Features \

Saul Williams on the Baltimore Riots: ‘We Had a Growing List of Young Martyrs’

The poet and activist shares an excerpt from his tour diary, featuring a dream appearance from Aaron Swartz

Poet, activist, and musician Saul Williams, who recently wrote an essay in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, has penned an op-ed for SPIN about the Baltimore riots surrounding Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. Below, read a surreal meditation from his Martyr Loser Kingdom (which, you may have noticed, is abbreviated as M.L.K.) tour — and, in this case, dream — diary. While you read, be sure to listen to “Burundi” featuring Warpaint’s Emily Kokal, the stirring first listen off Williams’ forthcoming LP, MartyrLoserKing (out in July via FADER).

May 4, 2015

Weird dream. In a burning library, on the third or fourth floor, not actually panicked about the fire below. I’m copying passages from books before throwing them out the window. Outside a huge pendulum hangs over the city, like the moon on a string. I read one passage that begins, “Baltimore had long ago burnt to the ground,” which disintegrates in my hands before I have a chance to read more. I pick up another book and read something like:

Millions of hands pushed the hanging weight as it swung overhead, heavy, metallic. The pendulum push for social justice that had moved through labor, civil rights, women’s independence, black power, only to be foiled by covert government infiltration, corporate hedgemony [sic], the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, up through and past a black presidency, was now making it’s [sic] reverse journey, where groups that had once been strategically pitted against each other [see Bastards of the Party] were now finding common cause and ground in policing their own communities, where overt oversights and religious overflow into the law were being weeded out, drugs were being decriminalized, wage discrepancies were being addressed… in so many words, the country was reckoning with its shortcomings, oversights, and deeply ingrained prejudices and hypocrisies.

A young man, who I think is Aaron Swartz walks up and hands me a book. He’s wearing a red hoodie that says “fucking awesome.” He asks if I can read the text as he recites it to see if he has it properly memorized. He says something like,

“From the chapter on martyrs & whistleblowers:

How to connect the dots ?

{paraphrased} On one hand we had a growing list a of young martyrs who had not made altruistic choices to serve humanity, who made no attempt to be whistleblowers or heroes, but whose untimely and unjust deaths had sparked civil uprisings against authority, uprisings that spawned the reversing of the pendulum, the pushback against criminal injustice, the pushback of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the unjust policing of poor communities. On the other hand, there was news of Edward Snowden busts in New York City parks, and statues of Snowden, Manning, and Assange erected in Berlin. While the whistle-blowing martyrs (imprisoned or in hiding, but alive) had released documents that sparked international outrage and movements in the name of a more true and transparent democracy, the murder of innocent youth had also sparked uprisings aimed at ending an endemic of domestic terror. Furthermore their deaths had culminated in a new generation of thinkers and activists who, once again, felt entitled to more than their parents or grandparents, who refused to live and die under the same conditions, who gave no fucks about respectability politics, who were well versed in how racism could not be reversed, who had little patience in pointing out privilege to those who did not realize that their silence implied complicity…”

He then runs and grabs another book which he hands to me before disappearing (out the window?). I open the book to a random page and read something to the effect of:

Once the police began forming private militias and teaming with comrades and veterans in private security forces, it was simply a matter of time before the rift between the official federal position and State and private militias became apparent and backfired against the stability of the nation itself. Some say the problem began in the twenty-teens when a series of vicious police murders exposed the inner-workings of the force, revealing an unchecked prejudice that proved to be a wild-card in the cocktail of authority, man-power, and uniform. Police across the nation had begun to feel violated, betrayed by what was once an unstated system of oversights and imbalances, solidifying their ability to do as they wished in the poor inner cities with impunity. Community oversight boards had forced some officers underground. Commissioners were de-elected. Some veteran officers felt the wave of criticism against them so strongly that they refused to work. Unions and whole county departments went on strike. Once officers and judges began getting indicted for their actions, the worst of the forces [the ones who had allowed a false sense of entitlement to rise in psychological rank; the ones who regarded themselves as zoo keepers — a dominant species minding the upkeep of an animal kingdom] held private meetings and began discussing what in other nations would easily be labeled a coup d’état. Other historians point to the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the early use of private security forces by state and federal authorities as the awakening of the dormant…

It’s at that moment I hear shots fired outside and notice the uniformed officers shooting at the pendulum as the bullets ricochet and hit seemingly random people. I’m in a burning building, worried about getting shot. In the scuffle to get away from the window, I wake up.