America is fond of declaring Moments, with a capital M. There is The Libertarian Moment, currently embodied by Kentucky senator Rand Paul. The financial crisis — and, later, French economist Thomas Piketty — helped usher in The Keynesian Moment. Jason Collins and Michael Sam facilitated The Gay Moment.
These Moments are not confined to happy events. Following the Newtown massacre, we rushed to proclaim A National Moment on gun control: needless to say, the opportunity came and went. The National Football League was said to have a Moment regarding concussions. And today we find ourselves, once again, heralding what Reverend Al Sharpton has deemed a “defining moment for this country” in Ferguson, Missouri.
Moments pass. Or worse, they become “conversations,” the universal American signifier (favored by network anchors and Washington pundits alike) for a deluge of words that quickly drown all meaning. Millions of people yelling at once does not a conversation make.
Neither does one person speaking to millions. Last night — after watching live as her colleagues Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Marc Lamont Hill struggled to breathe following the police’s indiscriminate use of tear gas — CNN anchor Rosemary Church wondered aloud why the Ferguson police had failed to deploy water cannons for crowd control. Any conversation in which perspectives such as hers play a principal role is not one worth having.
Indeed, our “national conversation on race” is less useful than silence, never more obviously so than when its loudest interlocutors alternate between caricature and farce. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the keenest observer of racial issues in America, memorably wrote in 2010:
The very nomenclature–“conversation on race”–betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.
Transforming a Moment into a movement is the Holy Grail, and it is not easy. Defining an organizing objective is the first concern, and limiting scope must follow closely behind. (Today, Zuccotti Park is just a park.) If we are to confront, at long last, the dual menaces of police militarization and systemic racial discrimination, we must be sufficiently determined to delve into more fundamental questions.
These inquiries should prod the American conception of masculinity itself, one whose chief metric often appears to be the extent of lethal weaponry one can amass. It should similarly encompass racial disparities in both policing methodologies and judicial decisions. And it should make note of the disparate language so often used when a crowd is white (“protest”) and when it is not (“riot”).
Fashioning a movement, lastly, will create uncomfortable bedfellows. But there is much the left can agree on with the likes of Rand Paul, who observed (correctly): “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.” One is not obligated to wish for a return to the gold-backed dollar in order to Stand with Rand against police brutality. The Ferguson Moment will soon vanish, but let us make something of its passing.