Mourning For the Rich and the Poor in America

So powerful is the onslaught of the iconography of mourning that it has become a universal standard for displaying the public affection of those who suffer.


Images of killings, protests, riots, and funerals have filled the screens over past several months in the United States. Its momentary apotheosis came in the two killings of police officers in New York earlier this month. The death of the policemen was an abrupt aberration in a series of events that found African-American men dead on the streets. Among countless others who suffered similar fates, Trayvon Martin (Florida), Tamir Rice (Ohio), Michael Brown (Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York) have remained in the public eye, precipitating an endemic crisis in this culture. Several debates about these killings have ensued, all based on the issues of race, racism, and power.

The murder of the police officers in New York brings a festering issue to the fore, the treatment of victims of murder. In all cases, human lives were lost. But in all cases, except those of the two policemen, the victims of the shooting were black. Let it be settled now that the killings of policemen is reprehensible, because it is an attack against the democratic principles of our State. The policeman are not the henchmen of a dictator; they are public servants, accountable to our own collective responsibilities toward security. Killing them defeats our own principles (as does insulting and humiliating a democratically elected President, or, turning your back when the mayor of the city comes to pay respects to the slain officers.

The killings of the police officers, as anyone can see even with one eye closed, were treated radically different from those of the Black men over the past several months and years. As Ta-Nehisi Coats argues in The Atlantic, the killings of the policemen brought out national comment and expressions of sympathy. When black men were killed, as they are every day, even in front of the cameras in broad daylight, it was a matter of rote recounting of crimes. And, in all cases, with deep insinuation that each of them somehow deserved it. Had it not been for remarkably sustained and overdue protests, the deaths of black men would have received no attention at all.

Any viewer of the local evening news is familiar with the iconography of respect and power brought about by the deaths of uniformed officers. Slick and upright uniformed bodies march in strict order, choreographed around the national flag while local and state dignitaries fill up their schedules by attending the funeral marches. This is vastly different than that accorded the local victim of a police shooting in the neighborhood. There, the blocks are cordoned off for a few hours, the family is notified, before the entire event vanishes from the glare of the cameras.

Watch any funeral of police officers on You Tube or on your local channel. It is always a matter of “paying respects” in a “sea of blue.” For the funeral of the police officers in New York, the taxpayers’ purse is loosened to pay for the glorious imagery, including the blue roses that fill the screens. It is a repeat-act of what we see on local news channel. The death of a man in uniform is somehow worthy of the salutations and the patronage of the State.

Contrast that with the body of Michael Brown, which was left in the street for four hours in the August sun. No wonder the killings of Black men have revived the brutal memories of lynching that left “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.” When we watch the ornamentally rich visuals of the police funerals, throwing a curtain on the loss of lives of black men, we are witnessing further proof of the devaluing of black life in this country. The State values its soldiers, but not its citizens, the perpetrators of violence, but not all its victims.

Yes, there is a transparent obviousness to this observation. Though death is the great equalizer, all cultures invest much to distinguish the rich from the poor, the powerful from the powerless. Each culture observes the perpetuation of class divisions in the after death rituals. Hindus practice caste distinctions when Brahmins get the part of the Ghat closer to the temple while the underclass gets smoked to a distance. Christians and Muslims, for all their claims to piety, mark the graves of the well-deserved from the less deserved. Death and burial have become major industries. Don’t we know of the families that rush to reserve the real estate for each of their breathing units! This story is too familiar.

This is not the time to open our textbooks to see where these rituals emerged and how they got codified. The problem is much closer to our time; it is in the intervening period between the moment of death and the rituals of mourning, before the bodies finally leave the world of living. It is in the new industry of mourning that forces everyone to embrace and participate in the lush imagery of those who claim a higher perch before they vanish.

Think of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 in New York City. It was, by all accounts, a horror brought upon on innocent people whose day had begun with plenty of sunshine and hope. Loss of human life there, in the center of highest visibility on the planet, was as tragic as it was a testament to the cruel and cunning planning of the terrorists to achieve maximum impact. It was not the first act of its kind and certainly not the last on a planet which has been besieged by human cruelty on that and even higher level during the past century, let alone ages.

But the events of 9-11 were quickly absorbed by the raging tide of commodification. The “hollowed grounds of ground zero” became a tourist attraction. Unseemly and horrifying as these sights were, they were in keeping with the culture that swallows everything in its reach and transforms them into uncanny objects with price tags. The actual human tragedy of the families of 3,000 lives was overshadowed by the abject display of a culture that has lost its judiciousness in the giddy feelings of greed and prosperity. Worse, the images of the candlelights, photographs, the T-shirts and memorabilia, were so littered on screens around the world that populations far and distant were forced to mourn just by encountering the glut. The mourning of the victims of 9-11 became everyone’s mourning on the planet. It was there on the screens of the favelas, the slums of Mexico City, the shanti-towns of Africa and in the squalor of Mumbai’s slums. It was there on the screens in Palestine and on the radio and newsreels in Congo. No one was spared an opportunity to mourn the deaths of 3,000 in the Twin Towers.

So powerful is the onslaught of the iconography of mourning that it has become a universal standard for displaying the public affection of those who suffer. Since unspeakable horror and the loss of life are not the exclusive province of the victims in New York, similar tragedies are repeated in different corners of the world, from Australia to Canada and from Mumbai to Fiji. It is now an imperative felt by the souls left behind to live up to the glittering display of images and flowers and shiny monuments in the spaces of tragedies.

There is little, if any, cultural specificity anywhere. The globalizing monsters of commodification have finally scored a victory by standardizing expressions of mourning into the mythical landmarks set by 9-11. Added to this process was the “bloviated exaggeration of the traumatic effects of 9/11,” which transformed the event from “one more chapter in history of human evil to ‘the day that changed everything.’” So loud and bombastic was this charge, supported by the most powerful media machine anywhere, that it was almost a mandate to recognize one’s cultural connection to this event. There are plenty of examples of this, but think of the events in Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, which was quickly recast as India’s own 26/11.

This global propagation of the “day that changed everything” has drowned out the deaths by scores, hundreds and then thousands in many countries, including Darfur, Palestine, Nigeria, Chad, Kenya, and Mali. There are no memorials, no flowers, and no luck with any images that could be put on coffee mugs or T-shirts. There are no TV cameras to remind viewers on evening news how the departed have been remembered by those they left behind. There is, in fact, no trace that some of these people ever lived, let alone were killed by the thousands. If ever, there are grim images of mass graves presented in dismissive aesthetics of the suffering of others. And yet, for people who are closer to the screens, there are opulent rituals of mourning to watch as if to drown out their own loss. For them, to watch is to make images their own. Screens are imparting lessons of privilege, and evidence of how power cuts and when it does, it cuts through everything.

No victim is special and no one is more important than another. Loss of human life, to use a truism without apologies, is tragic. When life is brought to an end by other human beings, whether it is the life of a black man who is walking home from a store or a policeman on duty, it is an unjust and cruel act. No amount of staged, orchestrated and polished mourning rituals, however, will cover the injustices we commit after people have died and before their remains disappear from our sight.

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