The Plight of the Gentile, Or How to Deal with the Effects of Tear Gas

by Tochi

The pain will pass. When running against the wind, be sure to keep calm. Don’t touch your face. Do not rinse with water. Use Coca-Cola or milk instead to end the burning. If you are close enough to the police, they cannot use the tear gas on you. And in the event that you are without a gas mask, you can wrap a t-shirt around your nose and mouth and protect your eyes with goggles or something similar. The oblong teargas canisters are small enough that they can be hurled back at the shooter before too much gas is expelled. To properly douse them, be sure to arm yourself with a Poland Springs jug half-filled with water, and the canister that lands beside you, toss it inside, stand on the opening and wave away the remaining fumes as the device is extinguished. If there is fire nearby, toss the canister in the fire, and that too will neutralize it.

This was the advice given to protestors in Ferguson, Missouri in the conflagration that followed the August 2014 murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.

It was given to them over Twitter. By Palestinians.

*

December 9, 1987 is the most agreed-upon start date for the First Palestinian Intifada. The day before, hundreds of Palestinian laborers returning home from work watched an Israeli army tank transporter crash into a row of cars at the Erez Crossing checkpoint killing four Palestinians, three of them residents of the Jabalya refugee camp.

Ten thousand Palestinians attended the funerals. On December 9, demonstrations spread throughout the Jabalya camp, and the Intifada’s first recorded death was that of a 17-year-old Palestinian, shot after throwing petrol bombs at Israeli soldiers. The First Intifada began as a widespread and decentralized rebellion that took the form of grassroots activism. Palestinians refused to pay the taxes imposed by Israel. They boycotted Israeli products and reopened their schools after the Israeli government had them closed during various crackdowns that occurred throughout that period.

Israeli counter-insurgency methods during the 1987 uprising had deterrence as their goal. Rubber bullet crowd dispersals aimed at the mass demonstrations, the closing of schools, arrests and deportations, and beatings were all of the same order.

On December 18, 1987, Israeli troops killed two Muslims and wounded 20 as they were leaving religious services on Friday. Later that day, military forces invaded Shifa Hospital in Gaza and arrested Palestinians being treated there, beating the doctors and nurses who tried to resist.

Youth with keffiyeh wrapped around their faces, swung slingshots behind them or bare-fisted their rocks, and hurled stones at IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers that rumbled through refugee camps and through city squares. IDF soldiers often responded with live fire. Defending the military’s tactics, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was quoted as saying: “They can shoot to hit leaders of disorder, throwers of firebombs, as much as possible at the legs after firing in the air fails to disperse the riot.”[1]

An Iron Fist policy was then declared, featuring home invasions and mass arrests. Indiscriminate beatings at demonstrations, the administrative detention of known political activists, restriction of travel. The stated goal was to respond to the uprising not with live ammunition, but with “force, power, and blows.”[2]

Television coverage of the uprising caused irreparable damage to Israel’s international reputation. The image of the Palestinian David against the armored Goliath burned itself into the international consciousness. The young boy with his arm arced back, stone in hand, keffiyeh covering his entire face but his eyes, became the conflict’s symbol.

They were called Children of Stones.

At the uprising’s outset, those parts of the Palestine Liberation Organization that operated in the Occupied Territories–Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front, and the Palestine Communist Party–all attempted to lay claim to the movement, but the movement’s true engines were the community councils led by Nablus-born academic and activist Hanan Ashrawi, Faisal al-Husseini, and a physician and community leader named Haidar Abdel-Shafi. Leaflets were distributed at the conflict’s inception requesting that Palestinians refrain from armed resistance as that would only invite severe, titanic retaliation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad had both agreed to refrain from violence against Israelis.

In those first ten months of the Intifada, there was not a single armed attack.

*

I was introduced to the Palestinians in the spring of 2004.

I was a junior in high school and had elected to take a course on the Contemporary Middle East. The beginning of that semester marked our 1-year anniversary in Iraq. Our teacher forced us to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every morning, copies of which were left at our dining hall tables during breakfast. The Second Intifada, bloodier and more pitched than the First, having shrugged off the stole of civil disobedience, was one year from its official end. Every morning, I dutifully scanned those central columns in the Wall Street Journal, noting which Hamas or Islamic Jihad leader had been killed in a targeted strike that day.

Blood stained the floor of cafes in Haifa, blanketed the carpet of hotel lobbies in Tel Aviv. Katyusha rockets became their own form of precipitation. Which was why I would leave class, week after week, confused as to why I felt the way I did for the Palestinian Arabs, why I felt the chief injustice was the thing happening to them.

I was told to be more of a Solomon, that, as had been demonstrated by the material, this was a complicated place, steeped in history. If you held a single stone to your ear, you would hear it shout at you in both Hebrew and Arabic. Maybe I had missed something and maybe the Palestinian Arabs were asking for more than I thought they were asking for.

The following Spring, I took my first academic course on blackness.

