When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun
I recently ran across the above lyric somewhere on the web that I can no longer remember. You might think, as I did, that it sounds like a piece of gangsta rap about some gangbanger deciding between surrendering to the police or trying to shoot it out. In other words, trying to decide between being smart and being hard.
If you know more about music than I do, however, you recognized it right away as “The Guns of Brixton” by The Clash off of their landmark 1979 album London Calling. It’s about police violence against blacks in Brixton (a part of London). Apparently, police were assaulting and sometimes killing blacks at an alarming rate. This eventually lead to riots and then to reform of the Brixton police.
Now consider this part of the same song:
When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting on death row
These lines appear at first glance to present a similar choice between aquiescence and resistance. But the situations are radically different. In the first situation, there is uncertainty about the outcome. If the police kicking down the door are not killers, it makes sense to give in peacefully instead of starting a violent confrontation that can’t be won. Many members of inner-city drug gangs are aware of this, and once the police catch them, they come along peacefully. That’s because they know the police are going to take them in but do nothing worse to them, so why get themselves injured in the process?
In the second case, there is no uncertainty. The pounding on the door is a death squad, coming to shoot you down. The only choices they offer are certain death or a chance to die fighting…or maybe, just maybe, to escape.
(I have no idea what was going on in real life Brixton. I’m just responding to the lyrics here.)
It’s an important distinction. Throughout history, people have often found themselves in the uncertainty of the first situation without knowing that they were really in the second situation.
When the Nazis started to clear all the Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto in the late summer of 1942, most Jews believed that the Germans were sending them to work camps, and that resistance would only result in their needless deaths. Better to stay alive, even if it meant working as a slave.
In reality, the Germans were sending the Jews to the death camp at Treblinka, and they only stopped when they ran out of Jews. The Jewish population was reduced in 52 days from about 380,000 people to perhaps 60,000. Most of those remaining were either working for the German war effort or hiding.
In January 1943, the Nazis set out to exterminate the remaining Jews. This time the Jews knew what was going on and resisted, attacking and killing the German soldiers. The peak of the resistance was from mid-April to mid-May, 1943 and is known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Ultimately, however, the Nazis prevailed, and the Jews who had survived the fighting were sent to the death camps. This was the first uprising against Nazi rule in Europe, but it wasn’t the last. The bravery and determination of the Warsaw resistance fighters was an example to others and remains so to this day.
We have a more recent example as well. When hijackers took over four airplanes on September 11th, 2001, the passengers and crew of three of the planes did not resist (as far as we know). Faced with uncertainty about the outcome, they did what appeared safe and cooperated with the hijackers, believing that to resist would be to provoke their own deaths.
We shouldn’t be critical of them, however, because they didn’t know what we now know. In any previous hijacking they would have been right, for the simple reason that once the plane landed somewhere, the hijackers would lose their advantage and eventually be forced off or, more likely, pursuaded to surrender. That didn’t work this time because the hijackers had no intention of landing. Not knowing the true intent of the hijackers, the passengers didn’t see that cooperation wouldn’t work. They knew they were in the first situation, but didn’t realize they were in the second. They didn’t see that resistance would cost them nothing.
On the fourth plane, however, the passengers got word of what had happend to the other planes. They knew the full price of aquiescence. So they chose to act, to resist. To do otherwise would be to accept death. So they fought.
Although they probably saved the lives of a lot of people on the ground, at whatever the plane’s target was, they lost their personal struggle. As with the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, their fight remains as an inspiration for others.
Addendum: I can’t find the Clash’s version of “Guns of Brixton” online, but you can hear a nice cover of it at Nouvelle Vague’s MySpace page. (You’ll have to click the link to the song. I can’t figure out how to link direct.)