The causes of an assault in Chicago

January 9, 2017

The attack on a mentally disabled man in Chicago is being used to smear Black Lives Matter--but the source of the violence is an oppressive society, writes Keith Rosenthal.

ON NEW Year's Eve in Chicago, four people made a horrifying live video of themselves abusing a disabled man over the course of hours. The assailants--at least one of whom was reported to be a prior acquaintance of the victim--can be seen in the video beating and humiliating him.

Sadly, coverage by the corporate media and comments from mainstream politicians have has done far more to obscure the nature of this incident and what to conclude from it than to clarify and explain.

In particular, because the assailants were all Black and the victim white--along with the fact that the assailants can be heard yelling "Fuck Donald Trump" and "Fuck white people" at one point--the right-wing media have attempted to utilize this crime as fodder for their ongoing campaign to malign anti-racist activism, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and to pathologize the supposedly "violence-prone culture" of African Americans.

Thus, on the Wednesday after the video was made public by Chicago police, the hashtag #BLMkidnapping was trending on Twitter--with racists going so far as to state, without any evidence whatsoever, that this heinous crime constituted an act of terror carried out by the Black Lives Matter movement.

A still from the video of an attack on a mentally disabled student in Chicago
A still from the video of an attack on a mentally disabled student in Chicago

Lost in the politicized media circus was anything remotely relevant to understanding the plight of disabled people in the U.S. today--or anything to advance coherent conversation about race relations in America.

Writing in the New York Daily News, in an article aptly titled "Stop using the attack on a mentally challenged white man in Chicago to promote a racist agenda against Black Lives Matter," columnist Shaun King called out the hypocrisy of the selective outrage of the right-wing media toward this awful incident.

By way of comparison, King pointed to a comparatively underreported assault in October 2015, in which at least two white high school students in Idaho were identified by dozens of witnesses as having forcibly detained, tortured and sexually assaulted a Black, mentally disabled student who was meanwhile subjected to various racist epithets.

Unlike the assailants in the Chicago case, the Idaho attackers were never charged with committing hate crimes--and were ultimately sentenced to exactly zero days in jail.

BEYOND POINTING out the racist hypocrisy of the media coverage, there are several further issues that require discussion and analysis.

First of all, it's worth stating from the start that, to the even marginal extent in which the Chicago assailants conceived of their attack as making a political statement, they could not have been more monstrously misguided.

Far from advancing the cause of those opposed to Trump and to the systemic racism that plagues the United States, this action merely provides grist for the mill of the right wing's propaganda efforts and adds to the excuses for the state to intensify repression against vulnerable populations.

It is also worth discussing the fact that the assailants targeted an individual who also suffers from oppression in this society. In this regard, the incident merits deeper analysis of the question of disability and of the violence that often occurs in this society within and between various oppressed groups.

In the U.S. today, disabled people--and in particular, those with mental disabilities--face systematic oppression in the form of higher rates of homelessness, poverty, joblessness, police brutality, incarceration, institutionalization, violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault and bullying.

They also suffer at the hands of the political elite in terms of cuts to state and federal budgets for special education, welfare and disability income assistance, home health aides and job placement programs.

Indeed, the abuse meted out to the disabled individual in Chicago is the same kind that many disabled people, particularly those who are poor, regularly face inside of prisons, nursing homes and psychiatric institutions--not to mention domestic households, where the epidemic of domestic violence against women has a parallel in abuse and assault against disabled children and relatives.

It is therefore sadly unsurprising that--in a society in which disabled people are rendered more vulnerable, more stigmatized, more marginalized, more disempowered and more deprecated--a disabled person would be specifically singled out by individuals for grotesque acts of dehumanization.

THE VIDEO of the abuse committed in Chicago should elicit outrage and reflection from all those opposed to oppression, particularly the oppression of disabled people.

But left-wing commentators like Shaun King are correct to decry the attempts by racists to use this instance of abuse to advance their own campaign of hate and repression against Black people and anti-racist activists. Such disingenuous and cynical machinations should also elicit outrage and reflection.

For a group of Black people to feel anger at Donald Trump--or even white people generally--is an understandable byproduct of the suffering inflicted on African Americans. The fact that this particular group of Black people in Chicago could express that anger--to the extent that this was a motive in the assault--by dehumanizing someone with disabilities is a horrible function of the system of interlocking oppression created by capitalist society.

Unfortunately, such behavior--if not to this extreme--is tacitly promoted as the norm. We are encouraged to "punch down," as it were, when we vent anger and alienation. The logic is implicit in capitalist society itself, built as at is on pervasive anti-social forms of war-of-all-against-all competition, vast inequality and poverty, and resultant feelings of alienation, resentment and selfishness.

Capitalist society creates the conditions in which oppressed people harm other oppressed people. An impoverished man is placed in a position to take out his aggression on his impoverished wife; a working-class Black woman to heap abuse on a homeless queer Latina.

When someone who lacks power is driven to violence, it will always be easier for that person to target someone below them in the social hierarchy--someone who is likewise vulnerable and without power.

When this happens, as in the Chicago attack, it should lead to reflection on the complex conditions endured by all manner of oppressed people in this society, and how oppression can mutate into horrible, inward-turning forms. It should also lead to resistance against all those who would further fan the flames of violence and enmity between various groups of marginalized people.

What those who prey on such incidents--right-wing politicians and the media, not to mention the liberal establishment that enables the right to spew its bigotry--want is to keep oppressed people fighting and hurting and torturing themselves and each other, instead of seeking out common bonds of humanity and solidarity to engage in in united acts of resistance.

When it comes to state-sanctioned violence, it is precisely disabled people and Black people who are among the most disproportionately victimized by the police, the courts and the prison system in the U.S. The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of challenging these abuses makes it all the more perversely ironic that right-wingers and racists are trying to claim that the abuse of a disabled man is the logical outgrowth of the movement.

Horrible incidents like what happened in Chicago are byproducts of a socio-economic order that leads people at the bottom of society to take out their anger against other people who similarly lack power.

Only by collectively directing our justified anger at the callous monsters who populate the ruling class can we drain this toxic swamp, in which we are forced to live with and against each other, in a never-ending cycle of abuse and misery.

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