Trayvon Martin and Why We Need Philosophy

We paused for several minutes on some cross street in downtown Chicago, I assume so that the traffic sign would signal that the march of some hundred people protesting George Zimmerman’s acquittal could continue over State Street and continue heading west, and chanted all in one voice: “Justice for Trayvon, Not One More.” I was in the midst of the crowd, so I could not tell for sure if my assumption about why we had stopped was correct. But now, in reflecting, it might have been the case that the march organizers had stopped deliberately, so that we could all reflect on the reverberating echoes of our thousand-strong voice building, as in an echo chamber, in the depths of the skyscrapers in which we were nestled. When the refrain switched verses, and what now resounded was “The judgment was unjust, the whole system is to blame,” I realized that we were facing down a long line of police on bikes, hemming us in onto the sidewalks. I noticed some of the fellow protesters eyeing the officers, as if to accuse them of their systemic complicity in the decision made the night before. And they were right. But I could not meet their eyes, those sunglassed windows into the souls of the state functionaries standing before us. Not because I was afraid to so blatantly accuse them of the violence done to a youth gunned down in the dawn of his life, but because my gaze was drawn upwards to the few heads leaning out the windows many stories above our heads, fists outstretched chanting with us. It was, initially, the booming thunder of my solitary voice, conjoined as it was with the righteous indignation of so many others surrounding me, which drew me outside of myself, to listen in awe at the sheer volume and acerbic sonority of our collective articulations. It was in that moment, that upward gazing, that I understood the power of a cooperative assembly. I thought of my own nihilistic response to an invitation to protest if I had not, in fact, gone downtown. I might have said something to the tune of: “the jury, and crime, was in Florida. There is no need, no point in assembling here in Chicago.” But in that moment I would have said back to my nihilistic shadow-self: “the point is not our location, it is our shared disappointment with what has happened, and that belongs to anyone who recognizes it.”

Fast forward to perhaps 15 minutes later, when we stopped in front of the DePaul Loop campus and several people took the time to speak publicly. The cops, ever vigilant, drove the speakers off their improvised dias and we gathered around intently to feel once again, as a whole, the grief that Trayvon’s death, and all that it signified, had struck in us. Several speakers broke down with tears. The case is, after all, emblematic of so many of the problems contemporary to the city of Chicago and America as a whole. This was, and at the same time, was not, simply about the death of a young black man in Florida. Our sadness about the injustice done to Martin was about him, particularly, and his family. But it was also a heuristic to the indignation felt about the way that the justice system in America operates on a national level. How it affects so many like Martin every day. And so there were tears and weeping and anger and acrimony as the orators made their speeches.

And then, just as the night before, someone brought up the Revolutionary Communist Party. They spoke of how we ought to listen to Bob Avakian because nothing less than a revolution is necessary to end this system of injustice. And that is true. But I couldn’t help feeling as though I were being sold some shit product, as if I had left the assembly and entered a Walmart without moving an inch. The night before, at the impromptu gathering organized minutes after the acquittal was handed down by the jury in Florida, someone had said something to the tune of the following: “This is not the time for factions, it is the time for us all to come together to fight this unjust system, it is not the time for sectarianism, it is the time not to care about what your allies and comrades beside you look like, or how they love one another, or how they precisely envisage the future, it is about collectively agreeing that this world is wrong and that another, better one, is possible.” This tirade, and quite moving as it was, was followed by the sale-phrase: “And the Revolutionary Communist Party, with Bob Avakian’s guidance, can be that vision.” I was floored, both last night and today, at the audacity of these people. To hawk their own agenda in the presence of such a formidable and nearly divine feeling of spontaneous unspoken agreement among us all. I noticed buckets being passed around for collection, and sales flyers for what appeared to be Avakian’s Communist version of a inspirational DVD: “BA Speaks: Revolution – Nothing Less!” I decided on the spot that I would send the RCP a suggestion for their new slogan: “Platforms, Not People.” I doubt they will bite.

And yet, if you will believe it, I am going to spend the rest of this post touting my own agenda. That’s not a fair characterization, I don’t think, but for ironic purposes I’m sticking with it.

I want to tell you another story, about a conversation I had concerning the outcome of the trial. I was speaking to a friend of mine, let’s call him Daniel, when I said that “law and right had come in the stead of Justice.” Daniel, great interlocutor that he is, rebutted with the following: “Without law and right, and procedure, collectively agreed upon, how does Justice mean anything more than a word?” A properly positivist response, as is his character. After all, without recourse to some idealist concept of ‘Justice’, how can the material remnants named law, right and procedure have any support? It seems to the opinion of many in the U.S., founded as it is (at least theoretically) on the idea of freedom and democracy, that Justice is the epiphenomenon of these material traces. We gave to an entire, wonderfully powerful, department in our system the name of Justice. And yet it seems as though, at least in the midst of that collective body bellowing out the refrains of umbrage between the walls of the Chicago skyscrapers earlier today, that Justice has been leached from the underground of our constitution (and I mean that in the Greek sense of the way a nation-state is constituted).

It is for this reason that it seems as though one symptom of this case is the need for philosophy. The so-called founding fathers drew on a wide range of thinkers in order to craft their unique vision of Justice, Equality and Freedom, flawed as they might be. It seems to me that, outside of critical circles, this passion of thought has all but dried up. Like a river guided by the rains caught in a drought. We cannot, without considerable scrutiny, say that perhaps our idea of Justice deserves rethinking. The abysmal disconnect between the idea of Justice in the States and the idea of Justice that all the hundreds upon thousands out in the streets today are aspirating with their wearied tongues from dawn til dusk seems evidence enough that we have missed something, that we ought to reconsider our idea of Justice and it’s purportedly idealistic existence, and the theoretically constant, material traces we call law, right and procedure. In the streets of Chicago, and all across the nation, the festering wound of this cleavage, wrought in the flesh of the bodies laid to waste such as Trayvon Martin and innumerable others even just here in Chicago, billows upwards towards the surface in crepuscular decay, seeking the cool hand of a doctor.

The idea of a doctor that we have today is malnourished, reduced to those descendants of Hippocrates locked away from the masses in hospitals by the very law I’ve been talking about this whole time. In ancient times, and up through the medieval period, a doctor was one who treated more than just bodily ailments. I don’t mean this in a holistic, vaguely spiritualist sense, but in the sense of recognizing that the infirmities of the flesh are inflicted not just by our narrow definition of disease, but by other, more indecipherable sources. Society, ideas, ideology, &c. Following the lead of the people who recognize this strange chasm, who were out in the street and yearning for a real engagement with justice, philosophy is needed today as a doctor was needed in more ancient times, to diagnose the illnesses of dogma.

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