August 21, 2009

George Jackson

September 23, 1941 - August 21, 1971
"We can only be repressed if we stop thinking and stop fighting."

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, former Crips leader turned prison anti-gang activist, was strapped to a chair and killed by the state of California in late 2005. His appeal for clemency had been denied by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cited Tookie's one-time dedication to fellow prisoner of conscience George Jackson as "a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems." Jeff Chang's assertion that "Tookie [died] for George Jackson's sins" (see the link above) is fitting--even though Williams spent his time in prison working tirelessly to end gang violence in black working-class communities, his veneration of revolutionaries like Jackson was enough to bring the guillotine down upon him.

I read Jackson's 1971 manifesto Blood in My Eye a few months after Tookie's death, and I immediately saw why the state would want to cast Jackson as a bearer of "violence and lawlessness." The book is, in essence, the American transliteration of guerrilla warfare stratagems written by folks like Che Guevara and Mao Zedong--the reimagination of the metropole as the epicenter of the American revolution, a blueprint for the forceful uprising of an indignant underground army. Jackson was killed 38 years ago today (well, yesterday) as the result of an alleged prison riot--according to officials, he was hiding a pistol in his afro. To this day, however, details are hazy and many people speculate that his assassination was an act of silencing him--that is, the very enactment of state violence that Jackson himself sought to overturn.

I have my own disagreements with Blood in My Eye, similar to the ones rife in Jackson's Black Panther Party around the time of his death. Famously, in that same year Eldridge Cleaver split from the leadership to amass such an armed underground cabal, the Black Liberation Army, while co-founder Huey Newton continued to develop his communitarian visions of popular self-determination within black (and oppressed) communities. I am perhaps more attuned to Newton's ideas, but I cannot help but stand in awe of Jackson's force. Blood in My Eye infuses a haunting beauty into the specter of an America crumbling from the fury of the dispossessed, burgeoning with the details of how such an internal war might be won. Violent it is, but lawless? Jackson may have wanted to dance in the flames of the cityscape, but only since he had already bore witness to the "law" as it was--he was jailed indefinitely for stealing $70, and he died for trying to envision, and actualize, a new legal order that didn't serve primarily to contain the indigent.

Tookie and Jackson may seem divergent in the messages they spread while incarcerated; the former worked to deter young black men from joining gangs, while the latter sought to reallocate capital through armed resistance. But they share an intertwined destiny--the state killed them both, in the very same prison--and perhaps this illuminates their similarities. From behind bars, both men sought to transform the operative potential of black youth, redirecting them from gang warfare to a deeper project of social transformation--one that dared to question the very sanctity of the prison system and its enduring presence in poor communities of color. The two sought peace by different means, but they both died for the crime of thinking outside the box (or cell).

Blood in My Eye remains one of my favorite books to this day--not because I believe in his prescriptions, but rather because it's an inspiring and painful glimpse into the final words (it was completed days before his death) of a man with the boot to his neck, clawing viciously for air. Jackson has been long gone, but his writings have remained for the posterity of critical thinkers who have wept in gratitude for his temerity to speak the unspeakable. We may never know his suffering, but we owe it to him to preserve the part of him that remains.

The body evanescent, the spirit eternal. Rest In Power.

June 26, 2009

Peace, Mike.


I was born six months before Bad hit shelves. That is to say, my familiarity with Michael Jackson's salad days grew not during their moments of inception--I was far too young--but rather in glimpses of recollection: Halloween costumes, music videos on public access television, my dad trying to moonwalk in socks across the kitchen floor (emphasis on "trying"). I grew up in a time when his invincibility had long since begun to fracture under the scalding gaze of the limelight, but his adherents were just as prevalent as his detractors and satirists.

After all, Michael Jackson was not merely the cornerstone of modern pop music, but the very embodiment of American pop culture. The public saw him make the impossible leap from musical wunderkind to American sex symbol, propelled him to dizzying levels of superstardom, and then slowly began to chip away at the pedestal beneath him. The vitiligo. The plastic surgery. The perennial accusations of child molestation. The speculations of bankruptcy. I don't think the wealthy should be granted double standards, and pedophilia is no laughing matter, but Mike's life is a bitter example of how quickly the public eye can eviscerate its own heroes.

His death, naturally, has sparked the latest round of caprice. In the first postmortem moments it has finally become taboo to speak ill of his eccentricities, a collective exhortation to remember him for his superlative music and not his maladies. I welcome the celebration, a fitting if not melancholy conclusion to a man whose artistic contributions have a profound resonance to this very day. Undoubtedly his passing has helped many to remember how many people he's entranced over the years, but it cannot come at the expense of public amnesia. I do not mean to say that we should not recognize his artistic prowess first and foremost, but rather we should view his public decline in a far different perspective. To ignore the troubling parts of his life is to bypass our own complicity in the matter.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, for I am certain that many of his mourners never turned on him in the way that mainstream media has encouraged us to do. But I am also reminded of that memorable scene from Three Kings, when an Iraqi soldier suggests that Mike's facial transformations are symptomatic of a public that has grotesquely mistreated him. "He did it to himself!" is the American response, a frantic attempt to self-exonerate. Yet the "enemy's" words are ultimately far more pressing--"Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country." We cannot claim public ownership of Mike's music without understanding that the other side of his life is equally ours as well. His eternal quest for childlike innocence and lavish consumerism were the symptoms of a disease that was not grown in his mind alone--they were the cancerous attachments to the same avenues of communication and distribution that brought his music to the masses. Again, Mike was pop culture, the posterchild of a public instinct that seeks solace in commodities, in the exorbitant sanctum of Neverland Ranch, and that drowns out the tumult in the prescription drugs that possibly took his life.

I truly hope Michael Jackson has found the peace for which he's been looking, the serenity that could neither be bought nor swallowed daily. He may not have left this earth with the dignity that the public sapped from him over the years, and it is not enough that we might retroactively restore it only in his eternal absence. Yet it is the least we can do--when the stinging shock of his loss comes to fade and the next media hype beckons for our ephemeral attention spans, to remember MJ not only as a musical giant but a public sacrifice, to confront the idea that we were as easily captivated by the witch hunts that tailed him as we are moved by his discography. Lest we think, when the shit hits the fan, that he brought it all upon himself.