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The white-Left Part 1: The two meanings of white

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why no one should stand for the national anthem #TakeAKnee

Colin Kaepernick started taking the knee during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest the police treatment of black people in the United States. When other players, both black and white, joined him, President Donald Trump, who has previously encouraged police violence, took the tactic of objecting to the football players taking a knee to protest police violence against African Americans by claiming they were disrespecting the national anthem, and by extension, the flag, the country, the military, and the American way.

I take a very different view, in fact, I'm here to argue that no one should stand for the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Jason Johnson called it "one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon," for good reason. This is why the California NAACP is calling for it to be removed as our national anthem. Furthermore, its author, Francis Scott Key, was much more than a slave owning victim of his times, as the District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833 to 1840, he became one of the pioneering architects of the racist police and criminal justice system the #TakeAKnee movement is protesting. That makes the time when we are all forced to hear the words of this racist poet, a most appropriate one for protest.

First about the song, then about the man.

about the song

Most Americans are familiar with "thy rocket's red glare" and "thy bombs bursting in air" of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Less often sung is its racist third stanza:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave'
From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In Key's poem [it only became a song and nation anthem later], the hirelings were colonists who remained loyal to the crown or mercenaries fighting for a paycheck. The British were also offering freedom to any slave who would fight for them, and the Americans were unwilling to match this offer, so many slaves ran away to fight for their freedom. Since Britain was to end slavery throughout its empire three decades ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation, it can be fairly argued that the slaves would have been better off had the American Revolution failed. In anycase, that is the 20/20 vision of hindsight, in 1814, the slaves were responding to the offer on the table then and for this Key wished them "the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave."

The fact that they could run away and pick up a gun showed the complete bankruptcy of the slave system Key was defending, beyond that he had very personal reasons for wanting to see these runaway slaves turned soldiers dead.  Three weeks before the battle at Fort McHenry in Baltimore on 13 September 1815, for which Key was to pen his famous poem, was the Battle of Bladensburg on 24 August 1815. Key was a lieutenant at the time and his unit was "taken to the woodshed" by a battalion of Colonial Marines. Colonial Marines were black soldiers, runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. Key hated them for it. That is what those lines reflect. The question is: Why are we still singing his praises and standing for his song?

Black lives didn't matter to Francis Scott Key.

about the man

Modern police practises and departments developed with the growing urban environments they were tasked with regulating. This task became both more urgent and more complicated in the fast growing cities of the slaveholding South. In Southern cities like Richmond, VA, Atlanta, GA and Washington, DC they not only had to deal with the ordinary contradictions of developing urban life, they were increasingly given the special task of suppressing a growing urban population of free and slave African Americans. One of the main reasons why racist police violence has proven to be so intractable is that from its earliest days, the developing police culture had forced upon it the extraordinary task of maintaining social control over a racially oppressed people. This has created a racism corruption in modern American policing that has been programmed into its very DNA from those earliest days.

1835 DC Anti-Slavery Broadside
As the district attorney of Washington, DC in the 1830s, Francis Scott Key was privileged to become one of the pioneering architects of precisely the type of racist criminal justice system Kaepernick is protesting today.

In 1833, Washington's free black population had overtaken its slaves in population, and many blacks ran businesses and were well established in the nation's capital. Those blacks, both free and slave, were increasingly demanding liberty. Britain was ending slavery throughout its empire that year, and the abolitionists were stepping up their agitation to end it in the United States as well. That was the general situation when President Andrew Jackson appointed Francis Scott Key DA of DC.

Key could have used his position to advance the progressive struggle. Instead he chose to use his power to fight it. There was still time to avoid a costly civil war, as General John Kelly, Trump's Chief of Staff, has suggested, and end slavery through civil discourse instead, but men in positions of power and trust like Key chose to violate the constitution, suppress free speech, use police powers corruptly, suppress the black community, and jail freedom fighters in a vain effort to preserve a system in which he could profit from the ownership of other people.

As DC DA, Key's most celebrated cases came out of events in August of 1836 that became known as "the Snow Riot." The riot took its name one of its first targets: Beverly Snow, a mixed race man whose popular restaurant on the corner of 6th & Penn, the Epicurean Eating House, was destroyed.  It was the first race riot in our nation's capital. Whites ransacked and burned black homes and businesses.  There were as many as 400 white rioters.  A citizen's militia of some 50 to 60 people armed with muskets and fixed bayonets had to be hastily organized to support the city constable force of 10 in restoring order. Beverly Snow left town "for a country where a man might live freely: Canada," but his name remained with the riot.

DC DA Key made two big cases out of the Snow Riot:  a black slave he sought to have hung, and a white abolitionist he tried to have sent to prison. He failed to achieve satisfaction on either count, but it was not for lack of trying.

