It has been a dispiriting time in the United States, which feels more and more like a dis-united, deeply divided and disturbingly dissociated society. Again and again we see the same sad drama being repeated of unarmed African-American men being killed in our cities by heavily armed, highly militarized, and seemingly trigger-happy police who are then exonerated by a very forgiving and police-friendly court system for murdering members of the very society who they are duty-sworn to protect. Opinion polls, journalistic and sociological investigations and, I would add, discussions in my own classes reveal that white Americans tend to trust and support the police and excuse what they do as necessary and proper, whereas black Americans are outraged and ready to explode in grief, anger and the cumulative weight of trauma and stress at decades of abuse and threat, living in a violent, hypocritical land where black lives don't seem to matter. This is why many people marching to protest the police's long history of violent actions against African-Americans have taken up the slogan, "Black Lives Matter."
Sadly, this proud assertion bears within it the anguished accusation that black lives may NOT matter to many Americans, a fear that seems borne out by the lack of compassion many white Americans show for the growing numbers of African-American human beings gunned down without mercy by "public safety" officers. Apparently, to some, only authority figures like police and soldiers deserve respect and compassion, and there is plenty of concern on the right wing side of American society that police officers who commit such killings of black Americans might suffer any consequences for their actions. The right-wing defenses of the police range from the hackneyed old favorite, "They were just doing their job," a reliable rehash of the old Nazi Nuremberg defense, to a sense that those who were killed deserved to die because of their own improper conduct. After all, Michael Brown had grabbed some cigars out of a convenience store before his run-in with the police officer Darren Wilson, and young Tamir Rice had dared play around with a toy pellet gun on an empty playground. Clearly, the extermination of such dangerous individuals by our heroic police is not to be questioned or lamented, but applauded and held up to a warning to all African-Americans that they should be more careful about their behavior. I am reminded of Nazi Germany, where the abuse and even slaying of Jews and other "undesirable elements" by Storm Troopers and other uniformed forces would be held up as exemplary. I am also reminded of the Ku Klux Klan, whose ranks have often been known to include police and justice system officials.
The dying words of Eric Garner, "I can't breathe," have also been echoed across the land, including by some leading athletes, showing a moral courage and ethical compass lacking in some previous generations of American sports stars. I find this phrase extremely poignant, even prophetic, because America is becoming a place where many of us feel we can no longer breathe--or speak--or think--freely. Everywhere you turn, rising authoritarianism, what might even be characterized as 21st century Fascism, is stifling the freedom that our society supposedly aspires to. I want to believe in this country's ability to be a place where people can live in peace and security and have a decent life, but that belief is being constantly tested by what I see around me. In addition to the mistreatment of African-Americans, we have the continual grinding down of poor and middle-class Americans by a cold and uncaring corporate economic structure, which expects people to work harder and harder for less and less of a share of the wealth that their labor produces, under harsher and harsher conditions as labor unions and anything else that might give the workers a better shot in life are dismantled. And, with the scarcity of good-paying jobs and the lack of job security even for those with decently-paying positions, the corporate state runs a reign of terror over its labor force, whose members are understandably worried that they will lose whatever security and prosperity they now possess. Many people are too scared to speak out. They "can't breathe" either.
Remember what happened to the Occupy Wall Street protests of Fall 2011? On the very same day in November of 2011, the mayors of many cities activated their police in a coordinated, nation-wide effort to sweep the protestors out of the public spaces where they were conducting their peaceful protests. What was their crime? Were they really a threat to public order? No. They were a threat to Wall Street, our true seat of government. They were challenging the right of the financial order to dictate the terms of life in our society. On that day when the police swept those protestors away, we got to see who the police really work for. And in the pools of blood that congealed around the dead bodies of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, among others, we have been provided a vivid demonstration of who the police see as expendable enemies.
Occupy Wall Street withered away because of its unfocused leadership structure, which was admirably open and democratic but open and democratic to the point of confusion and disorganization. Nonetheless, the Occupy movement did succeed in raising issues of financial impropriety and income inequality that leaders like Elizabeth Warren are now elevating in the public forum. The new "Black Lives Matter" protest movement seems better organized for the long haul, and I believe it will endure and serve as the backbone of a new civil rights movement that is very much needed in a country sliding backwards into old patterns of discrimination against minorities and indifference by the majority.
As a Pagan who has been striving for some years to oppose racist and militaristic strands in Modern Norse Paganism/Asatry/Heathenry, and in other forms of Paganism as well, I find my resolve hardened and my fighting spirit roused by these recent events. Pagans who like swords and guns and weapons and armies and soldiers may find themselves siding with the police in regards to the situations unfolding in Ferguson, Cleveland, NYC and elsewhere, but I am very proud and clear in my opposition to police brutality and the cult of weapon-love and soldier-worship that can blind us to the inhumanity that soldiers, police and other armed authority officials and state security figures can be tempted to engage in, a temptation that may then come to be seen as a virtue and shut off from rational critique and consideration. I respect policemen, policewomen, soldiers and others who carry out their work with respect for the public and who do not believe that because they wear badges and uniforms and carry guns that they are some kind of master race that society should respect, accept and never question, no matter what they do. As a teacher, I too have power and authority and accept that if I were ever to abuse my power and cause harm to my students, I would be questioned about my actions, disciplined for any misbehavior, and even released from employment and put on trial in the most extreme case. I want to see the same standard applied to police across this land.
And, when I see how racialized perceptions of African-Americans as unreasoning, dangerous beasts seem to have led the police officers involved in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice incidents to conclude that these black males had to be subdued with maximum force as quickly as possible, I am all the more committed to advocating for forms of Asatru and Paganism that are not merely non-racist, but anti-racist. We cannot just look away and say, "Too bad about those race problems... now let's enjoy our all-white fellowship." We should actively seek to invite non-white, non-European individuals into our ritual activities and fellowship groups to ensure that our Paganism is most emphatically not a modern form of racism disguised as spirituality with a bit of medieval lore camouflage sprinkled on top. Let us all be conscious of these matters to ensure that our religious groups uphold the highest moral and spiritual values that we can aspire to rather than catering to the most base and regrettable tendencies that continue to haunt our world.