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.
It doesn’t even mean the work you are doing is actually good work, in the same way a white person working with youth of color in a service or philanthropic capacity doesn’t by any means disqualify them from being racist. One of the ideas we have to get beyond is the idea of someone being inherently moral or just or generally “good” because of the nature of the work with which they are involved.
First we should interrogate the colonialist history of philanthropy within the construction of the United States. One of our most violent, detestable presidents, Andrew Jackson, was also a self proclaimed philanthropist. Jackson (who referred to indigenous peoples as “savage bloodhounds” and “blood thirsty barbarians”) famously killed 800 Creeks, including women and children; he and his soldiers then made bridle reins from the flesh of the dead. Violence such as this led Jackson to the presidency in 1828.
As president, conveyed here by Ronald Takaki in his work “A Different Mirror,
“Jackson Claimed his goal was to protect the Indians from the ‘mercenary influence of white men.’ Seeking to exercise ‘parental’ control, he regarded himself as a ‘father’, concerned about the welfare of his Indian ‘children’. But if these ‘children’ refused to accept his advice, Jackson warned, they would be responsible for the consequences. ‘I feel conscious of having done my duty to my red children, and if any failure of my good intentions arises, it will be attributable to their want of duty to themselves, not to me” (Takaki, 1993. Pg. 82). Takaki goes on to quote Jackson as saying, “Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it” (82).
What we have to understand is that the very need for service work and philanthropy comes out of capitalist and colonialist contexts. The same people in positions of power within these philanthropic industries historically either directly construct(ed), or benefit from, the context of oppression and violence which necessitate services in the first place.
In the case of Andrew Jackson he very literally committed some of the worst atrocities against indigenous folks in our country’s history and then later positioned himself as a caretaker over the same people against whom he committed calculated acts of genocide. The colonialist model of philanthropy: destroy a people’s way of life, then make them dependent upon you for their continued survival, be both villain and savior. This is the spirit in which American philanthropy was born.
Let’s fast forward to today. I worked for a non-profit serving homeless youth in Minneapolis for nearly six years. These were some of the best years of my life working with some of the best, most caring people I have ever met. I also met some of the most selfish, self-serving, and low key racist individuals serving primarily youth of color. This reality must be interrogated. First, the stats: around ⅔ of homeless youth in MN are youth of color, the youth we served at the specific shelter at which I was employed were, at any given time, about 85% youth of color (most often black youth). The administration and board shared roughly an equal percentage of white representatives-this statistic matches the national pattern of nonprofits which see around 84% of leadership as being white. The fact that the demographics of administrations are almost exactly inverse of the demographics served should be reason for pause and deep reflection.
I once was speaking with a youth about oppression and racism, this particular youth was a 17 year old, queer black womyn. She said to me she had never experienced racism. I asked her how many youth were at the shelter (20), I asked how many were black (at the time all the youth living there were black). I asked her why there weren’t any white youth there, her answer was that white people were better at making money. I asked if that were really true, and if so why might that be? Was that inherent to white people or had there been certain historical advantages in place which assisted white people in their acquisition and proliferation of capital and material wealth? After a long conversation of unlearning, mapping and remapping local and national histories this young person came to see that the very fact she lived in a shelter, in which not one other white person lived, as an experience of racism. Thus, the shelter’s very existence was the result of capitalism and systemic racism, not mere unfortunate, un-identifiable, events in the lives of individuals tied neither to past nor present racial and class politics.
One of the things I heard many white administrators and board members say about our work was that we hoped to “work ourselves out of a job one day”. This was said most at fundraising events; it was a nice idea, one that was fun to say and fun to believe. I even said it for my first few years of working there. I even believed it. However, the work was responding to the effects of systems of oppression. The work was not addressing, pushing against and re-imagining the systems which result in the majority of homeless youth being queer youth of color. The work was direct care work with youth experiencing homelessness, with survivors. That work needs to be done, and will need to be done for the foreseeable future, and is work I will likely return to in some capacity. However, the questions of “who should be doing this work?” and “how should this work be done” must be asked, additionally we cannot pretend this work is inherently actively engaging in a radical reimagining of a society which requires service work. A society which requires a homeless shelter is an inherently unjust society.
