Vilifying Nate Parker Benefits Rape Culture


Nate Parker at the 2016 NAACP Image Awards (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)


It took an uncomfortably long time for me to write about the 1999 Nate Parker and Jean Celestin rape case. I knew what I wanted to say, but was afraid of being labeled a rape apologist. This was despite the fact that Parker was never convicted of sexual assault, and my reluctance is a stark illustration of how unhealthy our conversations about this topic have become. If we don’t turn things around soon, we risk stymieing the hard-won progress made in fostering dialogue about sexual violence just as we’re starting to see the issue get the attention that it merits.

The broad details of the case are now familiar, so I won’t recount them here. In the end, Parker and his then roommate, Celestin, were found not guilty. As many have rightly pointed out though, that outcome doesn’t mean that they are innocent. The picture that their accuser painted, of a woman in a college dorm room, contorted on a futon so as to allow two men to have their way with her unconscious body, is the stuff of nightmares. She had voluntarily performed oral sex on Parker the day before, but that doesn’t matter. She and Parker had sex the morning after the incident, but that doesn’t matter either. If he and Celestin engaged in sexual activity with her while she was senseless, then it was rape.

The problem is, we don’t know if that’s what happened.

Still, that doesn’t keep a lot of people from proceeding as if they do. They point to the mere existence of the accuser’s rape allegations as a reason for outrage, even though doing so represents textbook circular reasoning. They refer to the civil suit that Penn State settled out of court, centered on alleged harassment at the hands of Parker, Celestin, and their friends, as further evidence of the pair’s guilt, even though there is no proof that such harassment ever happened. They shake their heads and scowl while presenting the accuser’s 2012 suicide as the ultimate proof of her alleged sexual victimization, implying that her death rests on Parker and Celestin’s hands, even though she was already taking antidepressant medication on the day of her encounter with them.

For their part, Parker and Celestin have steadfastly denied that any nonconsensual sexual activity ever took place. They denied it when they were initially interviewed by law enforcement, they denied it during trial, and they’ve denied it in the years since. Importantly, they even denied it when their accuser was secretly recording phone conversations between them.

It’s with the latter, more than with any other documents related to this case, that I gained the most vivid sense of Nate Parker’s headspace those long years ago.

With furrowed brow, I found myself intermittently clenching my fists and pulling at my beard while reading an excerpt of one of the telephone transcripts. It was terrifying, despite my being removed from the situation by time, space, and experience. During the call, Parker comes off as a young man out of his depth; nervous, at times defensive, and eventually frustrated. Throughout the conversation though, he displays total, unwavering dedication to the idea that the accuser was awake and active. At one point he pleads, “Would you admit that…things could have happened that you may have been involved with but you just don’t remember?” Continuing, he unequivocally states, “But for you to say that you were just passing out…that’s just wrong. I’m saying that you were completely conscious.”


Jean Celestin, Parker’s college roommate and creative partner (Facebook)

In the days since this firestorm erupted, Nate Parker has not only had to face public ire over the accusation itself, but also for a perceived lack of sensitivity when addressing it. In fact, this purported lack of empathy has even been used as further evidence of his guilt. As a result, Parker recently sat down with Ebony magazine to issue another, more detailed apology, acknowledging the effect of “toxic masculinity” on his ideas about sexuality as a young man. While the move has received muted praise from some, others are still telling him to “shut up…and take your fake apologies elsewhere.” They’re upset because they feel that he’s still not taking enough responsibility for his actions. Read: He’s still not admitting that he’s guilty of rape.

Guess what? That’s what people maintaining their innocence do. Yes, he may be lying, but unlike the police brutality cases that now seem to flood our social media feeds, there is no video evidence from August 21, 1999. Neither you nor I can know with 100% certainty what happened.

But here’s what I do know. There can be a distinction between immoral and illegal behavior. You may find drunken group sex immoral, and that’s fine. Based on what Parker has said regarding his current attitude toward the events of that night, he might agree with you. Still, that doesn’t mean that he or his friend Jean Celestin did anything illegal. Labeling them rapists then isn’t just vicious; it’s dangerous. It creates a chilling effect around the entire subject since even questioning this protective impulse gone haywire often leads to one’s condemnation as a kind of accessory to sexual violence. For the sake of true progress in eliminating rape culture, that has to stop.

