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Privilege, Michael Brown, and Harvey Milk

Rob Tisinai

August 15th, 2014

I posted this on Facebook the other day, and the reaction was pretty strong, so I figured I’d share it here.

I’m such a white guy, an all-American-looking white guy whom old ladies trust on sight. No cop has ever pulled me over for random questioning on the street. No customs agent has ever asked me to open my bag. I know when a traffic cop pulls me over I can feign helpless incompetence and stand a good shot at nothing harsher than a fix-it ticket. In fact, I once showed up in court because I had a “failure to appear” and I told the judge in my middle-American, educated accent that I simply hadn’t understood what I was supposed to do, and he rolled his eyes and sent me home with no penalty, leaving him free to deal with the people in the room who were not white.

This is privilege. It’s nothing I’ve earned. It’s not even something I can counteract. But I can recognize that some unarmed people are shot in cold blood just because they don’t share my privilege. And I can believe what they tell me about their experience and their lives.

About 120 comments later, after a bunch of arguments about privilege, I got what was intended to be praise from someone dear to me. He wrote:

I may not be able to articulate my thoughts as well as others on this post, but I thought I would chime in.

I would like to make a comparison with my soon to be brother in law and the shooting incident.

Lead by example. This is what I mean.

I admire Rob for being a strong advocate to the gay and lesbian community. He makes posts to start a discussion on gay and lesbian rights. These discussions begin to shed a light on how the community feels and are being treated. What he would like to see change. In a peaceful way.

When the proposition for gay marriage didn’t pass the community didn’t riot and loot. They didn’t hold cities hostage. They put on more parades . They stepped up there presence in the community. As the society began to feel less threatened more people began to open their hearts and minds.

What’s happening in Missouri is not helping the cause for racism. It’s closing off the minds of society and creating more stereotypes. Rosa Parks did more for equality by sitting on a bus then the rioters. 

Racism stems for hate of ones self. If you don’t love and accept who you are you tend to lash out at others to make yourself feel better. Love yourself and you will have learned to love others.

Lead by example and others will look up and admire you. Like my brother in law Rob

It’s true that I’m a peace-maker and consensus-seeker at heart (blame it on being the youngest child in family where my older siblings fought hard with my dad), but I had to tell him this, in a series of wine-assisted comments:

I have to take issue with what you’re saying and offer a different perspective. Yes, it’s true that after Prop 8 Will and I and others organized a peaceful candle-lit march in protest, with great coverage from all four local networks, and that was great.

But before that, we participated in shutting down [the intersection at] hollywood and highland. We (and all the protesters) were polite to the police (a recurring theme through all the Prop 8 protests was the repeated thank yous called to police) but Will and I have fantastic memories of that civil disobedience.

But go back earlier and you have Dan White, who killed both the straight mayor of San Francisco and a gay city supervisor. Because he killed a fag, he had legal defense funds set up in his name and he ultimately was acquitted. The gays rioted — and why not! Once your society has announced your life has no value, then what do you have to gain from maintaining that civil order?

I think the same thing is happening in Ferguson. No, it’s not a strategically good move — or maybe it is, if it wakes people up. Personally, I’m not likely to go around setting cars on fire in any circumstance, but if you cast a group out of society, as has happened in my lifetime to both gays and blacks, you shouldn’t be surprised when they react with no regard for the laws of that society.

Drops mic. (and then sneaks off stage when no one claps).

That’s all.

[Correction: Dan White was not acquitted, but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, and served five years in prison for killing two men.]

Comments

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Ben in oakland
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Rob, Dan White wasn’t acquitted. He was convicted of, I think, voluntary manslaughter and given a term of 7 years, of which we served I think 5 years. (I was there, but I’m old, so I don’t remember everything).

Rob Tisinai
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Thanks for the correction, Ben. You’re right.

Ben
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Also gays do not face nearly the discrimination or threats of violence that the average person of color faces in America. To conflate the two is to compare apples and oranges. I have no doubt many more gay and lesbians would turn to violence and car flipping if they had to face the systematic discrimination that Americans of color face on a daily basis.

