The Greatest Privilege of All

by AntiDote’s Ed Sutton

My good friend and comrade in the AntiDote Writers Collective, Laurent Moeri, has recently written a very moving series of portraits; short vignettes about the deaths of children and young people at the hands of authorities. It is called Berkin Elvan Lebt (“Berkin Elvan Lives;” the full English version is now available here).

But Berkin Elvan is dead.

Alexis Grigoropoulos is dead. Mohamed Bouazizi is dead. So are thousands upon thousands of anonymous children buried under rubble or starved and frozen in Syria, or “pushed back” into the Mediterranean by border patrols guarding Fortress Europe.

This is only to name a few of Laurent’s portrait subjects. We all know the cemetery is much larger. To expand the scope for our American audience: José Antonio Elena Rodriguez is dead. Oscar Grant is dead. Andy Lopez Cruz is dead. Jonathan Ferrell is dead. These are just a handful of the more widely-publicized cases of unarmed young people of color murdered by police. The list, obviously, goes on.

It extends also to other contexts parallel to those illustrated in Laurent’s funereal text: the lethal ardor of the Mexican-U.S. border crossing is well known. The gross imprecision of JSOC’s drone strikes across South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa is well known. The names of the children whose lives these imperial structures have claimed are not.

But they are dead.

I am not. You are not!

This frankly makes no real sense, that they are dead and we are not. Now, this is not some broad platitude about the randomness, or the futility—or the gift—of life. It is even more annoying than that. I want to talk about guilt and regret; let’s talk about crime and punishment. Let’s talk about privilege.

I recently made a disturbing connection.

On July 20th 2001, I was at a baseball game getting drunk with some friends. I know the date because it was my 21st birthday. I had been having a rough year—as rough as it can get for a white male college student in the United States—and I reveled in the escape, and in my new ability to buy beer for my buddies. I don’t remember how the game turned out.

On the very same day, a long way away, a very different game turned out very badly for Carlo Giuliani. He had just turned 23—in Italy, he had been able to buy beer for his friends for a while already. On the streets of Genoa, amid fears of the growing alter-globalization movement that had yet to become a collateral casualty of 9/11—only weeks away—the Italian military police attacked a massive demonstration against the G8 summit…

The incident of Carlo’s murder is gruesomely well-documented. We have all seen the photographs: Carlo is seen approaching a police truck, raising a fire extinguisher over his head; the carabiniere’s pistol is visible, pointing out the back window of the truck. Then Carlo is on the ground. There is video footage, which I wish I hadn’t seen, of blood splashing in rhythmic arcs out of his balaclava. There are screams of shock and disbelief from the crowd; a few fellow demonstrators rush to his prone body, utterly helpless.

Carlo Giuliani is dead. I am not! I was watching baseball.

That doesn’t make me innocent. Of course, an exhaustive accounting of my own various infractions as a young man would be tedious and cloying. But while I have never thrown a fire extinguisher through the window of a police truck (neither had Alexis Grigoropoulos…or Carlo Giuliani for that matter), I have stolen, I have damaged property, and I have been in confrontations with police. Call it self-centered to say so, but I don’t think any of this means I should be shot.

I’ve played loud music in a gas station parking lot. It might even have been hip-hop. I don’t think I should get shot for that, either.

I’ve gone to a corner bakery for bread in a city tense with recurring demonstrations and swarming with riot police; still somehow a well-aimed teargas canister never shattered my skull.

I’ve emigrated! Thankfully not under life-threatening circumstances (in a way, shouldn’t that decrease my chances of getting a residence permit in a new country when there are so many people who need one way more?). Either way, nobody’s tried to drown me like a kitten in a bathtub. Nobody has told me I stink (even though I do!) and told me to go home, and threatened me and my family if I didn’t.

Perhaps you have never done any of these things. But I bet you’ve been up to some ‘innocent’ hijinks. To be fair, all of the theft, vandalism, police evasion, and drug use I’ve taken part in was also ‘innocent.’ All of the pranks, nuisances, protests, and confrontations, too. The same could be said—but rarely is—of Adrian Broadway, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin.

They are dead.

A couple years after I left my hometown for college, the state legislature passed a conceal-and-carry law. Returning home on a break, I met up with some friends and we started reminiscing and talking about getting back up to some of the bull we used to pull during high school. One of us joked, “we can’t do that shit anymore. They’ve got guns now.”

We obviously had nothing to worry about. We were (mostly) white. ‘Innocent.’ But it occurs to me now that we can’t do that, they’ve got guns is a refrain that, consciously or unconsciously, restrains the behavior of countless millions of people around the world. People who might otherwise get up to a bit of fun or, god forbid, challenge the corrupt, repressive authority of their governments.

And then it occurs to me that some people do those things anyway.

“Check your privilege” is a popular phrase in Left circles, as it should be. Part of privilege-checking, though, should be appreciating the courage—or even just the playful human beauty—of people who don’t have your privilege, don’t have the same odds you have of ‘getting away with it,’ but who do ‘it’ anyway. Almost everywhere you look, there are people pulling some shit, standing up, crossing borders, claiming freedoms they don’t have by exercising those freedoms regardless.

Maybe you’re standing oblivious in the centerfield bleachers at a ballgame. Or maybe you’re standing boldly beside some of these people who live and fight without the armor of privilege. Either way, stand in awe. Stand in humility. The price they pay, sometimes their lives, is one very rarely asked of us.

Image: painting by @MyBrazilianGirl (Twitter) of Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin entitled Legal Terrorism

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