Every week, we were to write reaction papers to the previous week’s readings. Essays by abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Maria Stewart. Abolitionist David Walker. Historian and activist Vincent Harding. It is the first time I ever remember referring to Blacks as “my people.” Reading Stewart, I was finally forced to face the notion of morality as a form of rescue, not merely deprivation. To be moral was to be rescued from hatred. Grow an intellect, nurse your talents, and thus be convinced of your own nobility. And then I would read David Walker and I would look at Stewart’s entreaties as dripping with docility and servitude. I was a senior in high school when I realized I was black.

I was a senior in high school when I realized I was angry.

*

The night of November 24, 2014, I was 3,000 miles away from home.

I’d had the Guardian Liveblog of the Ferguson Grand Jury proceedings up, and I contemplated powering through the night, despite my 8am class the next morning. But I fell asleep.

Even knowing how the movie would end, I woke up the morning of November 25 hurting. All day, on the metro on my way to class, then back home upon discovering that class had been cancelled, I fought tears. If I wept on the 4 line to Saint-Germain-des-Près, who would know why? Who would bother to ask?

You tell yourself that this has happened often enough that cynicism should have set in by now. Laughter with traces of madness, that should be my response. It shouldn’t still hurt this bad.

But, confirmed on Facebook, flowing through and around the massive islands of solidarity were rivers of racism, water turned to blood. It wasn’t the callousness or the severe lack of empathy that mule-kicked me in the chest, it was the people it came from. In this day and age, as interconnected as the country is, chances are you are or will be close to someone who will see you crying on a day like November 25, 2014, and will refuse to understand why.

Exhortations for calm come from all of the usual suspects. Admonitions to comb through Officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony before leaping to rash judgment, entreaties not to trash the businesses of the community. All of it ran right on time. Like clockwork, assuming that with such debilitating rage, one would still want to calculate the efficient expenditure of one’s wrath.

All day long, the list of names circulated, grew longer. Victims of police shootings. Unarmed victims of police shootings. Black unarmed victims of police shootings. Another list that circulated was one containing last words. Amadou Diallo: “Mom, I’m going to college.” Trayvon Martin: “What are you following me for?” Oscar Grant: “You shot me. You shot me!” Sean Bell: “I love you too.” Michael Brown: “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.” Kimani Gray: “Please, don’t let me die.”

A black American child today will grow up in a country where someone who looks like him or her is murdered every 28 hours by a police officer, neighborhood watchman, or vigilante.

On July 8, 2014, nine days before Eric Garner would be put in a chokehold and killed, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge.

For children in Gaza who, at that point, had made it to the age of seven, it would mark the third major bombing operation in their lifetime.

*

A year prior, June 7, 2013, I was in Bethlehem.

I’d spent the night prior with my flatmate and a friend of hers after we’d arrived in Bethlehem and the rest of our party of human rights workers and interns, post-dinner, had returned to Ramallah. The night had passed languorously, after introductions, at an argileh restaurant, the two newly-acquainteds with lemon mint and I and my flatmate taking turns on apple-flavoured tobacco. I don’t remember much of what we talked about (Coldplay mixtapes, the school where the two former strangers taught and the variously poor manners of Bethlehem’s rather small number of cab drivers), but I remember the entertainingly flamboyant touches our server dashed upon our service. The flipped glass landing smoothly in his palm, the flicked wrist when he emptied our ashtray and replaced it, the hand to the heart when he mock-bowed. I joked that he wasn’t doing it for me, and if he was, then I needed to spend more time in the company of three pretty women. My attempt, perhaps, at repurposing for my own self an event that had other aims.

The next morning shone with newness out on the type of backyard that nature builds into hills and mountains; we had tea and pillaged our respective packs of Gauloises while a mangy, formerly white dog weaved in and out of my legs, dirtying my slacks and coating my fingers in dust from Bethlehem where I’d scruffed the space between his ears and along his neck. Our host made us tea and we laid out our itinerary for the day: first, the Church of the Nativity, a visit we attempted to time around the ebb and flow of the ever-present pilgrims and tour groups; then the Aida refugee camp, notorious for a wall covered in art to rival the Louvre’s Impressionism collection.

I ‘checked in’ on Facebook, but the platform refused to allow me the location of ‘Bethlehem, Palestine’ so with manual override, I expressed my wish to someday take Mom here, to this place that only a day earlier had existed as simply a name on a thin, gilt-edged piece of paper in a massive, mostly-unread spiritual guidebook.

My flatmate and I set out and took pictures outside the church. As we approached, a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims surged out of the sanctuary’s entrance. Just when we thought we’d found our opportunity to enter, the stream would redouble and we were forced to wait awkwardly by the entrance, dodging the line of sight in the cameras of others while straining to maintain our advantageous position. Eventually, the stream turned to a trickle, then to nothing, and we entered.

My flatmate pointed out as I ducked into the threshold that the thing’s ceiling was so purposefully low as to humble every penitent bent on ingress and egress.

Once inside the nave, chandeliers and skylights cast the sunlight over the interior, rhomboid blocks of luminescence playing over the space and the penitents ambling through. There was a door in the middle of the floor that opened out onto tiles. No explanation accompanied the sight.

