Broken Windows, Broken Spines

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

By Robert C. Koehler

The 21st century has skewed off plan and begun to break open. Its self-designated guardians and explainers look on, at times, confused.

“But at least 15 police officers have been hurt, 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires — these are statistics. There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?”

This is CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewing DeRay Mckesson last week as Baltimore convulsed. Mckesson, an organizer and citizen-journalist — a young, former school administrator radicalized last summer by the death of Michael Brown — stared into the camera and refused to succumb to, or be ensnared in, the anchorman’s agenda. That agenda was obvious: to turn “the riot” into the news, to sever Baltimore’s fury and despair from its cause, a militarized police force and the casual, ongoing murder of African-Americans. The official agenda was to portray the protesters as terrorists.

“Yeah, and there’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore City Police Department killed in the last year either, right?” McKesson answered, flipping the interview on its head.

The mainstream news is supposed to be delivered with a ho-hum and a smirk. It’s not supposed to be deep or intelligent. It’s deliberately superficial in most ways in order to avoid making awkward connections — you know, about police violence, militarized society, war. This stuff is all official and necessary (not to mention integral to our economy). The only connections the corporate media ever make are the ties that bad people — our enemies — have to one another, and to ISIS or al-Qaeda.

The back-and-forth between Blitzer and Mckesson went on for four minutes, with the anchorman continuing to assume he was in control, continuing to pester Mckesson about the damage wrought by protesters. “We’re not making comparisons,” he said, dismissing the police violence. “Obviously, we don’t want anybody hurt. But I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

For Mckesson to “agree” with Blitzer, he would have had to join him in trivializing the protesters’ deep cry for change, both in King’s day and today. Yes, of course, peaceful protests are appropriate and right, Mckesson acknowledged, but, regarding the damage some have done, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it, right? The pain that people feel is real.

“And you are making a comparison. You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right? . . . The violence the police have been inflicting on communities of color has been sustained and deep.

“And I also know that Freddie Gray will never be back. And those windows will be.”

This is what the new civil rights movement looks like, as it inserts itself into the 21st century’s corridors of control and power. The marginalized are supposed to keep their anger to themselves or, yeah, divert it into crime and thus fuel the lucrative business of militarization. Instead, many people, as they find each other through the social media, are uniting to challenge a brutally destructive status quo — and, remarkably, they are succeeding at putting the status quo itself into the national spotlight.

Moral outrage rises from the grass roots. Broken windows don’t matter at the same level as broken spines — as racism and poverty and the scapegoating of the poor. Black lives matter. All lives matter.

These truths could so easily be no more than tepid clichés. Instead, a paradigm is shifting — ever so slightly, perhaps, but noticeably, noticeably. Politicians, who have mostly ignored these truths for three decades, are starting to pay attention again.

In Baltimore, of course, the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s illegal arrest and spine-wrecking “rough ride,” were immediately arrested and charged in his death. So was the officer in North Charleston, S.C., who shot Walter Scott in the back a week earlier.

Marilyn Mosby, the Maryland state’s attorney for the city of Baltimore, said: “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man, those that are angry or hurt or have their own experience of injustice.”

As Jay Caspian Kang wrote this week in the New York Times Magazine, in a powerful piece about McKesson and the new social-media activists: “The swiftness with which the movement now acts, and the volume of people it can bring out to every protest, have turned every police killing into a national referendum on the value of black lives in America.”

And even the prospective presidential candidates are expressing horror at the ongoing police killings and talking about systemic reform. This includes Hillary Clinton, who, Kang noted, has called for “a ‘true national debate’ on how to end the ‘era of mass incarceration’” — perhaps officially unburying centrist Democrats from three-plus decades of cowardice and capitulation to the Reagan right.

I say this knowing there’s no certainty of serious change at this point — only the likelihood of continuing outrage, as police violence continues to be captured on cellphone videos. I pray for more than superficial “reform.” I pray for a lasting shift in national consciousness: Black lives matter. All lives matter.

It’s time to demilitarize our thinking. The price of social change is too steep to settle for less.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at