‘You’re trending on Twitter,’ said the Spectator books editor Sam Leith, who knows his social media. Am I? How exciting! What have I done? Sam explained: a young black man called Freddie Gray (ie not y) had been killed by cops in Baltimore, and a campaign for justice had begun online.
It’s funny when your namesake becomes a cause célèbre, even if the name is spelt differently and the story is as sad as poor Freddie’s. Lots of messages from friends start coming in: ‘Apparently people are rioting about your death’, ‘You’re causing real problems in Baltimore’, ‘Never knew you had so many American fans’, ‘You’re famous at last!’. And so on. One American, thinking, I think, that he was tweeting the dead Freddie, said ‘RIP’ to me. LOLs.
In the real world, the Freddie story just got bigger. The hashtag ‘#blacklivesmatter’ has turned into an expression of rage on the streets. There are worsening riots in Baltimore. President Obama will probably soon deliver one of his impressive MLK-style speeches about the arc of history and the meaning of America. We are all Freddie Gray now.
Except that we’ve had rather a lot of Freddie Grays in recent years, and I’m afraid we’re all starting to blur. There was Trayvon Martin, shot dead by George Zimmerman in 2012. There was Michael Brown, shot dead by officer Darren Wilson in 2014. There was Eric Garner, in New York City, choked to death by officers in July, 2014. And there was Walter Scott shot dead by officer Michael Slager at a traffic light in North Charleston in April this year.
The cases are all different, the levels of brutality and injustice vary, but the essential story and the ensuing public narrative is the same. American cops kill a black teenager in a horrifying way and — usually before the facts of the case are clear — a campaign for justice begins. Righteous black folks appear on TV to share their anger. Anguished American liberals talk about inequality. A Fox News anchor or talk-radio jock cynically may imply that Freddy or Trayvon or Walter had it coming, fanning the outrage. Riots break out. Policemen are attacked. Everyone gets sentimental. Optimistic Americans say now is the time to rebuild the American dream. Depressed Americans reckon society is falling apart.
‘What holds us together, or could hold us together?’ wrote the sensitive conservative commentator Rod Dreher yesterday. ‘One might have said once upon a time that Christianity did — that’s what Tocqueville saw — and later, one might have said civic religion (generic Christianity + “Americanism”). These were ideals we held in common, and they served as shared ideals toward which we strove, despite our imperfections and failings. Now, though? What is the common thread? What is the tie that binds us to our home? What is the law that rules our hearts? It is mere anarchy; the Baltimore rioters are only farther along the line of logic than the rest of the country is.’
Dreher may be right. But I wonder if the fight for racial justice now is the thread that ties America together. The civic religion now is the competitive outrage. The fury about injustice — real and synthetic — is the communal bond. The play is acted out every few months, so tensions can be vented, and Americans can have that cathartic sense that they are struggling towards a fairer society (Obama here plays star role: the black and white President who might still heal the country, for all his failings). But nothing changes and America seems stuck on an unhappy loop. It’s the news cycle as unending tragedy. But how long can a society keep repeating itself before it goes utterly insane?