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OK, You Hate Public Marriage Proposals: Now Please Have a Seat

He Zi Proposal

Diver He Zi (R) accepts Qin Kai’s offer to continue ruining her life in public. CBC

On August 14, 2016, Olympic diver He Zi won the silver medal in the women’s 3M springboard. Right after the medal ceremony, fellow diver and boyfriend of six years, Qin Kai, proposed to her. She said yes.

One would think that all of the above facts would be cause for universal celebration, but in these early days of the 21st century it has become quite apparent that WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.

In some quarters, the fact that Qin chose the moment representing the ultimate recognition of He’s struggle and culmination of her athletic efforts over the last four years to ask for her hand in marriage was disrespectful, egocentric, and controlling. It was yet another example of a man trampling the efforts of woman so as to fix the public gaze firmly on him and announce her ultimate subjugation. “Check out the look on her face,” they say. “She clearly wasn’t into it!”  “She only said yes out of embarrassment!”

Get the fuck out of here. Now.

OK. That response was a bit subtle, so here are a few more thoughts on this particular topic.

A. It’s disturbing that folks are so willing to jump to conclusions about He Zi’s feelings or the nature of their relationship dynamics based on a second or two of facial expressions (or a manipulatively chosen still). If you listen to her talk about it here, she explains that what you’re witnessing is the face of a genuinely surprised woman, nervous about making the right decision. Holy shit, she’s human!

In a subsequent interview, when asked whether she’d like to talk about her medal win or engagement first, she immediately replied, “I feel that my happiness now will make up for the loss of the gold medal.” In the same conversation, questioned about their future in diving, she stated, “We have been through a lot in the past few years…we must have a good rest first.” Qin, as sickeningly overbearing as ever, only replied, “My answer must be the same as hers.” Later, he goes on to say, “I will follow whatever her choice is,” while she, clearly intimidated by her fiancé’s dominating presence, remarked demurely, “He must abide by my decisions.”

Somebody please rescue her from this abusive relationship ASAP.

B. There’s a sizable group of women who enjoy public proposals. Take a look at the reaction of He’s fellow medal winners when this egregious act of sexism went down:

Cagnotto_Tingmao_Proposal Reaction

Tania Cagnotto (L) and Shi Tingmao show unrestrained delight at their competitor’s humiliation. AFP/Getty

Damned traitors.

People like ostentatious displays of commitment. Although one leading proposal service company (yes, these fuckers exist) has seen a flattening of demand for public proposals, they still represent half of their business…meaning it’s a HUGE chunk of their revenue and that it used to be MOST of it. And by the way, a public proposal is any invitation to marriage that occurs in a public venue. It need not be on the Jumbotron at Yankee Stadium; the middle of a Red Lobster in Des Moines, Iowa counts, too.

I’d also point to the preponderance of Facebook posts with multii-angled pics of diamond rings on freshly manicured hands as another proxy for evidence of many women’s comfort with public displays of the intention to marry. Seriously, they give shots of drooling babies a hellified run for their money.

C. While there are certainly people who make public proposals because they’re egomaniacs, there are plenty of folks engaging in such shenanigans in order to please would-be wives and boldly declare their love. Perhaps that’s what Marjorie Enya was doing on August 8th when she headed onto a field post-match with balloons and—GASP!—a microphone to ask Isadora Cerullo, her rugby playing girlfriend, for her hand in marriage. But hey, why guess when she told us herself?


Cerullo (R) and Enya share an entirely inappropriate kiss in an Olympic setting. Reuters

Interviewed afterward, Enya said, “As soon as I knew she was in the squad I thought, ‘I have to make this special’…She is the love of my life…I wanted to show people that love wins.” Yeah, it was a woman who set off the marriage proposals at the 2016 Olympic games.

Selfish bastard.

I’ll leave you with a closing thought. After articulating this POV on Facebook, one of my female friends earnestly asked, “Who hurt you?” Another queried me privately regarding the “noise about the proposal” and whether someone had rejected mine. Neither was trying to be insensitive, but just stop for a second and imagine the fallout if a man responded to a woman during a discussion about relationships in such a patronizing and dismissive manner.

