Listen Carefully… “Burn It Down, Man”

It is critical to accurately understand exactly why people resist in the ways they do, what drives their despair and demand for change, and what we must do to bring about appropriate radical change.

When I followed the news Friday morning of the shooting and killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, following repeated police killings of young African-American men around the country, I understood better the calm words I heard in my office the previous week—“Burn it down, man”—by a South Asian-British writer friend who was telling me about his latest novel.

He was summarizing for me in a few words the inevitable need to do something—whether poetic or actual—about the frustration and humiliation that accumulate in the lives of men and women of color like himself who suffer lifetimes of dehumanizing mistreatment in White-majority cultures like England and the United States, but also in others around the world.

The planned assassinations of police officers in Dallas happened at the end of a peaceful march to protest other police officers’ murders of young African-Americans, which occur regularly now across the United States. The vast majority of Americans of any ethnicity certainly oppose killing policemen and unarmed young African-Americans alike; yet both events happen. They reflect human realities that converge in social and political waves that now flow across borders without differentiating by nationality or race. Racism and resistance always travel together.

Large numbers of people in many countries have reached the point of exasperation with political-economic systems of power that privilege a small minority and treat growing numbers of other citizens with disdain and, in many cases, fatal force. When ignorance and fear of other people of color are thrown into this mix, we get situations like some racist European and British responses to migrants, or Donald Trump supporters’ anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican hysteria in the United States. Israel, Arab societies, Iran, Burma, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and a hundred other countries around the world suffer the same human deficiencies.

The particulars of each country are intriguing, but ultimately peripheral; the common indignations, vulnerabilities, and dehumanizing pain that people feel generate similar responses everywhere. Mistreated people initially endure their pain with the expectation that conditions will improve with time. When things do not improve, and racist behavior degrades the lives of millions of people, a few men and women refuse to acquiesce in their perpetual treatment like animals.

This usually happens when parents realize that their children are doomed to lifetimes of poverty, vulnerability, and suffering, with a real probability of early death. It also happens when young people themselves appreciate that most of them have no available paths to a normal life of opportunity, well-being, and dignity, for they have forever been denied both their citizenship rights and their very humanity.

That frightening moment highlights their weakness, but also makes them realize that they are not helpless. They resist in their own minds at first, then they resist on the street, in the media, and in the courts and political systems if those opportunities are available to them. Each person, movement, and society chooses different ways to resist oppression, always with different results. Sometimes resistance uses criminal means similar to the ones used against the resisters, like assassination, terrorism, and killing innocent bystanders.

The act of resistance at that moment occurs without much thought to whether or not it achieves the aim of ending the oppressive system that prevails. It sends the message that people will not forever acquiesce in their own dehumanization and oppression, and regular deaths. When resistance uses criminal tactics like assassinating police officers or bombing restaurants and shopping malls, it completes and expands the circle of criminality. Mostly, resistance around the world has been non-violent, civil, and political, which was the case with the epic Arab uprisings in 2011 that were perhaps the most massive example of what I am talking about.

This pattern of mass suffering leading to resistance has transcended its traditional confines of subjugated or colonized communities of color or ethnicity. Millions of middle class White people across the world now challenge their power structures, to demand basic life opportunities (jobs, health care, housing) that they feel their generation may be denied. So progressive and leftist candidates in the United States, Greece, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere are winning elections or securing large popular followings, despite the simultaneous rise of racist and xenophobic movements.

We should pay more attention to those who suggest “Burn it down, man” as an appropriate actual or rhetorical response to institutionalized injustices that plague an increasingly global range of individuals and communities. It is critical to accurately understand exactly why people resist in the ways they do, what drives their despair and demand for change, and what we must do to bring about appropriate radical change. Rhetoric is always the first step to action. We must really hear and understand what people say, and take action beyond a digital “like” or “share”, to restore order in the only way that order lasts in the world—with equal justice for all.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global