The Conspiracy of Mirrors


My friend Dmitry likes to say that the only real conspiracies are the ones we’re all invested in, the ones so many of us take for granted that we don’t even see them as conspiracies. The fact that more people don’t agree with him, I see as a strength of his argument. Not all giant lies are in the vein of Rothschilds and Masons collaborating on 9/11. On some level what Dmitry’s talking about is the natural evolution of cultural prejudice.

Yesterday five Supreme Court justices overturned decades of precedence to rule that police have leeway to break the law to collect evidence for felony cases. It is now always okay for a cop to say “Your papers, please?” without cause, on the off-chance you’ve got a warrant. Police have vastly more discretion now, backed by the law of the land.

It wasn’t this way in America before Monday, June 20, 2016, technically speaking. Right?

A dissenting justice observes that “this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights.”

Why does Sotomayor bring up the subject of race, when the Strieff in Utah v. Strieff is a white man? Is she playing into the hands of those who paint her, and the other lefties, as liberal activist judges? Or is the conservative majority using a politically acceptable test case to railroad a white guy now in order to exploit and oppress a bunch of not-white guys later? 

Ask also whether it’s a coincidence that only after social outrage produced mass demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, resulting in violent clashes with the tools of authority, did the Justice Department follow the lead of local prosecutors to rein in predatory and abusive police practices. Why have we started to inch toward addressing some essential inequities in our law enforcement protocols, if not for days of rage?

Marches, sit-ins, and the courts got us as far as 1964 and that’s where America stayed, acting like everything was fine while we knew perfectly well what was up even in big Northern cities, let alone the bible belt. The brutally quelled inner-city riots of the 1960s, in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and Portland and Milwaukee and Cleveland and Chicago and Washington D.C. and New York City, told us the fight wasn’t over. And those of us who didn’t listen, which is most of us, were the biggest chunk of the conspiracy.

Black and brown people can’t walk, drive or take the bus down American streets without getting rousted at a higher rate than white people. Everybody knows this. But there’s a prevailing conspiracy to accept that the twenty or thirty percent of black men who go down the social drain to prison are asking for it – this, in a society where a great many of us would rather not hire, work alongside, or even see them. And we balance this prejudice on that same excuse: Hell, thirty percent of them end up in prison.

Black and brown people just fundamentally make a lot of white people feel funny, and they’re punished for it. This is a blatant yet (until very recently) officially unacknowledged American injustice, for the convenience of a ruling class and its feebly-educated middlebrow foundation. Everybody knows it and nobody was going to do a goddamn thing about it unless a whole bunch of people burned some cop cars.

And they did.

And the gesture has started to work, disproving that other conspiracy that insists “peaceful protest” means nobody gets hurt, or even arrested; that activism can just Occupy and stay within lines, that it disperses when it’s told, that justice is there for the asking. Ask the experts: ask King, ask X, ask Chavez. Ask Susan B. Anthony. Ask Sojourner Truth. Everybody gets impacted or nothing changes. That’s natural law.

The trick, of course, is in getting the Man to start the fight, but the Man is not slack in this regard. And he will always lose if we really stand up. We need not all die for justice; justice only requires that enough of us are crushed to significantly inconvenience the apparatus of our subjugation. Critical mass is the tool of the masses. Ask the Romanoffs.

But it’s lonely on the American left if you disagree with the modern conspiracy to deny that violence ever solved a problem (though I am usually taken to task merely for strong words). Whatever our intellectual precepts may whisper, violence has always shaped policy one way or the other.

I don’t condone attacking police, but I will always advocate hitting back against an unjust hand, metaphorically if possible, because it’s what works. I hate the opportunistic criminality that ran the streets of Ferguson, in the shade of heroic activism. Looting is never the answer, is it? But it sure got the riots covered on TV. Nothing else did. Did it?

By highlighting the fact that cops will eventually run out of black people, activists like those in Black Lives Matter have united the electorate more than they have divided it. Libertarians and campus liberals, mothers of college athletes and fathers of drug dealers, tattooed atheist progressive artists and prim business-owning churchgoers have found common cause with fairly extreme civil disobedience.

An open secret is beginning to dissolve in the light of discourse, with arguments on both sides emphasized with broken glass and broken bones. Good, if need be, and need seems to be. Racists are harder to miss, now – to argue that black people get a fair shake from the justice system is, more than it was two years ago, to align yourself with corruption in the minds of a vocal and growing minority. Good.