Having said that, I’ve never proposed to anyone. No personally experienced rejection motivated me to write this. Instead, this essay is an effort to expose the doublethink that allows questions such as those posed above even to exist. The Wedding Industrial Complex is built on stoking women’s desires for the fairytale ending, and that ending begins with the way in which a man asks the Princess to become his Queen. For those on the quest for that movie-worthy proposal, I say may the odds be forever in your muphuckin’ favor. Personally, I accept my feminist comrades’ invitation to join the Minimalist Proposal Movement.

Are there local chapters and shit?

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The Bad Thing About Vegas Is You

XS Nightclub

Maybe somebody lost their keys?

Last week, I returned to New York City after an eight day stint in sunny Las Vegas. Yep, eight whole days. Did I make it back whole? Yes and no.

It was a great trip. I went extra hard. So hard that I lost a day while I was there. So hard that I’ve spent the majority of the time since my return battling a fever, excessive night sweats, and alien abduction dreams, and I may not ever regain full capacity in my lungs after hacking up some portion of both. In short, it appears that my sins in the sultry heat of the Nevada sun shaved a day or two off of my life expectancy almost as quickly as I shave a day’s worth of stubble from my perennially bald head.

This is the part where a lot of you are screaming, “Fucking Vegas!”, shaking your heads, and pointing your metaphorical fingers in the direction of the 702 area code as if it’s somehow to blame for it all. If you’re one of those people, I gotta tell you that I don’t agree. No, I can’t condemn Vegas for my fuckery, and neither should you, because while Las Vegas may indeed be worthy of its notorious nickname, it’s we who bring the sin to the city, and not the reverse.

That’s right: the bad thing about Vegas is you.

Now, I’ll freely admit that the powers that be in Vegas make it super easy to get up to no good. There are probably more casinos there than schools, churches, and hospitals in the whole of Clark County, the alcohol flows freely (literally, when you gamble), and the gentlemen’s clubs will chauffeur you right to their front doors. For those who’d rather pay than play, the escorts get their sophisticated party on with you at Rehab, Tao, and XS, and while they may not be the ones you take home to momma, they almost always are the ones you’d want to stunt with on Instagram. Of course, drugs are easy to find for any who don’t think the Vegas experience is quite surreal enough, and if you’re lucky, you might even get high for free. Yep, Vegas happily supplies all of that.

But whether they’ll admit it or not, the real draw of Vegas for most people is the other boys and girls who are there to forget themselves, refilling their clear plastic cups at the cabana table while they scope the scene to stagger towards their next bad decision. This misremembering, this stumbling, is only for pretend of course, because what one does in Vegas is either something one has been curious about for a while, something one has fantasized about doing, or something one always does. You don’t go to Vegas to forget who you are. You go to remember.

Yes, the lasers are kinda corny. No, I don't care.

The ones with glowing body paint charge extra.

There’s a poetry to the fact that the Strip, the locale that people envision when they think of Vegas, isn’t even a part of the place whose name it has made so famous. In point of fact, it exists outside of the city limits, and this detached being is fitting for a place with such an otherworldly, almost extra-dimensional character. The people’s Las Vegas is a 4.2 mile long singularity created by the overwhelming pressure of countless desires, both uttered and unspoken, manifest and masked; its potent gravity attracts all who bend their ears—if only for a moment—toward that still small voice imploring them to “do what thou wilt.” It’s the geographic equivalent of Halloween.

The famous saying, which doubles as a warning, goes that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. If you were paying attention to anything you just read, you know that that can’t possibly be true. After all, you brought all that greed, gluttony, and lust with you when you arrived in America’s desert paradise; it’s going right back in your Ferragamo weekender when you head home to your so-called real life, waiting to inhabit you the next time you feel safe enough to be more like yourself.

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Straight Outta Compton: Perfectly Imperfect

O'shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube in "Straight Outta Compton"

Love them or hate them…actually, do both.

I was never anywhere close to the man that N.W.A. portrayed themselves to be in their music, nor did I believe everything that they espoused, but from the first preview I saw, I knew that I was going to see Straight Outta Compton. On opening weekend I showed up to Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater damned near giddy, in full N.W.A. themed regalia. Days later, even after reading commentators searing assessments of its purported failures, I felt as guiltless as an overly aggressive cop, confident that the movie’s whole is greater than the negation of its parts.

