Baltimore City Paper

No Trivia: Baltimore and Ferguson, protest music, and the importance of shutting the hell up

Protest dog (shirt reads "JUSTICE")

The night before the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown, would not be indicted, I drunkenly derailed City Paper’s “Blade Runner” post-screening conversation at The Windup Space to point out that for all intents and purposes, Deckard, the main character in that movie (whose job in the movie is to “retire” or kill robots that’ve gone AWOL) is a cop and, well, “cops suck.” The Ferguson announcement and the grim inevitability that it would be some class-A fucked-up shit was sitting in the back of my mind already.

My “cops suck” blathering angered a few sci-fi nerds in the crowd who see this important, influential but deeply flawed film as some kind of text that cannot be critiqued at all and must be extricated from “real life” and just be a movie, and they may have a point, and I am most certainly a dick, but I also oppose tone-policing of any kind, and I really do give a shit and it was hard to watch “Blade Runner” and not think of Ferguson, sorry.
Then again, I see and hear Ferguson in everything lately:  It reverberated through "Night of the Living Dead" when I watched that movie (which ends with an innocent black man getting shot in the head by a cop) during a Halloween horror marathon in October; it seemed to leach through a Boiler Room live stream of Bmore DJs spinning emotive, angry club music  back in August; it bumped into the story of Baltimore rapper Young Moose, a target of vindictive Det. Daniel Hersl. Shit, man, I thought of it on Thanksgiving when one of my family members’ kids was playing with a small cap gun and I thought of how there’s a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice who was shot by a cop last month for having a gun not unlike the one my cousin had in his hands, and how my white cousin would never be killed if he wielded a toy gun in public.
I’ve also been thinking about the music I’ve been listening to and why I’m listening to it and whether or not I feel like I “should” be listening to it. I think hard about my listening habits because it’s my job—or rather, it is my job because I think so hard about my listening habits—and I noticed that the records I’ve been listening to the most the past few days (Lavender Country’s self-titled album, Lil Boosie’s “Life After Death Row,” J. Robbins’ “Abandoned Mansions,” and Sonny Sharrock’s “Black Woman”) are all, in their own ways, protest music. Or maybe I’ve turned them into protest music.
The first three are hyperarticulate records of cogent dissent: “Lavender Country,” a seething gay-rights country album from 1973 (songs include ‘Come Out Singin’’ and ‘Straight White Patterns’); “Life After Deathrow,” a mix of rap rants about the terror of incarceration and bursts of empathy handed to everybody from fellow prisoners of the drug war to a teenage girl embarrassed about an STD she received; and in “Abandoned Mansions,” a good ol’ fashioned pissed-off troubadour record that is especially urgent and apocalyptic.
It’s as if I had enough rage in me already, so I was interested in artists that could focus it and turn it into mini, musical theses. With the final record, “Black Woman,” though, it’s about beyond-words expression. The record is meandering free-jazz guitar with hints of the blues, and Linda Sharrock (Sonny’s wife and frequent collaborator deserving of a larger cult of her own) warbles, howls, and screams. If, like me, your favorite Beatle is Yoko, then “Black Woman” is for you.
The day after the announcement, I walked home from The Sun building, Linda Sharrock delightfully wailing in my ears, feeling icky about not going to the protest that night, which was about to begin, mostly justifying it to myself because I have a dog I must feed and take out. But I kept rolling all this shit around in my head, mad at myself for not going, thinking, even though I knew I at least had a kind of genuine “reason” for not heading over there, my integrity was still in question. I got home and immediately began scanning Twitter, reading tweets from friends at the protest and organizers and seeing images of the protest and well, it just didn’t feel right not going.
So I decided to walk from Charles Village to downtown and bring my dog with me—otherwise I couldn’t have gone because I couldn’t really leave the poor guy all night after he was alone for most of the day. Aware that bringing a dog to a protest is a capital-W white-person thing to do and realizing that bringing a dog to a protest that is about racism in the United States of America, where dogs have been and are still used to intimidate and injure protestors, was rather loaded, I realized I needed to subtly make my intentions clear. So, I pulled out a T-shirt I had from previous big-deal systematic injustice in this country, the murder of Trayvon Martin, cut the sleeves off the shirt, and put it on my dog. Now he was at least simpatico with the protests, sporting a shirt (designed by Houston's DJ Chill) that features the silhouette of a man in a hoodie with a heart shape where his face is and the word “JUSTICE” underneath.
We walked the hour or so downtown. The demographics of this protest actually seemed to reflect the city’s demographics, which was refreshing. What I mean is the protest was majority black, which means white people like myself, and those whites who are significantly more engaged in activism on the day-to-day basis than me, deferred to black organizers because this was their fucking protest and we understood that. Eventually, the protest (actually, a separate protest) headed over to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, then to Pennsylvania Avenue, and then traveled back down North Avenue. In short, the protest itself crossed this kind of well-understood-by-whites “line” that we do not go over, which speaks to, once again, whites not determining the literal as well as the figurative path of the protest, at least in this regard.
Talking about the protests over the past few days makes me tear up, because it’s rare to be surrounded by so much sincerity and purity and good intentions and people risking something. And when all of us stopped on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, arms interlocked, and then sat down for a moment of silence (which even my dog, who sat patiently and quietly for the four and a half minutes, just implicitly understood), the only noise was idling engines and nearby police helicopters. It was a far more soothing and cathartic and real and rage-filled sound than any of that shit I’d been banging on my iPod. Here was a way to address Ferguson without running my mouth. That’s particularly hard for yours truly to do, but it is also a skill that all of us white people who think of ourselves as allies need to sharpen.