Straight ahead was some sort of altar-space, bejeweled and glinting and ornately decorated. We would return to that later.

Squeezing in just before a group of Brazilians and their guide, we enter a room that had originally been ahead and to our right, were granted candles in exchange for our donation and, passing the iconography that, though peeled, still impressed with its coloring, found a series of what looked like paintings. One of them, my flatmate stopped in front of, made the sign of the cross and gently pressed lips to. The act surprised me, more than her tireless recounting of each scene displayed on the walls or in the windows, or her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the place. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some small kernel of envy. In a bastardization of the impulses implanted in me during a childhood of piousness and religious and spiritual devotion, I’d occasionally tended towards the Pharisees, believing more often than not, that my displays of virtue served best when they could be observed by others. She’d kissed that image without guile, and my envy, small as it was, doubled.

We proceeded to a duo of metal dishes that held candles already lit, slipped into slots with a coating of sand at the bottom of the thing to help keep the rushlights upright. We tipped our own towards the flame, then, lit, deposited them in their own slots.

She pointed out more iconography, explained their significance, then I’d noticed a long line of pilgrims jostling against each other and the unknowing who sought to get past them and chart a perpendicular course.

My friend joined the queue and I watched her advance. Each penitent, when they got to the icon, made the sign of the cross, some multiple times, and kissed the thing.

Familiar envy pinched my heart.

“Wanna see where Jesus was born?” she asked, smiling. “X marks the spot.”

I followed her. The odyssey down to the entrance more closely resembled the rush to an open bar than a walk to the site of Christ’s birth. But we were eventually corralled into something of a single file line and I watched pilgrim after pilgrim, tourist after tourist get on their knees before the small cave, lean their head forward and kiss the black oval at the center of a multi-point silver star that marked the spot where He was born.

My flatmate was ahead of me and performed the ritual. I took a sacrilegious and blurred photo of the moment, to my own chagrin, and then it was my turn.

I took longer than I should have, and I don’t know if it was because my knees had become stiff or if I was debating participating in this ritual before all these impatient eyes, performing something I’d up until now done only in the quiet of my room or over a plate of food, communicating gratitude and adoration for the divine, having a conversation only I could hear. I thought of my flatmate kissing that first icon, and plunged forward, eyes closed, lips pressed to cold glass.

There was a small depression behind us that we entered and this was apparently where He had been wrapped in swaddling clothes. A trio of candles occupied the space He had wailed in over two thousand years ago.

Afterwards, we left the underground portion of the church and stumbled upon a gated space where, on the other side, an organ played, rousing and forlorn at the same time, and a priest prepared the place for worship. My flatmate and I wondered about the benefits and pitfalls of worshiping in a place as famous, as renowned, as sacred as this.

I missed my rustic, colonial, Congregational New England chapel.

Thinking back on the people I’d watched hold silent communion with those totems of the Christ, my envy dissolved into something less sinister. I thought of my own moments of religious experience, that instant when the minister, ascending the steps to the pulpit, catches a few rays of sunlight so as to halo his entire cloaked form at the same second as the choir reaches its highest pitch in the Doxology. That moment in a Meeting when someone announces their day count and is met by unanimous, hearty applause. That moment when, as a child, I witness my mother, in her nightgown, at her bedside, hands clasped together, head bowed, lips softly whispering words in a conversation meant only for her and God to hear.

Pasta Carbonara for lunch afterwards, and towards the end of my meal I found a piece of meat that resembled Palestine almost completely. Simulacra no more than a few steps removed from cloud photos revealing the shape of the Christ or the appearance in the adjacent panes of glass covering the façade of a finance building of the image of the Virgin Mary. Pareidolia. Maybe this is simply how I’m wired.

During lunch, when we were joined by our host, the muezzin’s chant for Friday prayer seemed particularly musical, especially bombastic.

The second half of the afternoon was spent in and around the Aida Refugee Camp, only a small distance away from the Church of the Nativity.

Murals shone back at us from beneath the shade of overhanging trees, bright, uplifting things plastered on otherwise gunmetal gray wall.

We wandered the place’s ghostly interior, the occasional congregation of kids messing about around the wreckage of some car or some old men working in a garage or sitting beneath the shade of an overhang, smoking unfiltered local brand cigarettes. The occasional cab or rickety sedan breaking the quiet with the blast of a busted muffler.

We found a few dead ends, ambled a bit, climbed some brush and eventually found the wall we were looking for, a hulking canvas that towered over us, connected at its corners by an even taller watchtower capped with an observation booth and security cameras. A slinky, washed-out portrait of Che Guevara held some small real estate, as did an excerpt from a quote by MLK. Missives concerning liberation and peace and self-determination and the dreadful and obstinate temporariness of such a thing as a Separation Wall littered the very thing. Along with more creative artistic expressions hinting at the thing’s eventual crumbling or smashing through or pole vaulting. There was, at one point, a painting of a rhino busting through a particular patch of wall.

