This past week, we have been reminded yet again that state violence against Black people and racist vigilante attacks are a part of this country’s legacy and foundation. Whether it’s the murder of four school girls in a Birmingham church, cops attacking young Black children in McKinney, Texas, or the suicide of Kalief Browder after years of being jailed and tortured as a young person at Rikers Island – Black communities continue to suffer through anti-Black violence, domestic terrorism and anti-Black racism.
On Thursday, I woke up just as I normally do and caught a subway train uptown. As I sat, I watched a group of little Black girls and boys do what I also did when I was little: gossip, play around, laugh and smile. As they laughed and smiled with joy, I couldn’t help thinking about how I just wanted to say sorry. I wanted to say sorry to all the young Black children who have to wake up each and every day and suffer through ongoing trauma and anti-Black violence in their communities, in their country and in their world.
I wanted to tell them sorry – for America failing all the Black little girls and boys who enter classrooms, put their hands on their chests and pledge allegiance. I wanted to tell them sorry because we have failed to protect them. Even in some of the “safest” spaces, our Black children are told that they cannot breathe, pray, eat skittles, wear a hoodie, play loud music or even exist as a Black child. I’m sorry that Black families must frame their conversations with their children around survival.
Black people have always had a complicated and violent relationship with citizenship in this country. There has been a monopoly on who has the right to feel and be safe – a monopoly that is often regulated and enforced by cops and corporations. This week’s attack at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church was an undeniable act of terrorism to incite fear into Black communities where we have bravely declared that Black lives matter.
Over the past year, in response to a series of high-profile police killings, communities across the country have erupted in massive protests, sustained acts of civil disobedience, and militant and unapologetically Black direct actions. Born in Ferguson, this movement spread like wildfire to New York City and South Carolina, to Baltimore and Oakland.
Many conversations about policing, state power and anti-Black racism focus exclusively on tweaks to existing policing and incarceration practices. (For example, some cities have funded taskforces and police body cameras.) Meanwhile, the state spies on Black communities rather than using its surveillance mechanisms to prevent racist vigilante attacks.
Cops and corporations have teamed up to further criminalize Black folks. Predictive policing and “broken windows” tactics rely on the criminalization of Black bodies and the idea that more police in more places – armed with guns and body cameras, Stingray cell phone interceptors and license-plate readers – will make Black communities safer. These “community policing” strategies are ineffective, discriminatory and reliant on the criminalization of young, poor Black people. The traditional media narrative becomes one about a law enforcement or vigilante “hero” and a “criminal” Black person. Mass media images perpetuate this sense of criminalization through television shows like “Cops” and “Law and Order.”
As we remember the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons and Depayne Middleton Doctor from Charleston, our mission becomes clearer yet again: We are building a radically transformed world where Black lives matter. But I can’t help feeling sorry for all those Black girls and boys who cannot be children today.