Today, like too many days, I am angry. Today a grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against the white officer who killed Eric Garner, father of six, with a chokehold. The killing is on video, which many people hoped would mean an indictment and, eventually, a conviction. Not so. Today, America tells us once again that the value it places in black life is nil, insubstantial, nonexistent.
The protests have already begun in New York, and I’m thinking about anger, rage. I’m thinking about things that burn. When the grand jury in St. Louis County announced that it would not be indicting Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson burned. Over the weekend, I saw the latest Hunger Games film—Mockingjay—and in it, the Capitol executes unarmed civilians, their deaths broadcasted for millions of eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice: the killing of unarmed people, one a man and one a child, their murders recorded and spreading like wildfire on the Internet. Like in Hunger Games, the people have taken to the streets to protest these killings, demanding change, demanding that the system in which laws benefit some and murder others be overthrown. It’s been written about extensively, this parallel between the Hunger Games and this America that not only sets Darren Wilson free but awards him almost $1 million for…what? In Hunger Games, we stand behind Katniss as she takes on a system bent on her—literal—destruction: she is our champion as she fires an explosive arrow at a plane that targets women and children. In Mockingjay, the film crew following her gets the perfect shot when Katniss witnesses the destruction of one of the weaker districts, shouting into the camera, “This is what they [the Capitol] do!” She gestures at the fire that has engulfed the victims of the district. “And we must fight back!”
There have been accusations that police in St. Louis have set fires in Ferguson, an assertion which some media outlets have claimed to debunk but that protestors on the ground insist are true. Thinking of things that burn, one can’t help but remember the MOVE bombing of 1985 in Philadelphia, in which police dropped bombs on a black liberation group’s commune and then, when the commune was engulfed in flames, “let the fire burn.” In Ferguson, it has been clear since day one that the police and National Guard have been the aggressors in the rising tension since Mike Brown’s death. One can’t sit in the theater with Mockingjay shining in one’s eyes—the Capitol’s troops with their intimidating tanks; their masks; their weapons—and not think of Ferguson. The malicious Peacekeepers keep peace in name only: the audience sees their suppression of revolution and we hate them for it: no one in their right mind would sit in the theater and think to themselves, “You know, maybe if the districts stopped being so angry. Maybe if the districts worked a little harder. Maybe if Katniss had a father, this wouldn’t be happening to her and her people.”
It’s interesting: in Mockingjay, Peeta withers away before our eyes in Capitol captivity, his eyes sunken and his skin chalky. Prisoner to President Snow, he gives a few interviews to the Capitol media in which he says things that make the rebels in the districts curse his name: “Killing is not the answer! Stop and think of what all this violence could mean!” He begs Katniss and the districts to “show restraint,” and when they bomb the Capitol’s dams, Peeta roundly condemns the act of violence.
In the audience, you are aghast. In the audience, you can’t believe that Peeta would call for “restraint” in the face of a system that grows rich off the districts’ blood. In the audience, you know that Peeta must be brainwashed, trying to protect Katniss, something, because clearly you’re on the side of the districts, clearly you’re on the side of the people fighting against tyranny and murder. In the audience, you are filled with rage for the unfairness of it all.
Roughly 64% of Hunger Games moviegoers are white. I would venture to conclude that this means that those white people side with Katniss, with Peeta, with the districts, with the people who are gunned down by government agents and whipped at the post, and see no justice. Yet 32% of white people look at the protests in Ferguson and say that the police response to those events is “about right.” 35% of white people don’t have an opinion at all.
What is it about the Hunger Games that stirs white people’s empathy? Surely it is Katniss and her lovers’ whiteness. After all, Katniss and the districts’ plight have a lot in common with that of black Americans, past and present. Economic marginalization, forced labor, public shootings with no legal recourse, whipping at the post, and even lynching. In the theater, I sat, disturbed, as Katniss sang a song about “the hanging tree.”
“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three”
In these words, I can’t help but hear the accusations leveled against the black lives taken in America to justify their killing. At one point, for a black American to be lynched, the only “crime” they had to commit was being black. Now, in “post-racial” America, there exists a kind of shroud of language around the reason for these deaths. For John Crawford and Tamir Rice, it is shouted that they carried BB guns (despite living in Ohio, an open-carry state). For Eric Garner, it is screamed that he was selling cigarettes. Mike Brown, they say, punched Darren Wilson, although photographs of Wilson’s “injuries” seem to illustrate only rosacea. “They say he murdered three,” sings Katniss, and we in the audience don’t need to ask to know who “they” is: “they” is the system, the Capitol, the President himself. And we don’t need to know if the man being strung up is guilty or innocent: we are on his side, because we know the Capitol is guilty, guiltier, guilty as sin.
At times it seems that the Hunger Games script was written after Ferguson. President Snow sits in his office at the Capitol and consults with his PR people about what they should call the districts that have begun to rebel. He doesn’t want to call them rebels, he says. It gives them too much weight. “Criminals?” his assistant suggests, and in the audience you cringe, you sneer because you know Katniss is no criminal; you know how unfair and twisted it is. “Radicals,” they finally decide. Radicals. And you shake your head, because you know it’s bullshit propaganda.
In St. Louis, Missouri, the same meeting was held. In media offices all over the country, the same meeting was held. Jeff Roorda, spokesman and business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, chose the word “thugs.” All over America, the word “thug” is chosen just as carefully, just as specifically as President Snow chose “radicals.” Are you cringing? Are you hearing the word and knowing you are hearing spin, strategy, propaganda?
One of the recurring themes in Hunger Games—in the films and in the books—is the role media plays in the subjugation of the district; the way crimes—the murder of humans—are recorded and used as entertainment. We look at that world—the world of Panem, a United States not united but torn apart by class wars and violence—and believe it an impossible distortion of our society. Yet Eric Garner’s murder, Tamir Rice’s murder, John Crawford’s murder, were all caught on camera, broadcasted on television and on the Internet—and they mean nothing. They don’t serve as entertainment, no, but these videos, captured for what we all hoped would be evidence in punishing the killers responsible, serve no purpose. Even with video, no indictment for Eric Garner’s killer. Even with video, no indictment for John Crawford’s murder. These videos exist only as an endlessly looping reminder of what America reinforces every day: in this system, black lives do not matter.
The Hunger Games shows us a world in which police are out of control and the government is hell-bent on keeping people poor and afraid; a world in which the masses, tired of being abused and killed on TV, rise up and demand change, by any means necessary. In Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen looks in the camera and raises her voice, “You can torture or bomb us, blast our district to the grounds. But do you see that? Fire is catching…If we burn, you burn with us!”
I want the white people in the theater cheering for Katniss to look at the countless black lives that have been taken by police in America—one every 28 hours— without justice, and say the same. I want the fire to catch. It is our responsibility. The wrongs that we weep for in Panem, the imagined wrongs that are inflicted on imagined white people, are happening to black Americans around you right at this moment. I want the fire to catch. Look at the damage, the irreconcilable violence, that the police in America wreak on black lives and say, “This is what they do. And we must fight back.”