My stomach turned when I first watched the video of Memphis police officers yanking Tyre Nichols out of his car to Tase and pursue him, and then beat him. I felt my heart wrench while watching the police officers prop a beaten and handcuffed Nichols against a patrol car only to hear one officer yell, “Bruh, sit up!” after Nichols fell over, as if he were in any condition to comply. After viewing the video, I asked myself, “What did I just watch?”
I thought about the impossibilities of carrying on with “business as usual” as I went to bed that night. “My world stops when these murders happen,” I typed on my phone after waking up in the middle of the night. The fact that we are expected to keep calm and carry on in the face of racist state violence turns my stomach. As anarchist activist Cindy Milstein writes in Rebellious Mourning, “One of the cruelest affronts [in living in a racist, violent, capitalist and authoritarian society] … was the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized — a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses.”
Organizers in the struggle against state violence must often learn to cope with the death of comrades and community members. I sometimes failed to appreciate this when I started working with students and community members in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to organize for justice for Aura Rosser, a 40-year-old Black woman whom Ann Arbor police shot and killed on November 9, 2014. We organized and attended so many vigils between November 2014 and the end of the summer in 2015 that I grew tired of them. I grew impatient because I was emotionally drained from the organizing work and the steady stream of terrible news of more deaths — of Aura Rosser, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and many more.
However, over time, I learned the importance of collective mourning and my need to be in community after law enforcement brutalize and kill. Vigils were our time to show solidarity spiritually with the families and communities outside of Ann Arbor that were directly impacted by state violence. It was also a moment for us to take control of our time — which is a prime commodity under racial capitalism — and slow down the world around us. We organized many protests, but the vigils reminded me how important it is to stop, recognize our individual and collective pain, and lick our wounds. I am reminded of this need for collective mourning every time the police kill one of us. Watching the video of the Memphis officers brutally beating Nichols less than 100 yards from his home makes me even more convinced of this.
Unfortunately, this country has not done a good job with collective mourning. Not enough of us have stopped to recognize the 1.5 million COVID-19 deaths, as well as the “excess” deaths resulting from long COVID, from an inadequate and strained for-profit medical system, and from the other stressors from living through a pandemic. Instead, we had some Republicans, like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, suggesting that people should be willing to die for the economy, backed by a steady drumbeat of Republicans, Democrats and employers demanding we “return to normal,” as if we are not living in a pandemic.
And what about the mass shootings? While some families and communities grieve the unthinkable, we as a society fail to take the time to properly recognize the deaths of people going to a grocery store in Buffalo, or elementary school children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, who may have lived if not for the fact that law enforcement is not actually obligated to “serve and protect.” After those tragedies, the world should have stopped for everyone, not just those communities grieving.
This is why we need to establish national days of mourning for victims of police violence, their families, and for those of us who are already grieving.
We cannot be expected to ask the state, corporations or political leaders for permission to shut down business as usual and give us time to grieve collectively. We should not allow law enforcement and political leaders to dictate how we process and respond to state violence and nationally broadcast lynchings. It is up to us to organize days of mourning around the values of worker and community self-activity, abolition and collective care.
We must tell the stories of departed loved ones, take care of the needs of those suffering, produce artistic tributes in public, serve those in pain, and organize to demand reparations for the lives and material resources stolen from our communities. We should neither work nor engage in unnecessary commerce. These should not become empty holidays for leisure, but times for collective grieving, political education, civil disobedience and the celebration of the lives lost.
We should reject calls by state officials and “official” leadership to mourn in ways that demobilize our movements and moderate our demands. For example, when President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, LBJ cited King’s nonviolent philosophy in order to quell rebellion: “America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Johnson stated. “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence.” Black Americans did not listen to authorities. They engaged in property destruction as well as nonviolent civil disobedience.
In our responses to state violence and mass death, we should not listen to those who clearly seek to defend the status quo. Instead, we should not be afraid to utilize disruptive power as leverage in hastening more radical changes to public safety. As we saw after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, it was the disruptive power of uprisings and massive civil disobedience that helped spark the legitimation crisis of the police. The uprisings inspired more people to take to the streets, to educate themselves more on histories of structural racism and colonialism, and to advance more radical demands on the state, such as defunding law enforcement and reinvesting resources in exploited communities.
We do not have to throw ourselves back into a deadly, soulless and capitalist normalcy after extraordinary acts of state violence are inflicted on us. We need to make this moment about taking back our time and dictating how we will heal. This is the time for reestablishing an ethic of collective care and action in the face of a neoliberal power structure that constantly tries to atomize us and in the face of growing fascism. Discussing the practices of Black parents teaching their children how to navigate a racist society, poet Claudia Rankine quoted a friend who told her, “The condition of Black life is one of mourning.” This should not ever be the case for any Black family. No one should live their lives fearing state violence, mass killings and neglect by an unequal and inadequate medical system under racial capitalism. The task now is to create spaces where we can breathe, grieve and transform society.
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