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The Politicization of Black Deaths on the Campaign Trail

The bodies of Black people taken away by state violence have increasingly become politicized by those seeking state power.

Part of the Series

Elections can be measuring sticks for how times have changed or how they haven’t. One of the key issues leading up to the election of the next US president has been the fate of Black people — a segment of the population that is often spoken about insincerely. What Black people have been facing in the United States has been consistent for quite some time, but portrayals of the issues at hand often reduce Black citizenry to a “minority” in need of support, rather than a population being systematically oppressed.

In the midst of — but often hidden within — this repetitive cycle are the multiple, constant forces of state violence that take Black life. Interestingly enough, the bodies of the Black people taken away by state violence sometimes become politicized by those who are seeking to become representatives of state power. The deceased serve as endorsements for ideas, platforms and people. Our current political climate makes this plain.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

When images of Black people dying and being brutalized were peaking across various media forms throughout the country, it wasn’t hard to guess this would be next. I wrote about how Black bodies serve as “rallying points” and “media commodities” just a little over a year ago. Candidates in local, state and national elections have sought to show that they are “in touch” by invoking the imagery that haunts Black America daily. This act crosses party lines. It’s a process that again raises the question of what Black deaths really mean to us and how we will approach them.

Amid attempts to prove who has been the better friend to the Black community, both Democratic presidential candidates have received endorsements from the family members of deceased Black people.

The promise of “justice” has too long been a political act to gain the trust of the Black community.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has received numerous endorsements that invoke victims of state violence. CBS News reported in early February that “African-American mothers whose children were victims of gun violence, including Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner [who died after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold]; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; and Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; are planning to campaign for Clinton in South Carolina in the coming weeks.” Bernie Sanders’ aides told CBS News that “the Vermont senator isn’t as well-known as Clinton, one of the country’s most famous politicians, within minority communities,” and Sanders told CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley that “he plans to reach out to minority communities in the same ways he’s reached out to all voters.”

In an op-ed for BET, McBath said, “While my personal endorsement comes as the mother of a son killed by gun violence, I also know through my work in gun violence prevention, that there is a real, growing movement of Americans who stand as the counterweight to the gun lobby.”

Sandra Bland’s mother also endorsed Clinton and, in an interview with The Root, she firmly rejected the suggestion that the campaign was “exploiting black family tragedy for votes.” When responding to a question about whether she was being exploited or not she said:

I listened to those who said that about endorsing. Let me tell you. I’m an adult and I’m not being exploited. I’m not being exploited by anybody. I supported Hillary in 2008, and if someone of their own free will wants to come out and work for a campaign, then that’s not exploitation. Hillary reached out to my family last year. She sent a handwritten note. She met with me and other mothers in Chicago. No press was there, no one talked about all the things she’s done for me and my family. And let me be clear: Had I not lost Sandy, I would still be out there endorsing and working for Hillary.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders released a very emotional ad featuring the testimony of Eric Garner’s daughter Erica Garner. In the ad, Garner talks about her father, who was choked to death on camera by New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo. A clip of Garner’s death briefly plays in the ad while she mentions that she watched her father die on television. Afterward, she discusses why she feels Sanders is the best choice for president.

Like Bland’s mother, Erica Garner also made it clear in a written statement that she was fully embracing her right to choose who she wants to support:

The Senator didn’t reach out to me all of a sudden because he needs help with Black people. He didn’t put out a press conference announcing that we would be working together. He didn’t force me to frame my support of him around a subject matter that special interest groups that support him can get behind. They said we are glad to have your support, how do you want to plug in. You will see a lot of Black leaders handing out endorsements, think to yourself, have they historically been a rubber stamp for the establishment? I hope this expresses why I think Bernie is our guy!

While the bereaved family members who have endorsed Clinton and Sanders clearly did so sincerely and of their own accord, there are other instances in which murdered Black people and their families have been invoked without the families’ consent.

For example, in Chicago, an issue arose recently with an ad promoting Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. An advertisement released by the Alvarez campaign featured the image of the mother of Derrion Albert, the 16-year-old student killed in a fight outside Fenger High School in 2009. Anjanette Albert, Derrion’s mother, made her objection to the use of her image plain:

I didn’t understand. I couldn’t believe it. Why was I in a commercial without my knowledge? And without my permission? How can they do that? … First, I’m not a political person, and I definitely would never use my son’s murder to promote anybody or anything. But more than that, this is someone I reached out to for help a few years later, and I couldn’t even get a call back.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Donald Trump can be seen invoking the murder of a Black teen to support his xenophobic agenda. Trump’s campaign has been running this ad featuring the story of Jas Shaw, a Black teen killed by an undocumented immigrant. The ad describes an “illegal immigrant gang member” who gunned down the 17-year-old football star after the immigrant “just got out of prison.” The ad then pivots to how the teen’s father, Jamiel Shaw Sr., is pledging his support to Trump because “he knows he will end illegal immigration.”

The use of the issue of deceased Black people in electoral politics is not new. One notable example from the past comes out of President Woodrow Wilson’s campaign. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum states, “In the campaign of 1912, Wilson promised African-Americans ‘not more grudging justice but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling'” as a means of securing the Black vote. This happened at a time of intense racism and regular lynching of Black people across the country. Wilson’s vocal support came at a time when Black people really wanted and needed to hear it. However when it came to anti-Black violence, according to the presidential library, “Wilson took no action against such practices. African-American leadership admitted that Wilson’s liberal legislation record in regards to labor and some other concerns was admirable, but insisted that Wilson was representative of the racist South.”

After his experience with Wilson, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about why he was giving up on voting and no longer had any faith in party politics.

Presidents, politicians and representatives of the state have played a dangerous game for some time. The promise of “justice” has too long been a political act to gain the trust of the Black community. Black people have been and still are in dire need of real transformation. Any politician that approaches the issue with any sincerity should understand that they are risking the trust of Black people. We have been neglected and used to the point of pure disillusionment for many. Now, in 2016, as many make promises, we should hope that something might be different.

The risk of appealing to Black people by bringing up the deceased that have been lost is that it can become dangerous. The many dead were not lost to people who are waiting for a savior — they were lost to people who are rising up. The question is, when Black America has risen to a greater and fuller potential, will these politicians have kept their promises and if not, will they be prepared to face the consequences?

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