Listening to James MacArthur (The Baltimore Spectator)

From 6-11 pm last night, James MacArthur of Baltimore engaged in what a too-sanitized, much-used AP news report is terming a “standoff” with the Baltimore Police. The same version of the news is available on Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and appears nowhere (as far as I can see) in the New York Times. It’s worth thinking about how this “official” version is circulating in a white-dominated media, because it begins by foregrounding black criminality. It opens, “A Baltimore blogger wanted on a court-issued warrant surrendered without incident to authorities late Saturday after broadcasting on Internet radio his negotiations with police who had surrounded his home.” From this seemingly objective, inauspicious start, the article positions MacArthur as a paranoid freak who publicly threatened the police (on twitter!) while positioning the police as rational, hardworking “American heroes,” who were only “trying to do their job.”

Other versions of the story exist.

From 6-11 pm last night, James MacArthur, a Baltimore resident and citizen journalist publicly broadcast an encounter with the police who attempted to arrest him at his home. Audiences from across the country listened to him describe the tense relationship between the BPD and black communities in the city, predicated, in part, on the ongoing criminalization of blacks in Baltimore and, more substantially, on the violence directed toward blacks in Baltimore city by police who, according to MacArthur, do not even live in the city.

James MacArthur invited us to witness an encounter between a black citizen-journalist and the Baltimore Police.

He writes on his blog,

While the everyday citizen is rarely in a position to make much impact by being a truth teller. The power and value of standing boldly on principle should never be dismissed. For what is done by one, is often copied by others.

Through word of mouth, person to person, and via the near magical powers of the internet, words spoken by one mere man, even a common man, could be the media equivalent of one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

What does it mean to witness this? What does it mean to witness and take seriously black feeling?
One cannot listen to MacArthur’s livestream—recorded and available—without thinking of Du Bois asking, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In his conversation with the negotiating officer—note that MacArthur rejects the notion of “negotiation” and emphasizes that he is under duress, as one might be with a SWAT team surrounding one’s house—MacArthur repeatedly notes how he is made into a problem. He notes that he lives in a neighborhood where several black men have been killed; he notes that the police attempted to force themselves into his home (slam the door down style); he notes that when this tactic of intimidation did not work, a SWAT team was called to the scene, further heightening the tension of the situation; he notes the history of violence and carelessness in the BPD.

Importantly, he provides an extended answer to that terribly violent question posed by cops to young minority men: “why did you run?” The question is violent because it presumes that only the guilty run. MacArthur refuses to grant policemen the righteous amnesia that permits this question by insisting on the archive of black memory and knowledge: we run because we know how you treat us. We run because we are frightened. We run because we are never granted the right not to be criminalized.

In creating a space where witness is possible—a vitally important space—MacArthur asks us to consider how police procedures of intimidation and harassment silence so many. His very reasonable conversation with the police negotiator is unusual precisely because it is reasonable. More often, the shouting policeman (“against the wall, motherfucker,” which I’ve witnessed) forecloses all opportunities for reasoned discourse.
I have been trying to suggest that this story matters a lot. It matters in a way that the AP report cannot register and that I don’t expect the mainstream media to really care about. Indeed, various twitter responses refused to grant MacArthur the space he sought, accusing him of seeking attention and being childish. These responses interest me because of how they position state power as reasonable and paternal, positioning those who challenge state power as unreasonable and ungrateful.

I am interested in what it means to think of what happened as a “standoff,” which presumes that citizens, citizen-activists, and citizen-journalists have the same power and resources as a police department. James MacArthur can, somehow, stand against the force of a SWAT team. This is a lie. A dangerous fiction.

MacArthur mobilized the power of publicity—a live broadcast, an ongoing twitter stream—or, rather, he called on those who tuned in to witness what was happening, to hold the state accountable for its actions. Or at least to recognize the violence of state action, a violence that continues in the very scrubbed and absent mainstream news reports.

What does it mean to broadcast an arrest proceeding? What does it mean to compel the police to explain themselves? What does it mean to make visible the quotidian state labor of managing black masculinity?

I listened to James MacArthur. So did many others. He called us to witness. We responded.

2 thoughts on “Listening to James MacArthur (The Baltimore Spectator)

  1. Although it’s difficult to separate voyeuristic witnessing from vigilant witnessing in this case as in many others, here is, indeed, an instant when collective listening — irrespective of personal motive — mattered to a life. MacArthur quoted Abraham Maslow last night: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” That’s the problem with state power: its default way of exercising that power is excessively. That excess is more than a little irrational and yet MacArthur is painted as the irrational one. We might want to remember this: This broadcast happened on the 57th anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat. When will it stop taking a saintly, female, seamstress of a Rosa Parks figure for us to get behind those who are suffering from injustice? In other words, James MacArthur ain’t no Rosa Parks, but does he have to be in order for us to rally behind his cause? I guess I’m asking these questions of those who leveled ad hominem attacks against him during and after the broadcast.
    PEACE & JUSTICE, everyone!

  2. Thanks for the reminder about Rosa Parks, and the reminder that those who advance a progressive politics may be irritating, annoying, even abrasive, but their work is for all of us. These are my terms, not yours, of course. I’m thinking about the figures who we believe embody the right kind of being to advance a politics “we” can get behind and those who we would prefer to disavow or “disappear,” even when they do valuable work. Lots to think about!


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