A service organization which depends upon unpaid internships and volunteers (who can afford to be unpaid interns and volunteers? Generally young, privileged, often white, college students or just as often elderly, retired, white folks) rather than investing in paid employment for the immediate community is an organization not dedicated to reimagining systems necessitating service work, but one which positions the “clients” as capital and job creation for the ruling class. The organization serves as a means to further advance the financial and professional lives of its interns more so than its clients. A service organization dependent on money from rich donors outside of the community is not committed to reimagining systems as the ruling class is positioned again as the gatekeepers to wealth and socio economic advancement, rather than developing alternative funding sources within the community committing to the proliferation of the local economy. A service organization whose administration is not, at the very least, representative of the immediate community it serves is not dedicated to reimagining systems necessitating service work as decisions made are still made from a disparate positionality, one which must report to wealthy donors before those it "serves". These notions might be a grim and pessimistic way to view non-profit work, but it is the reality. No one enters the work with these intentions, but doing work and how the work is done is where the difference lies in defining whether or not one, and the work, is truly good.
Thus, I do not position anyone as inherently good for doing “good” work, least of all those of us who benefit most from systems of inequality. Especially when that “good” work can, and often does, quite literally reify the power dynamics which created the need for that work in the first place.
I routinely witnessed and pushed back against white co-workers working harder for the white youth we did serve, or youth of color who fit more conveniently into a white, middle class respectability realpolitik. I saw white staff fighting to keep a white girl housed despite her sexually predatory behavior, while having just pushed for putting three black youth back on the street for smoking weed on the shelter’s property. I saw white staff, and staff of color, position vocal, rambunctious, disruptive youth of color as violent and disrespectful while positioning vocal, rambunctious, disruptive white youth as “having been through so much”. The latter statement was not untrue, but it was equally true of all youth though often unequally applied.
Now, put any one of us as social workers at a dinner party and when it is discussed what we do for work, we will each be championed as “selfless” or “generous” or “courageous” without any inquiry into how the work is being done. The subject matter of a lesson plan or the nature of the work does not transcend pedagogy or interpersonal relationships. Some staff members were very much selfless, generous and courageous-are those I look up to most in this world-and they did the work in a way that truly fought back against institutional, ideological, interpersonal and internalized pillars of oppression which constructed the social ecology requiring the work; on the other hand, others were closer to the opposite of all that and behaved in a way which reified these systems and power dynamics, and yet to the world we were all doing equally “good work”. We were all “good”. Though we weren’t, not all of us.
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 an Ed.M candidate at Harvard University. You can help support his writing HERE.
Everyday America commits unacceptable atrocities in the name of our safety. Mosques and black churches burn, unarmed black and brown folks of all ages, gender identities, sexualities and classes are gunned down with impunity, and the tapes which record each moment continue to roll across the country in a procession of loss, a möbius strip of grief, and yet we accept these things. We accept them, have our coffee, and go to work.
It has come to the point where I believe that if there were a video of a cop shooting a black child, and this cop said that it wasn’t him in the video, that it never happened. Though we see it, though the police reports show it, though it was radioed in, and witnesses watched it happen, and his partner confirms it was him- he would get off. Not because he didn’t do it, but because his word holds more weight than the bodies of the dead.
For Tamir Rice and his killers, I thought there must be something this time. Never mind the track record of grand juries not indicting police-the chilling video evidence, the past violent and emotionally unhinged behavior of the firing officer would surely lead to an indictment, the fact Tamir was only a child. No. Nothing. Not because the evidence didn’t show anything. It did. But what good is evidence to a justice system designed to do exactly what it did?
Upon the non indictment announcement, I immediately thought of Jamar Clark in North Minneapolis. I’m not a Northsider, but grew up in the Twin Cities; I worked for six years only a couple blocks from where he was killed, both in a youth shelter, and a local high school running after school poetry workshops. I was in Boston when I heard Jamar was killed by police in Minneapolis. Before I heard his name, a sickening wave of youth, who have been brutalized by that very precinct that killed Jamar, who I love, ran through my head.
Over the next few days, I watched from the East Coast as 94W was blocked, as the 4th precinct became surrounded by protestors, some Northsiders, some not. Across the street from where Jamar was killed there is a security camera that likely picked up the entire event. From day one “release the tapes” was one of the rallying cries. Eye witnesses all agreed he was handcuffed and shot “execution style”, all the while the two officers are on paid leave of absence (vacation).
Yes, the tapes from nearby security cameras need to be released to the public, without a doubt. However, I am worried about the emphasis we put on demanding footage as an integral part in our pursuit for justice. Somehow, perhaps because humans are reckless in the way we hope, we still believe that a video showing everything the witnesses say happened will lead to a charge and then prosecution. Yet, historically where is the evidence of this? We saw every second of Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, and once again the tired words were uttered, “no indictment”. The problem with such a focus on video evidence is that it centers the demands around the moral compass of white legal institutions constructed not to protect all bodies equally, but to protect white bodies and what white bodies own. The justice system did not fail Tamir Rice on Monday. It succeeded for the officers. It’s that simple.