Jim Burroway
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Good post Rob.

It captures my thoughts exactly. I too have known people personally who look nothing like me who have experienced many of the things you describe. When I was living in the Dallas area, one co-worker tried to avoid driving through Rockwall county (which was not an easy thing to do because I-30 goes right through the middle of it), without getting pulled over on the freeway. Another friend could never drive through Highland Park, a wealthy Dallas inner suburb, without getting pulled over and asked where he was going. Both of them, black males. Also, as if it matters, both of them were professionals. These were things I simply couldn’t fathom, and still can’t. There really are two very different ways of experiencing American police work. There is absoulultely no question about it.

Also, it wasn’t just the White Night riots. There were the seminal Stonewall riots, that went on for at least three nights (possibly more, depending on how you characterize the continuing tensions and unrest for the rest of the week). Stores windows were smashed, police car windshields broken out and tires slashed, and I recall that at least one private vehicle was set on fire. There was more rioting a year later following a protest march in Greenwich Village against Police Harassment. I think you have it exactly right: ” Once your society has announced your life has no value, then what do you have to gain from maintaining that civil order?” The answer is in our own history.

Timothy Kincaid
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

I think it is important to distinguish between “black people in Missouri” and “the people who caused damage on one night in Ferguson Missouri”.

It is convenient from the distance of miles, experience, and culture to see people “over there” as being homogenous, all alike, all thinking alike, all acting alike. It is a mistake that results in confusion and continuing disconnect.

I’ve seen this mistake up close.

In 1992, the blacks in Los Angeles rioted and burnt down their part of town. Racial tensions were high and people of different races didn’t get along. And when the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the blacks went out of control. Sure. Everyone knows that. We saw it on TV. We heard politicians screaming “no justice, no peace!”

Except that it isn’t true.

In 1992 I lived in an all black neighborhood (South of Pico, near Fairfax). I stood on the roof of my building and watched as fires sprang up in three directions.

My neighbors, African-Americans, suggested that I get inside and lock the door, which was what they intended on doing, because “we can’t protect you”. Instead I hopped in the car and fled to the Valley.

I watched that night as India’s Over, 300 yards from my home, burnt brightly on television, because ‘blacks were angry’.

But I had the advantage of living there. I knew that the story didn’t feel right. And so I found out what the news didn’t tell me.

Had they panned just a bit higher, the screen would have shown the neighbor of that burning building – a black guy – with a water hose, trying to put out the flames.

Had they come back the next day they would have seen a bucket brigade of people, some black, some hispanic, some wearing yarmulkes, some asian, working together to put out the last of the flames.

Had they been in the neighborhood, they would have met the woman who asked me to join other neighbors to meet in front of the Von’s grocery store the next night because “it’s our store and we’re going to protect it”.

The news wasn’t interested in that. I called the television station I’d watched the night before. But that wasn’t newsworthy… and it didn’t play into the narrative that scared the city and drew in ratings.

Yes, there were racial tensions – but the black community was not waging war on their neighbors. Yes, there was anger about the verdict, but ‘blacks’ were not ‘burning down their part of town’.

It was a small number of riffraff who took an opportunity to engage in looting and rioting. And, from what I heard, they were not from the area in which the burning occurred but came in from elsewhere to cause damage in someone else’s neighborhood.

Yes, most (but not all) were black. Yes, they felt disenfranchised. Yes, they shared with those who hid inside a frustration with unfairness and police brutality.

And yes, politicians of all stripes capitalized on the false perception of separated groups who hate each other and want to hurt each other (does that sound familiar?).

But in Los Angeles in 1992, the VAST majority of black Angelinos opposed the riots and the looting and the burning and the violence.

And I VERY MUCH expect that the same is true in Ferguson Missouri today.

