Black people cannot afford to be numb to the growing instances of police killing unarmed young black women and men in this country.
Jamala Rogers, a longtime human rights and racial justice activist with the St. Louis based Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) hit the nail on the head when she labeled the Grand Jury Report by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch “Hurricane McCulloch.” To those who demanded an indictment be brought against Darren Wilson, that is certainly what it felt like.
If the Grand Jury “No True Bill” decision was a hurricane, then the resistance in the streets currently sweeping the nation is disaster relief.
Student-activists and long distant runners in movements for social justice have taken to the streets, shutting down intersections, momentarily taking over freeways, damaging some properties, protecting others, and standing down police in major cities across America, with expressions of solidarity from around the globe, including Palestine, Brazil, and London. The righteously defiant message is clear: this is a new era of justice seekers. These activists are not beholden to an abstract conception of democracy. They are enacting it, rewriting the concept on their own terms: “Tell me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like.” Since the decision, however, the galvanizing call has been simply “Black Lives Matter.”
If the cabal of McCulloch, police union representative and friend of Darren Wilson, Jeff Roorda, and Governor Jay Nixon thought that militarizing the police, calling in the National Guard, and emphasizing that protestors use restraint up to and after the announcement, would cease tensions they were mistaken. Even President Obama’s calls for calm rang hollow. While calls for “order” have been ritually directed at protests, the public has not heard one government directive to police or national guard officers to de-escalate tensions. What many have witnessed instead is police and guardsmen escalating tensions, provoking protestors, threatening arrest, and taunting activists. Perhaps police have been given directives, but the fact that the public has not heard these orders emphasizes the sense that government officials coast-to-coast refuse to operate transparently, even in times of crisis.
Activists, in solidarity with the family of Mike Brown, and the families of numerous other youth and adults of color killed by police are demanding justice through a dramatic overhauling of the policing practices that have led to increasing numbers of black deaths at the hands of law enforcement or otherwise self-deputized individuals. In anticipation of the Grand Jury decision, the Don’t Shoot Coalition even proposed new Rules of Engagement with the hopes of protecting protestors by holding police to agreeable standards of accountability. At best, St. Louis Mayor Slay gave a lukewarm response to the proposal. Many felt his response confirmed the power of discretion already in the hands of the police.
It wasn’t enough to bring back a non-indictment of Wilson. St. Louis-area government officials seemed not to understand the grave injustice that has been performed by this Grand Jury under McCulloch’s instruction. Some activists have marked this as the latest form of government incompetence. Others have indicated this non-indictment as a declaration of war. In each case, there appears to be a profound discounting of the depth of the pain, anguish, and sense of injustice that is tattooed on the hearts of those in the streets.
A vast majority of these activists, many of whom are bold, brilliant young women of color, understood not only what occurred on August 9th, but also what has happened since that day. They understand that black youth have no right to due process, no right to victimhood, and no chance to be anything but dead. In this light, the statement “Black Lives Matter” is more question than assertion.
Activists in Ferguson and elsewhere have the profound understanding that whenever possible, black and brown bodies are given the stiffest penalties, the strictest discipline, and are routinely stigmatized. The narrative that has been crafted by the Nixon-Roorda-McCulloch tripartite brands Mike Brown and protestors alike as unruly criminals in need of control. As if to say, “this is why we’ve been ignoring you this far,” government has proven its ineptitude in adequately addressing the calls for a new social order. That call is at the heart of every marching chant. It is the shared thought at the center of every moment of silence in Mike Brown’s name.
Black people in the United States are tried over and over again. The first trial is often by bullets, the second in the court of public opinion, and then tried again long after death.
Similar to the case of Trayvon Martin, the victim, now dead, ends up being the one on trial. Not the killer. The same has happened in the Mike Brown case. Instead of Darren Wilson being indicted, the state accepted his use of the black bogeyman explanation and was therefore within his rights to use deadly force. In fact, McCulloch found it possible to indict and discredit social media, condemning thousands for the protection of one.