Of particular interest to us were those bits of canvas devoted to Banksy’s art. Along with a luminous portrait of Leila Khaled with her fingers twined around the banana clip of an AK-47, Banksy’s contributions number among my favorite and the most affecting pieces of protest art I’d ever seen.

Someone tagged a wall with the following message: “Jesus is Palestinian.” Heresy to friends and family back home, but with this place’s grip on history, a convincing assertion.

A girl in a simple white dress with red lasers coming out of her large eyes, a word bubble over her head: “When I grow up, I’ll blow this up with my laser sight.”

A large disembodied eye with a message from another picture hovering serendipitously beside it: “To build your world, you killed theirs.”

In block letters: “This Lie Cannot Live – MLK” and above that, spraypaint that read: “Banksy’s Shop 200 meters –>”

Just outside the Shop, a Banksy replica or facsimile of a girl, being carried upward by her balloons.

“Make Hummus Not Walls” in block letters on the same patch of real estate Leila Khaled had laid claim to.

Seen through barbed wire: A dove in stark relief with an olive branch in its beak, soaring over an intricately reimagined al-Quds with the Dome of the Rock at its center.

At the corner where the Wall’s street leads to the Intercontinental Hotel: “Go home wall, you are drunk.”

Elsewhere, a paraphrase of Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” (NIV, 2011)

A stencil of a girl, blowing bubbles carried on by the same wind that plasters her coat to her back.

Across the street from the wall, a Banksy classic: a dove with an olive branch in its beak and a target reticle on its bulletproofed breast.

And not far from that, a tableau of an Israeli soldier in green, hands to the wall, feet apart, while a girl in a pink dress pats him down.

At some point during our art tour, we found the store and home of a Palestinian Christian who went by Carol, and who sold us some goods and recounted her story, only one of the many pasted against the wall, some of them recounting tales of uncommon and genuine good amidst the turmoil and cataclysm of the Second Intifada, each story a tragic and poignant island of hope amidst violent churning waves. Carol furnished us with singular solace in that she attached a lustrous face to the bituminous situation that had resulted in her home being surrounded on three sides by giant gray wall.

I imagined then the prideful righteousness in my voice when I’d return home and tell my mother of all the Palestinian Christians I’d met here and how few (read: none) Christian Jews I’d seen. Again, the Pharisee.

Carol ended her story with recapitulation of her faith, reiterating how hers was a miracle birth and how miracles had attended so many episodes of her life, how she hoped for even more miracles, but above all else, the miracle that would open her house up to the elements, that would strike down the dividing wall and make the two lands one. It sounded Biblical in my head but coming out of her, it had the texture of flesh and blood and bone, of lived reality, of hope in the face of history.

Here, in an individual life, as also witnessed in the Church of the Nativity, was this thing of such great consequence, something quietly expressed, in a soft kiss or a whispered hope, witnessed by the wayward observer.

It’s apophenia again at work when I try to tie this underpinning of faith, of belief, to the psychic contours of an entire swathe of country, to look for the constellation made up of a sparkling multiplicity of Carols and to wonder where faith went in the country of my birth, why and how it can possess so large a social and nominally robust presence in our discourse and our collective decision-making yet figure so little in our individual interiority.

It is difficult, for me at least, to have looked at these things, the Wall and the rebellious art adorning it and not see a religion flavored by last things, by apocalypse, by the revealing inherent in that phenomenon. New Testament liberation flowering out of Old Testament roots. I was caught by surprise there. By this New Testament optimism and hope in things unseen, and I realized with despair that before I came to that place, before I’d met Carol and before I’d seen that bit from Ephesians stenciled on that wall, I’d believed these people, these Palestinians, in their entirety capable of nothing but that Old Testament dogmatism that believes only in things seen, then clings to them at the expense of everything else, every other word in that message of which the burning bush, the ram in the briar patch, the parting of the Red Sea, is only a small part.

*

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, one of the jokes I heard, like a repeated refrain, was “now they’ll know what it’s like to be black.” A variation: “Well, for now, at least we ain’t on the bottom no more.”

The photograph that Associated Press photographer Richard Drew took at 9:41am that morning, of a man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, became the day’s emblem. Then the decade’s. The man, the New America’s Unknown Soldier, was among somewhere between 50 and 200 other “jumpers.” Estimates differ. Medical examiners in New York City did not mark them as suicides. Except for the hijackers, every death was marked a homicide due to blunt force trauma. In the years that followed, the Falling Man came to represent everything from unmitigated despair to stoic resignation to a nihilistic sort of courage.

The 10-year revenge epic that followed, that began with the toppling of an uninvolved country’s government and ended with a black President ordering the killshot, would unite Americans of color with white Americans. Indiscriminate enlisting. The only qualification for participation in this patriotic vendetta was American citizenship and a healthy capacity to dehumanize the towelhead, the sand nigger.

The War on Terror would ferment the camaraderie borne of military fraternity.

But the existential thread was more textured. Beneath the bloodthirst, one imagines relief on the part of the black American: finally a group of people this country hates more than us.

*

In the black American narrative, Islam is the interloper.