Regan DuCasse
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

There is a still from video footage of Michael Brown assaulting a convenience store clerk, half his size.
From that, the clerk…Brown would be hard to MISTAKE as not the culprit in a strong arm robbery.
So the police looking for him (and him perhaps knowing it), is their job.
I don’t think a lot of people understand how fast a tense situation in which a very large person becoming combative (and dangerous) can escalate.
The officer was alone, and confronting Brown put him at risk from the outset.
With this evidence of Brown’s prior behavior, it’s becoming more understandable that the officer would pull his weapon.
Had it been the STORE CLERK that had shot Brown dead, it would have been considered an act of self defense.
Brown, as it turns out, was the problem in the community after all.

Eric Payne
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Dan white, upon his release to San Francisco County on January 7, 1984, found himself to be the ultimate pariah; he committed suicide on October 21, 1985, just 22 months and two weeks after his parole.

Eric Payne
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Rob,

I’m going to make a guess here: I think your “privilege” goes a lot deeper than simply being a white male.

From the time I was 18, I’ve had to scramble for every penny I made while my family, at some points living in the same town, suffered nothing. (While not wealthy in the “Donald Trump” way, my father did quite well for himself); my sisters and mothers never wanted for anything.

When did all financial assistance from your family end… at what chronological age?

I only ask that question, and make that comparison, because the privileged often overlook all the privileges they actually have.

What’s happening in Ferguson is the same thing that happened in Watts in the 1960s and Los Angeles following the Rodney King trials (first his; then the cops’). It’s a backlash against such a systematic restriction of the rights and opportunities of an entire community of people. It’s a pot that’s been simmering since the days of slavery; every so often, it boils over, and things get just a little better.

“Privilege” is looking at the situation in Missouri, or the brewing unrest in Los Angeles, Mississippi and North Carolina and thinking/saying: “Well… this has gone on long enough? Aren’t those people breaking the law? Run ‘em all in!” or, the other side of the coin: “Well, can’t we just give them money? Build them a coummunity center with a jobs outreach program, maybe? I know… I know… let’s go there, in person, press some flesh and make speeches! After all, it is an election year!”

What the country — hell, what the world — is going through right now is an eerie parallel to the first decade of the 1900s. Civil unrest; political power held by just a handful of people with no blood being introduced, corporations having undue influence on elected officials and legislation, both new legislation and court’s interpretation of old legislation, stock manipulation, corporate trusts, financial imparity… it all hapened, just 100 years ago.

And the situation didn’t correct itself until after “the war to end all wars,” and the war after that, WWI and II.

Nathaniel
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Regan, talking about Brown’s past doesn’t help. Did the cop have access to Brown’s record? Did that record say anything that justified an execution?

The real question here is what would have happened if Brown had been white – all other circumstances being equal. The real topic here is what the police are doing when they aren’t actually killing young black men. Are they stopping them needlessly? Patting them down without suspicion? Do these young men feel the need to comply with illegal or quasi-legal police harassment because the alternative is getting shot?

Much as with the gun debate, we can take any individual incident and dissect it to the point that we no longer feel any passion for change or improvement. But, when we see the same sorts of incidents over and over, we need to start asking what the common denominators are, and if there are ways that we can counteract the problems without minimal limitations to liberties and safety.

Eric, the thing with privilege is that those of us with it don’t usually see it. The fact that someone like Rob can even begin to see and recognize instances of privilege puts him way ahead of the curve. But, beyond using our positions of privilege to help bring recognition to the limits others face, what good does it do to recognize every instance of privilege?

Rob Tisinai
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Eric, there’s no doubt about that. I’m privileged in many ways — in fact, if I were a straight Christian, I’d be near the top of the American privilege ladder.

Eric Payne
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Nathaniel.

It doesn’t do any good except to remind the privileged (among which I count myself; those crime[s] I committed in my past, I was “sent away” for far less time than I would had I been brown. On the day of my sentencing, a 20-something. white man, I was sentenced to 18 months. Three cases later, a late-teen Hispanic person… same judge… same crime… nearly the same set of circumstances… first offense, gets 4 1/2 years as it’s alleged he’s a member of a gang.),

But, all I was pointing out is, sometimes, people pat themselves on the back for one realization, and are blind to others. How many people do each of us know who are people with whom we are friendly (and they to us), yet in the privacy of the election booth vote against our interests… then are honestly perplexed by our reaction because to them “this” doesn’t mean “that”?

