Every so often, an event occurs that crystallizes an historical moment in the collective consciousness, for better or worse, resonating far beyond the specific details. It may be optimistic (a fault of which I am seldom accused) to think that the farcical process of ‘justice’ in the Trayvon Martin case is such a revelatory incident. But not only must it stir any heart, the reactions suggest that it has jarred some of our tenacious habits of denial. We’ll see if it lasts.
The Martin case is so patently unfair and intolerable that it has stirred to action many people more accustomed to resignation. That is significant. A general sense of helplessness and futility is essential to sustain oppression and injustice.
Sharpton was on TV here Wednesday night saying that the response to the verdict is not going to be three days of disgust and then on to the next issue. He described plans for actions in 100 cities, and the NAACP, meeting in Orlando by chance, apparently is digging in for a long campaign, too. The Justice Department’s investigation on civil rights grounds remains active, which could keep the case alive and newsworthy. Then there are civil lawsuits, which require a lower standard of proof.
None of those things in themselves will be enough to keep people in the streets and demanding an overhaul of not just laws but attitudes and habits as well. But they will help. Meanwhile, I am hoping that a few more people will connect the dots to the other major story that has attracted much more of a ho-hum, business-as-usual response: the appalling extent of the National Snoopcurity State.
While many have expressed dismay or even shock at the incredible Zimmerman verdict, note that few black people say they are surprised. That’s because the idea of living in a police state where the system is completely stacked against you is not a foreign concept to them. Just as white-majority citizens can be dumbfounded by the Trayvon assassination, in part because they cannot believe such things would ever happen to them, similarly non-dissident, non-Muslim Joe Q. Publics are prone to shrug off the government ear on their cellphones as something that, in the end, won’t affect them.
That’s the difference between people targeted by the legal/security apparatus and those permitted to go about their business unmolested, as outlined tidily by the inestimable Glenn Greenwald, the author of many of the NSA exposés in a Harper's interview.
There’s an important distinction between people who are extremely privileged and who believe in and obey pieties and orthodoxies — people like [New Yorker columnist Hendrik] Hertzberg, who aren’t dissenting from anything and who are basically defenders and supporters of political power, the royal court. The real measure of how free a society is isn’t how its good, obedient servants are treated; it’s how dissidents are treated. And if you go and do any kind of investigative journalism and talk to whistleblowers, or talk to people who are dissenting or are otherwise engaged in activism against the government, or journalists who do that, you find this incredibly disturbing, intense climate of fear. Nobody will talk unless they’re using very sophisticated encryption technologies. So yeah, good little New Yorker writers who love Obama . . . you know, he’s right. For him it is abstract and conjectural. But for people who are engaged in actual critical thinking and opposition to those in power, surveillance is menacing. It intimidates people out of engaging in real dissent.
I hope that the grotesqueness of the Zimmerman outcome will alert my more breezily insouciant peers to the dangers of passively awarding more and more powers to the policing/snooping apparatus. The Zimmerman-Martin case shows how easy it is to manipulate a legal proceeding and cook up the desired results if the system is stacked against you. We need a state that is vulnerable enough to give us a fighting chance at self-defense, not an all-seeing monolith that can crush its enemies like bugs.
It is naïve in the extreme to think that a legal apparatus that can flick away the life of Trayvon Martin and smugly declare itself in fine working order does not or will not eventually take a similar view of the lives of the rest of us if we dare to raise our heads. There are plenty of historical precedents for that, and we delude ourselves if we think no such thing could possibly happen here.
Sometimes it is hard to convey why privacy is so important because it’s kind of ethereal. But I think people instinctively understand the reason it’s so important because they do things like put passwords on their email accounts and locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, which reflect a desire to keep others out of certain spaces where they can go to be alone. That’s a way of making clear that they value privacy. And the reason privacy is so critical is because it’s only when we know we’re not being watched that we can engage in creativity or dissent or pushing the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable. A society in which people feel like they’re always being watched is one that breeds conformity because people will avoid doing anything that can prompt judgment or condemnation. This is a crucial part of why a surveillance state is so damaging — it’s why all tyrannies know that watching people is the key to keeping them in line because only when you’re not being watched can you really be a free individual.