On May 4, Ida B. Wells received a posthumous Pulitzer award. The Pulitzer board shared that she was awarded for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” The news rang out internationally and was widely celebrated. A Financial Times headline said that Wells’s “overdue” award “helps rebalance history.” Yet shortly after this happened, lynching was a trending topic across the United States.
The truth is, the era of lynching has not yet concluded. The February killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, shocked people across the country and around the world. This murder, like many others before it (and, I fear, others that will follow it), demands a change of heart, mind and tactics from our exhausted — yet resilient — movements for liberation.
Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man who was out running when he was confronted by Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael. A neighbor of the two named William “Roddie” Bryan recorded a 36-second (now viral) video that captured the final moments of Arbery’s life before he was trapped and murdered by the pair. Questions have lingered around Bryan and his involvement as a witness and participant. He’s also been under investigation and has retained an attorney since the killing. The now months-delayed process of addressing this tragedy has spurred questions about the sincerity of local authorities and a potential cover-up. Gregory McMichael, a former member of law enforcement, was involved in an “investigation” of Arbery prior to this, according to one of two recused prosecutors with close proximity to involved parties.
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Videos like that of Arbery’s killing become traumatic motivators that push some people to action, shut others down due to fatigue or despair, and provide racist satisfaction for others. There’s danger in simply reacting to viral videos or pictures of anti-Black brutality, allowing these visuals to become a de facto requirement for attempts to secure some semblance of consequences. Crucially, it should be said that what has happened thus far to recognize the atrocity committed against Arbery has happened because of a mass movement demanding accountability. We have the power to accomplish this with or without photographic evidence. Video has never guaranteed us anything. Like lynching photos, the dissemination and spread of these visuals do raise the profile of racist murders, but they also traumatize Black America whether repercussions are secured or not.
As these violent moments are played and replayed, vicious racist appetites are fed: it’s titillating motivation for those who want to kill and inflicts post-traumatic stress on those they want to kill. These grisly lynching events and racist murders become places of fellowship for those that subscribe to the genocidal cult of white supremacy. This happens while the hope that something close to “justice” will be received through the very institutions, courts and authorities that maintain themselves through anti-Black violence. The victim is usually blamed; accusations alone are enough to warrant the public killing of a Black person. It shouldn’t be lost on us that one of the assailants was a member of law enforcement, much like many Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis always have been and still are.
The specter of lynching is reanimated regularly as white supremacist murders continue in this country. Violent racist aggressors murder Black people but are often deemed “not guilty” by an establishment that condones and encourages the violent custom, especially when it is perpetrated by law enforcement. Ahmaud Arbery’s killing is now a part of a long line of killings. White supremacist violence that is often inaccurately labeled “unimaginable” remains a reality for Black people because ignoring white supremacy in favor of an unrealized dream is a waking nightmare. From the murder of Trayvon Martin to the A.M.E. church massacre in Charleston to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to now. We’ve been warned.
Ida B. Wells’s words in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ring true. In her documentation of lynchings she wrote:
Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.… The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.
The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.
In her autobiography, Wells recalled,
I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.
Unfortunately, these words are still painfully relevant. Accepting them can’t hurt any more than a string of unpunished anti-Black killings already has. We should be prepared to defend ourselves because we are absolutely worth defending. We cannot rely on the systems that enable our killing to protect us when they are culpable.
What does mass self-defense look like? Although many people feel most comfortable with electoral solutions, we are in a predicament we’re not going to simply vote our way out of. We’re in a situation we’re not going to petition our way out of. We’re in a situation we’re not merely going to solve with money or dialogue or protests. This disaster requires radical Black politics that do not stop at reform or inclusion. The still-unfolding pandemic has shown us the necessity of mutual aid when the state has left us to fend for ourselves, and that sort of organizing must be expanded and it must include various other self-defense strategies.
Indeed, the current pandemic is, in part, another manifestation of racist murders. The state has resolved to neglectfully sacrifice Black people who are bearing the brunt of a woefully underprepared nation with a health care system that prioritizes capital, not saving lives. Through mutual aid and voluntary associations, we can begin to be proactive about the fact that anything horrible is possible as the state is becoming increasingly fascist. The current administration’s deplorable agenda has been carried out well and the courts have been effectively stacked. Soon, the most egregious discrimination by government entities could be realized in voting, marriage, healthcare, immigration, and more with relative ease, unperturbed by the courts, even as the pandemic rages on. The president has made sure of it and the law and the Constitution cannot be relied on for protection.
Murders like Arbery’s are not isolated incidents — they’re an extension of state violence we have to be prepared for. We’d do well to honor all of those lost to lynching and other forms of white supremacist violence by being vigilant and strengthening our own organizing, including continuing to develop robust networks of mutual aid. We can save lives by looking to ourselves instead of that which is intended to fail us.