Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

RACE

Who Is Afraid of Race?

There is a cost to advancing caste as the preeminent analytic in place of race—we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of anti-Blackness. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.

PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.

A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”

In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste.

Wilkerson defines caste as an “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.” “To recalibrate how we see ourselves,” she exchanges racial terms for caste-related ones, such as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower caste.” Extensively narrating interpersonal “scenes of caste” throughout the book, Wilkerson’s “caste” discontents are mapped almost exclusively in the realm of attitudes, imaginations, ideologies, prejudices, and microaggressions—and outside the mutually constituting realms of historical, material, and geo-political power.

In our world of unclotting wounds, Caste seemingly offers its “race-as-skin-deep” analysis as a kind of Balm in Gilead. If we are all bound by caste, instead of race and anti-Blackness, then it is easier to believe in our ability to overcome caste—to create, as the epilogue’s title suggests, “a world without caste.”

What would it mean to rethink race as caste in the global context? History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

Wilkerson’s book joins a tradition, mainly from the early twentieth century, of scholarship that challenged race’s preeminence by arguing that caste was a more useful analytic. Other kinds of challenges to the sociological reliance on race—for example, by Marxist scholars such as sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox—have often critiqued the use of both race and caste, naming class instead as the central antagonism. Few, though, have set aside race as completely as Wilkerson.

The tradition of Black Marxist scholarship—an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition—also gives us tools to be skeptical of Wilkerson’s refusal to name capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism in Caste’s world-historical analysis. For example, South Africa’s apartheid economy compelled its Marxist scholars, such as Neville Alexander, to realize the centrality of race and theorize “racial capitalism” before it was popularized by Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson. To its proponents, the term “racial capitalism” itself has always been tautological: When has capitalism not been racial or racializing? What is capitalism if not a system sorting who is most fit for suffering, exploitation, and extraction?

All this points to a critical question which should lie at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

Consider this: Caste was published exactly one week before Namibia officially rejected a nearly 12 million dollar offer that Germany had made in compensation for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples over a century ago. Namibia, the former Southern African apartheid colony, was the site of Germany’s first twentieth-century holocaust during their 1904–1908 colonial war. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum was insulting, but also because Germany, Caste’s exemplar for a society that has overcome “caste” systems, has refused to apologize, having only recently even named the murder of close to 100,000 Herero and Nama people a genocide. Adding insult to injury, Germany refuses to name the offer as reparations—instead calling it “compensation” aimed at “healing the wounds.”

This, too, raises questions about Caste and its implications: If reparations by another name are not reparations, what is the cost of a name? In the long durée of “wounds,” what is the cost of the refusal to name?

The ongoing refusal of “post”-Nazi Germany—not only the book’s, but the world’s exemplar for historical reckoning and reconciliation—to name, repent for, and repair its sins against Black people within its national and imperial borders forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, and anti-Blackness: Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world.

Caste has been critiqued before in these pages for its analysis of the United States. Here I focus on what it would mean to take up Wilkerson’s project and rethink race as caste in the global context. History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

section separator

In the book Wilkerson briefly interrogates some of the religio-mythical underpinnings of caste. However, her world-historical analysis largely frames Indian caste systems as untransformed across time and space by internal and external forces, such as the many racializing forces of Empire—trade, capital, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, indenture, and Aryan racial theory. Meanwhile, her analysis of contemporary Indian caste relations is framed by personal observations and interactions with Indian scholars of different castes at several academic conferences that she attended. Without naming global structural forces, caste appears fixed in this analysis—a timeless, ahistorical force. However, caste, like race, is both a historical and a social construct.

In Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil.

Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that a book intended to confront the modern discontents of race without naming “race” will fail to address how India’s peoples have been racialized by the same world-historical forces that “discovered” and transformed the New World. There is no New World without India and no India, as we now know it, without the New World.

Yet, in Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil. In this analysis U.S. slavery transforms over the centuries unaffected by the rupture that, following Carribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s work, we can call the New Worlding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the true genesis of our racial discontents. Whereas Wilkerson names 1619—the year when nineteen enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—as the origin of our discontents, Wynter locates 1492—the year Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his failed quest to India—as the genesis of “A New World View.” This was a new view of “new” lands demanding new dehumanizing labor regimes under Transoceanic Empire’s racial capitalism. Kenyan scholar K’eguro Macharia writes of the rupture created by these new regimes of racialized capital:

New World blackness speaks not only to the blackness forged in—and on the way to—the Americas, but also to the blackness produced through the worlding of 1492. . . . To be more explicit: Africa does not—cannot—escape this (new) worlding. Blackness names, in part, the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora.

Wilkerson ignores this Black suture between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. When a Nigerian-born playwright informs her that, “there are no black people in Africa. . . . Africans are not black. . . [t]hey don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she uncritically agrees. As a Black person born in “post”-independence Zimbabwe and raised in “post”-apartheid South Africa, I did not need the United States or the United Kingdom in order to be aware of my Blackness. Both Wilkerson and her Nigerian counterpart fail to see that, conscious of it or not, no Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

No Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

In the process of New Worlding, the advent of Blackness as bounded with slave-ness—which is to say, Blackness as unbounded from claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—began with the twinned dawn of Transatlantic Slavery and Modernity. This relationship is continually reinscribed by the “second coming[s]” of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid, and their mutations in the “post”-modern world—neo-colonialism, “the New Jim Crow,” the Mediterranean crisis, and the contemporary enslavement of Africans in North Africa.

In the rupture of New Worlding, Blackness is the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. This suture creates reverberating chambers where we are continually blackened by each other’s sufferings. Just as all of us were blackened by the Transatlantic slave trade, we were blackened again by the Scramble for Africa and with it, Germany’s Herero and Nama Holocaust.

Caste, ignoring this historic Black suture, does not include the Herero and Nama genocide in its analysis of Germany. Instead, it uses the Third Reich’s reign as an anchoring timeframe for Germany’s sins, highlighting Nuremberg, reparations, and the public attention to Holocaust history as examples of racial overcoming in “post”-Nazi GermanySilent on the resurgence of Holocaust-denying and anti-immigrant German right-wing extremism that led to the 2019 Halle Synagogue attack, the book insists that, “to imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany.”

Surely, we need more than this—“post”-Nazi Germany cannot be held as the exemplar for overcoming race or caste systems. We must instead look at the history of the world.

Anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences has consoled and cohered all nationalisms and nation states.

When we map the history of the modern world and mark time by Black lynchings—spanning from the Arab, Transatlantic, and Indian Ocean slave trades to the apartheid government sponsored intra-Black violence and massacres that marked South Africa’s “democratic transition” to the “Rainbow Nation”; from “post”-apartheid South Africa’s recurring violence against Black “foreign nationals” to the country’s 2012 Marikana massacre; from the Nigerian government’s massacre of citizens protesting the brutality of the SARS police unit to the present-day enslavement of Africans in North Africa; from the Mediterranean crisis to China’s 1988–1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests; from India’s recurrent attacks on its African students to Chinese corporations’ human rights abuses on the African continent; all the way through to Southern China’s denial of medical treatment to African migrants in the wake of the global Sinophobic COVID-19 backlash—we find that anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences consoles and coheres all nationalisms and nation states.

Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. When we mark modernity’s time by Black lynchings, there is no “historical progress.” Instead, world-historic lynch-time continually returns us to the Nadir.

If, in this Nadir, 2042 is the spectral wound of the United States, then Southern Africa is its lodestar. Southern Africa in the Nadir, at the dawn of what I call Apartheid Modernity, offers itself as a historic limit case in which Indian caste and race politics intersected with German genocidal eugenics and rising Jim Crow style “separate development” policies. Southern Africa is a world-historic limit case of race, caste, and class entanglements on which we can test the durability of Wilkerson’s caste thesis. When we shift the axis of Caste’s world-historical analysis here, to Southern Africa, it cannot hold under the weight of Apartheid Modernity.

section separator

In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith remarked that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

Just as there is no India as we know it without the New World, there is no India as we know it without the Southern tip of Africa. On his “Voyage of Discovery,” Vasco da Gama opened a new route to India by circumnavigating the Southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good of Hope. The very Natal colony that transformed “Mohandas to a Mahatma” had been so christened by a reverent da Gama as his ships skirted its treacherous coast over Christmas of 1497. “The birth of Christ” coincided with the birth of Transoceanic Empire and, with it, the birth of Transatlantic Slavery.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa with Gandhi, it had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands.

Centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, imperial expansion succeeded Transatlantic Slavery. New forms of imperialism across the Black Atlantic mirrored African Americans’ post-Reconstruction suffering in what I call the the Transatlantic Nadir. Following the 1815 Paris Treaty’s prohibition of slavery, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a widespread transition from slavery to subjecthood throughout the British and French Empires. The Transatlantic Nadir began in Jamaica, where Black people were brutally massacred for revolting against post-emancipation injustice and poverty in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion. This portended a “backlash” to British imperial reconstruction. Several stunning reversals in the “post”-slavery status of Black people followed Morant Bay, including the “backlash” to U.S. Reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, the Southern African minerals revolution, the end of the civilizing mission in favor of the rule of law and order after the Indian Mutiny, the rise of eugenicist scientific racism, and the Herero and Nama genocide, the first holocaust of the twentieth century.

The advent of the Transatlantic Nadir portended the rise of Apartheid Modernity—twentieth-century “modernity’s ignoble paradox” of “progress” propelled by the “post”-slavery world’s anti-Black regimes of racial hierarchy, labor, violence, and genocide based on the “separate development” of citizen and subject races. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gilded Age”—of extractive racial capitalism, unprecedented material excess, untrammeled pursuit of profit and imperial expansion, and industrial and technological advancements symbolized by the telegram and the train—was secured by coercive labor and governing regimes. These regimes reinscribed Blackness with slave-ness: that is, they seized any claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—let alone citizenship. In other words, Apartheid Modernity’s train was mechanized by the “ignoble paradox” that Cornel West theorized and Dambudzo Marechera poeticized, writing, “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.”

During that Nadir, Mahatma Gandhi crossed the Kala Pani, the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi arrived in Durban, the South African port that would become “the largest Indian city outside of India,” as a “passenger Indian” thirty-three years after the Truro arrived from Madras in 1860 with the first 342 Indian indentured laborers. Indian people had been indentured across South Africa’s Natal colony, East Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean, and the Mascerene Islands since the early nineteenth-century abolition of slavery across the British and French Empires. Those first making the passage to the British colony of Natal were primarily Hindu, from India’s low to middle castes. However, the indentured often gave false information. Sometimes they gave a lower caste because colonial authorities did not want Brahmins and Muslims; other times, a higher caste to improve their social status.

The Kala Pani crossing molded caste along new contours. On the ship forced intimacy made it impossible to respect caste, as migrants of different castes had to eat and sleep together. Once on land the colliding approaches of the “free” and indentured migrants, and the settler colonial authorities who saw them as “all coolies,” remapped caste along regional contours. These remolded categories were reinscribed with color and physical traits; Kalkatia reflected the “fair” Aryan north of India and Madrasi, the “dark” Dravidian south.

The relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa in that Nadir, it also had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands. Since the arrival of Indian indentured laborers in a settler state increasingly bent on the “separate development” of races, the relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent. This is marked by lows, such as the conservative anti-Black racial politics of the Gandhi-led Natal Indian Congress (NIC) (the colony’s first Indian nationalist political organization) and the resurgence of the “Indian question” in post-apartheid politics. It is also marked by highs, such as the 1955 Congress of the People, the 1970s and ’80s Black Consciousness Movement’s radical solidarity politics, and the widespread rejection of the 1983–1994 Tricameral Parliament’s exclusion of the country’s Black “non-citizens.”

The Gandhian era of South African Indian politics marked a significant low point in this history, representing its own Nadir between Black and Indian people. Between 1893 and 1914, as historian Jon Soske concedes in Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa (2017), the “South African Gandhi” helped cement a conservative tradition of Indian diasporic politics reliant on a rhetoric of Indian civilizational superiority vis-à-vis African inferiority.

In 1894 Gandhi founded the NIC after being infamously discriminated against on a train in South Africa. Days into his arrival, he was thrown off a train when a white man complained about sharing his first-class compartment with a “coloured man.” This train incident, in Gandhi’s words, “sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Just days before Gandhi had discovered that, in the South African settler colony, “all Indians were called ‘coolies.’” On that train, icon of Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi, a conservative Gujurati Bania, came to see the need for a unified Indian racial nationalism that could encompass—without subvertingcaste and class, region and religion, and motherland and diaspora. Yet, even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Indeed, one of the first major political acts of Gandhi’s NIC was to press against the Durban Post Office’s two separate entrances for “Europeans” and “natives and Asiatics.” The NIC did not want “natives” and “Asiatics” grouped together—they wanted three separate entrances. In The Green Pamphlet (1895) Gandhi explained, “We felt the indignity too much and . . . petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances.” In this appeal to the Indian public, detailing the grievances of “Her Majesty’s Indian subjects” laboring in South Africa, Gandhi decried the fact that “Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa—Kaffir races.”

When caste and Gandhi traveled into the southernmost tip of Africa, they were transformed by the race-making pressures that erupted into the 1899–1902 South African War, fought between Boer and Briton over the world’s richest store of minerals. Southern Africa’s minerals revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866. The minerals revolution then accelerated twenty years later, when 40 percent of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand at a moment when gold had just recently become the foundation of the global economic system. This discovery exploded into one of the world’s most dramatic industrial and social transformations, and a crisis for British imperialism during the South African War. It was in this moment of imperial crisis that Gandhi’s struggle to obtain rights for Indians as British subjects found the perfect stage. Through service in the South African War already, Gandhi reasoned, Indian subjects had “put their shoulders to the wheel” and “drawn forth the admiration of the violent Colonials who, for the first time then, saw the good trait in the Indian.”