That negation has focused mostly on two conflicting ideas. The first is that the movie is so whitewashed compared to N.W.A.’s true history that it borders on Disney fare. On the other hand, you have the view that the film is unashamedly immoral in general, and unapologetically sexist in particular. If you’re particularly lucky, you might even find these criticisms in the same thinkpiece.

Since half of the producers are either former members of the group or the widow of one, certainly the motivation to tidy things up would be powerful. Many assume that that’s the only reason why Dre’s assaults on women, both confirmed and alleged, don’t appear, and I certainly agree that the Dee Barnes incident, a matter of public record, was conspicuous in its absence.

Personally, I hoped to see Dr. Dre’s run-in with Barnes depicted in order to learn what drove him to such a dark place. Done well, its appearance could’ve added further complexity to the film and to the public’s understanding of Dre as a person, not to mention cast further light on the issue of violence against women.

But even with that disappointingly gaping hole, I can’t believe that anyone who was previously unfamiliar with N.W.A. saw the movie and left thinking that those dudes were on the Vatican’s short list for beatification. After all, Dre was just one member of a five man squad, and there was enough bad behavior on display by all of them to get the idea that this crew was ready and willing to get plenty dirty.

No, they didn’t depict the infamous assault, but neither did they avoid the lyrics brazenly portraying violence against women and men. Eazy-E still bragged about his inclination to smother your moms and all that. There are numerous on-screen fights, threatened fights, guns, and threats with guns. Likewise, they didn’t hide the so-called homophobic and anti-Semitic lyrics, and definitely not the bootylicious pool and sex parties. (Mental Note #1: Throw a pool party. Mental Note #2: Get a pool.)

On the real, the negative side of N.W.A. was practically a supporting character in this film. In fact, for some people there was too much negativity on screen, especially as it relates to the role of women, who were either minor characters or sextras. For those feminists, the film not only failed to uplift women, it stuck a knee in their backs and held them face down on the floor.

This is normally the part where I acknowledge the truth in the contrasting POV while urgently opposing it, but in this case, all I can manage is a confused hell to the naw.

Now, I didn’t know any bitches or dirty-ass hoes during N.W.A.’s heyday, and I’m thrilled to say that I’ve met extremely few women worthy of those pointed sobriquets more than 20 years later. But make no mistake: like the truth, they’re out there, probably in equal proportion to the skeevy, manipulative, doggish males who are their natural counterweights. Still, though they were always careful to point out that not all women are bitches during interviews, N.W.A. seemed to be constantly besieged by wack ass females, forcing me to wonder if the United Queendom of Bitchland and Hodesia was some kind of micronation nestled in a cozy corner of Compton.

I mean, these dudes talked about bitches a lot. It’s a fact. Their scandalous parties were real. Also a fact. They were touring artists, which means that they had access to a lot of women willing to get…adventurous…on any given night. This is common sense. Misogyny it may be, but is there any wonder that this stuff showed up in the movie?

In a much less cited section of Selma director Ava DuVernay’s now famous Twitter commentary on Compton, she had this to say:

I saw @ComptonMovie last night w/ friends at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Central…And damn, they got it right…I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened.”

If the ho-calling and womanizing hadn’t appeared, wouldn’t that be a prime example of the supposed sanitizing that so many are up in arms about?

The same thing goes for why there weren’t any females in starring roles. This film is about N.W.A. The last time I checked, N.W.A. was five dudes. Anyone else in the movie is there solely to give insight into or act as a foil to those characters. Period. So, if you want to see a movie with strong female leads about a group that skyrockets to stardom and then implodes, just rent fucking Dreamgirls.

With that said, the women who do get some shine in this movie play crucial roles in keeping the main characters grounded, while simultaneously moving them forward. Whether it’s Dre’s mom, or Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s wives (no doubt standing in for other women in some instances, such as Cube’s erstwhile manager and business partner Pat Charbonnet), each of them steps in at pivotal moments to exert powerful influences on these men’s emotional and even commercial lives, putting them back on track and keeping them rolling in the face of potentially catastrophic setbacks. I can’t help but see this as a deliberate attempt to acknowledge women’s behind-the-scenes contribution to the N.W.A. legacy.

