“A few of the images may be familiar from other documentaries: deputies prodding King and Abernathy onto the pavement with batons, probably in Selma; a black man shoved up against a wall in Watts in 1965 gets in a blow at a surprised cop and is answered by three or four wildly swinging batons; they are swinging again in 1992, beating Rodney King, and not just for a few seconds of video either,” writes Darryl Pinckney in The New York Times Book Review, describing Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro.
Familiar images, yes, but the phrase that sticks with me here is swinging again. Every day, it seems, people are swinging again, almost always at those who don’t deserve it. Despicable. Unconscionable. Yet written, yet scripted, by nefarious forces. By the ones in charge.
Writers are not exactly in charge. You don’t really decide what you write, George Saunders tells us in the Guardian. Something just occurs to you, so you try it: “He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.”
This is not what is happening when people are swinging again. It did not innately occur to them, could never occur to anyone but the most mentally deranged, to suddenly swing at, swing again at, shoot at, to kill, another person for no reason at all. It does occur, often, to someone else, someone powerful, that they should get others to swing for them, to keep up their dominance.
We are taught to swing. And because we are taught, we must un-learn and un-teach. Anytime we hear about a swing, we need to say: that makes no sense. There is no reason to swing at that person. That person has not done anything bad or harmful. That person is (or was, in the worst cases, of which there are so many) okay.
Instead of un-teaching us to swing, the current administration incites us to swing again and again, always on its behalf, never on our own. VOICE is a sadly apt name for a committee to investigate crimes committed by immigrants. Despite ample evidence that immigration is good for the economy and immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than those who are already here, VOICE will investigate immigrants alone. In so doing, it will not make us safer in any way. It will not catch or prosecute the most dangerous criminals of all: the ones in charge. Instead, it will continue to give voice to the notion that we should swing against people who help us, to call the police about someone eating a burrito, as long as those people look “different” from “us.”
Pinckney mentions, also, images of “German children wearing Nazi flags” in Peck’s film. Those children did not ask to wave those flags, most likely, or if they did, it was to be like their parents, who were waving them too.
Saunders writes, “The artist… is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” One or two. Three or four. Flag or no.
Let us be artists. Let us ask ourselves: is it really better like this, with one group of people asking others to swing again and again against all the rest? Couldn’t it occur to us not to swing at all?
Saunders deems the idea that writers affect readers “a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you.” Let us hope this; let us not swing at ourselves.