Still Listening For James MacArthur

We must . . . guard against the erasure of our experience and our lives.
–Melvin Dixon

If you visit James MacArthur’s blog—please do so, I urge you—you will notice that there have been no new posts since he was arrested on December 1, 2012. Friends have asked where he is, and I cannot answer. I don’t know how to negotiate the legal sites and databases that might provide a partial answer. His twitter handle, @baltospectator, is similarly silenced. The final note, “THANKS,” to those who cared enough to listen and support him as he was being arrested.

His final blogpost, dated December 1, has the ominous title, “Freedom Under Fire – I Will Die Free!!!” Those three exclamation marks perform defiance and prophecy. But prophecy is rarely agreeable. In “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” Melvin Dixon writes, “I am troubled by the power of prophecy inherent in art. One becomes afraid to write because one’s wildest speculations may in fact come true.” Echoing Dixon, MacArthur writes in his final post, “Anyone Can Be Erased.” Those technologies we use so often and so thoughtlessly, taping over old cassettes, reformatting disks, deleting files, erasing hard drives: these are metaphors for what can happen to “Anyone.”

Given MacArthur’s silence, the concerns expressed by his family, that his “continued incarceration may be retaliation for his habit of observing city police at crime scenes and regularly criticizing their activities,” and their further concern that his judicial process is being unduly prolonged, I have been wondering how to return to MacArthur, how to “still listen” not only “to” but “for” him. And about the need to listen “to” and “for” him.

At the moment, his website still features the extended conversation he staged with the police negotiator. Listen to it. Download it. Circulate it.

Consider the kind of testimony it provides. Consider, also, the silence about him that has taken hold. In my (admittedly limited) search for news, I found one website that has updated news. Most of the news dated within the last week rehashes the events of December 1, 2012.

This re-hashing merits some attention, especially to “the last word.”

A follow-up article in the Washington Post claims,

Police say Yerg didn’t alter his tactics even as his every utterance could be heard across the Internet, though they also concede that the negotiations were prolonged as commanders tried to avoid using force.

“This will go right into the training scenario,” said Elbert Shirey, a retired Baltimore deputy police commissioner and former commander of the tactical unit. “They will discuss this in classrooms and go through everything to try and determine how everybody reacted.”

Situations in which suspects take to digital media during fast-moving situations are not unprecedented. This fall in Pittsburgh, a man who took a hostage in an office building posted about his ordeal on Facebook until police cut off his access, fearing it was interfering with their negotiations. But such measures are becoming increasingly difficult.

Notice, first, how this “scenario” becomes incorporated into police training, assimilated into a paradigm that teaches police how to be more efficient. Notice, also, that MacArthur is aligned, by comparison, with a man who “took a hostage.” A strange inversion happens, where, implicitly, MacArthur, trapped inside his house by a SWAT team, is imagined to be holding the police captive.

And then look at the last sentence in the WAPO article:

Yerg said, “We want you to come out.”

The police get the last word. The final word. The word that counts. It matters who gets the last word. It matters, also, how we understand who gets the last word. It matters how we listen for echoes and repetitions.

If you haven’t, go to MacArthur’s website. Listen to his conversation with the police there. Better yet, if you can, download it. And then listen to it. Listen to it as the echo that remains, the voice that persists, the fierce resistance that, in its repetition, refuses to let the police have the last word. The fierce repetition that reminds us there is always another last word.

James MacArthur’s story, the story of that prolonged negotiation and arrest, is not a story of how social media is complicating arrests; nor is it a story about police persistence when faced with unruly suspects; and it is not a story about police improving their training techniques. It is not, in other words, the story mainstream sources have suggested. If you listen to MacArthur, you understand the ecology of the story: it’s a story about Baltimore, about race relations, about living in Waverly, about observing the police, about the pedagogy of race, about the racialization of power. It is a story about how to speak when power surrounds one, when power demands compliance, when power demands silence. It is a story about how criminals are made. It is a story about what Tavia Nyong’o has beautifully described as “the uchromic darkness we inhabit.”

But James MacArthur is not Glenda Moore. Even though both face, in different ways, the question Tavia poses: “What does it mean to be abandoned to life?” And with Glenda Moore, MacArthur also represents “the violent relatedness into which blackness and whiteness are thrown.” One surrounded by a SWAT team, the other abandoned by her white neighbors, but both caught in a world that can only be described through water metaphors, through the afterlives of slavery: the one who jumped the ship-the one who stayed in the hold. These, too, are metaphors. And histories. And memories. And enfleshments of blackness that contour our daily lives.

It matters who gets the last word. But this is not only about who speaks. It’s also about how we choose to listen. Who we choose to listen to. MacArthur reminds us that black voicelessness is as much a function of power as it is about how we learn and choose to listen. His voice exists.

Listen to it.