And yes, those nods to the women in their lives does humanize them a bit, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend that you’re not supposed to walk out of the theater appreciating N.W.A. as highly gifted, driven visionaries. Hell, you better believe that if I have a hand in my biopic, you’ll come away believing in your tender heart of hearts that I founded Netflix, conceptualized summer Fridays, and invented yoga pants.

Real anti-heroes don't die.

Real anti-heroes don’t die.

Still, The World’s Most Dangerous Group and their heirs don’t want you hailing them as heroes, but as the ultimate anti-heroes. Their music and the exaggerated characters they played in it must be understood as standing in the same tradition as the gangster flicks from 30s down to the 80s, and especially the blaxploitation films of the 70s. They didn’t invent their content, they just brought it to a different medium and updated it to reflect the realities of the crack era.

The movie, like the music before it, reflects this thrilling, fucked-up aesthetic. Some of the people who made them did foul things before and during the production of this beautiful shit. But if you stopped consuming every piece of art, food, or clothing because someone involved with the production of said item did something bad, egregious, or vicious, then you’d be uncultured, hungry, and naked.

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Iggy and Azealia: Good and Evil In Black and White

The coin has two sides.

The coin has two sides. (Left: Revolve Clothing; Right: Jason Nocito/Spin Magazine)

I’ve spilled virtual ink on Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and their complicated relationship to each other and to music before. Twice in fact. But that was back in 2012, during this particular play’s first act. It looked like both were poised for big success and that we were destined to witness even more episodes of The Flora Wars because of it. But that was only half right.

Thus far, commercial competitiveness hasn’t been a defining element of the relationship between these two at all; it’s been the overwhelming unevenness of it. A month after Iggy’s debut album “The New Classic” dropped in April 2014, she was already standing toe-to-toe with the Beatles as the second artist in history to simultaneously occupy the #1 and #2 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album itself wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it debuted at #3 and has gone on to sell over 420K units in the U.S. alone as of early December 2014 (and that’s before counting the “Reclassified” reissue). Meanwhile, Azealia’s first official album finally made a surprise landing on November 6, 2014 and lo, the critical acclaim rained down in buckets…but sales have not. It entered the Billboard 200 at #30, selling 11K or so albums in the U.S., and if its second week sales of about 4K were any clue, it won’t be setting any records unless Black Jesus decides to grant Ms. Banks a holiday miracle.

“Black Twitter” (whatever that means) would like you to believe that Azealia is a 21st century lovechild of Nina Simone and Moms Mabley, while Iggy is just a cultural appropriator, an interloper looking to make several million fast-twerking bucks off of hip-hop culture. On the other hand, there are those who cast Iggy as a beautifully enchanted, fat-bottomed elf (the Tolkien variety, not the Christmas variety) from the Outback, who made her mark in a highly competitive genre despite being the wrong race and sex, and despite torrents of venom spewed her way by a rabidly envious, tragically wasted talent in the form of the Great Serpent, Azealia Banks.

The truth is that they’re both wrong.

We all know that Vanilla Ice was a pretender who hid behind a papier-mâché street resume and hi-top fade, but can we really say the same thing about Iggy? I’ve never heard of her misrepresenting who she is or where she’s from, in any sense of the words, as an attempt to gain acceptance or recognition. If you want to argue that because Iggy raps in an accent that is uncharacteristic of her race or where she’s from that she’s faking the funk, I’ll kindly ask you to pop in a Dana Dane tape or stream some French Montana and have a sofa’s worth of seats. Iggy grew up listening to black American rappers, so she raps like a black American rapper. Simple mathematics.

Then there’s the unspoken implication that talent is the deciding factor for whether someone gets an unrestricted pass into the Halls of Blackness. J. Cole’s recent words aside, very few black folks have anything to say about Eminem or Justin Timberlake. Of course, Eminem and J.T. happen to be top-class artists, and I’m not suggesting that Iggy is in their league. With that said, let’s be real: as a professional rapper, the woman is at least average.

