Black lives matter: speaking truth to power in the US

  • December 21, 2014

Race & Resistance

The struggle for equal rights and recognition by people of color in the US speaks truth to power and exposes a thematic flaw in the American narrative.

A small town that thrives off the revenue it gains from its largely disenfranchised and poor populace. A mega metropolis that maintains order with ‘frisk-first-ask-questions-later.’ People that may harm the ‘quality of life’ in deprived areas are violently put down in the name of public safety.

These scenarios are not part of a cyberpunk dystopia conjured up in the wet dreams of a Hollywood producer. The subjugation of black bodies is not fantasy. America’s psychosocial inability to address its fundamentally racist and exploitative legacy is the stuff of reality. Yet Americans watch the drama of social uprising unfold with remote in hand and trepidation in heart, only to block out introspection and societal soul-searching.

Protests over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have dominated the airwaves in the United States. Even as Americans characteristically slide back into a culture of willful denial in the aftermath of these rightfully disruptive outpourings of heartfelt indignation, the country is not the same as it was before August 9.

The country cannot be as it was before that fateful August day when Brown’s body was riddled with six bullets from officer Darren Wilson’s emptied 12-round clip. Nor can the United States resist impending metamorphosis following officer Daniel Pantaleo choking out Eric Garner on video for the world to see.

New Cameras, Same Narratives

The US Department of Justice has released findings of its investigations of police departments in Cleveland, Ohio and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The probe confirms an age-old pattern of widespread use of excessive force and institutional misconduct. President Obama has announced that greater oversight will be exercised in distributing military hardware to police departments and has set aside millions of dollars for the purchase of police body cameras, a supposed last ditch ‘never again’ effort. The president also unveiled new federal racial profiling guidelines. He has yet to visit Ferguson, Missouri, the town that set off the global outcry following Brown’s death.

These ‘changes’ in the United States do not include an alteration in the narrative of American exceptionalism, nor a hint from official channels that the police forces in Staten Island, New York, where Garner was killed, were wrong. Instead the reflection has been directed outward into mediums of television, news, and social media. The conversation has trended ‘violent’ protesters, thugs that disobey the law, racism in America, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and ways to make police forces less forceful.

Still, the only people that directly confront the reality and gravity of what these latest rounds of killings mean are the people on the ground in marches, their many supporters, and the people that live in fear of state-sanctioned police brutality. The residents of Ferguson have led the way in translating their daily encounters with state violence into political action.

Americans tend to think of themselves as violently free and are unflinching in their resolve to support any- and everything that maintains the status quo of ‘freedom.’ These protests aren’t really concerned about ideals. They are visceral reactions to violence and systemic tolerance of inequality. They are the lamentations and cries of a generation expecting the fruits of free enterprise and capital. At the grassroots, they are the standing exceptions to American exceptionalism, a generation of urbanized black people that have only tasted the bitter end of American grace.

Police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the death of Michael Brown after weeks of grand jury hearings in Ferguson. Although protests had already erupted in Ferguson right after Brown was killed, it was totally engulfed after the decision not to indict was announced.

Confrontations with the Past

In the American civil rights era the National Guard was called in to force schools in the American South to integrate black children; in Ferguson it was utilized to shut the city down, amid fears of widespread rioting and looting. Israeli trained police departments from all over the highly segregated county of St. Louis, where the municipality of Ferguson is located, were already in full force after days of violent encounters with protesters.

A grassroots cadre of demonstrators from Ferguson became the heart and soul of a movement. Although protests over Brown’s death spread throughout the country, another non-indictment would explode demonstrations into a nationwide intifada of sorts, sparking potency perhaps unseen since Occupy Wall Street.

Eric Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. Neck compression from a chokehold, a tactic banned by the New York City Police Department, was the primary cause of death. A Staten Island Grand Jury chose not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who placed Garner in the chokehold, despite video evidence and Pantaleo’s record of racial discrimination in his police work.

Simultaneous protests inspired by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown relentlessly embraced violent and non-violent tactics of civil disobedience. While most were peaceful, other demonstrations featured the destruction of property and even direct confrontations with the police. Like other voiceless people pressed to the point of implosion, some protesters in Ferguson resort to destruction of property as a poignant tactic of launching their struggle before the court of world opinion.

Differences among protesters and the aims of those protesting, also showcases an America that even in bright moments, is always confronted by its past.

Some within the protest movement have noted that patterns of white supremacy and racial entitlement remain present in collective actions against police brutality. One observer of this trend notes: “The ability to protest vocally and physically without being perceived as a threat is yet another aspect of white privilege. ‘Fuck the police’ may only be perceived as a harmless counter-cultural statement in the mouths of white youth, but in our mouths, it could easily be cast as incitement for a riot.”

Pushing for Systemic Change?

Protesters in Oakland, an area with many similarities to Ferguson, such as a heavily urbanized black population and a history of aggressive policing, engaged in violent demonstrations.