The slave was an educated and well known slave named Arthur Bowen, then 19. A series of drunken mishaps that you can read about in some detail here found him entering the bedroom of Anna Thornton on the night of 10 August 1836 with an axe in his hand. Anna was so convinced of his innocence that she testified for his defense at trial, and after his conviction, appealed to President Jackson for a pardon. This was only a few years after Nat Turner had led a band of slaves in murdering 50 whites with axes, so when a witness reported the vision of Arthur standing in Anna's door with an ax, a white riot ensured. A group of mainly Irish workers that called themselves "the Mechanics" went on a rampage in the black community. This is how the Snow Riot began.

Cops lying about a jailhouse confession? Not for the last time.
DA Key had already been using his office to suppress the black community and violate the first amendment rights of abolitionists. He decided the best way to placate this white supremacist unrest was to accuse Bowen not just of yielding an axe, but also of attempting to start an insurrection, so he could try him for a capital offense. Since a black man couldn't be credited with coming up with insurrection on his own, he also arrested Reuben Crandall, a local white abolitionist. As abolitionists go, Crandall wasn't that much. Known as a teetotaler, he was more interested in alcohol prohibition than ending slavery, but his sister was a nationally known abolitionist. Prudence Crandall was the Connecticut schoolteacher who had welcomed a free Negro girl into her classroom, and Reuben had been found with copies of the Anti-Slavery Reporter and the Liberator in his office.

Bowen's trial for attempted murder and burglary began in late November of 1835 and lasted until the jury brought in its verdict on 10 December. Anna Thornton testified that she did not believe he had intended to kill her, nevertheless it took an all white jury all of 15 minutes to bring in the verdict that Arthur Bowen be "hanged by the neck until he be dead." Bowen's execution was scheduled for 26 February 1836. From his jail cell, he composed a poem, later published in the Globe. He blamed alcohol for his problems:
Farewell, farewell, my young friends dear;
Oh! View my dreadful state,
Each flying moment brings me near
Unto my awful fate.

Brought up I was by parents nice,
Whose commands I would not obey,
But plunged ahead foremost into vice,
And into temptation's dreadful way.

Good bye, good bye, my friends so dear,
May God Almighty please you all,
Do, if you please, but shed a tear
At Arthur Bowen's unhappy fall.
Francis Scott Key wasn't the only one who could pen a poem in those days. TV and Twitter have robbed us of some beautiful skills.

For Key, the really big case was U.S. v. Reuben Crandall. Key considered him the real culprit behind the Snow Riot. That trial began in April 1836, took ten days, and was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. The City Hall courtroom was crowded, congressmen sitting in the front row, and two of Washington's most famous attorneys, Richard Coxe and Joseph Bradley, counsel for the defense

DC DA Key argued that Crandall was guilty of sedation because his efforts to incite slaves, free Negroes and others to "stir up against slave owners" were "base and demonical." In his closing argument, the author of the national anthem called U.S. v. Reuben Crandall "one of the most important cases ever tried" in the nation's capital, and then went on to appeal to the all white jury on the basis of white supremacy:
"Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country; to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the Abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro? Or, gentlemen, on the other hand, are there laws in this community to defend you from the immediate Abolitionist, who would open upon you the floodgates of such extensive wickedness and mischief?"
In spite of District Attorney Francis Scott Key's best efforts, it took the jury only three hours to acquit Reuben Crandall.

Anna Thornton portrait by Gilbert Stuart 
Meanwhile Anna Thornton had been carrying out a legal defense campaign in support of Arthur Bowen that included a 17 page letter to President Andrew Jackson. Those efforts initially won a stay of execution and eventually, a pardon, to take effect, according to the presidential order "on the 4th of July" 1836. On that same day that Arthur was released, Ann Brodeau, Anna's long sick mother, passed. Rumor has it that the light-skinned slave Arthur was her husband's issue, and Anna's half-brother. This is a true American story.

Although he was unable to achieve his ends by legal means. Francis Scott Key may have derived some satisfaction from Crandall's ultimate fate. While he was locked up in the germ infested city jail, Reuben Crandall contracted tuberculosis, and although he ran to Kingston, Jamaica to escape it, he never recovered and it killed him in January 1838.

There are many actors in this saga that all Americans can be proud of; first and foremost, Arthur Bowen, who suffered death row with dignity; Anna Thornton, who never stopped fighting for justice; Reuben Crandall, who paid the ultimate price in the fight for freedom; even the jury in the second trial; and President Andrew Jackson who pardoned Bowen; but Francis Scott Key is not one of them.

So, with all due respect, I say: No one should stand for the national anthem. We should demand it be changed.

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