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Spectacles of Black Death and White Impunity

As controversy surrounds the release of a video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being gunned down by police, it is time to reflect on the United States’ culture of white impunity.

Demonstrator displays sign at a protest in Memphis, Tennessee, in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri, on November 24, 2014. Impunity is the proof that white Americans have always been offered, when seeking confirmation that they occupy a more elevated social position than Black Americans. (Photo: Chris Wieland)

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A much-awaited decision was made in a courtroom in Chicago on Thursday, as a judge ruled that the world would in fact have a chance to watch a dashcam video that captured the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. McDonald, a young Black man, was gunned down by a white police officer last year as he attempted to walk away from police.

Defenders of the Chicago police, and of the officer who shot McDonald, have claimed that the young man had PCP in his system, and a small knife in his hand. Given these allegations, it is wholly unsurprising that the city is cognizant of the PR nightmare that would undoubtedly follow the release of the video, which by all accounts depicts a young man being shot 16 times while trying to walk away from a confrontation.

Such imagery would clearly render the city’s previous arguments irrelevant. The officer, of course, had no way of knowing what drugs the young man may have had in his system. And it would be fairly difficult to argue that the officer believed that his safety was imperiled by the small knife of a young man who was simply trying to walk away, after police approached him for allegedly slashing car tires. But those who have an interest in defending the police, either because it would be a financial liability to do otherwise, or because they benefit from the racist norms that police work to enforce, are rarely swayed by the details of Black or Brown death. The words “well, that person shouldn’t have…” will always find their way into some justification of yet another police killing, and the statistics will pile on.

I am not interested in speaking as to whether or not the video should be released. Some members of the Black community feel strongly that it should, while others feel it would only further the constantly replayed spectacle of Black death, which has arguably done little to slow the pace of police violence. McDonald’s mother, for her part, has stated that she does not want the video released, citing the unrest she believes it could incite in her community. The city’s uncharacteristic approach of offering the family a multi-million dollar settlement in advance of any lawsuit being filed seems to suggest that local officials harbor similar fears, and would like to see the matter dissolved quietly.

Local reporter John Kass, of the Chicago Tribune, has weighed in, suggesting that the video’s release could “rip Chicago apart,” but arguing that the public should see it anyway, because “the people deserve to see what happened.” My first thought, upon reading those words was that in an era of shuttered schools, slashed public services, rampant police brutality and a nationally known murder rate, some already experience Chicago as a city torn apart – although we might disagree with Kass about the reasons why, and what the remedies might be. But my second thought, as someone who has been deeply involved with movements against police violence, is a question I would pose to Kass and those who agree with him.

Have “the people” not already seen what police terror looks like?

The last year has been one of protest and awareness-raising around the issue of anti-Black police brutality. Videos of Sandra Bland’s violent arrest and the brutal deaths of so many others have flooded the popular consciousness. At this point, I honestly find it impossible that the public simply doesn’t understand what’s happening in Black and Brown communities.

At this point, white ignorance on the subject is downright willful.

It is the same willfulness that turns a blind eye to the emergence of the dungeon economies that replaced factory jobs as de-industrialization took hold, creating millions of human commodities for a whole web-work of industries, nonprofits and on-site employees.

It is the ignorance that allows people to believe that over two million of their countrymen are so dangerous and depraved that public safety demands they be kept in cages.

It is the ignorance that cries out against crimes of poverty while supporting politicians who starve communities of vital resources.

It is also the ignorance that willfully ignores Native death – the ongoing genocide of my people – in its totality, or at best, regards it as a matter of distant history.

Indigenous people, of course, are statistically more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group in the United States. The reason you don’t know the names of our dead isn’t simply that there are fewer of us left to cry out for justice, even though that is a factor. The larger issue, as I discussed with a prominent Black organizer recently, is how white supremacy functions with regard to our specific oppressions. Native death, in the United States, has always been about erasure. We were to be rooted out, destroyed, assimilated, murdered, de-legitimized or otherwise erased. This has always been the social intent of this country with regard to our existence.