Gandhi was unmoved by the suffering of the 120,000 Black people who were caged in concentration camps during the South African War, and the fates of the 20,000 who died there. Rather, his racially impaired witness of the world’s first concentration camps provided the vision for his philosophy of principled suffering, Satyagraha. Gandhi’s anti-Black vision ensured that only the suffering of Afrikaner women and children was visible in his moral witness.

Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance.

In contrast, Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance. Indeed, the war became the major impetus for the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. The instigators of the Pan-African Conference were Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian barrister who became the first Black person to be called to the South African bar, and Alice Victoria Kinloch, the South African activist who was known in British circles for her impassioned protests against the Black suffering she had witnessed while living on Kimberly’s diamond fields. The Conference convened, in part, over “the compound system in vogue in the mining district of South Africa” and culminated in a petition for Queen Victoria to intervene in the suffering of her Black “subjects” in British South Africa. Attendees of the conference knew that the South African War was a crucible—Queen Victoria’s response to South Africa’s “native question” and the plight of her imperial subjects would ripple across the “post”-slavery Empire and beyond. If Britain—the vanguard of the liberal abolitionist movement, the refuge for African Americans before and after the U.S. Civil War, the purveyors of Cape’s qualified non-racial franchise, and the presumed protector and progenitor of Black freedoms—chose to betray its promise of imperial citizenship and endorse segregation in South Africa, formerly enslaved Black people would be reinscribed as non-citizens across the world.

Accordingly, despite the fact that no South Africans could attend the Pan African Conference, at least half of the presentations referred to the “South African question.” In his address on the question—“Organised Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race their Battlefield”—the Dominican lawyer George James Christian drew a Transatlantic line between Africans who “were stolen from their native shores in the 16th century and were now jostled out of their lands.” He concluded, “What was this if not the revival of slavery?”

Indeed, across Southern Africa, Black miners were referred to as chibaro, or slave labor. The Pan-Africanists understood and felt the Black suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. The “revival of slavery” at the Southern tip of Africa at the turn of the twentieth century threatened to reinscribe the status of all free Black peoples with slave-ness, denying any claim to citizenship in the “post”-emancipation world. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the notable attendees of the Conference. Du Bois and his colleagues debated the South African “native question” and the American “negro question” alongside issues such as the corvée and the Belgian Congo. The Pan-Africanists concluded by prophesying the advent of Apartheid Modernity in their “Address to the Nations of the World,” declaring that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”

Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War.

In the end, British victory in the South African War extended the global color line and plunged the world further into the Transatlantic Nadir. “Free” Black people could not be incorporated as citizens in “post”-slavery EmpireJust as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War. In the House of Commons, British Parliamentarians cited Reconstruction’s supposedly failed “negro rule” of the multiracial U.S. South as they passed the 1909 South Africa Act that offered Black citizenship as the sacrifice for a unified white laager. Just as African Americans had paid a price for white reconciliation in the United States after Reconstruction, Black South Africans paid, too.

In the post-war years, much of the Union of South Africa’s “separate development” found inspiration and assistance from the post-war U.S. South’s “seperate but equal” regime. The Union of South Africa’s 1910 constitution was based, in part, on the Jim Crow South; the “grand architect of apartheid,” Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, was widely known as an “expert in American social science” and “social welfare systems”; and the Carnegie Corporation collaborated with the Verwoerd’s Stellenbosch University and the Dutch Reformed Church on the 1932 Commission on the Poor White Problem in South Africa, which provided the blueprint for the official institution of Grand Apartheid in 1948. Across the Atlantic, apartheid was the cost of national reconciliation between warring whites.

section separator

On the train to Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi was concerned that Indian people would be classed with the “raw Kaffir.” In 1906 the Bambatha Uprising, the last armed resistance against settler rule for decades, broke out in Natal over the poll taxes press ganging Zulu people into the colonial labor market. Gandhi, who railed against taxes on Indian people, recruited his people to serve as stretcher-bearers for the British Empire’s defense, just as he had done during the South African War. Clearly his investments in Empire had not dissipated; Gandhi was still actively fighting against the interests of his fellow colonized Black people so as not to be “dragged down” to their level in Empire’s racial hierarchy.

Considered the jewel of the British Empire, India did occupy a privileged position in the hierarchy of imperial possessions. “In geopolitical terms,” historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed write in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015), “Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into.” Gandhi would have been pleased to know that, in 1903, a British Indian Civil Service official told a Natal government delegation that “the Indian is not on a level with the kafir; he belongs to a higher class. The Indian trader is almost as advanced as ourselves.”

Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste.

Gandhi and the NIC’s disavowal of Black people was not unique across the British Empire’s Indian diaspora. As Desai and Vehad demonstrate, Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste. Like many other members of South Asia’s political elite, who used British Orientalist thinking in the formation of new nationalist and Hindu identities, Gandhi marshaled an Indo-Aryan racial history. This was an attempt to forge, in his own words, an “imperial brotherhood” between the “Western and Eastern branches” of civilization to the exclusion of “lesser” Black peoples.

A few years before Gandhi’s indignation at being classed as a “coloured man” on that South African train, the British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury derided Dadabhai Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of India,” as a “black man” undeserving of the Englishman’s vote after his 1886 British parliamentary defeat. Naoroji, an early Gandhi supporter, was a Parsi scholar and trader who enjoyed the support and confidence of Indian people across the globe as the President of the Indian National Congress.

furor erupted across India and its diaspora over the Grand Old Man of India’s supposed “blackness.” The Amrita Bazar Patrika condemned Salisbury for calling “one of India’s leaders a nigger.” The Hindu Punch published a cartoon of Nairobi and Salisbury, coloring the Prime Minister black and, therefore, darker than Naoroji. The Manchester Guardian informed Salisbury: “A little inquiry into the rudiments of Indian history would show Lord Salisbury that the Aryan races who entered India from the north prided themselves on their fair complexions.”

Across the British Empire, the public scandal over “Salisbury’s Blackman” coalesced around what historian Antoinette Burton calls the “triangular relationship between Englishness-as-whiteness, Indianness-as-brownness, and Blackness-as-Africanness” where “Africa was, in other words, the unspoken Other not just of Englishness but of Indianness as well.”