As the Christian God was the slavemaster’s deity, Allah offered true liberation. The religion, divorced of the Arab, replaced by the African, and transmogrified by Black Nationalism, came to save us from our being co-opted by white tradition and admonished us to abstain from smoking, drinking, gambling, to engage in inner jihad. One hears whispery echoes of Maria Stewart in the sound the red bowtie makes when it is fitted beneath one’s shirt collar. Malcolm X claimed in a 1963 Playboy interview with Alex Haley: “A Muslim to us is somebody who is for the black man; I don’t care if he goes to the Baptist Church seven days a week. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that a black man is born a Muslim by nature. There are millions of Muslims not aware of it now. All of them will be Muslims when they wake up; that’s what’s meant by the Resurrection.” This was of course Elijah Muhammad’s Islam. The Apocalypse waiting for white Americans was Christian in its intensity and indiscriminateness. And it was not unreasonable to see Hitler’s Aryan racial philosophy in the genre of black supremacy espoused here.

But it had turned a Georgian ex-factory worker into a Messenger of Allah who commanded an army of thousands. And it had turned a one-time dining-hall steward and pimp and drug dealer into Malcolm X.

It had turned out black-owned stores, black-owned newspapers, black-run schools, black-owned restaurants, its own police force called the Fruit of Islam, and it purchased airtime on scores of radio stations across the country.

The problem with the Nation of Islam was that it ran perpendicular to the alliance between black Americans and American Jews during the Civil Rights Struggle. While white flight in Northern urban metropolises left behind American Jews who maintained frayed ties with the local community and who were often viewed with suspicion by those lower on the socio-economic ladder, American Jews, statistically, were one of the most actively involved non-black groups in the fight for racial equality. Of the white Northern volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, half were Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1965 march to Selma. On Sunday, June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers engaged in a massive voter registration drive drove forty miles from Meridian, Mississippi when they heard a black church that had been used as a training ground for Mississippi volunteers had been burnt to the ground. Their names were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney.

En route, the three of them, driving a blue Ford station wagon, were stopped on the road by a local deputy, arrested and booked in Neshoba County Jail, then subsequently delivered to local Klansmen who executed them.

Chaney was black. Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish.

The Israelites had come to our aid, and they brought with them the understanding that not a single stone is thrown absent of thought of the things that came before. And, in the labor, they were dying beside us.

*

Perhaps the biggest impediment to solidarity between the black American and the Palestinian Arab has, ironically, been the promise of participation.

Methods for interpreting the American Constitution, its intentions, its purpose and its audience are proliferative. As far as framing the issue of constitutional interpretation in the terms of constitutional construction and the role of the people in that process, the theories of minimalism, popular constitutionalism and the ethical modality are most perspicuous in affording a space for “the people” in that equation. On their face, Minimalism, Popular Constitutionalism, and the Ethical Modality espoused by law professor Philip Bobbitt deal most explicitly with popular sovereignty, though they differ greatly as to where the “people” stand in relation to the federal judiciary. There exists a spectrum that sees Supreme Court Justices as actively involved in constitutional jurisprudence and the normative movements of the nation on one end and, on the other, an allowance to “the people” to exercise tradition as they see fit with the Justices either looking on in silence or giving those flashes of popular sovereign movement their stamp of approval. But in each of these, tradition is invoked and, by extension, “the people.” In each context, however, “the people” seems to mean something different, and the space provided for the “people,” thus, differs with each theory.

Lurking beneath the amorphousness of the definition of “the people” is the problem of constitutional evil, most specifically the fact that the document intended to ensure the freedom and political participation of Americans was drafted and ratified with a particular audience in mind, an original tribe. The halting expansion of political participation and of the freedoms afforded Americans has raised the issue of whether or not the Founding Document was and is a moral document. For whom is the Constitution and the freedoms embodied therein meant?

Some of the scholarly discourse centered on this very question has given rise to a “constitutional skepticism,” calling into question the document’s integrity and forcing an interrogation of its ugly parts, its evils, and the fact that it is a document that was formed during the commission of America’s Original Sin.[3]

It is not my intention to equate the divine inspiration that powered the Bible’s construction with the intellectual and ethical acrobatics that attended the Constitution’s creation, but the problem of cognitive dissonance exists in the Christian struggling to maintain fidelity to a Bible that has been invoked to perpetrate horrors as it exists in the legislator, Supreme Court Justice, American struggling to maintain fidelity to a document whose freedoms were not initially meant for the people the document was meant to govern. Adherence to the New Testament does not necessitate breaking from the Old.

One theological understanding of the Bible is that the New Testament is a lens meant to color the Old Testament that preceded it. The analog would be, then, that the rights-affirming amendments to the Constitution should be read the same way, as lenses that should color our view and interpretation of the Constitution that precedes them.

