Living in Dread of the Next Name We’ll Chant
There is hope in the size and power of our protests, hope that our message will truly, finally be heard—but whether it will be understood in the hearts that need it most is a much harder, scarier question.
This isa column by Gabrielle Bellot about books and culture, the body, memory, and more.
Near the end of Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, three black men walk into Sal’s Pizzeria, the popular Italian-run restaurant in Bed-Stuy that forms the movie’s primary setting. One man is Smiley, who stutters and spends his days trying to pass out makeshift fliers of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Next to him is Buggin’ Out, a young, curiously coiffed activist who has been agitating to have Sal put photos of black heroes—rather than just Italian-Americans—on his wall; when Sal says no early in the film, Buggin’ Out decides to organize a boycott of the pizzeria. The last, most significant man is Radio Raheem, a sobriquet he has been given due to the enormous radio he always walks around with, playing the only song he likes—Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”—on repeat. The three men demand that Sal, who is about to close for the night, put some “brothers” on the wall.
Radio Raheem is blasting music, and Sal screams at him to turn it down. When Radio refuses, the pizzeria’s owner yells racial epithets and smashes the device with a baseball bat. An intense fight ensues between Radio and Sal, spilling out onto the street. A brawl has been long in the making. From the start of the movie, which takes place over the course of a single day, the dominant theme has been heat—the day is “hot as the Devil,” and people’s emotional temperatures are similarly high. Soon, viewers can guess, there will be fire, a terrible chthonian fire, the end result of so much heat.
The police arrive, and a large white officer grabs Radio, holding a chain tight against his throat in a chokehold. Radio struggles and begins to spit and sputter, unable to breathe. The officer keeps the chain tight, as if he is restraining a rabid dog rather than a man. When Radio slumps and stops moving, the officer still keeps the pressure on, even after another officer, alarmed at Radio’s motionless body, yells at him to let Radio go.
“Shut up!” the cop holding Radio responds twice, all while he keeps choking Radio, pulling so tight that Radio’s feet leave the ground. He is literally hanging in the air, a lynching in the feverish glare of a Brooklyn night. The cop seems to have an unstoppable urge to hurt this black man, to make him submit, to make him cease trying, to make him cease doing anything a living body does, as if he is possessed by some murderous spirit, some hungry ghost, that thirsts for death. Radio, horrifyingly, has become a black body that must be tamed, destroyed, the music of his existence silenced like his speakers.
A crowd has gathered to witness the fight, and when the black protagonist Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself), who worked at Sal’s as a deliveryman, sees that Radio is dead, he is left speechless. The cops violently throw Buggin’ Out into a car and drive off, and the officer who has executed Radio yells at his body on the pavement to get up; they drag him and toss him into a police cruiser, as if he has merely passed out. Mookie walks over to a trash can, picks it up, and flings it through Sal’s window. A riot ensues, and Sal’s pizzeria—once a neighborhood institution, and now the site of a black man’s public murder by a white policeman—is set on fire.
Decades later, it is difficult not to think of Radio Raheem in the wake of the murder of another unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a police officer. Like Radio, Floyd was choked to death, a white officer’s leg pressed deep into Floyd’s neck (and other officers pressing down on the rest of his body), long after Floyd had ceased to moan or move.
And Mookie still needs to play that note in that fire-song today, because so little, at core, has changed. Racist white cops still target and murder Black people, a hellfire fed on blood burning in their eyes. Just as you never know, as a woman, if the man you pass will be someone who follows, stalks, and tries to assault you, you sadly never know if the cop you see will be the one who will let you pass in peace or the one who will end your life.
Protests erupted across America and even internationally over George Floyd’s execution. It’s awe-inspiring, really, seeing so many speak up against anti-blackness and against police brutality and against the racist history and present of America. New York City, where I live, is a phantasmagoria of pain, burning not quite like the Bronx did but nearing the point at which the flames might consume us again. The Grand Guignol of grisly scenes we see—like yet another unarmed black man shot, during protests, by cops in Louisville—is both extraordinary and utterly unsurprising, because what else should we expect but the murder of more innocent black and brown people, even as we protest against just that?
It’s almost like a cruel joke.