In that Transatlantic Nadir, Blackness was bound with slave-ness. Long before the Bandung Conference, Black Consciousness, and Black Power, many South Asian political elites rejected political Black solidarity. As Burton writes:

As late as the 1880s, “black man” was an appellation which in no way could enhance—and indeed, could only endanger—any subject’s chances to achieve recognition as a citizen, much less as a civic representative of the people in the Mother of all Parliaments. It carried with it associations of slavery and subjugation that imperiled Naoroji’s claims about the special qualification of Indian civilisations and people to direct representation.

Suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black.

And yet, as Naoroji’s biographer R. P Masani suggests, it was this very spectacle over his “blackness” that gave him the public profile and sympathy that secured his parliamentary win later on. Prime Minister Salisbury was forced to formally apologize for having offended the Jewel of the British Empire. The Irish nationalist Freeman’s Journal declared Naoroji’s election “the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” A “reparation” for the wounds of associated Blackness.

The Nairoji scandal lays bare how anti-Blackness gave Empire its coherence and could be mobilized for political gain. According to the racial logic of Empire, suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black. More than a “scene of race,” Gandhi’s South African “train moment” was a scene of historic anti-Blackness.

section separator

Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, the stakes in naming Gandhi’s anti-Blackness are high. The historic “Indian question” and accusations of Indian anti-Blackness have once again begun to dog political debates in “post”-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 a vigilante crowd looked “startlingly like a lynch mob” as they yelled “Victory for Mother India” and beat three African students in a New Dehli train station. This occurred as India’s prime minister visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial with President Obama. A year later a Gandhi statue was vandalized in South Africa. Then, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed its Gandhi statue.

Political Blackness, the idea that all racially marginalized groups can identify as “politically Black” to unite against racism, no longer seems viable. Members of Black Lives Matter UK recently questioned the erasure of Black women and the casting of Frieda Pinto as the lead of a British Black Panther series. There was backlash to Afro-Punk’s decision to bill M.I.A., the politically complicated and politically Black identifying British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC), “the largest organisation of Black students in Europe” representing “all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage,” launched a campaign to debate and re-think its name.

Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles.

The costs of a name are clearly high. Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles. When the divine ordinance of Empire is divide and rule, naming the anti-Blackness of your comrade-in-arms is a taboo—impolite and identitarian at best, and divisive and representative of false consciousness at worst. But, we must ask, what kind of solidarity are we building if we cannot reflect honestly on our different historical positionings in Empire’s racial order?

In this Nadir, an honest reckoning with history demands that we recognize that Gandhi refused anti-colonial solidarity and, instead, embraced anti-Blackness throughout his twenty-one years in South Africa. Though he later complicated his politics, the “South African Gandhi” navigated the dizzying nexus of Black and Indian race, and class and caste entanglements, by disavowing his fellow colonized Black people. Gandhi continually named Black South Africans with the same murderous epithet that had first been formed in the mouths of Arab slavers, who passed it on to Portuguese slavers, who in turn passed it on to warring Boer and British slaver-settlers, whose tongues imbued its inhumanity with fresh intensity when they sacrificed Black people at the altar of a unified emergent apartheid state at the turn of the twentieth century. Gandhi, like many of his caste, railed for an Indo-Aryan “imperial brotherhood” at the expense of the “raw Kaffir.”

This is not a call to “cancel Gandhi.” Instead, reflecting on his formative years in South Africa offers a chance to name and confront the kinds of historic anti-Blackness that plague our solidarity struggles today. Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, our examinations of race, caste, and political solidarity will demand more political honesty and analytic rigor. Between cynicism and sentimentality, clear-eyed solidarity can lead us out of this Nadir. Wilkerson’s world historical analysis fails to do this.

section separator

Wilkerson’s caste thesis cannot hold under the weight of “post”-Nazi Germany, either. In Caste’s epilogue Wilkerson contends that “post”-Nazi Germany “is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled.” The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign. This speaks to the anti-Blackness of the liberal humanist post-World War world—Germany can be hailed for its supposed humility before its Nazi history while it remains unrepentant for its colonial sins, such as the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the Herero and Nama genocide, and the massacring of up to 300,000 in the Maji Maji Uprising. And what of Germany’s historic and often murderous exclusion of Afro-Germans? This is part of the obfuscating cost of using caste as the preeminent analytic. In so doing we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of race and, in particular, anti-Blackness.

The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign.

Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde was clear eyed about Germany’s historic anti-Blackness all through her eight transformative years in West-Berlin. Having arrived in Germany the year after the 1983 U.S. invasion of her ancestral Grenada, Lorde understood the quiet violence of Empire. Even as Germany’s state-subsidized bohemia gave her “a certain amount of room to be” when she arrived in 1984, the spirit of witness moved Lorde to map haunting worlds of Afro-Diasporic border crossings from Grenada, to the United States, to St. Croix, to divided Berlin in her poem, “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls” (1984).

During Lorde’s Berlin years, she sought out and collaborated with women of Germany’s Black Diaspora—including the writers May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Helga Emde, and Ika Hügel-Marshall—to birth the Afro-German movement. This was central to Lorde’s Black queer anti-imperialist praxis, her radical embodiment of what Édouard Glissant called a “poetics of relation.”

A century and a half after Hegel declared that Africa had no history, Ayim and Oguntaye published the first scholarly study of Afro-German history, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1986). Making the first written use of the term “Afro-German,” they proclaimed: “our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.” Showing Our Colors made visible a Black historical line going as far back as the Middle Ages. The line marches forward through the Berlin Conference, through imperial expansion and genocide in Africa, and through war-time interracial liaisons between white German women and Black troops from the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain to the present day.

The lives of Showing Our Colors many multi-generational Black German-born and raised authors attest to a Germany invested in “Germanness” as a distinct racial and cultural Volk heritage. Even the authors’ family members seem incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German. Spared the death camp sentences, sterilizations, and forced abortions that “half caste” people from Namibia’s Rehoboth to the Rhineland faced across Germany’s history, many of Showing Our Colors women were instead sent away to orphanages.

Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness.

“And where do you come from? And your father? And your mother?” These national questions have echoed across the lives of generations of Afro-Germans. Regardless of their complete self-identification as German—regardless of their shared biology, culture, and language—native-born Afro-Germans remain outsiders to their families and their nation. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness—their own historical estrangement and trepidation at the eruption of anti-Black violence amidst their fellow Germans’ national reunification euphoria.

Lorde heard her sisters’ cries. She heard the call to witness. At the dawn of “post”-Apartheid Modernity, in the midst of Die Wende, the triumphalist “post”-Berlin Wall “turn” heralded as the End of History, Lorde’s border-crossing poetic vision foregrounded modernity’s “ignoble paradox” of Black pain enfolded in national “progress.” A month after the Fall, Lorde’s poem, “East Berlin December 1989,” a geopolitical anachronism questioning the “progression” of national time and foregrounding world-historic lynch-time, begins unequivocally: “It feels dangerous now/ to be Black in Berlin.” Her unflinching witness continues:

Already my blood shrieks

through the East Berlin streets

misplaced hatreds

volcanic tallies rung upon cement

Afro-German woman stomped to death by skinheads in Alexanderplatz

The Black woman died under the wheels of Die Wende’s new century. In modernity’s wake, Black is forever out of time and out of place. We are all bound by our historical estrangement from the modern nation state.

