over. As one character points out to another, we have willingly, massively participated in making our information available to anyone who wants it. We have also allowed governments to spend money developing technologies that deliver death from a supposedly safe distance, because we like the feeling of running the world, but not the feeling of losing yet another daughter or son in an imperial war. And everybody hates it, but it’s not going away. They’ve won.
I no longer think that way, and that’s entirely because of the bravery of the people of Ferguson, MO. Please do not talk to me about looting. There was one incident of looting, which, by the way, is something that happens every time a college team wins a championship. Looting is opportunistic. It follows crowds. Blaming looting on protests is like blaming epidemics on sociality. The one incident of looting here is a separate phenomenon from that of rightly angry and rightly scared people using their first amendment rights to protest the murder of a child.
(As my Burkean conservative friend said to me this morning, “Black folks are being a hell of a lot more peaceful about this than my people would be.”)
But it’s not their bravery that convinced me. It’s the response.
The people of Ferguson have shown considerable restraint, when you consider the indignity they’ve suffered. (This is true of black Americans as a group, by the way. The fact that so few of them truly believe in, let alone practice, a philosophy of “Kill Whitey” is something of a miracle. If I believed that race was a meaningful biological category, I would wonder who’s the super-race here.) The cops of Ferguson, on the other hand, have acted like they’re putting down a full-scale insurrection. They shot tear gas into a person’s house. They waved guns at unarmed, retreating children. They told people to go home and then blocked the exits and then made with the rubber bullets. They threw a pregnant woman on the ground.
Their cowardly and predatory behavior certainly suggests that militarized police feel insecure about their hold on power. That insecurity is a hopeful sign in the long run, but it also increases the likelihood that they’ll shoot a lot of people in the short run, so that alone doesn’t leave me feeling sanguine. No, what makes me feel hopeful is the fact that so much of their craziness is directed at people with cell phones. It’s directed at reporters. It’s directed at national media. It’s directed at folks who take pictures.
They are still afraid of being seen.
They’re so scared of being seen that they literally imposed a no-fly zone to keep news helicopters out.
They’re so scared of being seen that they went after a local Fox News reporter. Fox News. That’s an organization that normally will pay you a handsome fee for defending police brutality against black people! They’re turning against their own natural allies.
Last night they arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, along with another reporter from the Huffington Post, and then, after leaving them both in a holding cell for a little while, simply let them go, along with all other media personnel: “Chief thought he was doing you a favor.” No arresting documents. No paper trail. They did the same thing to alderman Antonio French. They’re not pretending any of this is legal; it’s catch-and-release policing, like happened after the WTO protests in Seattle and Miami early this century. (And like happens to black people under stop-and-frisk constantly, but I’m talking here about the suppression of media specifically.)
To put it mildly, this is not the behavior of a system secure in its grip on power. This is the behavior of a system that thinks there’s something to fear from widespread outcry. When HYDRA lets you tweet whatever you want, when they let you post the videos of cops yelling “Go ahead, you fucking animals!” because they know it doesn’t matter: that’s when we’re really done. But that’s clearly not where we are.
Honestly, this surprised me. I really thought that public opinion was a spent force, politically speaking. I thought that, between the omniscience of computers and the militarization of the police (combined with the cop-ification of everybody else: school bureaucrats, welfare caseworkers, CPS, ordinary citizens), we really were done as a democracy. I figured I’d be doing moral triage the rest of my life: weighing the necessity of protesting injustice against the (to me) equally real moral necessity of not dying for nothing, not defaulting on my obligations toward the people closest to me and toward my work, etc. And so on, till civilization collapsed or Jesus returned. If the opportunity to do so in a meaningful way came along, I’d try to whip up the bravery to go Bonhoeffer. Certainly, I’d never hide my opposition to the police state. But for the most part I’d quietly do the best I could, supporting the victims where it fell into my ambit to do so, weighing risk against risk, and wondering to what extent I was morally identical to the people who famously “did nothing” while Hitler rose to power.
But not anymore. Because HYDRA is scared. HYDRA is scared of your cameras. HYDRA is scared of your social media postings. HYDRA is scared of children with phones. HYDRA is scared of its own allies, when they point a microphone the wrong way. HYDRA is scared of a brave, unarmed city alderman with a twitter account.
Local TV, aldermen, kids, social media: these could almost be synecdoches for “nonthreatening do-gooders.” And yet they’ve got HYDRA acting like a scared animal. Because public opinion actually still means something. Bad publicity is still a meaningful threat.
The Mekons have a line that goes: “Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing.” Well, the Ferguson police have managed to do the trick.
All the millions of people, of varying political stripes, who watched Winter Soldier and thought, Damn, that’s a good point: all of you should should be encouraged by the Ferguson police’s display of raw cowardice. And everyone who uses the phrase “police state” pejoratively should know who to side with here.