In the case of Jamar Clark, we can’t hope that if the video is released, that finally the jury and the cops and Twitter trolls and the news anchors and reporters and pundits might just give a shit. After all these years, after all these tapes, so many miles of tape spreading across America like a darkened highways, etched with frame after frame of murder, documenting the endless destruction of black and brown bodies by the enforcers of white supremacy, whether that be police, self appointed neighborhood watchmen, or a civilian with a gun at Florida gas station.
I’m not saying don’t demand the tapes, but we can’t hinge a movement on the justice system actually acting justly, even when it has documented evidence. Even when it’s all there, killers walk. The police were not indicted on Monday not because they were justified. No one believes that, not even them. They were exonerated because they could be, because the grand jury and the prosecutor and the defense team and the chief of police, and the police union, knew they could get away with it, because we trust white institutions, made to protect whiteness, more than we trust our own eyes. More than we trust our intuition, our guts, and our heads. Worst of all, we trust these institutions and their agents more than we trust the voices of those who disproportionately witness and experience the bodily harm and terror of the police in this country each day. “How many black voices does it take to convince a white person of anything?” America asks again and again, though it does not answer. It just continues to count. We will always believe a single white police officer, any officer, over an entire neighborhood of black witnesses.
Even when we know these words are hollow and weightless we let ourselves believe the lie, then we become it. The lie becomes intrinsic to our lives, how we view and move through the world. It becomes woven into our sense of reality, and to that extent we defend the lie. Actively and passively. By saying Tamir deserved it or by saying nothing at all. As white people, specifically, we defend the lie because we know, either consciously or somewhere deep within us, that this lie shields us. It allows us to believe the world is as fair as we need to believe it is in order to sleep. It allows us to believe we are responsible for nothing. This lie is a fortress in which we sleep, and the sleep grows deeper each non indictment. It grows deeper as malls and roads are shut down and whole city grids swell with a tide of hoodies and iced tea and tears and teargas, and still so many of us don’t stop to wonder, or ask, or question, what is really going on, why is this happening again, in another city? Rather, we demand the protests take on a different tone, that they take up less space, that they shake us a little less from our terrible sleep and the little white picket fences by which it is encased.
We accept these murders, these executions (not tragedies for “tragedies” are not preventable and these deaths always are) despite what we know and what we see. I won’t demand any more tapes. Several witnesses all said the same thing about Jamar Clark. As many about Mike Brown. His hands were cuffed. His hands were up. I simply don’t believe in white people's ability to see the truth more than I believe in the ability of people of color to speak it.
Every time we demand the tape and that becomes our focus, we are reacting in a way which hinges justice on the moral compass of the institutions of whiteness. We are asking white juries dedicated to upholding white supremacy to feel more for Tamir Rice’s family than for the officers that killed him. We ask them to feel more for what was taken from Tamir than they feel for what the killers have left. The truth is always being spoken, and yet we do not listen. It comes from a local barbershop owner leaving the Elks Lodge across the street the moment Jamar Clark is killed, from the woman who held the party Jamar Clark was at, from a 10 year old boy who watched Clark die close enough he saw the smoke rise from the gun. Ze’Morian Dillon-Hokins said, “Clark was ‘face down when he was shot’ and the officers ‘flipped him over’ after the gun and been discharged.” I will always believe in Ze’Morian’s ability to see the world honestly more than I will believe in a white Jury’s ability to perceive it. Before anyone says anything about him being only ten, remember Tamir was twelve, which is apparently old enough for him to be twenty, and that is apparently old enough for him to die.
If Tamir was old enough to die, then this child is old enough to be a witness, to be believed, to be as much an arbiter of truth in the public eye as the cop who pulls the trigger. I don’t believe any movement in the world can, or has, hinged its liberation upon the systems designed to subdue it; demands must center on the humanity of marginalized peoples, not on the ability of the dominant culture or its institutions to acknowledge this humanity. I want a justice system which listens to its people, not silences them and their pain. I want a country whose citizens believe each other and their experiences, especially when those experiences are ones we ourselves have never or could never understand. Yes-give us the tapes, but first give us a police force and justice system more interested in the truth then they are in concealing it.
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, and Intermedia Arts. He is an Ed.M candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can help support his writing HERE.
Writer. Performer. Youth worker. Educator. What I know is eclipsed by what I don't. Working and writing for justice in all the ways I know how. Radical imagination. Deconstructing Whiteness.