Lucrece
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

It’s sad that in order to rightfully put cops’ asses to the flame, innocent people need to suffer vandalism and lack of security.

Lucrece
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

State sanctioned thugs and all their syndicate superlegal status need the sledgehammer treatment. Not just forced retirement, but actually facing the same circumstances as civilians who do what cops are doing.

Timon
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

I like Tisinai. He has a good heart and is an effective advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. Above all, he relays in his arguments a sense of universal values, as opposed to the grubby PC jargon of identity politics. He is more likely to point to things like fairness and equality than to indulge in screeds about “power differentials” and “micro-aggressions.”

So it is disappointing to see him latch onto the latest Cultural Studies fad, privilege. A concept that was barely used by the PC academic crowd a decade ago is now pervasive and operates as a free-floating deliberately vague accusation used to strip any opinion of value and any person of worth. Like every other cultural studies fad, it will run its course and be replaced with something else. But Tisinai should have resisted the lure of faux PC hipness to begin with. If this is going to be a regular thing, then he should put a trigger warning for PC jargon on each post.

Priya Lynn
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Timon, white privilege is a serious, important, and pervasive issue that merits ongoing discussion and action. Your pretending its trivial because you don’t want to acknowledge your own white privilege won’t change that.

Rob Tisinai
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Timon, certainly “privilege” can be misused as a blunt rhetorical weapon, as can concepts like racism, homophobia, hate, bigotry, and bullying. For that matter, as can various fallacies when name-dropped into a conversation without explaining why one’s opponent’s argument actually constitutes that fallacy.

In fact, any justly powerful rhetorical tool can be misused. But apart from this potential for misuse, I don’t know exactly what problem you have with the concept of privilege.

Ben in oakland
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Priya, you made a big mistake.

You left out the word heterosexual in front of privilege.

NancyP
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

I live in the city of St. Louis in a mixed race neighborhood about 6-7 miles south of Ferguson. I have friends who live in Ferguson. The story here begins with the relatively rapid white flight that resulted in Ferguson flipping from 70% white, 30% black to 70% black, 30% white – without a change in the largely senior town police force (NOT the St. Louis PD, which is well integrated and is professional in attitude, most of the time). There’s a ridiculous amount of “driving while black” stops on Ferguson roads, and has been for longer than the town has had majority-black status. Ferguson police are Mayberry level of competence (ie, NOT highly skilled or trained). The boneheads got all militaristic, instead of calling in the outside police entities right away and handing the crowd management to the outsiders. To me this looks like Selma all over again, and I am white, less sensitized than black people who have to live with prejudice day to day. You get a few hundred people together in a highly emotional situation, police are looking like storm troopers, and it isn’t surprising that a handful of trouble makers decide to do some opportunistic looting. 99% of the people there at the protests are peaceful, and by God, they have the right and the duty to protest. Now, 5 and a half days after the fact, the Governor has appointed the highway patrol, and a black Ferguson native highly ranked highway patrol officer, to deal with the situation. Peace ensues. Duh! This should have been done on day 1. The Ferguson hway patrol guy walks out to the crowd without riot gear, tells them they have the right to have peaceable protest and that the Hway Patrol wont interfere if things are kept cool – peace ensues. Rationality ensues. Maybe there’s hope out there.

NancyP
August 15th, 2014 | LINK

Thanks, Timothy Kincaid and others.

Remember, this Michael Brown was a kid, 18, just graduated from high school – JAYWALKING. JAYWALKING – just think about that. How many of us have done stupid stuff at that age, had an “attitude” moment, or simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time? We have a nation of laws, and we are obliged by law to give a potential jaywalker, or a petty thief, or a guy who gives lip to a police officer, a day in court, not an arbitrary execution. The apparent facts don’t support that the officer was under lethal fire when he decided to pull out his gun. Police officers are supposed to know how to de-escalate encounters. I am very sympathetic to police officers’ job stresses, but if an officer panics (and that is my theory, the officer panicked*), that officer is not fit for gun-bearing duty, and that’s that. It seems very apparent that Ferguson police are in “damage control mode”, and some of the things that they have been saying sound suspect or don’t make sense.
+ Now, the officer could have had reason to fear for his life, or he could have decided that he was going to target someone black, but the truth may lie in the middle, the middle that contains white fears about young black men – “implicit bias”.

