DWYCK: Luke Cage, Charles Oakley, and the Consequences of Facing White Rage
In the 9th episode of the first season of the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” the titular hero is physically wounded, falsely accused of murder, and trying to find a way to heal his injuries, all while continuing to seek justice for the people of Harlem. As a result, he has no time to be detained by the two NYPD officers who spot him. Luke quickly incapacitates the officer who approaches to handcuff him. Seeing that the second officer is nervously preparing to fire his weapon, Luke shields the first officer, absorbs all of the bullets from the second officer, then knocks out the second officer by shoving him in the air until the officer crashes into the nearby patrol car. Luke lays both officers carefully on the sidewalk where he knows they will be quickly found and given medical attention. The patrol car’s camera records the entire encounter. Yet, all the public later sees is Luke propelling the second officer into the shattering windshield of the squad car. Lacking any context, various characters in the series are able to use the video to portray Luke as a violent menace who deserves to be incarcerated, if not worse. Luke Cage knows Charles Oakley’s pain.
On Wednesday night, February 8th, NBA legend Charles Oakley attended a Knicks game and was in his seat for less than 5 minutes of the game before Madison Square Garden security ejected him from his seat, brought him to the ground, and NYPD arrested him in the bowels of the arena. The headline on the back of my local paper read “Oakley Shocker: Ex-Knick arrested after the courtside altercation at MSG.” The headlines in other news outlets were quite similar. Other leads suggested that Oakley was “uncooperative” or “aggressive.” In the immediate aftermath of the incident, many people have rallied to Oakley’s defense, including some police officers. Former players have attested to Oakley’s character and many sportswriters have suggested that the incident is symptomatic of the dysfunction in the Knick’s organization. But as Luke Cage will attest, all of this misses a larger issue. My point is not to cast doubt on the reporting of the incident but to suggest that the framing of the incident conceals more than it reveals.
Oakley has maintained his innocence and stated that he had done nothing to deserve being thrown from his seat, arrested, and charged with multiple counts of assault. A number of fans nearby the incident support Oakley’s claim. A few others suggested that they felt uncomfortable because Oakley was “verbally abusive.” Yet no one has mentioned the White Rage that precipitated the incident. Historian Carol Anderson addresses the concept of White Rage in her latest book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. To her mind, White Rage is more than state-sanctioned, vigilante, or mob violence against bodies of color. White Rage includes the subtle-yet-powerful policies and exercises of power that seek to crush Black self-expression and success. In her analysis of the events in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown, Anderson (a one-time resident of Missouri) noted that White Rage was not just the harsh police response to peaceful Black protests in 2014 but the decades-long governmental policies that impoverished the people of Ferguson and ultimately slaughtered Brown. Few saw what Anderson saw and preferred to clutch their pearls as to whether the protests were legitimate and whether the protesters would maintain a commitment to non-violence. Fewer seemed to acknowledge that her position was vindicated by subsequent investigations of the local government. And so it was with Luke.
Luke contended with White Rage at different levels, from corrupt Corrections Officers to unethical prison medical personnel. Even upon arriving in Harlem following his prison break, Luke had to contend with “the streets,” a euphemism for spaces of unregulated capitalist exploitation that devour dark bodies, a place in which “winners” are rewarded for their rabid individualism, greed, and talents for violence (in some cases, courtesy of weapons from Tony Stark rival, Justin Hammer). Although Black and Brown bodies occupy these “streets,” this space is a creation of the under-investment, intentional location of unwanted activity in “sacrifice zones,” and the political abandonment that are aspects of White Rage. Luke was fighting White Rage on multiple levels, even if his closest adversaries tended to be Black and Brown. Season One of the show ended with Luke defeating the immediate villain (his half-brother), then being taken into police custody, presumably to speak his truth in Season Two. Sandra Bland was not so lucky. Neither was Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, or Jonathan Crawford. Thankfully, Charles Oakley is still alive and will continue to tell his truth but I fear that his witness will be drowned out by a myopic focus on his personality, as well as with his interactions with authority figures. The White Rage that will likely go unexamined is that of James Dolan.
Dolan has alienated a number of former Knicks players and apparently has a serious distaste for the criticism of the team by Oakley, in particular. At least one story I read suggested that Dolan was especially peeved that Oakley warned LeBron James to stay away from the Knicks when LeBron became a free agent because of Dolan’s mismanagement of the franchise. Dolan’s thin-skinned truculence reminds one of other trust-fund babies who were born on third base and swore that they hit a triple in the baseball game of life. The video evidence that the Knicks have released as a way of impugning Oakley seems, on the contrary, to be further evidence of White Rage.
Today’s (Feb. 11th) Bleacher Report website has a story purportedly showing security camera footage of the incident, as well as the recollections of the Club Seat Attendant, the MSG Security Supervisor in the area, and the MSG Security Manager. The video and the MSG employees recollections suggest that MSG security was harassing Oakley and that he repeatedly and vociferously was pointing out (and objecting to) this pattern of behavior. When confronted by multiple security guards, Oakley refused to cooperate in his unjust expulsion. Dolan, just a few rows away from Oakley, looked the other way and did nothing…because his work was already done. Dolan forced Oakley to pay for his own seat to watch his former team. Dolan apparently told arena security to notify him whenever Oakley was in the building and to keep an eye on the former player. MSG security menaced Oakley like a pack of sharks and accosted him when they grew weary of him telling them about themselves! The security supervisor justified the assault on Oakley because he “seemed intoxicated.” Later, Dolan tried to claim the high ground by dismissing MSG’s security chief and banning Oakley from the arena. Like the residents of Harlem did for Luke Cage, we should support Oakley by focusing on the unexamined White Rage of James Dolan, not to mention the White Rage that plagues our nation and imperils all of us.
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