What the Mayor Laughed At

Peter Linebaugh

Shirley Beckley stood to speak at the podium facing the City Councilors and their video camera.

It had been more than a month since an Ann Arbor police officer shot and killed a forty-year-old woman, Aura Rosser. People in Ann Arbor, as with people across the nation, have begun to stir—mobilizing, marching, rallying, meeting, dieing-in, speaking up, and speaking out against the rising number of racist acts of state terror, the police assassinations.

At the podium where Shirley Beckley was to speak there was a little mechanical device ticking off the seconds of time in illuminated red numerals. Either the mayor or one of his subordinates controls this clock. Members of the public are permitted, if they sign up early enough in the day, a chance to speak for three minutes. One of the City councilors was recently heard to call us “the three minute people.” Well, one of these “three minute people” is Shirley Beckley, a seventy-one-year-old African American senior citizen, and she rose to speak. In view of the fact that three children had lost their mother to a police bullet, she proposed that her three minutes to speak be kept in silent respect for these motherless children. Having said so, Shirley Beckley resumed her seat in the audience, and the mayor promptly adjusted the clock to move on to the next item on the agenda. What!?

“No, no, NO!” exclaimed the people, “We want three minutes for the children.”

“But she sat down,” answered the mayor flustered.

“Well, I’ll stand at the podium for her,” offered a younger woman, making a gesture consistent with hizzoner’s logic. Here the mayor laughed (or was it a giggle?) and consented to three minutes of silence, “with the approval of Council.”

Earlier in the evening of Monday, 15 December, as we began to assemble for our march to City Council, Anthony Morgan delivered a disturbing and rousing speech. It challenged us and it encouraged us at the same time. He said he had an agenda, a personal agenda, and that was “the Black agenda.” He wondered whether we did, and if so, could “we take this movement to the next level.”

Well, what was this? I thought to myself, the Black agenda, the next level. Marching around downtown Ann Arbor, stopping traffic and filling Main Street with our cries of “No Justice, No Peace,” or “I Can’t Breathe,” I wondered, what is the Black agenda? During White History month (usually eleven out of the twelve) they don’t explain the Black agenda, it is bleached out of American, indeed of world, history.

Simply stated the Black agenda is, in the first place, the Human Agenda. Look at the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. These are the Civil War amendments that came to pass owing to the massive struggle against slavery. We cannot really call ourselves human by chaining one half of the human race, or all people from Africa. Here the Human Agenda is the Emancipation Agenda.

Or, look at the concept of well-being, health, and subsistence—you know, clothing on your back, a roof over your head, and food on the table—which are summed up as welfare. These take on their modern form from the sit-ins and demands a hundred years after the Civil War led by the women and the mothers in American municipal ghettoes. We can’t really call ourselves human by starving others or leaving them sick and in the cold. So in the second place the Black Agenda is the Survival Agenda.

“But,” you say, “man does not live by bread alone,” and you are right on. In addition to the political freedom of Civil War times, in addition to the freedom of well-being of the Sixties struggle, we all know—indeed the world knows—that we move to a Black beat. Our music and with it our pleasures and our spirits get down with and by the Black Agenda whether funk, blues, or soul.

Our spirit? Yes, our soul music, with which W.E.B. DuBois concluded The Souls of Black Folk, are spirituals. They too are part of the Black Agenda, and the Human Agenda, collectively helping us to enter the world and to leave it. Those are the two sides to our spirituality—how we come into the world and how we leave it. There are no subjects more profound.

Yet, it was at this point that “the mayor laughed.” Was it a nervous laugh betraying white skin privilege? Was it metaphysical laughter of technological superiority? Or was it the haughty scorn of a ruling-class snigger? It’s hard to believe that he was laughing at death or motherless children, and yet….

Three minutes of silence in an expectant crowd of hundreds is long. I do not know what the mayor thought about, if anything. I wondered about the children and the purpose of governance. Is it not to look to the future? Is it not to reproduce the human agenda, as politics, economics, culture, and spirit? What is this and how are we to do it? Of course it begins with children.