Standing at the precipice of History, amidst suffering, dislocation, and alienation, Ayim’s poem “borderless and brazen: a poem against German u-NOT-y” (1990) offers us a vision:

i will go

yet another step further

to the furthest edge

where my sisters—where my brothers stand

where

our

FREEDOM

begins

i will go

yet another step further and another step and

will return

when i want

if i want

and remain

borderless and brazen

If freedom is our vision, we must cross the border, we must go to the furthest edge. If we are to undo anti-Black violence, then we must undo our investments in the nation state. In the murderous face of Empire, Lorde’s border-crossing poetics of relation “fus[es] the best of all of our heritages.” In her introduction to Showing Our Colors, Lorde implored“We must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First we must recognize each other.”

This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to go to the furthest edge. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

Indeed, the key trouble with Caste is that it lacks what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “Black History’s Global Vision.” In “But A Local Phase of Global Problem” (1999), Kelley looked back at the lessons of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist historical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for writing beyond the U.S. nation state. In that Transatlantic Nadir, Kelley writes, Black historians understood that Jim Crow emerged in the “post”-slavery Reconstruction South as “the expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their ‘temperament,’ their destinies.”

The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

The Black Historical Tradition, an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition, resists Empire. The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. In spite of this tradition, Caste’s comparative world-historical analysis maps anti-Blackness as the sole province of the United States, without recognizing that it is, as Du Bois first described in his essay “The Color Line Belts the World” (1906), “but a local phase of a world problem.” If Caste resists racist historiography, then its downfall is that it does not resist nationalist and imperialist historiography. The Black Radical Historical Tradition is clear—there is no anti-racism without anti-imperialism.

If Germany, the world’s exemplar of historic reckoning and reconciliation, cannot be compelled to repent and pay reparations for its Herero and Nama Holocaust then what hope is there that the United States will be compelled to repent and pay reparations for African American slavery?

The question for Black people the world over isCan we unbind ourselves and our historic claims for reparations from the nation states that cage us? Can we go to the edge, to where our sisters and brothers stand, and imagine the end of world-historic lynch-time? Can we imagine the end of this world?

section separator

As I write, generations are once again dying under the wheels of the twenty-first century. Shocked and ashamed at the horrifying, ever-mounting, ever-rotting trails of flesh and bone left on the track, we turn and look away. We run away from that which mangles us, from that which wounds us. We run away from each other. We run away from ourselves.

Perhaps “post”-Apartheid Modernity’s train—mechanized by the accelerating anti-Black forces of white supremacy, jingoistic nationalisms, late capitalism, neoliberal imperialism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism—has left us so mangled that we fail to recognize each other and ourselves.

Black suffering continues to suture the wounds of the world. Indeed, Black suffering produces the world.

How do we end this world? Contrary to Wilkerson’s thesis, ending a world produced by Black suffering cannot take place within a moral historical “progression.” It will require a rupture of world-historic lynch-time.

How do we end this world? We must accurately name that which wounds us.

How do we end lynch-time? It is a terrifying question with no easy answer. Rupturing lynch-time requires that we name that which wounds us. To name is to witness. In this surveying—in this witnessing of the world’s wounds—the costs of refusal and obfuscation are too high. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.


Author’s NoteI am grateful to art historian Dr. Zamansele Nsele’s theorization of the train as the icon of imperial and settler colonial modernity in her 2020 essay “Post-Apartheid Nostalgia and Its Images of Common Sense.” Here, she originally places Cornel West and Dambudzo Marechera in conversation.

Source: Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

White women’s role in white supremacy, explained – Vox

It’s tempting to think of the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday as toxic masculinity run amok: a mob of mostly white men, carrying guns and wearing animal skins, trying to overthrow democracy on behalf of a president who once bragged about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”

It’s even more tempting to embrace this narrative when, in a bizarre statement, that president’s campaign press secretary describes him as “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House.”

But focusing too much on masculinity obscures a crucial truth: Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home. There was Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and apparent devotee of QAnon ideology who was killed during the riot. There was the woman photographed with “zip-tie guy” Eric Munchel, now believed to be his mother. There was Martha Chansley, the mother of the widely photographed “QAnon shaman” who wore a horned hat and carried a spear to Congress. She wasn’t present at the riot but later defended her son in an interview, calling him “a great patriot, a veteran, a person who loves this country.”

And, of course, there were the women lawmakers who boosted conspiracy theories and false claims about the election being stolen, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who railed against Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters in a speech on the House floor this week while wearing a mask reading “censored.” Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, meanwhile, described January 6 as “1776” before the riot began, live-tweeted from the House during the attack (including a mention that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been removed from the chambers), and this week, refused to allow police to search her bag after it set off metal detectors outside Congress. During her campaign, Boebert promised to bring her gun with her to the House.

Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home.
 Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
If we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot, we can’t understand white supremacy in America.
 Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

White women have been part of white supremacy in America since the very beginning, experts point out, dating back to their role in slavery. “They were at the table when the system was designed,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, told Vox. “They were co-architects of the system.”

That remained true after the Civil War, through the birth and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan, and during the civil rights movement when white women were some of the most vocal opponents of school integration. And it remains true today, when women hold a key role in spreading QAnon ideology and sustaining white nationalist groups and movements. “Like other parts of our economy and society, these movements would collapse without their labor,” Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, told Vox.

And if we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot and the groups that backed and enabled it, we can’t understand white supremacy in America — let alone dismantle it. Trying to fight racism in America without looking at white women, Jones-Rogers said, is like “addressing only the right side of the body when the left side is still sick.”

White women have been part of white supremacy from the beginning

White women’s investment in white supremacy is older than the United States itself and goes back to their role in the economy of slavery. Though white women have been seen by some historians as passive bystanders to the brutalities of slavery, they were in fact active participants, as Jones-Rogers explains in They Were Her Property. Before the Civil War, white women had little economic or political power, with one big exception: They could buy and sell enslaved people. And they did so, using enslaved people as a way of building up wealth that would not simply be transferred to a husband in marriage.

Slavery gave white women “freedom, autonomy, and agency that they could not exercise in their lives without it, so they deeply invested in it,” Jones-Rogers said.

And after the Civil War, white women didn’t simply give up on white supremacy. Instead, as Jones-Rogers puts it, they doubled down.

For many, that meant becoming active participants in the KKK, which at one point had 1.5 million female members. Some women took leadership roles, like Elizabeth Tyler, who helped revive the Klan in the late 1910s and became its “most important propagandist,” according to Darby.

