Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Robert C. Koehler: Fire Burn, Caldron Bubble

America serves up its news in a caldron from hell, or so it sometimes seems. The fragments are all simmering in the same juice: bombs and drones and travel bans, slashed health care, police shootings, the Confederate flag.

Double, double, toil and trouble . . .

Suddenly I’m thinking about the statues of Confederate generals taken down in New Orleans, the Confederate flag yanked from the state capital in Charleston, S.C. . . . and the secret flag the authorities can’t touch. Ray Tensing was wearing such a flag — a Confederate flag T-shirt — on July 19, 2015, while he was on duty as a University of Cincinnati police officer. That afternoon, he pulled over Samuel DuBose because of a missing front license plate. Less than two minutes into the stop, DuBose — a dad, a musician, an unarmed black man — had been shot and killed.

This is so commonplace that, while it may be news, it’s hardly surprising. Tensing was fired from his job. He went to trial for murder, twice. Both ended in hung juries. OK, that’s not surprising either. Cops are almost never convicted in such shootings. But what I can’t get out of my mind is the T-shirt. It’s what places this story fragment within the American news caldron: the quiet hatred of it, the implicit sense of dominance, the armed racism. Tensing wasn’t a “loner” with an agenda. He was an officer of the law; he served the public. Yet he was secretly honoring the same agenda (the same god?) as Dylann Roof, the young man who killed nine African-Americans two years ago at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This is the crossing of a line. Official public action — armed action, no less — is still permeated with poison.

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

“As Senate Republicans rolled out the Better Care Reconciliation Act,” Rolling Stone reported, “. . . the halls outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were starting to get a little crowded. Sixty disability rights activists from grassroots group ADAPT, many of whom were using wheelchairs, staged a ‘die-in’ to protest steep Medicaid cuts in the bill. They were arrested and removed by Capitol Police, with witnesses saying that some protesters were dropped by police officers dragging them from their chairs.”

A vote on the bill, as we all know by now, has been postponed because of the controversy it has generated across the country, the die-ins that have been held at senators’ offices, and the Congressional Budget Office determination that the legislation would wind up causing, ultimately, 22 million people to lose their health insurance, which translates into thousands of people dying prematurely. What T-shirts were the 13 (Republican, male, white) senators who wrote this bill wearing?

Maybe their T-shirts bore dollar signs rather than Confederate flags, but the connection resonates. Public policy emerges from what we believe to be right, perhaps without the least reflection or awareness. And there is a consensus of fear, scapegoating and dehumanization that has always dominated a portion of American policy as well as individual behavior. Some people’s lives just don’t matter. Or they’re in the way.

With the current president, reckless individualism and public policy merge, sometimes shockingly, as with, for instance, Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, which the Supreme Court partially removed from the oblivion two lower courts had assigned it.

According to The Guardian: “The nation’s highest court said the 90-day ban on visitors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, along with a 120-day suspension of the US refugee resettlement program, could be enforced against those who lack a ‘credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.’”

So the chaos at airports will continue, and families from these “bad” countries can be split apart. Somehow I don’t see this as a separate, isolated piece of news but part of the big picture of what President Trump might call American greatness, which is to say, American dominance. And of course many of the people who would attempt to enter the United States from these countries are refugees of the wars we are waging or facilitating there, which are making their homes unlivable.

“The enemies may rotate, but the wars only continue and spread like so many metastasizing cancer cells,” Rebecca Gordon wrote recently.

“Even as the number of our wars expands, however, they seem to grow less real to us here in the United States. So it becomes ever more important that we, in whose name those wars are being pursued, make the effort to grasp their grim reality. It’s important to remind ourselves that war is the worst possible way of settling human disagreements, focused as it is upon injuring human flesh (and ravaging the basics of human life) until one side can no longer withstand the pain. Worse yet, as those almost 16 years since 9/11 show, our wars have caused endless pain and settled no disagreements at all.”

We condemn, we bring to trial, the armed hatred and racism of individuals, but far too rarely do we ever bring the whole system, or a serious segment of it, to trial. That’s because it takes a movement to do so. The civil rights movement and the movements that followed — antiwar, women’s rights, environmentalism — did that, and we changed as a nation. But not enough.

It will take another movement of ordinary people to continue this evolution. I know it’s underway: I feel the courage, for instance, of the disabled die-in participants. We’re at a new beginning.


First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available.

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On July 19, 2015, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Samuel DuBose, an unarmed man, was fatally shot by Ray Tensing, a University of Cincinnati police officer, during a traffic stop for a missing front license plate. Tensing fired after DuBose started his car. Tensing stated that DuBose had begun to drive off and that he was being dragged because his arm was caught in the car. Prosecutors alleged that footage from Tensing’s bodycamshowed that he was not dragged and a grand jury indicted him on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter. He was then fired from the police department. He was released on bond before trial. A November 2016 trial ended in mistrial after the jury became deadlocked. A retrial began in May 2017. It also ended in a hung jury on June 23, 2017.

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