And what about Aura Rosser? It was another African America person, Lloyd Shelton, who wheeled himself in his chair towards the podium, and demanded that, since City authorities had killed Aura Rosser, they were responsible for bearing the expenses of her funeral. Here is the profundity of the Black Agenda. In a society whose consumer culture denies death and pretends to youth everlasting, it has always been African Americans who do not. The Black agenda is a spiritual agenda of Dignity.

I think it goes back to Creon and his niece, Antigone. Sophocles tells the story of how Antigone insisted on burying her brother but Creon, the tyrant of the ancient Greek city of Thebes, proclaimed him a traitor unworthy of burial. Despite this, Antigone obeyed a higher law and buried him in a dramatic act of civil disobedience that has been admired down to the ages inspiring Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Antigone was jailed by Creon and in utter despair she killed herself. Sophocles is teaching us that there is a higher and nobler law than the cold rationality of the legal apparatus of the state and or its killing machines, ticking clocks or drones. Centuries later it was the philosopher from Naples, Giambattista Vico, who studied burial customs and funerals throughout the world, and came to the conclusion that they defined what it means to be human distinguishing us from other creatures. Lloyd Shelton gave the mayor and city council the chance to be human.

Hamartia is the Greek word for that tragic flaw or error which was committed by Creon who himself comes to regret his inhuman rigidity of mind. We cannot afford government by hamartia, a government by death, a government by capital punishments whether these are legally deliberate or “police mistakes.” We must remember that ancient Greece was a slave society, so a writer like Sophocles could only go so far. Otherwise the state can make “mistakes,” “accidents” happen, loss of life is “tragic.” The slave state seems to say that hamartia is inevitable. But we no longer live under a slave state, do we? For us, self-government is the ideal, and we abominate the slave state and the police state alike, don’t we?

Anthony Morgan explained that racism is neither bigotry nor personal antipathy to other ethnic groups but an essential component to the economy of everyday life. Yes, it affects all of the 99% everyday of our lives. It is an economically consistent and historically persistent policy, with deep structures laid down through centuries of struggle. What this means is that racism, or the doctrine of white supremacy, affects everyone in this society: none are exempt. The economic structure of the U.S.A. is based upon it. The Black agenda can only root out racism by economic transformation.

This had been explained in the Pendleton Room of the Michigan Student Union when two grad students, Kyera Singleton and Austin McCoy, spoke to a massive public meeting ten days earlier on 5 December, almost a month after the murder to Aura Rosser. They helped us understand “the Black Agenda.” Kyera Singleton brilliantly summarized American history to explain how the police were an integral part of the slave regime. Austin McCoy provided a clear and moving analysis of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its relationship to the prison-industrial complex and the capitalist economic system.

To uproot it requires the abolition of inequalities of wealth or equalization. This must become “the next level” of struggle.

As we act toward that end, we need in the meantime to bury our dead and to welcome children. It is important to recognize that Shirley Beckley, who said she was in her seventies, is an African American senior citizen. A senior is an advanced student; a senior is a leader in the primitive church, the church where everything was held in common. “Senior” comes from a Greek word meaning elder, which in turn comes from a term expressing the last days of the moon. “Citizen” means a freeman, an inhabitant of a town, an enfranchised inhabitant. It also once had a cognate in the word “scribe.” The word “citizeness” appears for the first time during the era of the first modern slave revolt, that of Haiti after 1791. The reason I toy with the semantics of “senior citizen” is to recall to our minds where self-governance begins. The Black Agenda has gender and generational inflections not found in the dominating élite, among tyrants like Creon.

Shirley Beckley recalled us to the elementary duties of being human. If the City Council to its shame refuses to perform these humble acts of human community—respecting the children and providing the burial of those they slay—then we must find a way out of No Way because the Black Agenda is an agenda of self-activity or self-governance.

History teaches that in a racist settler slave society the human agenda, the emancipation agenda, the survival agenda, the dignity agenda, is led by African Americans. Hence, the Black Agenda.

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