Women became especially important in the Klan once they gained the right to vote. After that, white men began to see their wives, daughters, sisters, and other women in their lives “as potential allies in the effort to politicize white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers said. “They began to see them as a voting bloc.”

Women members of the Ku Klux Klan from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, arrive in Washington, DC, for a KKK parade, circa 1920.
 Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
A group of Ku Klux Klan women next to a parade float in Miami, circa 1940.
 Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

And it wasn’t just because of organizations like the Klan that white women invested in institutional racism. They also played a core role in lynching by making false allegations of sexual harassment or assault, which were used as a pretext to murder Black men. And they were key players in the fight against the integration of schools, with white women using their role as mothers to legitimize their victimization of Black children, Jones-Rogers said.

Indeed, throughout the 20th century, though white women could no longer profit from slavery, they were still deriving real benefits from white supremacy — namely, a sense of social and political power in a world still dominated by white men. “Through lynching, your words have the power of life and death over an African-descended man,” Jones-Rogers explained. “Your vote can secure a place in the state, in the government, for white supremacy.”

In essence, through white supremacy, white women came to “understand themselves as individuals who wield a certain kind of power that men have to respect,” Jones-Rogers said.

Understanding white women’s role is key to fighting racism today

And that dynamic has continued into the 21st century. The landscape of white supremacy has changed, with the Klan no longer a major player (though it still exists). Today, white nationalism is less about specific groups and more about “an ideology that people subscribe to from the comfort of their own desks,” Darby said.

Because of that, it’s hard to measure exactly how many women are involved in white nationalism. It’s easier to measure attitudes. Overall, about 20 percent of white Americans of all genders “feel a sense of discontent” over the status of white people in society, Darby writes in Sisters in Hate, drawing on the work of political scientist Ashley Jardina. And white women are actually more likely than white men to hold “exclusionary views about what it means to be American, preferring boundaries around the nation’s identity that maintain it in their image.”

And while they may not always be in front at rallies or riots, women remain important “recruiters and propagandists” for white nationalism, Darby said. Erica Alduino, for example, had a key role in organizing the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She was the one directing traffic on messaging apps and answering mundane but important questions like whether there would be shuttle buses to the rally. She didn’t speak at the event, “but that’s not the point,” Darby said. “Whether women are seen or not seen, they are such important actors in this space.”

Women have also been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. The group Women for America First organized a “Stop the Steal” rally of thousands in November and also received a permit for a rally at the Capitol on January 6, according to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, women have taken an even more visible role with the rise of QAnon. An ideology that began with conspiracy theories about Trump battling a “cabal” of liberals involved in child sex trafficking, QAnon has grown to include a wider array of theories and misinformation. Last year, QAnon adherents began amplifying the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which became a vehicle for false claims about the prevalence of child sex trafficking as well as a gateway for more extreme QAnon ideas. And many of the people posting with #SaveTheChildren — including celebrities and prominent influencers — were women.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) campaigns for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue alongside President Trump on January 4.
 Brynn Anderson/AP

In general, QAnon has been a way to co-opt messages long targeted at women — messages about the importance of natural living or even healthy food, for example — and turn them into an indoctrination in white nationalism and xenophobia. QAnon plays into “this idea that you can cleanse yourself and your life and your family’s life of pollutants,” Darby said. Messages about avoiding genetically modified foods, for example, can slide into messages about keeping non-white children out of schools.

In the last few months, QAnon has played a key role in boosting conspiracy theories about Covid-19 restrictions and masking, and backing attempts to overturn the election. And some of the most visible proponents of QAnon have been women. Greene, for example, has been called the first QAnon member of Congress and has tweeted support for the idea of the “deep state,” a core QAnon tenet.

Meanwhile, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed by police at the Capitol riot, had been posting QAnon-related content on social media for nearly a year prior to the insurrection, according to the Guardian. The day before the riot, she tweeted a defiant message full of QAnon slogans: “Nothing will stop us….they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”

Trump supporters arrive for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6.
 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Women have been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. 
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Despite the participation of Babbitt and others, there’s been a tendency to view the riot as largely male-dominated — and, indeed, to erase the presence of women in white supremacy throughout history. “There has been a tendency, from the colonial period to the present, to frame and to position white women as perpetual victims, in spite of the evidence to the contrary,” Jones-Rogers said.

But ignoring the fact that women have long been perpetrators of white supremacy — up to and including violence — will hamper any effort to truly fight it. “When we discount these women and the often violent and brutal roles that these women play,” Jones-Rogers said, “we neglect and we negate the impact that their activities have on their victims.”

If, by contrast, we as a society can reckon with the way that white women have been not just beneficiaries but designers of the system of white supremacy, she said, we will be better able “to dismantle the system and to address the ways in which the system has really pervaded all of our lives.”

Source: White women’s role in white supremacy, explained – Vox

Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance – BBC News

Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillanceMartin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance

CloseShortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr led the march on Washington in 1963, FBI agents were ordered to start following the famed civil rights leader.The extent of the surveillance shocked documentary maker Sam Pollard so much he decided to start digging. He managed to uncover FBI documents, sourced secret White House phone calls, and found long-forgotten footage of King at the peak of his career. With interviews from King’s contemporaries Clarence Jones and Andrew Young and former FBI agents, MLK/FBI paints a picture which, as Pollard tells the BBC’s Alex Stanger, mirrors today’s reality.

Watch preview here:  https://www.bbc.com/news/av-embeds/55620286/vpid/p093xfl2“>

Source: Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance – BBC News

Life After Lynching in “Ashes to Ashes” | The New Yorker

Life After Lynching in “Ashes to Ashes”

In “Ashes to Ashes,” the artist Winfred Rembert and the activist and physician Shirley Jackson Whitaker reckon with the living legacy of racist violence in America.

Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.

When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.

“Ashes to Ashes” follows Rembert’s discussions with the physician Shirley Jackson Whitaker, a friend who also grew up in Georgia, about trauma and about how wounds of the spirit are connected to physical health. In the film, Whitaker is on a mission, organizing a homegoing ceremony to honor the thousands of Black people who have been killed by lynching in the United States, whose families often did not get even the solace of a burial. “Sometimes they would lynch people—they’d put them in the water with weights, so the family would never see them again,” she says. “Sometimes they would take the bodies and cut them up and sell the pieces. Sometimes they would take the body after they lynch it and burn it up. So the families would not have anything.” Those examples, she points out, are just the instances that were reported. Whitaker organized a funeral service, held in May of 2017 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to honor and remember the unburied. The ceremony included a reading of names, with members of a local theatre group performing monologues drawn from Whitaker’s historical research.

Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”

Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.

Source: Life After Lynching in “Ashes to Ashes” | The New Yorker

How Lawmakers Failed Jacob Blake – Mother Jones

 

 

How Lawmakers Failed Jacob Blake

The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.

Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.

“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”

The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.

It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court

Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.

At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.