The young black and brown people in the streets now have their own narrative of this case: Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown in cold blood and has now been handsomely compensated for doing so.
That understanding is itself enough to keep those who are fed up in the street for many days to come. It suggests that there are material benefits and even wealth that accrue upon the deaths of black youth killed by white officers. Wilson can have a GoFundMe campaign raise over $400 thousand, and then have that energy matched by big media networks jockeying to interview him, while Mike Brown’s family suffers the trauma of having their lost son branded as the latest example of what’s wrong with black youth.
Enough has been enough. The young activists leading this movement have made it clear that only when police are consistently held accountable will something resembling justice be felt.
This society is sending a clear message: Black people are incapable of being seen as victims. When they hurt, no one cares. When they are in pain, it is their own fault. This society and the people and values it protects have deemed African Americans unworthy of protection. This society functions by a script that reads it is always on the right side of history. One thing white society can’t ever be is wrong. Or so it tells itself.
It seems that black death, like enslavement, is viewed by those in power as either a necessary evil or a positive good. There is no victimhood for black people. Black people are always there for the taking. For example, Mumia Abu-Jamal makes a commencement address about the power of education to his Alma Mater, Goddard College and the reactionary victims’ rights movement kicks into gear claiming “mental anguish.” As ridiculous as that sounds, a bill was fast-tracked through the Pennsylvania legislature that essentially censures Mumia’s ability to speak to the public. The living death of imprisonment is obviously not enough.
Black peoples’ visions for social change appear unintelligible and their pain seemingly unrecognizable. How else to explain the string of names recalled at every rally during these times: Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Kendric McDade, Sean Bell, Troy Davis, Ayanna Jones, Kijieme Powell, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Bo Morrison, Vonderrit Myers? Can this be viewed as anything but a declaration of war? The difficult process of mourning is frequently interrupted with more reasons to mourn.
Perhaps this is what it means to be captive in this society. Black people receive the preferential treatment of bullets and character assassinations. They get the Affirmative Action of containment and militarization. They are forced to accept a state apparatus that showers them with tear gas and pepper spray.
This is why it was important for groups such as HandsUpUnited, Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), to stand with Mike Brown’s parents in holding the United States government accountable under the Convention Against Torture at the United Nations.
It should come as no surprise that many have rage in their hearts right now. The pain has to be told as it is seen and felt. This is a pain produced by the long history of white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal settler colonialism, which can be distilled into a word thrown around indiscriminately: racism. In her book, Golden Gulag, scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore helps us to understand that “Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This is not a definition many are ready to accept. Yet, it is important in getting us to think more critically about the production of torture hurled at black bodies.
Blackness by definition means to live on trial in a society that profits off of black death, a ritual fact of civil society.
This reality should bring shame to those who receive protection from this system, whose lives matter under this system. The killing of unarmed teens appears to occur with the tacit approval of too many onlookers. The white American public needs to be reminded that they are protected by a system that recognizes black and brown bodies such as the Mike Browns of the world unfit for legal protection. But shame is not enough.
The local, St. Louis and Ferguson-area organizers have shown the world something essential to our future direction. Groups such as Millenial Activists United, Lost/Found Voices, OBS, Tribe X, and many of the local unaffiliated activists have shown that there is no choice but to fight by whichever means. At the moment, the strategy that has garnered the most attention has been civil disobedience meant to disrupt normalcy. These efforts are sure to continue. Had the events of August 9th happened in any other city, things may have quickly turned back to business as usual. But long before Hurricane McCulloch touched down this week, the winds of change were already blowing across this country. The killing of Mike Brown and the lengthy display of his remains were the catapulting gusts in this renewed movement for justice.
Mike Brown may have been tried three different times, once by the eager bullets of Wilson, then by reactionary media, and finally by Hurricane McCulloch, but from this moment forward, this whole system is on trial.