Anti-Blackness, on the other hand, has always been a matter of exploitation. The function of Blackness within the construct of white supremacy is to be consumable, and to create an “other” that, once degraded, elevates what it means to be white. This requires visible exploitation and humiliation, and historically, has often involved the spectacle of Black death at the hands of white Americans.

Impunity is the proof that white Americans have always been offered, when seeking confirmation that they occupy a more elevated social position than Black Americans. From slavery onward, this reality has only been reshaped with time.

I recently had the opportunity to view the exhibition “Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness,” curated by Project NIA, in Chicago. The exhibit, which showcased racist postcards from decades past, and examples of the kind of anti-Black memes that currently litter the internet, was aimed at highlighting the creation and maintenance of stereotypes that depict Black people as untrustworthy, violent and hypersexual. Caricatures of chicken thieves, savage Black men, and promiscuous young black girls create presumed contexts for any harms that might be inflicted upon Black bodies, while also offering entertainment, by portraying the assigned characteristics of Blackness as chuckle-worthy

This consumption of anti-Blackness reached an even darker expression, albeit a wholly connected one, in the phenomenon of lynching postcards, during the last century. In towns where white crowds strung Black men, women and children from trees and bridges, it was not uncommon for those images to be replicated and sold at local businesses. One could pass through a local gas station and pick up a photographic memento of white supremacy’s most recent, public victim, and keep a souvenir to glance at later, as a reassurance of the true order of things.

Today, no such postcards are necessary. One can perform a Google search with the words “police shooting” or “police brutality” and find dozens of videos that reaffirm the order of things in the United States. In our viral video era of visual consumption, Black death doesn’t even command the cost of a postcard. It is at the fingertips of all who would pursue such imagery.

I’m not saying that there is no value in making what is unseen visible. As a Native person, I have to say that had Laquan McDonald been an Indigenous man, I would want that video seen, because our deaths are so very unseen, and our suffering so often erased, because of the very nature of our oppression – one grounded in annihilation and erasure. But I can understand how Black community members, whose oppression functions quite differently, might feel as many do – that the horror of anti-Black violence is seen, and known, and wholly accepted within the order of things in the United States. It is protested by those who care deeply, quickly forgotten by those who would prefer not to engage with it, and, at worst, relished by those who would continue to revel in the twisted hierarchy this country is grounded in.

As I’ve said, it is not my place to say whether or not the video should be seen by the public. I will not watch it, upon its release, both out of respect for the wishes of McDonald’s mother, and because I know what state-sanctioned death looks like. And I have seen enough of it to last a lifetime.

But to those who would argue that this a matter of the people having a right to know, I would argue that Black death is known, and the better question is what people have a right to do about it. The city of Chicago, having doled out five million dollars to make this story go away, is still so entrenched in a culture of impunity that it has neither charged nor fired the man who riddled a seventeen-year-old with so many bullets that his body reportedly jumped and twitched on the pavement as the onslaught continued. Absent any recourse within this system, absent any level of awareness moving white society to alter the order of things, the question is not whether the people have a right to know – it’s whether or not they have a right to riot.

Personally, I don’t believe that the Black communities of Chicago will live up to the fears of city officials. I believe they will mobilize and march, and rally their people against the oppression they face, just as they have each time the media has attempted to pre-emptively sensationalize their actions. And when the video of McDonald’s death is finally splashed across the internet, I will stand in the streets with those who raise their voices in outrage, because standing with the oppressed in the face of their oppressors is the only real way forward, for all of us.

But I will also ask that those who fear unrest in Chicago in the coming days to ponder the real reasons that they harbor those fears, or in some cases, anxiously await such chaos. Because this video, however horrible, is not extraordinary. It is an aspect of American history that has been replayed more steadily than the most viral videos on the internet. Because it is the order of things. And nothing about that order will change until the public acknowledges what it already knows: that whiteness has never ceased to operate with impunity.

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