I enjoy the hell out of “Work” and even as far back as “Pu$$y,” her talent was obvious. If her tracks were movies, maybe they wouldn’t be “Mad Max” yet, but cats are trying desperately to throw her in the discount bin with “Crocodile Dundee II,” and dude, that’s just wrong. I can think of multiple currently hot rappers who I’d rank like 13.7 levels below Iggy. (Cough. Migos. Cough. Young Thug.) The fact that there are constant rumors swirling that her mentor T.I. writes most/all of her lyrics, despite any real proof, should be a strong testament to her skill. Yet the hate persists.

And Iggy’s biggest hater is her nemesis, Azealia. She certainly not lonely though, ‘cause over the years Ms. Banks has gotten into more beef than a top-class Wagyu stud. I mean, the woman is firece, fiery, and flamboyant, and woe to he who trips her wire. She’s bickered with what seems to be a never-ending cavalcade of other artists and industry insiders, most importantly Interscope—which had been her major label home since 2012—before they dropped her in the summer of 2014, prior to even releasing her album. The woman has burned more bridges than the Luftwaffe, and as I’ve said before, she just seems so damned mean.

Then, last week, Azealia did an interview on Hot 97 where she articulated the frustrations that led to her most recent attack against Iggy. During the conversation, she talked about the latter’s silence in the wake of recent police violence and her view that it reflects a general lack of true concern for black people on Iggy’s part, despite an avowed love for their cultural artifacts. Overall, she lent a powerful voice to the sense that despite a general consensus that she and other black women like her are tremendously talented, many seem happy to ignore their contributions to culture.

“When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is: ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids: ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”

Her teary emotional breakdown inadvertently exposed the depth of the wounds that she’s been nursing these last few years as a black woman in her early 20s, trying to navigate the landscape of an industry built on the immolation of your kind and the appropriation of its gifts. Despite being a thirtysomething black American man, I understood her plight in a deeply personal way, without ever having walked specifically in those mesh, platform wedge boots. There’s an undeniable truth to her recognition that there’s been a consistent effort to mine black cultural talent, refine and repackage it for white audiences, then enjoy the fruits of that appropriation.

Still, I wasn’t ready to lay the blame for that at Iggy’s feet…and Iggy wasn’t ready to accept it. Instead, she pointed at Azealia’s “piss poor attitude” as the cause for her inability to capitalize on critical success. With uncharacteristic bellicose gusto, she went on taunting Azealia: “Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”

The truth is that they’re both right.

It’s easy to look at the two artists’ mismatched outcomes and see a classic good vs. evil struggle in progress. The simplicity of a story with a well-defined hero and villain can be seductive—it’s worked nicely as the foundation for mountains of myths, fairy tales, and movies, and it makes for effortless moralizing—but the best modern storytellers understand that real life isn’t always so simple. They know that the boundary separating hero and villain is often blurred, if it exists at all. And it’s actually there, in that moral no man’s land, that we find Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, their allies, and their armies, engaged in a pop cultural proxy war for control of black identity in general and black female expression in particular. The ones funding the war on both sides are the millions of white fans who prop up an exploitative system, most of whom are just young, dumb teenagers, woefully and sometimes willfully ignorant of the real cost of the album that they just downloaded, even if they jacked it for free.

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After Ferguson, Is Violence An Answer?

50 years later and we’re still holding the same signs. (Credit: Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

For my initial commentary on the killing of Michael Brown, see my earlier piece, “No Escape: The Realities of Living with Police Violence.”

I watched the post grand jury decision protests in Ferguson morph into a riot on live television, and by the time a police cruiser went up in flames my blood was boiling. I was afraid, but there was more than a little excitement coursing through me, too. I could hear the part of me that I usually don’t bring to dinner parties whispering, “Take this to Clayton. Take it to Ladue. Take it to the suburbs that white folks actually care about.” And it was that small, dark prayer that led me directly to a question: Can violence in any way help Black America in its struggle for justice?

As those thoughts crawled around my head, I tried to squash them. They embarrassed me. I knew that, one way or another, rioting would inevitably produce innocent victims. Still, I’ll be damned if watching it all unfold didn’t make me feel alive on a day in which the central message appeared to be that, at any moment, I could be killed with impunity. After a few hours though, I made an uneasy peace with that surprising sense of vitality. In so doing, I realized that I was actually entertaining the possibility, no matter how distasteful or remote, that rioting might have a role to play.

