As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.
For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.
As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late:
The dystopia of “The Suburbs” is only dystopian because its protagonists are white. The dark images of the video are only prophetic because they take place in wealthy suburbs, and because it’s white people being dragged off in the night. It’s unsettling to me because it’s “home,” a world rather close to what I grew up in, being “invaded” by militarized forces. If we replaced the protagonists with black kids, however, it wouldn’t be prophetic at all, in the sense of predicting the future. It would simply be descriptive.
In other words, that which so unsettles me about the video about what might happen in white America is happening in Ferguson right now, and by extension throughout black America.
And what is happening? War. Nothing less than war. And a rather one-sided one, at that.
The fact that I am so late in drawing this conclusion is shameful to me, but I must meet that shame as I am called to: by speaking and teaching, which as usual means asking hard questions. And so I give you the Ferguson Queries.
The St. Louis American editorial places the roots of the Ferguson crisis as far back as the “white flight” of the 1960s. How did Quakers take part in, respond to, or resist “white flight” (if at all)? How do Quakers currently take part in the segregation of living spaces that persists in most American cities?
The spark of the Ferguson crisis was sparked by a police officer using excessive force, like the 2011 London riots after the killing of Mark Duggan, and the riots in Oakland following the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009, and the Rodney King Riots in 1992, and a host of others. How do Friends deal with the police? Do police treat Friends with respect? Do Friends call the police?
The queries of the last paragraph are related to the age-old conundrum of pacifists being protected by armed forces. Many Friends attempt to distance themselves from the military: some refuse to pay war taxes, many protest wars and work to prevent future conflicts. How should Friends respond to the war(s) going on within US borders? Do any Friends refuse to pay law-enforcement taxes? Do any Friends refuse to call the police?
If Friends extended the peace testimony to avoiding calling on or paying for armed police forces, what alternatives exist? What alternatives could be created?
Are we faithful enough to entrust our lives to the Greatest Peacemaker rather than to human institutions and human violence?
The protests in Ferguson have been largely peaceful, but have been marked by some riots and looting. As is typical, many people have supported the protests but condemned the rioting. One writer of color, however, questions this: “I question a society that values property over black life.” That’s Brittney Cooper. Even Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and connected it to economics as well. How do Friends respond to rioting in the wake of police violence? Does condemning the rioting value property over life, as Cooper asserts? Does it support the system by placing limits on how we respond to injustice? Or does tolerating rioting mean fostering more violence? How do we respond to those who insist that what is going on is not rioting but rebellion?
Do we require all our allies to ascribe to our principles of nonviolence before we support their causes?
If we continue to condemn all violence, what alternatives do we offer, for all sides?
I do not ask these queries because I question nonviolence. I ask these queries to remind Friends what nonviolence requires. Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, taught nonviolence to Dr. King. But Rustin, being black, knew what it was that he was asking King to do. We must bear the cost of our commitment to nonviolence firmly in mind if we are to build true peace.
The video I began this post with foresaw war coming to America, in the form of military force used nakedly in our homes and daily lives. As I see now, this is only a prophecy for white people. Many people of color, particularly poor people of color, already live in such a world. And so “The Suburbs” may have been written as a dark fantasy, but it in fact tells a darker truth: we really are fighting a suburban war. My part of town is fighting another part of town.
I also see intersections far beyond race. I foresee that as the world warms and food prices rise, the struggle between rich and poor in this country will become more acute. People of color are already very much in the path of the storm when it comes to climate change—literally, in the case of Super-Typhoon Haiyan, last year (and every other typhoon to strike the battered Philippines). I also foresee that the political and cultural divisions that have rent the United States apart before will strain the country again. The combination of gun-rights activists and “stand your ground” laws seem guaranteed to cause bloodshed, and indeed, how long before gun-rights activists decide that gun-control activists simply have to be killed? To say nothing of the abortion debate. Both of these, by the way, intersect with the aforementioned racial tensions enormously. Women of color, so long denied control of their own bodies historically, are still struggle for exactly that control. And think of how police treat armed white “open-carry” activists compared to how they treat armed black men.
So, last questions. Friends have been working for peace the world over—Kenya, Israel and Palestine, Latin America, and of course the lobbying efforts of FCNL in Washington DC. How must we also work for peace right here in the United States? Where are we in the “life cycle of a conflict”? Clearly there is overt war on some of our streets. Can we restore peace to this country? Or is the conflict gone too far? Is it doomed to spread?
And what does the Spirit ask of us? For it is at work, if we can only find it. There is hope somewhere, and peace. The road there always, always lies through the Light. But we will need to open our eyes and ears wide, wide, wide. If we can choose not to see a war beneath our noses, how can we hear the still small voice?