America’s Original Sin provides precisely an instance of the Constitution turning against the way it spins. The Fugitive Slave Act and other legislative edicts propping up the peculiar institution made rescuing fugitive slaves and aiding and abetting their rescuers not only a concrete set of prohibitions against practical action but symbolic declarations as well. Within the Constitution and within the context of its invocation, Authority was pitted against meaning. In this Binding of Isaac, Abraham has no qualms sacrificing his son, holding his son on the same plain as the ram eventually provided for sacrifice. Meanwhile, those living in a different normative universe, one where they were the ones wearing chains and bearing on their backs the expressed malice of their owners or where they were the ones watching their brethren subjugated and advocating for the institution’s abolition, found themselves in a different posture in the narrative of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. From their position, standing in the gutter with their eyes trained on the stars, slave and abolitionist alike, from the Garrisonians to the John Browns to Frederick Douglass, asked of the sky what God would dare demand such a sacrifice. What document promising a “more perfect union” would dare license chattel slavery?

Where constitutional fidelity may have been a sensible given for the majority of Americans before and after the Civil War, the devotion of minorities, particularly oppressed minorities the mechanism for whose oppression was written into the very text of the nation’s laws, to the Founding Document raises fundamental questions not only as to the moral certitude of the Document but as to the aforementioned methods of interpreting it as well. Who are “the people?” The “people” are a multitude. Science-fiction author William Gibson is alleged to have said “[t]he future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.” Well, the protections of the Constitution have been here; they just have not been evenly distributed.

Slavery and its attendant legal/moral conundrums have necessitated moral, ethical and spiritual gymnastics on all Americans who have sought to deal with the issue that made the Constitution turn against the way it spun. Justice Story, writing the opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842), reversed Edward Prigg’s conviction and held the 1788 amendment to Pennsylvania’s “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” unconstitutional, at the same time allowing state legislatures to nonetheless pass laws that prohibited state officials from aiding, in any way, a slavecatcher in the course of his duty. The idea, by apologists of the ruling, is that Story reasoned that slavecatching, a difficult enough enterprise in some cases, was only made more difficult by the non-assistance of local authorities.[4] A perhaps more obvious benefit, highlighted by Story apologists, is that this ruling helped preserve the Union at the time.[5]

These spiritual and intellectual contortions did not end with the striking of the Fugitive Slave Act. Professor Derrick Bell presents post-Reconstruction as a “nadir” for black Americans which has persisted in testing the notion of constitutional fidelity to the present day.[6] Bell writes of post-Reconstruction courts: “Judges were content to take sides by doing nothing. They exerted only that energy required to so narrowly construe seemingly applicable constitutional provisions and civil rights statutes, that one ponders why the Congress had labored at such length to produce laws that impressed the judiciary so little.”[7]

Post-Reconstruction in this light, and the era that saw the fruits of the labor undertaken by Civil Rights Strugglers, when the rose-tint of popular constitutionalism’s theorizing is pushed to the side, reveal an America where the victories of social movements are hollowed things, such that when you knock on them to test their strength, you hear only the emptiness ringing inside them. Voter suppression laws, produced in the laboratories of state legislatures, further evince the insubstantiality of the promise of inclusiveness held in readings of popular constitutionalism and minimalism.

Professor Dorothy Roberts states that the fidelity of America’s black population to the Constitution is borne of a desire for equal citizenship, for a shot at participation in the American political experiment.[8] This dovetails with the late John Hart Ely’s emphasis on participational rights as a way to ensure the participation of ‘discrete and insular’ minorities in the political process.[9] Ely, a widely cited legal scholar and former dean of Stanford Law School, had as his signal hypothesis that constitutional provisions should be read, not as efforts to establish substantive rights, but as safeguards against the infringement of procedural rights, infringements upon the right to participate in popular self-government. The representative ingredient in our democratic soup is the most important, not just a spice added on for flavor but the principal out of which the whole project is made.

But what Ely posits shatters against the same thing that reduces minimalism, popular constitutionalism, and the ethical modality to dust when they attempt to assert their populist impulses. The Old Testament was not written for the Gentiles.

Minimalism, popular constitutionalism, and the ethical modality avoid elaborating their concept of the people or the popular consciousness. One might posit that those theories operate out of a bloodless theoretical naïveté, or if one wishes to be particularly caustic, one might accuse the three methodologies of constitutional interpretation of cowardice. So far, they have ducked the issue, skirted around the whip-scarred elephant in the room. Theorists walk around that tainted space, perhaps in the belief that if it is ignored, it can be treated as anomaly, slavery a singular happenstance rather than the pervasive boil on America’s flesh. If the racial imperative that powered it is a more pervasive thing than that, if it is indeed more widespread than a specifically historical orbit of hurt, then it is perhaps unavoidable.

With the Reconstruction Amendments, we have a cure for the evils built into the Constitution of 1787.

The Fourteenth Amendment invalidated Article 1 §2’s three-fifths clause. The Thirteenth Amendment invalidated Article 4 §2’s Fugitive Slave clause. Those are the evident changes. Less evident but perhaps just as powerful is the fact that those Amendments are now inseparable from the rest of the Constitution. Not only are they part and parcel of the Constitution’s fabric, they address its deficiencies. They attempt to cure its infirmities with an element of permanence. The discretion of judges and legislators and members of the executive branch are not enough to more distinctly outline the contours of the rights that may or may not be embodied in the structure of the Constitution, as Bobbitt posits. If it is in the Constitution, it cannot be ignored. And if one is wedded to efforts at determining the intent of base-text clauses, then one must be even more invested in gauging the intent and meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments. In this brand of intratextualism, the intention behind the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments is the more important element. If the historical-linguistic context of a rights-based base text clause raises questions, the historical-linguistic context of rights-based amendments can provide answers.