Among African American protesters, generational and philosophical differences were on full display during the December 13 march on Washington. This part of the nationally coordinated Millions March was set in Washington, D.C., as a daring throwback to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington. Reverend Al Sharpton, a notable modern civil rights icon with a past that includes stellar grassroots community activism and being a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant, led the charge. Sharpton has a show on the MSNBC corporate news outlet and is a major proponent and defender of the Obama administration. When criticized for sidelining younger activists, particularly those from Ferguson, he stated “This was not a revolutionary march, and I don’t apologize for that.”

Protesters from Ferguson caused a small uproar when they demanded to speak at the rally, despite the fact that they were not included in an organizational capacity. Eventually they were allowed to take the podium at Freedom Plaza provided they would not ‘incite violence.’

Some maintain that leaders like Sharpton act as gatekeepers that contain the masses of angry young demonstrators pushing for systemic change. Despite these tensions, there is little appetite for confronting the civil rights establishment among young black activists.

Similarly, there is reluctance to condemn President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, from within the same camp. President Obama is often viewed as empathetic to problems of race in America, but only confronts such issues when forced to do so. Many among the protesters support his presidency, and genuinely believe he is in a difficult position historically and politically in the face of these police killings.

Others see the president as a representative of a largely oppressive system that only makes symbolic overtures to appease anger in times of critical upheaval.

Turning a Blind Eye

Groups like Ferguson Action and the Dream Defenders have come up with specific policy level demands for changing the status quo in the wake of so many unarmed black men dying at the hands of police.

Such demands include:

  • Passing legislation that will overrule state and local ‘Police Bill of Rights’ laws which may insulate violent and abusive police officers from departmental forms of discipline;
  • Ending practices that are representative of the failed War on Drugs such as carrying out mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug related offenses;
  • Reducing the US prison population, the largest in world, from 2.14 million to 1 million over the next few years;
  • Appointing special prosecutors to cases that involve police shootings, as local prosecutors often have an interest in not indicting the police officers they work with on a regular basis.

The mainstream narrative in the United States essentially turns a blind eye to all the structural issues the protests seek to address. Since Al Sharpton led the rally in Washington, D.C., media coverage of protesters has all but stopped. In a media-driven society slogans such ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot’ represent the best way of bringing all these issues to national consciousness. Yet, in spite of the anger, there is a lingering sense that the vast outcry, especially from the ‘Fergusons’ all over the United States, is an expression of sorrow and longing.

There is a lot of talk about dialogue in the United States, specifically the way in which an honest ‘conversation’ about race as a relational and institutional force never happens. Oppressed people, perhaps unrealistically, expect that their pain and suffering be acknowledged and realized in the public discourse.

‘An honest discourse on race’ is a euphemism for an unconditional recognition of the humanity of black and brown lives, especially those that fall victim to police violence.

On another level, Americans have truly internalized social expectations of wealth and prominence, and everyone wants their rightful seat at the table. These protests certainly have tarnished America’s already faded image as a harbinger of liberty and morality around the world, if such an image still exists. Regardless, Americans still believe in the dream.

Delusional indifference to the suffering of black people, all the way from the state-sponsored deaths of civil rights icons to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, hurts in that it excludes African Americans from the providential narrative of their own society. Reminders of this trend, such as death of Eric Garner, hurt. And this pain is still festering beneath the promise of prosperity America routinely administers to itself.

Speaking Truth to Power

The protests are ultimately about love. Love for one’s rights and love for fellow human beings. This is the type of love that provokes indignation at obvious and disagreeable injustices. Solidarity with those at the grassroots who are fighting for a voice is essential for any concrete challenges to institutionalized racial abuse and violence. Many have a vested interest in seeing political action fizzle away into the same inevitable cycle of outrage, shallow discussion and ultimate resignation to the same prolonged state of affairs.

The protests all over the United States expose the thematic flaw in the American narrative. If anyone really wants to mount a challenge to the neoliberal order of vicious consumption and destruction, that effort must fundamentally address the status of black people in America. American exceptionalism does not justify such solidarity.

A real recognition that the struggles of African Americans encapsulate the struggles of all formerly colonized people seeking redress, particularly in the context of non-white people in Europe, is where this conceptual unity burgeons. Perhaps this means that many Americans who are on the front lines protesting must also see themselves as partners in movements all over the world.

The United States is not only important because it is a powerful entity that maintains a distasteful status quo. It is important because people, black people, have survived its abuses and continue to directly confront it unflinchingly. They have provided a long-standing model for speaking truth to power. A model that champions the innate humanity in all people, but demands that subjugated people, especially racially and economically abused people, have a place that transcends power structures and socially constructed narratives.

Ismaail Qaiyim

Ismaail Qaiyim is a freelance writer from the US with an interest in politics, global affairs, religion, philosophy, and genuine critical engagement.

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