Understanding Our Many Fergusons: Kill Lines – the Will, the Right and the Need to Kill

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The following is a condensed and revised version of a talk given on September 11, 2014, at a forum, sponsored by the University of Connecticut’s Africana Studies Institute, on the killings of Michael Brown and other African-Americans.

There seems to be a war raging in the United States for which there is no end in sight. A war, the outcome of which may well determine whether many African-American children will live to reach adulthood. More precisely, what is happening looks and feels like a race war that pits the right of African-Americans to have their young people live with dignity against the right of angry white policemen and vigilantes with guns to kill them.

My understanding of what is happening in Ferguson and elsewhere in the United States developed as the result of a perfect storm-like convergence of a number of influences. In the early spring of this year, while eating some good Southern cooking and talking with my sociology department colleague, Matt Hughey, and two other very accomplished racism scholars at Black Eyed Sally’s in downtown Hartford, I heard myself saying words that were shocking to my own ears. At that moment, in the wake of a spate of police and Stand Your Ground laws-justified, vigilante-style killings (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Jordon Davis), I found myself articulating the need to conceptualize what increasingly seemed to be a sense of entitlement by many “whites” to kill “black” youth. This suspicion was further stoked not long afterward when I read an internet posting on the plans of a gun rights group of European-American men to march through a low-income, African-American neighborhood in Houston, Texas, brandishing assault rifles to demonstrate their right to bear such arms whenever and wherever they pleased.

I developed this idea further in a talk I gave to a group of mothers in Hartford whose sons had been killed as a result of gun violence. At that forum, held in the wake of the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Ezell Ford by European-American police officers on Staten Island, in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Los Angeles, California, respectively, I made the link between racism and poverty to both such African-American on African-American gun violence and to European-American police and vigilante killings and stressed the need for an effective social movement challenge to bring about the systemic change needed to better protect our youth, both from dangers within and outside of our communities.

In that talk, I stated that as I continued to observe the killings by those from outside of our communities, I became increasingly convinced that they are acts of racial terrorism that the perpetrators see in their own perverted way as a form of morality enforcement that serves the same vigilante function that lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan used to serve – especially in the South. I added that such terrorism, what we might call the new 21st century version of lynchings, is intended to send a message that it is so-called white people who are in control and that black people had best stay in our place and to behave as white men with guns would have us to behave. Finally, I concluded that the underlying premise behind these “new lynchings” is that we African-Americans have no rights and that “white men,” whether in uniform or not, have the right to kill “black” people as they please, and that right will not be abridged by anyone.

We found that the men who killed [women] justified their actions based on ownership norms that presumed that the penalty for attempting to leave such relationships was death. Because those men thought and felt that they owned their women, they concluded that they were entitled to do with them as they pleased if they violated certain rules, and such rights included the right to kill.

In time I came to realize that what ultimately drove my questions was exhaustion; that old African-American legacy of being “tired of being tired.” It was the fatigue of having experienced what seemed like the daily, often outrageous, killings of unarmed people of African descent, mostly young men, since the highly publicized killing of Amadou Diallo and the acquittals of the men who killed him. With each new killing, I became increasingly convinced that there could be no act the nation’s white power structure would deem to be so outrageous as to say enough is enough; there must be systemic change. Finally, another likely influence I did not become aware of until later was a study I had done some time ago with Margaret A. Zahn on women who were murdered as they tried to escape physically-abusive relations. In that study, we found that the men who killed them justified their actions based on ownership norms that presumed that the penalty for attempting to leave such relationships was death. Because those men thought and felt that they owned their women, they concluded that they were entitled to do with them as they pleased if they violated certain rules, and such rights included the right to kill.

As I pondered the reasons for the repeated killings of African-American youth by European-American police officers and vigilantes, it became clear to me that a mix of racist stereotypes and emotions, hyper-masculinity and entitlement fueled their actions. And since the victims were usually, but of course not always, African-American or Latino-American boys or men, I suspected that in part what was going on was a highly racialized macho thing, an assertion of white-male dominance. I also realized that because they are normative, such actions are not only presumed justified, but also protected. That is, they are condoned not only because they are deemed to be acceptable, but also because they are actually thought to be good in that they serve some useful social function. This led me to conclude that like the lynchings so prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries, they articulated both a very rational and a highly emotional social-control norm that could best be described, again, as “the right to kill.”

Ironically, another factor that may be contributing to the increase in the number of police killings of African-American youth is the progress we African-Americans have made toward securing our full citizen rights. This is consistent with the fact that in the United States the lynching of African-Americans increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery. The progress today’s post-civil rights era African-American youth have experienced has resulted in their having a much greater sense of entitlement as citizens than their parents and grandparents. They actually expect to be treated as first-class citizens and will accept nothing less. Or to put it in very racist, Jim Crow-era terms: Today’s young African-Americans “don’t know their place.”