According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.

In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.

Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”

If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.

Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”

It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.

More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.

The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.

Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.

In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.

“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.

“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”

How to Abolish the Police, According to Josie Duffy Rice | Vanity Fair

Long before the internet caught wind of him, Henry Earl was already a local legend. By the time the Charleston Gazette dubbed him a “cult-status hero” and Newsweek called him the “town drunk,” Earl was already known around Lexington, Kentucky, as James Brown. He liked to dance, and he’d do a few moves in exchange for a couple bucks, money which he’d usually promptly spend on alcohol.

Earl was born in the Jim Crow South and adopted at age seven. Drinking was a habit he picked up as a teenager after his mother died, one he never could quite shake. By age 19 he was homeless, and by 20 he’d been arrested for the first time. That was back in 1970. Over the next several decades, Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times, almost always for alcohol intoxication. This is how he became known as the World’s Most Arrested Man. Over the years, he spent a total of more than 16 years in jail, usually in couple-day spurts. He was never once charged with violence or theft. “I like to drink,” he said once. “Alcoholic, that’s what I am. Every police knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days.”

For almost 50 years, this was Earl’s life. No home, no family, just alcohol and jail. He was a regular at the local bar scene, known for sometimes overstaying his welcome. The locals would see him at house parties sometimes; he’d go for the free beer. He tried court-mandated rehab a few times, but it didn’t stick. “It’s a weekly, if not every-two-or-three-days thing,” said a police spokesperson in 2013. “He’s never doing bad or illegal things purposely…. He’s just so highly intoxicated that he’s posing a danger to himself.”

Interest in Earl peaked a few years back, with websites dedicated to his mug shots that amusedly tracked his arrests. Late-night TV cracked jokes at his expense. National outlets ran stories on him. Around town, people called him harmless and happy, a “lovable loser.” But there were times Earl saw it differently. “It’s a sad life, it ain’t worth a dog,” he said in 2003, tearing up. “I got more sense than some people think I do. I’ve seen what it’s doing. It is ruining my life.”

Last year Attorney General William Barr addressed the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial conference. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for,” Barr told his audience “is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Barr is a right-wing Republican who has for years advocated for a harsher and more robust police state. But his proclamation reflected a deeply held idea in American politics—that police are essential to an ordered and just country. Barr’s worldview is time-honored and bipartisan. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not be the same politician he was when he championed the 1994 crime bill, but his belief in the necessity of American policing—Biden proposes to pump $300 million in federal dollars to the police—has not changed. And it’s not just politicians who proselytize the necessity of policing. Boilerplate TV procedurals, true-crime podcasts, and the evening news sell us a world where the police, beleaguered and badgered, are ultimately all that stands between those of us who wish to live in society and the others who would choose savagery.

This is a myth. Despite much reporting of a spike in murder this year, the long-term trend still shows the murder rate hovering roughly in the same place it was in the 1960s, half of what it was in 1980. And while procedurals may paint a picture of cops chasing serial killers weekly, the actual face of police is more mundane. In June, the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” Most of their time is spent dealing with noncriminal matters. And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill. The impact is not theoretical. After James Smith noticed the door of his neighbor’s home was open and the lights were on, Smith called the police, hoping an officer would conduct “a wellness check” on his neighbor. Instead, Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home as she played video games with her young nephew. Smith was left to draw a grim conclusion. “We don’t have a relationship with the police because we don’t trust the police,” Smith recently told the BBC.

Even the impact of policing on violent crime is debatable. “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” Barr claimed at the FOP conference in New Orleans. But the “never-ending fight” in the very city in which Barr was speaking is not going well. New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.

One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.

It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.

It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.

Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”

It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.

That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.

It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”

At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.

This is all very strange behavior for a group which takes an oath “to serve and protect.” But policing is often revealed to be about something muddier. In June, the Times asked Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot her opinion on the effort to “defund the police.” Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, didn’t even bother to defend her department—probably because a department with a history of torture, black sites, framing innocent people, and child killing is not easily defensible. Instead Lightfoot seemingly deflected to the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people in Chicago. Defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle class incomes for Black and brown folks.” That America’s second largest police department can only be defended as a kind of violent jobs program is a clear indictment of policing as an act of public safety. Furthermore, the fact that policing is one of the few tools available to bolster a racially diverse middle class is yet another indicator that police have far too much responsibility.

But America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.

Abolition seeks to eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety—not merely a two-tiered system, but a system where one tier benefits by extracting from the other. To “reform” policing, to subject it to bias training of dubious import, to push for the return to an illusory past where Officer Friendly provided sanctuary, is to attempt to patch up the more nefarious features of a system that should be obsolete. Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist.

The outlines of the possible are already upon us. Defunding the police—divesting money from the back-end solution of policing and investing it on the front end—is a first step along the path. To meet the very real concerns about neighborhood violence, we could look to preventative programs like Cure Violence and Save Our Streets in cities like New York. These organizations view gun violence as a public health question rather than evidence of community moral rot. Both have been able to successfully reduce and prevent gun violence without inflicting more violence on communities they claim to protect.

Nowhere is the extra layer of unnecessary violence more reflected than in our insistence on sending men with guns to resolve mental health crises. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program, was able to respond to 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls last year. Through the program, teams of medics and experienced mental health professionals are dispatched to handle certain emergencies instead of the police. For people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, introducing law enforcement in moments of desperation is an invitation for disaster. CAHOOTS reduces the risk of unnecessary violence and criminalization.

And removing police from our long and futile war against drug abuse is essential to abolition. This requires us to consider the role of harm reduction, rather than abstinence, as a possible avenue toward reducing the associated drug use. This solution is not theoretical. In countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada, drug users can go to a safe injection site and use in regulated, medically supervised, and sanitary conditions. These facilities avoid relying on the stigma and shame that trails many of those suffering from addiction. And it works. When people have access to a safe environment for drug use, they are more likely to seek treatment on their own.

Abolition looks like justice for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only about 230 are reported to law enforcement. Of those, less than five result in incarceration. In other words, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 99 percent go unpunished. Policing does not protect women from sexual assault, it facilitates it. Prison sexual violence, not only at the hands of other incarcerated people but also from correctional officers, is a persistent problem across the gender spectrum, including the thousands of juveniles housed in adult prisons. In place of our current system, abolition envisions providing domestic abuse survivors with crisis counselors and violence intervention teams trained to specifically navigate intimate relationships, available at a moment’s notice. What would a future look like for rape survivors if there were professionals or organizations that could provide not just physical safety but mental, emotional, and financial resources as well?