And now the right wing of the Supreme Court has pushed back, in an effective attempt to settle a hot topic on the side of law enforcement. Utah v. Strieff comes, serendipitously for conservatives, in the shadow of another progressive outrage, the one over the refusal of a cowed Congress to enact gun control (talk about a conspiracy unmasked; thanks, Obama).

While liberal America screams once again, ineffectively, for something to be done to curb gun laws, SCOTUS has quietly raped the constitutionally guaranteed principle of unreasonable seizure. If, as in Ferguson, 16,000 of 21,000 citizens go about their daily lives with the burden of outstanding warrants slapped on them by entrepreneurial law enforcement, police have better than a 75% chance of striking it rich during a shakedown.

The Supreme Court now says the Fourth Amendment is subject to interpretation by police officers in the field – the same Supreme Court that happens to be one short at the moment because an opposition legislature refuses its obligation to consider a replacement under the current administration. The money really doesn’t like us free. 

The fight is winnable. But the only way to fight the Supreme Court is to vote out the executives and legislators you don’t want to choose the justices, and vote in some you think will make better choices. And here we come to the most sinister all-inclusive everybody’s-a-conspirator conspiracy of all: the tacit agreement that we’re all pawns in the game, that you can’t fight city hall. That voting doesn’t matter.

Voting is no easy fight, because violence won’t help at the polls, nor will blog posts or Facebook profile updates. Nor will giving a thumbs up to the woman with the right bumper sticker. No, you have to do what’s statistically the most difficult activism of all.

You have to go online for maybe as much as a minute and find a polling place, well ahead of any election. You have to spend at least a few minutes making sure they know you’re coming, and that they know you are who you say you are, and that you’ve jumped through the increasingly ridiculous hoops to ensure you get the right ballot. Then you have to either buy a stamp or leave your home and go to that polling place and put an actual mark on a piece of paper.

But what about when that doesn’t work? Two weeks after the California primary, only 11 of 58 precincts have completed tallies. I personally know upward of thirty intelligent people, all of whom happened to be voting for the same candidate this past primary season, who encountered at least bureaucratic incompetence, not to say malfeasance, resulting in their being forced to cast votes on what was officially labelled the wrong ballot.

The good news is that in a republican democracy, every conspiracy is only real until it’s not. We will only uphold the principle that voting doesn’t matter until, by whatever means necessary, we can convince enough of the right people that it does.

In fact, another commonly accepted conspiracy is being dismantled right now. You will not find it on any law books, but the principle that women should receive less justice than men is a practical matter made clear to millions of American women who only wanted decent pay or a dignified work environment, or to file a restraining order or a sexual assault report. And if you listen to the activist heart of social media, change is coming.

But it’s far more difficult to effect real change than to make vaguely coherent gestures of support for principle. So, as a corollary to a movement against a very real, large-scale, ongoing injustice, committed campaigners have bought into a new conspiracy, one which agrees that when certain bad things happen to good people of a certain gender, the good people are never to any extent culpable in their own affairs.

It’s a well-meaning step, the shouting down of dissent in this case; it’s a hopeful step toward protecting the vulnerable, but it’s a wrong step, and, incidentally, wrongheaded. For strongly disagreeing with what he thought was a dangerous concept, the editor of this web site was deemed so dangerous that he was removed.

Black Lives Matter did not make its smartest Ferguson move when it chose for a martyr someone recorded on video committing strongarm robbery five minutes before being shot by police. Spotlighting the wrong poster boy makes a movement easy to dismiss, and effective as the demonstrations over Michael Brown were, imagine if the same amount of energy had been spent on getting white people upset about Tamar Rice.

Just so, the theater-blogging career of Colin Mitchell, who never made much money from it and pissed off too many people, who never made enough powerful friends bucking a closed system, whose friends were actually instrumental in kicking him off his own blog, is not the ideal fulcrum to turn a debate on whether free speech should be curbed by financial pressures as a matter of routine.

It is nonetheless true that the same people who argue that the rights of business impinge unfairly on the rights of the individual – Citizens United, right? – are the same ones saying the market should dictate First Amendment freedoms.

Wink, nudge. We’re all in on it, so it must be okay.

.  .  .

Got a short play you want to post, an axe to grind, a story to tell? Contact Bitter Lemons publisher Enci Box at [email protected] and pitch away. As long as you’ve got a point, you can probably make it here. She hasn’t fired me yet.


recent Stage and Cinema reviews:

District Merchants at the Folger Theatre

Bakersfield Mist at the Olney Theatre Centre

Weiner now streaming and in limited release

Comments (3)

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You’re straight, too. Right?

U 46928 t 1865969

Just queer for you, baby.

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