Lucrece
August 16th, 2014 | LINK

Also, I have to take exception at the notion that if you’re angry or marginalized enough, then rioting is kind of an expected outcome.

That’s an extremely male perspective, that if you’re angry you’re entitled to destroy things and hurt people.

How long have women suffered under oppression by men, cases where officers assault or harass them, and yet when it comes to women we have rarely seen a massive outbreak of violence in response?

Rioting the we we’ve seen it is hardly an entirely natural response, and it’s got heavy cultural components biased toward machismo.

jerry pritikin aka The Bleacher Preacher
August 16th, 2014 | LINK

It’s a no-win situation,I’m white,however I’m openly gay and Jewish. I am often mistakenly thought as straight and gentile. I heard some stupid things said. My response depended on many things. You have to first put yourself out of harms way to win.

I’m 77,and I have known some good and bad cops before they became cops. The Bully had the choice to be a bad guy or get a job as a bad guy with a gun and a badge. I knew a few of the latter.

I was disappointed in seeing the video… yet realize there is more to this story then reported. The 18 year old did not deserve to be shot except if the policeman’s life was threatened. We need to know all the facts on this case before rushing to judgment… and hopefully it is done with creditability.
This will not be the last time a local story has national implications. Sometimes,the solution is on the right side of history… but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Regan DuCasse
August 20th, 2014 | LINK

@ Nathaniel: I am WELL aware of what happens in neighborhoods that deal with higher crime, isolation and certainly when the power structure is racially disparate as in Ferguson.
Higher crime, higher police presence, higher tension.
Given the racial profile of these situations, it can be a certainty it’s not the police committing the crimes in the area.

The strong arm robberies, the gang shootings, the domestic violence, the drug entanglements, and yeah…jaywalking isn’t so innocuous. It can be very dangerous in fact.
I’m a crime scene photographer, trust me, jaywalkers have caused a great deal of serious accidents and property damage in Los Angeles.
So expect to get cited by the police when you do it.
I agree, what SHOULD be a stop by police, shouldn’t end in someone being killed at ALL.
But let’s check the likely scenario here.
Michael Brown was a very large, strong and young person.
Capable of bullying, and using his size to intimidate and confront.
HE knew he’d just committed a crime of assault, robbery and intimidation, even if the cop didn’t.
So if he was stopped, for any reason, HIS tension, anxiety and attitude would be raised and he wouldn’t treat the situation with any retreat.
The officer, would have to draw his weapon in order to INTIMIDATE Brown.

Unarmed, doesn’t mean non threatening. Just last Friday night, a sheriff’s deputy, answering a domestic violence call in Lakewood Mall, was escorting a 21 year old man to the cruiser. The deputy dropped his keys, and his detainee took that opportunity to repeatedly kick the deputy in the head. It took an unarmed good Samaritan to intervene.
The deputy sustained permanent, career ending brain damage.
And likely is somewhat disabled from his injuries.

An officer cannot afford losing control of someone they are trying to detain for questioning. At NO time should a civilian become combative.

But all civilians KNOW the officer is the one who is armed. Non lethal weapons won’t always work effectively on someone of exceptional size and strength.

Let’s get real though: all the incidents we have been hearing of when there is a confrontation with the police that ends in violence, the person WAS engaged in behavior that COULD endanger themselves or someone else.
Or in some form of criminal activity that’s a part of the spectrum of issues that create problems in any neighborhood.

I repeat: an officer was left fighting for his life, while trying to detain a violent man who’d been beating a woman.
An unarmed man.
Unarmed, does not mean harmless or incapable of violence that can still threaten a life.

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