Frederick Douglass, in a brobdingnagian struggle to see morality in a document that had legitimized his captivity and would not prevent any subsequent return to bondage, sought a revised interpretation that rendered the Constitution incompatible with slavery, writing: “[I]f the declared purposes of an instrument are to govern the meaning of all of its parts and details, as they clearly should, the Constitution of our country is our warrant for the abolition of slavery in every State of the Union.”[10] Douglass interpreted the document’s pieces in light of its whole.

Due process is accorded new meaning in light of the Amendments. The Eighth Amendment must be read in light of the peculiar institution that necessitated the creation of the Reconstruction Amendments. The Bill of Rights in its entirety is now made accessible to that part of the population formerly perceived as property.

But, Medgar Evers. But, redlining. But, Michael Brown.

But, Jim Crow.

But, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson and Denise McNair.

But….

*

On Sunday November 23, 2014, the Israeli Knesset approved a bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The bill, intended to be part of Israel’s basic laws, would institutionalize Jewish law as a launching point for future legislation and would delist Arabic as a second official language. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued for the bill as an attempt to battle those who would challenge Israel’s character as a homeland for the Jewish people. “There are those, including those who deny our national rights, who would like to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev,” Netanyahu contended. “Neither do I understand those who are calling for two states for two peoples but who also oppose anchoring this in law. They are pleased to recognise a Palestinian national state but strongly oppose a Jewish national state.” Despite rancorous debate and opponents arguing that the new legislation would enshrine national rights for Jewish people and exclude all other minorities in an egregious display of racism, the cabinet passed the bill with a vote of 14-7.

The cabinet had held this meeting just as it was reported by the Palestinian health ministry that Israeli forces had shot dead a Palestinian in Gaza. Five days earlier, two Palestinians armed with guns and axes stormed a synagogue in West Jerusalem, killing five Israelis and injuring eight others before being shot dead by Israeli police. The two men, cousins from East Jerusalem, belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin condemned the new bill and added his voice to the chorus that claimed that the bill would undermine Israel’s stature as a democratic state and would, in fact, undermine its very declaration of independence.

*

America has been forced to accept the existence of the Negro, even as its institutions continue to be geared towards the twin aims of subjugation and extinction. Israel yet refuses to accept the existence of the Palestinian Arab. Independence is a national endeavor for the Palestinian Arab. It is a personal quest for the Negro. Freedom from fear. The tribe is an Old Testament metaphor, the Negro still holding out for the promise of deliverance. And maybe the vengeful character of our God has been tempered with time. Maybe it hasn’t. But the Negro has never identified with Ishmael. Nor has the Negro ever wondered what the Philistines were up to before David decapitated Goliath. The Negro is perhaps a New Testament entity. Neither Jew, neither Arab. Neither fully assimilated nor fully rejected.

But symbols trump reality.

Though the Falling Man, that totem of tragedy, that man turned metaphor as he was falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, may not have been black or brown, though he may have been white, he was American. And the allegory of the Negro as America’s Israelite will always trump the reality of the Palestinian Arab’s similarity to the Negro.

*

In American churches, black Americans are the Israelites. The Egyptian overseer’s whip is the white slavemaster’s whip. Bondage carries the same intensity and interminability then as it does in the Black narrative. A glorious nation built on the backs of those who were never meant to take part in its glory. The hope is that blood will make poor mortar. If you want to build something magnificent in America, throw death and suffering at it. And one hopes, in sharing a retributive God with the Old Testament’s Chosen People, that as Egypt crumbled, so would the America that Blacks built. In photos that have been indelibly burned into the African-American memory, the slave’s back is to the camera, the whip-scars a spider-web of third rails on a hunched back. American industry is written on that back. The history of an agrarian economy is written on that back. One imagines on the back of the Israelite a similar cartography and, in tracing its lines, one can discern the very geometry of the pyramids.

The incessancy of the suffering is also necessary for the narrative tuning fork to resonate. Enter the alchemic Negro Spiritual. A sonic reprieve in those moments of quiet when the business of building an empire has ceased, the sun setting, slaves gathered together beneath the shade of a tree or by a house in the slave quarters away from the mansion, and maybe an elder ministers to them from the Bible with some Scripture he has memorized and they join him in song, singing of what else but deliverance.