A protest is a sternly written letter to the management. 21st century America is immune to them. You can march until your feet bleed, but unless you and your faithful companions are playing bagpipes or holding a string with a colossal, inflated cartoon character at the end, you will most likely fail to capture the American imagination. Violence, however, seems to work like a bloody charm. It’s in our national DNA.

In 1773, a group of American patriots demonstrated their displeasure with a certain British tax policy by dumping what would be the equivalent of over $1.7 MM in corporate property into Boston Harbor. Less than 100 years later, 11 southern states snatched a page from their colonial forbearer’s playbook and took up arms against the U.S. government, resulting in 620,000 deaths and an estimated $1.5 B loss in Southern physical capital alone (not to mention the billions in other direct and indirect costs on both sides), and that’s in 1860 dollars: it would be more like $39 B today. The slavers lost, but they’d made their point, and after a few short years they succeeded in resetting the clock on their social and political dominance of Southern life. Fast forward one more century and the American Civil Rights Movement, the very campaign created to counter the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, was relying on violence for its effectiveness, too. Oh, it’s unequivocally true that Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed for non-violent action by protestors, but he knew very well that every blow from a policeman’s baton in Selma was worth 10,000 renditions of “We Shall Overcome” on national television. Police held those nightsticks, but they were King’s weapons.

I realize that burning and looting, even if executed in a tactically sound way, is a far cry from the noble social jujitsu that King et al. practiced. I’m not attempting to suggest otherwise. I am, however, suggesting that they both spring from a recognition that the only means of affecting change in a corrupt system is to dismantle it, either in whole or part. That process is chaotic and violent by its very nature.

If you believe that a solid proportion of your fellow citizens are aligned with your cause, no matter how quiet they may be, you might be encouraged to press forward with less aggressive displays of frustration, hopeful that those demonstrations will turn silent supporters into active advocates. On the other hand, if you find that despite crying out until your voice is a memory, most of your neighbors are either apathetic about your cause or worse, antagonistic, it becomes more difficult to trust that signs and songs will save the day.

And it in fact, it does seem as if we’ve reached a point at which learning that unarmed black people are being beaten, gassed, and killed, even when the acts are perpetrated on camera, no longer elicits a sympathetic response from much of White America. Case in point, only 15% of whites agree that Darren Wilson should’ve been charged with murder for the killing of Michael Brown—not convicted, mind you, charged—as opposed to 59% of blacks. Then, just nine days after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, we were told that Eric Garner’s killer wouldn’t be prosecuted either, despite the fact that millions of us watched the life get choked out of him needlessly, over and over again on YouTube and the news. How can you find common ground with someone when you apparently live in entirely separate dimensions?

Here’s to hoping that this image is the first word in an answer to my question. (Credit: Johnny Nguyen)

It should be apparent that I have no answers to present here. I don’t fancy myself a revolutionary. I’m certainly not foolhardy enough to think that any sustained violent interaction with the police or other authorities would ever lead to the establishment of a somehow more just regime in our country. And I’m loath to picture an America where destructive clashes with the powers that be become as common here as they are in…well, much of the world touched by European colonialism. Yet I now find it difficult to rid myself of this question of violence, and I’m a thirty-something MBA who’s a product of prep school and the Ivy League.

Many of the people in my circle share similar pedigrees, and I’ve been shocked at the number of them who’ve almost squealed in agreement when I’ve relayed my dismaying thoughts about the Ferguson riots. We are not disaffected urban youth with nothing to lose. Not by a long shot. We’ve got careers, and summer shares, and kids. And still, here we are, basking in the televised glow of a burning cop car, asking ourselves whether launching a brick through a window might bring us at least some small measure of psychological relief. It’s a question we don’t want to ask, but it’s becoming difficult to avoid. And that should scare America to death.

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Holleration and Harassment on the Streets of New York

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh/Huffington Post

There are men who believe that come hither witticisms such as, “Must be jelly, ‘cause jam don’t shake like that,” “You’ve got a great future behind you,” and “COTDAMN THEM SOME BIG ASS TITTIES,” might actually induce a woman to produce a bodily fluid other than vomit. Most of us know that they’re wrong. The thing is, fellow penis-pushers, “Hi, how are you?” and “Good evening, beautiful,” are now considered cringeworthy microaggressions, too.