I will never be in favor of violence, bloodshed, looting. I’m gentle, at core, and don’t like weapons. I will always, always champion attempting to first resolve things non-violently. I fear, too, massive protests causing coronavirus infections and deaths to spike again, just as New York City was on the cusp of reopening, and if our city fails to reopen, it will hurt us—most of all, small businesses owned by people of color—even more. I fear the virus spreading from protesters to the most vulnerable, sickening and killing even more people.
But the thing is, I understand the violence, because it is a part of that incarnadine music I have heard for so long on America’s blood-drenched soils. And because the pandemic lockdown pushed so many people out of work, a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and brown people throughout America, it is even more of a slap in the face to see a black man murdered by a police officer.
When you push so far, what do you expect, even from a pacifist like me? When you break us, is it any surprise that other things break, in turn?
In “Going to Meet the Man,” one of James Baldwin’s most masterful and unsettling short stories, Baldwin gives us a chilling portrait of a racist white deputy sheriff in a small American town. At the start of the story, he is in bed with his white wife, Grace, who wants to get to sleep, but the sheriff can’t stop talking about “black stinking coons.” Like Ahab’s white whale, the sheriff is maniacally fixated on black bodies, who he hates and lusts after all at once. He is trying to get himself sexually aroused, though his wife’s body isn’t doing it for him; instead, “the image of a black girl caused a distant excitement in him.” Raping and detaining black bodies is practically his fetish; he reflects that “[s]ometimes, sure, like any other man, he knew that he wanted a little more spice than Grace could give him and he would drive over yonder and pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing.” Throughout the story, he is agitated, filled with a burning urge to find a black body, either to arrest or assault or both, even as he is trying to tell himself he must stop.
Baldwin disturbingly captures the way that black pain is a spectacle for white audiences, as well as the way that certain rabid racists literally get off on inflicting suffering on our bodies. Spike Lee pondered this, too, in Do The Right Thing. Mid-movie, Mookie asks Pino—one of Sal’s sons who works in the pizzeria and frequently spouts off white-supremacist talking points—why he always talks about black people negatively, despite the fact that “all your favorite people” are those very black people. “Pino, deep down inside, I think you wish you were black,” Mookie says, and something similar is true of Baldwin’s zealous sheriff, who fantasizes equally about beating black bodies and being black himself.
It is a peculiar truth about certain virulently hate-filled people—homophobes, transphobes, racists—that the groups they profess to despise are the very ones they seem unable to live without, their very identities—if not desires—held in orbit only by our existence.
Do the Right Thing
Yet Sal frequently gets angry at the very neighborhood he seems to love, and he refuses to entertain a request to have photos of black people on the wall, rather than just pictures of famous Italian Americans. When Radio and Buggin’ Out come in at the end, the same Sal who seems to love his black neighborhood screams that Radio is a “nigger” playing “jungle music”; the non-racist façade has come off. He is a mixed bag, like Radio himself, who famously wears brass knuckles that read “love” on one fist and “hate” on the other, indicating that he embodies both the good and the bad of humankind. Radio, in this way, is all of us—and he is the one who is horrifically murdered.
The one person who is undeniably bad is the officer who murders Radio. What forgiveness can there be for someone who refuses to let go when even other cops yell at him to stop choking a man to death?
The urge in a particular cop to extinguish a black man’s life does not go away just by firing them or altering laws. You have to change their heart, too, not just the law of a land. Requiring that officers wear bodycams and follow orders to peacefully de-escalate may deter some potential violence, but that policeman who sees a black body and knows, deep down, he wants to dominate it, destroy it, dehumanize it—for it is an “it” rather than a person, to him—will still find a way to satiate that urge. The only way to save this cop is to remove that fatal desire in the first place. Changing hearts, more than laws, is how we begin to cure people of their racism. But, of course, this is much easier said than done.
When Radio Raheem is killed, the crowd chants names of other black people killed by the police. We will keep saying their names, always; what is saddest is the certainty that there will be another name, and another, and in the quieter hours when no new names of the dead appear, we live with the dread of hearing the next we know will come.
There is hope in the sheer size and power of our protests, hope that our message of not devaluing our lives will truly, finally be heard—but whether or not that message will be understood in the hearts that need it most is a much harder, scarier question.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.
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