Barry’s Blog # 102: Hands up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus — Part Four of Five

But What About Ferguson? I quoted Orlando Patterson earlier: “Today we no longer lynch in public rituals supervised by local clergymen. Instead, the state hires the hangman to do it.” Quite true, but this civilized approach creates two problems for the high priests of sacrifice. One: Specific capital punishment cases can take many years, including lengthy appeals, from crime to arrest to judgment to execution. Two: Since the act itself is relatively private and few people get to observe it, it has no deterrent value.

And, more importantly, human sacrifice must be a public spectacle or it has no value.Consider that in a typical witch burning of the 17th century (not the Middle Ages, as most people assume) or in the auto-de-fe trials and executions of heretics by the Inquisition, absolutely every single person in the community was required to be present. All were to share in the sacrament, all shared in the guilt, and all were expected to project that guilt upon the designated victim.

I am suggesting that we as a society have given local law enforcement officers the right and privilege to carry out these rituals of sacrifice – approximately five times a week, out on the streets, brazenly, proudly, especially before videotaping witnesses, with practically no interference from the legal system. The number of cops who are even mildly punished for gunning people down is microscopic (

In the age of Obama, media pundits have been praising our “post-racial” society for six years. Indeed, I have argued in several previous blogs (38, 46 and 69), that the corporate gatekeepers carefully vetted Obama for his reliability long before he sought the presidency. His specific mission was to revive the myth of innocence and restore faith in government with the narrative of a post-racial America.

However, even as blacks have achieved legal equality and crime has decreased, those same pundits have collaborated with government in manipulating the nation’s post-9/11 levels of fear of both terrorism and immigrants. So it shouldn’t surprise us that public police murders of unarmed African-Americans – in many cases, documented by video with their hands raised in surrender – have also increased.

As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, throughout history when a community needs to resolve some fundamental social transition, human sacrifice becomes its method. Certainly our current age – with women and gays continuing to question traditional notions of masculinity; as men are rapidly losing jobs and financial security; as immigrants question our notions of who is a member of the Polis; as fewer and fewer of us have any interest in the political process; as we wake up from the American dream to discover the nightmare we have been living – certainly our age qualifies as one of fundamental transition. Hence the search for scapegoats.

The Hands Up – Don’t shoot chant has become the new We Shall Overcome, which, in a sense, served its purpose. The older chant spoke of a future time when segregation and discrimination would be eliminated and African Americans would be both free and equal. It was intended quite deliberately to shame America into living up to its promise. Indeed, the Civil Rights movement did procure its initial objectives. Legal discrimination was abolished and middle-class Blacks entered society’s mainstream.

But America missed the opportunity to eliminate the deeper, systemic foundations of the myth of Innocence. Rather than lancing and finally cleaning out the canker of racism, it smoothed it over with superficial reforms. The centuries-old pressure on the national – white – psyche remained: the alienation from the body, the condemnation of the feminine, the eagerness to rape the natural world for short-term material comforts, the worship of celebrities, the literalized religious fundamentalism, the dumbing-down of our innate intelligence and indigenous souls. All this remained, and the pressure naturally sought an outlet in our happy willingness to allow free reign to those would embody the darkest of our repressed desires, the violent retribution against the Others of the world. Naturally, racism resurfaced in Ronald Reagan’s (in James Baldwin’s words) “brutal contempt for the poor,” in Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform,” in George Bush’s disgusting neglect of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and in Obama’s “Post-racial America.” Now, We Shall Overcome has been reduced to a parody, a photo-op for Congressional clowns (

Hands Up – Don’t shoot, on the other hand, speaks ironically and with passion to the core of the issue. Blacks and Browns have always known that much police violence has nothing to do with preventing or stopping crime, that the police have often been little more than a Gaza-like occupation force intended to keep the Other inside America’s urban ghettos. As Noam Chomsky has written, Black people were “herded into concentration camps, which we…call ‘cities.’” Now, the young protesters of Ferguson are teaching the rest of us that murder of the unarmed – and non-threatening – victim, for all to see on You-Tube is precisely the point.

This is how, in 2014, America engages in human sacrifice. We no longer have Aztec temples or lynching trees with hundreds of spectators, but now the high priests of sacrifice can perform their ceremonies before millions of us. They no longer require our physical presence. But who can look away?

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Comment by Holly Esch on September 6, 2014 at 10:36pm
Have you noticed that the people most invested in the idea that "one mistake will ruin your life" are the most vehement about making certain that it DOES ruin your life, no matter how benign? And if they can't make a tragic example out of you, they try harder? Strangely freedom that isn't kept in check by "consequences" becomes a bad thing. The world is glass, and if you crack it, you pay for it.

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