That’s the major lesson I gleaned from the Hollaback street harassment video that’s been bouncing around for the last few days. It’s bad news for regular cats like me who are only occasionally creepy and who really try not to contribute to women’s sexism-related stress. Heaven knows y’all have enough going on as it is, what with trying to figure out what shade of lipstick goes best with your new Givenchy Antigona bag and all. Unfortunately, Hollaback makes no distinction between what’s complimentary, neutral, or offensive, so we can only assume that everything that they show is presented as an example of gross male behavior.

Lucky for you, being the good little amateur social scientist that I am, I took a closer look. I watched the video at least 10 times, carefully tallying each statement that I heard, assigning them to positive, neutral, and negative categories. In the end, I came up with 45 separate statements, classifying 18 of them as positive, 3 as neutral, and 24 as negative. (If you want to nitpick the spreadsheet I used to log each statement then be my guest, hotshot.) While 24 sexist comments are about 24 too many, the fact that I would characterize nearly half of the statements as non-problematic kind of disturbed me. Are some women overreacting, or am I just being phallically insensitive?

I ended up concluding that both answers are likely true.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could paint those 21 comments I labeled positive or neutral as sexist in good faith. On Facebook, a woman commented that “all that false politeness is definitely swaghili for ‘Hi, you want some dick possibly maybe?’” First off, “swaghili”? Second, here’s a newsflash: 90% of the compliments a woman has ever received from an unrelated man about her nice dress, great hair, or perfect face were preceded by a fantasy of removing said nice dress, pulling said great hair, or twisting said perfect face into an ecstatic grimace. Still, you can’t punish a person for thoughtcrimes—yet—and besides, there’s nothing wrong with sexual desire in and of itself. If a woman is offended just because she can sense that a man is turned on by her, it’s not his fault. Right? Well, no, but, I can understand why she might feel that way.

Unfortunately, it’s become difficult for a lot of women to differentiate between kind words from an admirer and the prurient drivel of a sleaze: the din from the latter is simply too deafening. Shit is so out of hand that some women are compelled to question not just the motivation for advances, but the very nature of communication from any unknown man. It’s as if the invisible expanse that transmits positive energy from man to woman through good game, which I’ll call The Hollerational Field, has been unnaturally warped by bad actors.

Instead of seeing a colorful pitchman for a shady money lending establishment, we see a weird old dude flagrantly objectifying a passing woman. (“I just found a thousand dollars,” he says as he holds out what looks to be money at 1:15. Found. Not saw.) At 0:50, instead of seeing a polite young man bid an attractive lady good morning and continue on the path along which he already happened to be walking (this “scene” starts and ends with our heroine and her would-be antagonist walking east on 125th St.), we see a male threatening a female by invading her personal space for five scary minutes. Either classification could be true, but an anger that has been honed to a fine point by fear presses hard into women’s backs, nudging them toward the harassment side of the room. The good guys didn’t contribute to this development, but if we care about our sisters then we do have to shoulder the burden of the existing reality.

So, I try not to stare. (Waiting until she can’t see me and then rubbernecking until I almost run into a street sign doesn’t count as staring, by the way.) If the power of the gonads is just too difficult to resist and I find that I absolutely must compliment a woman, I raise my voice like 1.5 octaves and smile like a Mormon. And if I’m in a bar and a woman asks me to pretend like we’re together in order to throw off an unwanted pursuer, I do it…even if she’s not cute. It’s all in an effort to balance the scales.

The good news is that there’s still some room for wholesome street-level holleration. A few years ago, I saw a bombshell walking down a busy New York City street and let her pass me by. As luck would have it, I peeped her again the very next day, and wasn’t about to let history repeat itself. I literally ran half an avenue block to catch up, calling out to catch her attention. When I reached her, I looked her in her big, brown eyes and told her she was gorgeous, amongst other things. Not wildly inventive, true, but I delivered it with Clintonian conviction, and we ended up dating for almost two years. True story. Then again, she broke my heart, so maybe I should’ve just asked if she had a mirror in her pants and kept it moving.

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