In my second semester of college, I played the role of Doaker in a production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” My friend and director, an upperclassmen then and now the artistic director of a theater in Rhode Island, had drafted me for the role of a man almost three decades my senior because of my prodigious beard-growing abilities, a mutant power I had inherited from my father. I had performed in theater in high school, but it was a collection of alien experiences. I was a chorus member in “Agamemnon,” and LeBret in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a Greek and a Frenchman. This role, more than anything, was pressed upon me, and I’ve nothing but boundless thanks for this friend, in part because I will never understand his insistence, though I benefited so much from it. The play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh and focuses on the Charles family, of which Doaker is the patriarch. In the Charles household is a piano that has served as an heirloom and whose fraught history is unearthed as the play progresses. On it is carved the faces of a young slave and the slave’s mother, pieces of property who were sold by a plantation owner whose wife subsequently grew morose in their absence.

In a scene towards the middle of the play, I entertain old friends around a living room table. Contemporaries, my impulsive nephew and his business partner, all around that table and a jug of whiskey, and we get to talking about a place called Parchman’s Farm. Back in 2006, during rehearsals and even during tech week, that place was only a pair of words I had to memorize, embedded in the immediate context of the performance. But, during the sharing of old stories, the men fall into song, and they begin singing “O, Berta”. The shot glasses become instruments, a palm slams on the table to keep the beat, and they sing, and eventually old, curmudgeony Doaker gets roped in, asking Berta not to marry a farmin’ man but to marry a railroad man instead and we made music with that table, and it was only a glimpse, but I saw the hammer hit the rail spike and I saw the sweat soak the shirt of the convict in front of me, and I saw a man, in the break between beats, run his forearm across his brow, and I was there. On that chain gang in Mississippi. On Parchman’s Farm. Then the song finished.

And I’m left wondering what miracle of time travel sent me back there. And whether or not me in that moment, during that rehearsal, during that performance, was maybe what they had hoped for or dreamed about, some point in the future along the asymptote where their past, their suffering, isn’t forgotten, but it is no longer endured.

How many moments of simultaneous transfiguration had August Wilson written into that scene?

The song induced a trance then as it does now. And in the singing, one gets to dreaming. I hear that song now and sometimes I think I am among the delivered, on the other side of parted Red Sea. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps all I need do is move a few inches to feel the chains around my ankles. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve forgotten the hammer in my hands. If I’ve forgotten that I’m still in the midst of building someone else’s railroad.

That song was bled into existence, and outside the confines of that vision, when Doaker and Lymon and Boy Willie and Wining Boy finish laying down that track of rail, when they head back to their cells, did they hear hymns on the way? Amazing Grace? Blessed Assurance? Did that prison population count homegrown ministers among it who advised a New Testament restraint or was the faith carried among that population a faith in the architect of a revenge fantasy? In churches in Harlem, in churches in Virginia, in churches in Mississippi, when black ministers speak to black congregations in the abstract, the language is decoded and uniting the specifics of each personal trial, each tribal tribulation, is the conviction that God is not sleeping, and that it is only a matter of time before the Good Lord manages them all, before the locusts and the frogs and the water turned to blood.

The sermon is the song and the song is the sermon. Deliverance from bondage is the promise. And the Black American looks to the example of the Israelite, looks to the example of the promise fulfilled, and wonders when will it be his turn. When will it be hers?

*

In June of 2013, I visited Hebron, a city in the West Bank.

Barricades and checkpoints. A small Arab huckster, charming our group of human rights workers in French. A mosque whose pillars still bore the bullet holes of a terrorist attack. A lower-level market with a metal grating overhead, heavy with metal bars and bricks and bottles, socks filled with feces and urine and occasional residue from acid thrown earlier, detritus that the Jewish settlers had aimed at the Palestinian market below.

At one point, we passed through a guarded trailer on Shuhada Street and on the other side of the checkpoint was a patch of ghost town. Occasional police vehicles with Hebrew on their fronts and their flanks lounged on street corners. When the muezzin chanted over the empty street, one felt haunted.

Walking down that empty street, I tried to hear the music and when I closed my eyes, I could see 1963 Birmingham as it existed in photos. The black-and-white had turned to color.

I try to listen for it now, to time-travel the way I did when I was Doaker and a piano in my house had the faces of slaves carved into it. I try to listen for the song that’s meant to carry me through the labor. I try to listen for it now a day after Darren Wilson’s exoneration. But the song has turned to static. I hear words instead.

When running against the wind, be sure to keep calm. Do not rinse with water. This pain will pass.


 

[1] Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 12/24/87.

[2] John Kifner, New York Times, 1/20/88; 1/21/88; Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 1/23/88.

[3] Robin L. West, Constitutional Scepticism, 72 B.U. L. Rev. 765 (1992).

[4] see generally R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 1986).

[5] J.M. Balkin, Agreements with Hell and Other Objects of Our Faith 65 Fordham L. Rev. 1708 (1996-1997).

[6] Derrick A. Bell, Jr., The Racial Imperative in American Law, in The Age of Segregation: Race Relations in the South, 1890-1945 (University Press of Mississippi), pg. 3-28

[7] Id. at 4.

[8] Dorothy E. Roberts, The Meaning of Blacks’ Fidelity to the Constitution, 65 Fordham L. Rev. 1761 (1996-1997).

[9] John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust (Harvard University Press, 1980).

[10] Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 261-262 (MacMillan Co. 1962) (1892).

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