There is all too often fatal conflict when that right to be treated with dignity collides with the highly-racialized and gendered right of European-American, male police officers to kill when challenged. This conflict is evident in the title of a Washington Post op-ed by a Los Angeles police officer who makes clear what he sees as the lesson of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.” Another police officer, who was on duty in Ferguson during the demonstrations and sometimes violent unrest after the Brown killing, was found to have said earlier to a right-wing group that he was “a killer” and that “if you don’t want to get killed, don’t show up in front of me.” Of course, there are many European-Americans who challenge the police about their constitutional and other rights who are not hurt or killed. Such warnings are racially specific.

All of those influences led me to conclude that such killings exist and persist because some European-Americans have organized strong ideational and institutional supports to protect what they deeply feel, if not consciously think, is their inherent right to kill what they judge to be morally-wayward African-Americans and other people of color. That is, the killing of “black” people is the ultimate entitlement that “white” people possess. This “right” is highly organized into systems of oppression like laws, law enforcement, politics, the economy and the media, and is fueled by strong negative emotions like hatred, loathing, anger, fear and racial entitlement. Such killings are justified by suppositions that certain moral codes have been violated. Those infractions can be as trivial as a teenager having his music turned up too loud or his not reacting quickly and deferentially enough to a rude, if not profane, command to clear the area. The sentiment that such violations are punishable by death is rooted in assumptions of white moral supremacy and control that go back as far as slavery and later the emergence of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the widespread deployment of terrorist tactics like lynchings.

Again, the underlying premise behind these “new lynchings” is that we African-Americans have no rights that “white men” – whether in uniform or not – are bound to respect and that they have the right to kill “black” people as they please. Such white power and black helplessness used to be demonstrated by our inability to protect our women from rape and our men from lynchings. Today, it is evident by our inability to protect our children from murder. This is what the Stand Your Ground movement that has swept the nation is about – the exploitation of white racist fear and animus by gun manufacturers and retailers like Walmart to sell lots of guns and ammunition.

Angry and racially-bigoted European-American men with guns seem to believe that they have a right to kill when in their minds African-Americans cross a line that is nowhere close to the one that involves self-defense or the defense of the lives of others.

So I have come to the conclusion that these killings can best be viewed through the analytical lens of rights in conflict. One way of looking at this conflict from the perspective of European-American police officers and vigilante-type individuals who kill African-American youth is as a very highly racialized and macho game of lines drawn in the sand. Here the lines in the sand are drawn in blood and the game is over when they get to shoot to kill with impunity. Indeed it is useful to think in terms of there actually being three lines: The will to kill line – based on highly racialized and genderized emotions of anger and hatred; the right to kill line – what that person can reasonably expect to get away with based on existing norms, laws, policies and practices, and their enforcement, and the need to kill line – rooted in a threat to that person’s life or the lives of others. In brief, the will to kill and the right to kill are the necessary and sufficient conditions for such killings. There need not be an actual need to kill.

Elsewhere on that field, our African-American youth are constantly trying to push forward the line of their right to not only live, but also to be treated with all the rights and dignity of first-class citizens. Unfortunately, as they do so, that right collides with the expected rights of others to kill them. When most of us think of the police and citizens’ right to kill we think of constitutional and other legal rights based on their need to defend the lives of themselves or others. Unfortunately, when we observe the actions and listen to the words of those men who kill we see that is not how things actually work. As Stand Your Ground laws make clear, they need not be near that need to kill line in order to kill. Angry and racially-bigoted European-American men with guns seem to believe that they have a right to kill when in their minds African-Americans cross a line that is nowhere close to the one that involves self-defense or the defense of the lives of others.

In their minds crossing that line may simply mean that a person doesn’t follow instructions, stop running, or when that person does anything else they see as challenging them and their highly racialized manhood. In brief, there is a huge difference between police and other individuals killing because they have to and because they can. I believe that the kill line is not set by law or constitutional rights. It is instead set by practice. When those men with the will to kill see that there are no real penalties for doing so, they increasingly pull the right to kill line away from the need to kill line. Ultimately, although a lot of anger, hatred and machismo may spark their actions, the real reason they do it is simply because they can. They know that it is highly unlikely that they will be charged, must less convicted of a crime. If they thought that such actions would land them in jail for long prison terms they wouldn’t do it, period.

Ultimately, it is power that explains oppression and it is only by changing power relations that people can end it. No oppressor is going to take his or her foot off of someone’s neck because it is the right, the rational and the reasonable thing to do as made clear by some wonderful sociological study. That foot can only be removed by us, and only if we muster the courage and the power to remove it. African-Americans and others fighting for social justice have learned from centuries of struggle that, to quote Frederick Douglas, “power conceded nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Let me close, therefore, by simply saying that we must realize that together we can be a powerful force for change.