By Jim Miller
Last week when the Baltimore Orioles played a game without fans in Camden Yard, there was much media coverage marking how the surreal event was unprecedented in American sports. Perhaps, but it was not completely without precedent globally as the 1987 soccer match played to an empty stadium in Madrid, Spain came before it. On the occasion of that strange contest, French social theorist Jean Baudrillard observed that “thousands of fans besieged the stadium but no one got in” and that this punishment of unruly soccer fans did much to “exemplify the terroristic hyperrealism of our world, a world where the ‘real’ event occurs in a vacuum, strippedof its context, visible only from afar, televisually.” Maybe, Baudrillard wryly predicted, the game in Madrid was a harbinger of a future where no one would actually participate in such happenings “but everyone will have received an image of them.”
Of the violent fans shut out of the Madrid game and the multitude of others like them, Baudrillard notes that they are only mimicking the “state terrorism” inflicted upon them and made manifest by the “willful pursuit of draconian policies, policies of provocation with regard to a country’s own citizens, attempts to fill entire sectors of the population with despair, to drive them to the brink of suicide: all of this is part and parcel of the policies of modern states.”
In Baltimore the rioters were not responding to being shut out of the game or even to one incident of police brutality but to the larger, underlying fact that they had long ago been shut out of meaningful participation in American democracy. And much of the rest of the country was happy to sit back and participate in the televised event of the “riot” and opine on its greater meaning without actually having to be there or know anything about it. While some of the commentary was thoughtful, much of the rest of it was satisfied to focus on the spectacle of violence devoid of context. Cue the closed feedback loop of burning buildings and kids smashing windows. Get shocked and outraged for a millisecond, return to watching your screen, large or small. Send a Tweet, update your status, have a craft brew. This is the way we live now.
Interestingly, even President Obama was wise to this phenomenon in his lengthy comment on the situation in Baltimore while at a press conference with the Japanese Prime Minister:
This is not new. This has been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, we also know if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they’ve got parents, often because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education, and themselves can’t do right by their kids, if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college, and communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men, communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing’s been stripped away, and drugs have flooded the community and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a lot of folks, in those environments, if we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation, and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities to help liftup those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not going to solve this problem, and we’ll go through this same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets and everybody will feign concern until it goes away and we just go about our business as usual.
This is a remarkable statement from a sitting President of the United States and it reminds one of why so many progressives had great hopes that Obama might just be a game changer.
Here he really seems to get it and is hip to the way we have cynically ritualized our “feigned” concern. He’s calling us out and saying as the old punk song by X does, “See how we are.”
But just as you are getting hopeful that this might signify some kind of breakthrough, some sort of national awakening on the part of our leaders about the dire effects of the iceberg of economic inequality, you remember that at the same time Obama is righteously pontificating on the effects of economic inequality, poverty, and the loss of opportunity in America, he is also desperately campaigning for the fast track passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), precisely the kind of neoliberal trade deal that has gutted the American working class and helped enshrine the power of the new plutocrats of the global economy while casting folks like those on the streets of Baltimore into the dustbin of history.
So while Obama might be talking social justice this week, he is walking corporate rule. Indeed the President even went so far as to shamelessly compare the pleas for transparency by the populists in his own party like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to Sarah Palin hysterically railing about death panels.
So despite his rhetorical outrage in the face of the nightmarish spectacle of Baltimore, Obama is spending much of his remaining political capital doing the bidding of the very forces that have economically destroyed the city.
And that’s the problem: it’s not just the Republicans who are the issue, it’s decades of bad neoliberal trade and economic policy driven by a bipartisan consensus. As Bill Curry recently put it in the Huffington Post:
Some call Obama’s and Clinton’s economic worldview “neoliberal.” Like “liberal” or “conservative,” it’s an imprecise word meant to signify a cluster of opinions; among them that globalization is inevitable and benign and that the revolution in information technology is fast democratizing commerce and politics. Neoliberals love fiscal austerity and free trade and are suckers for privatization, deregulation and “education reform,” which they say will keep us competitive. Like the neoconservatives with whom they often ally on military matters, neoliberals seem to regard our present political and economic arrangements as civilization’s final flowering, as close to perfect as one can get in a fallen world. It’s the faith that made Bush think Iraqis would greet us as liberators–who wouldn’t want to be us– and why Obama bet his presidency on economic recovery rather than reform. It’s our establishment orthodoxy, the “bipartisan consensus” we’re forever chasing. It’s killing us.
But, as Curry notes, “Real life is nothing like the neoliberal narrative.” In fact, it is precisely the mobile, dynamic force of capital that has disrupted the old economy that made cities like Baltimore livable for working people.
Thus, it was not President Obama but John Angelos, the COO of the Baltimore Orioles, who hit it out of the park when he more precisely diagnosed the root causes of the problems that afflict the city. Speaking in response to a sports journalist complaining that the protests were interfering with the quality of daily life in the city, Angelos called for non-violence and an investigation into the death of Freddie Gray but then went straight for the bigger picture:
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever- declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic, civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.
Unlike Obama, who eloquently decries the social problems of Baltimore while politically promoting the very kind of trade policy that, as much as anything else, helped cause them, Angelos gets to the root of what ails us and calls out the “American political elite” who have “shipped middle and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S.” Perhaps, rather than assailing Elizabeth Warren and those questioning the wisdom of bad trade policies, the President should take himself out to the ballgame and listen to folks like Angelos.
Indeed, as scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, “these things don’t happen because a bunch of white people wake up one day and say, ‘let’s start chattel slavery so we can oppress black people’; and now slavery has gone, ‘we’ll have the Jim Crow laws’; and now they’ve gone, ‘we’ll have a prison-industrial complex’. These things have to do with how capitalism works. In my view, the rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore and beyond are uprisings against austerity, sparked by police murder and about all of the relationships and conditions that made the murder possible.”
To steal and update a line from Bill Clinton’s old advisor, James Carville, “It’s the neoliberalism, stupid.” Really.