According to Michel Foucault, “racism is the social distribution of death”. Within an economy of pain such as ours, one built upon bodies and the destruction of those bodies, we have to acknowledge a social distribution of death is predicated upon the devaluing of one or multiple groups of people while simultaneously placing not only greater value upon the distributors of death, but also bestowing unto them the power to take life and the seemingly unquestionable moral authority to judge unto whom death should be distributed.
While the devaluing of folks of color cannot be ignored in any conversation regarding justice, there is the necessary second half of the discussion which is not as often focused upon: the idea of dominance over and ownership of black and brown bodies is as inherent to whiteness and white supremacy as is a value system constructed by race (or more accurately, a value system which constructed race). In thinking about Black Lives Matter and police violence, it is necessary for us to explore the violence and ownership inherent to whiteness, and the ways in which white supremacy bifurcates our world. As Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “The colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations . . .the official, legitimate agent, the spokesperson for the colonizer and the regime of oppression, is the police officer or the soldier” (3).
The devaluing of black and brown bodies cannot be separated from American history. And the present cannot be separated from the past. The violent, oppressive, colonialist interests upon which the United States was founded are the interests by which we find ourselves now being propelled into a future grimly reminiscent of the past. This devaluing of black and brown life is as prevalent now as ever, indeed it is what has given rise to the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which (and I hate I have to still apparently clarify this) does not mean other lives do not matter, but that black lives ALSO matter and as much as all other lives-a fact which has been debated in blood and in law by the State since its inception.
Whether this devaluing of life has come in the form of slavery, sharecropping (slavery), Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex (slavery), educational inequities or environmental racism (most current example: Flint Michigan), or simply day to day micro aggression and interpersonal interactions (to name a few) the relationship between the dominator and the oppressed within a colonialist society has been endlessly reified, reformatted, and repackaged to fit the times.
As Aime Cesaire says in his work Discourse on Colonialism, “between the colonizer and the colonized there is room only for forced labor . . . relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production”(42). America shows again and again that black and brown lives are protected in accordance with their ability to be or produce capital and entertainment. Beyond that they are expendable.
In thinking the value of lives and the State sponsored ownership over bodies, I want to look at two stories of police killings that are nearly identical in nature save the race of the police officers, the race of the victims/suspects, and the legal and public response to the deaths. In 2012 an unarmed black couple fled police in Cleveland. Despite a senior officer ordering officers in pursuit to stand down, they continued following the couple down a dead end. The couple reversed the car, police claimed they were attempting run them over and 13 officers (all but one of whom were white) fired a total of 137 bullets into the car killing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. I want to repeat that. 137 bullets were fired by white officers into a car killing two unarmed black people. Michael Brelo (white) was the only officer charged, in what would be a 3 year case (though he was eventually acquitted), climbed onto the hood of the car and fired 15 final bullets through the windshield after all other officers had ceased firing and the car had long been still. Think about all of that for a moment.
Last November In Marksville Louisiana four officers are led on a high speed chase in pursuit of a white man, who was wanted for domestic violence, and his 6 year old white son. The car enters a dead end and reverses, just like in Cleveland in 2012, two police officers, Norris Greenhouse Jr. and Derrick Stafford, fire into the car killing the child, six year old Jeremy Mardis, placing his father in critical condition.
The firing officers were both black, the suspect and his son were, as I said, both white. The officers were charged three days after the child's death with 2nd degree murder and attempted 2nd degree murder and could face life in prison. Michael Brelo was not charged until May of 2014, almost two years after the slaying, and was only charged with voluntary manslaughter (up to ten years) of which he was found not guilty, five other officers were charged with dereliction of duty (a misdemeanor) two years after the killing, all of whom were also found not guilty.
We have two nearly identical accounts of police chasing after a vehicle with unarmed suspects, in both cases the vehicle enters a dead end and the driver reverses the car, in both scenarios, it is purported, with the intent to run officers over forcing them to fire in supposed self defense and the responses could not be more stark.
Ultimately, the black police officers were readily charged and then tried as guilty in the court of public opinion, as I am guessing they also will be in court this coming Autumn, not because their actions were more or less egregious than the actions of 13 officers in Cleveland, but because within the State, founded upon white supremacy, these two blacks agents of the State are readily expendable should they step outside of the colonialist interests of the State.
Furthermore, we must reach again for Fanon and meditate on his reflection that the colonized are “declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values” (6). The State, essentially, declares that Greenhouse and Stafford do not have the moral authority necessary to decide this child’s fate, nor did they have supreme ownership over or the right to his body, in the eyes of the State that white child’s body was his own in a way that the bodies of folks of color are never truly considered theirs.
It is the function of police as the enforcing arm of colonialism to deal out death and violence as a measure of policing, of control, and of protecting the institutions of whiteness and their property, both business and bodies. Yes black officers kill civilians too, clearly as we have examined here, but they are still acting within and for a system designed to uphold whiteness and white supremacy, and when officers are finally charged for any killings they are almost, invariably, black or officers of color. This is not to suggest that Greenhouse and Stafford should not be charged with murder, they should, and so should the thirteen police who murdered Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
What is being propagated is that only whiteness allows for the ownership over bodies, and thus their fates, but also that whiteness imbues an institution and its agents with the morality, and ethical fortitude, to judge the fate of these bodies over which ownership is assumed.
The lack of outrage, and accountability, when white officers steal bodies is rooted both in a devaluing of black and brown life as well as in the idea that whiteness provides us the “right” to take what we want, whether it is someone else’s culture, or name, or identity, whether it’s someone else’s land, neighborhood, home, or community, or whether it is someone else’s body. Someone’s life. The endless non indictments of white police officers killing and brutalizing communities of color are rooted both in a larger disregard for black life and black bodies, but it also rooted in the deeply held American value that white people have the right to take, and take, and take, because what in the world isn’t ours? Isn’t everything?
The video was recently released of young Jeremy Madis' death at the hands of the police. I, like other videos of death doled out at the hands of police, will not watch it, I do not need to see him die to know his life mattered. The difference is that his killers were charged within days, the video did not need to be released to the public until a year later, streets did not need to be filled with protestors demanding justice, because the general public and municipal opinion was that his life mattered, his life mattered and the black officers who killed him did not have a right to take his body. However, what history tells us again and again is that not only did Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams' lives not matter, officer Brelo and others had a right to their bodies and their lives, and the act of murder was not only allowable but necessary under the sanctions of the State. Rest in peace Jeremy Madis. Rest in peace Tyre King. Where's that All Lives Matter crowd now?
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, & the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.He is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can help support his writing HERE.