But more than an array of solutions to discrete, isolated issues, abolition envisions something more fundamental—entirely different values. A world where the resources put into not just policing but our robust system of prisons and jails is invested in the people to eventually render the present justice system obsolete. This is a world focused on the reduction of violence and harm. Certainly you would still need professionals responsible with holding accountable those who violate the social contract in the extreme—rape or murder—and an improved investigative system to catch the perpetrators. But even in that case, ensuring society’s protection should look very different. Even in the most extreme circumstances, it would demand an end to the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. Removing someone from society to stop them from enacting violence does not require subjecting someone to the current prison system, where solitary confinement, assault, sickness, torture, and rape are par for the course.

This is the world I imagine when I picture what I want for my children—a world where social consequences are weighted along with criminal consequences, where incapacitation is not conflated with torture, and murder and rape are taken so seriously that we do all we can to prevent either from happening in the first place. But ultimately abolition is not about a suite of options imposed by someone else—even me. The promise of abolition is the promise of democracy itself—one long denied Black people: the promise inherent in constructing an order of public safety originating in the needs and desires of a community, and not those who have, for so long, exploited them.

MORE STORIES FROM V.F.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates Guest-Edits THE GREAT FIRE, a Special Issue
— Breonna Taylor’s Beautiful Life, in the Words of Her Mother
— An Oral History of the Protest Movement’s First Days
— Celebrating 22 Activists and Visionaries on the Forefront of Change
— Novelist Jesmyn Ward on Witnessing Death Through a Pandemic and Protests
— Angela Davis and Ava DuVernay on Black Lives Matter
— How America’s Brotherhood of Police Officers Stifles Reform

Source: How to Abolish the Police, According to Josie Duffy Rice | Vanity Fair

Adam Serwer: A Nation Without Law, Order, or Justice – The Atlantic

GETTY / ARSH RAZIUDDIN / THE ATLANTIC

“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”

Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government. Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.

A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.

The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”

When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.

The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.

Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.

Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.

During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent police brutality and the unrest it sparks, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.

In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.

Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.

The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.

Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.

“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”

The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.

“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”

The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.

The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.

Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sake.

The head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd’s death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president’s vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration’s conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd’s killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.

This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.

As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.

Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.

After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.

Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.

For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.

There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.

Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.

To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.

Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.

Donald Trump proclaimed himself the law-and-order candidate. This is what law and order without justice looks like: a nation without law, order, or justice.

ADAM SERWER is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Source: Adam Serwer: A Nation Without Law, Order, or Justice – The Atlantic

This national moment of grief and mourning can become a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal – Urbānitūs

This national moment of grief and mourning can become a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal

The public execution of George Floyd and the protests it sparked reflect the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice in America, and a tragic racial history in which Austin is implicated

An unidentified Austin mother, “worried about her children,” leads a protest down Interstate-35 on Sunday, May 31. Photos courtesy of Charles Reagan @charles.reagan

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.

American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.

We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.

The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.

A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity

The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.

Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.

BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.

The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.

Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history

Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.

As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.

The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.

Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.

The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.

Photo by munshots on Unsplash

On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.

The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.

An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin

All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.

Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.

How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.

Source: This national moment of grief and mourning can become a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal – Urbānitūs 

Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Multiple, Unfolding Crises for African-Americans in Minneapolis | The New Yorker

A Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of an African-American man named George Floyd for several minutes on Monday, as Floyd begged the officer to stop, said, “I can’t breathe,” and eventually lost consciousness. Floyd, who was forty-six, was pronounced dead at a hospital that evening. After video footage of Floyd’s asphyxiation, which was taken by bystanders, circulated online, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, announced on Tuesday that the four officers who had been at the scene had been fired. “This is the right call,” Frey said on Twitter. “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.” The police had responded to a call that Floyd had used a forged check at a nearby deli and, in their first statement about the incident, noted only that he appeared to be “suffering medical distress.”

On Tuesday, the F.B.I. joined Minnesota’s criminal investigation of the incident, as Floyd’s family called for the four officers to be charged with murder. That afternoon, thousands of people gathered for protests in the streets of Minneapolis, which were followed that evening by clashes between riot police and protesters outside a precinct station. Protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” which became a Black Lives Matter slogan after the death of Eric Garner, in New York, in 2014. The Minneapolis area has been the site of several contested police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests—most notably, after Philando Castile was pulled over and fatally shot by police in a suburb of Saint Paul, in 2016. The officer who killed Castile was fired from the police department but acquitted of manslaughter.

On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Leslie Redmond, who, at twenty-eight, is an attorney and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about racial inequities in Minneapolis, how activists are thinking about protests in the midst of a pandemic, and what steps she wants authorities to take regarding Floyd’s death.

What have the past couple days been like in the Minneapolis area?

It has been crazy. People on the ground are very upset and sad and disheartened, and rightfully so. I think about our young people, and how hard they are taking this. If people put it into perspective, for young people, they have grown up their entire lives watching black bodies murdered on social media, in real time, with no grief counsellors, with no therapy, with no one to help them make sense of it. And, to be honest, I don’t even know if we could make sense of it if we wanted to, because we are all just outraged and trying to figure it out.

What I have also seen, though, is black leaders coming together, and I am super thankful for Medaria Arradondo, who is the first African-American police chief we have ever had in Minneapolis. The way that he stepped up and brought us together during this time is just so honorable, and I know we wouldn’t be having the progress we are having if he wasn’t the police chief. And I think about five years ago—in the fall before Philando Castile, there was Jamar Clark, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. We had a completely different police chief, a woman named Janeé Harteau, and it was horrible. It was a completely different response. You didn’t see any action or accountability. [The Minneapolis Police Department conducted an internal investigation of Clark’s shooting and determined that the officers had not violated its use-of-force policy.] So for Chief Arradondo to do the right thing and fire all four of those officers, and for the mayor to support him, was a major step in the right direction. It doesn’t take away from the pain and hurt people are feeling on the ground, but it moves us in the right direction of getting some justice for Mr. Floyd.

What is your level of trust in the mayor on these issues?

I am thankful for Mayor Frey. I think he has been showing good leadership. But it is not just about what happens in this specific situation and this moment. It is about what follows it. Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. I tell people that even before covid-19 we were in a state of emergency, and then that put us into a state of emergency times two. And now imagine having to deal with a black man being murdered by the government, by police officers, during this global pandemic. And so the burden has just been added to African-American communities, but the resources and the support have not been added. There has been no big lump sum that was poured into the community for us to pour into ourselves. And so that’s what I mean about it not just being about this moment—it’s about the moment that will follow, and the resources and communication that will follow this moment.

There were some demonstrations last night, but how do you think about organizing and marching and protests when there is a pandemic going on?

Protests are essential, and they have always been a part of the strategy. They are a tactic. But we are protesting to build power, and that is what people have to understand. A lot of people don’t really understand what goes on before and after. Black leadership was in communication with Chief Arradondo and in physical meetings with Chief Arradondo since 10 a.m. that morning. The protests didn’t start until 5 p.m. And so there was a lot of work being done before and after.

At the protests, for people who were on the ground originally, there was a really good effort and intent to push people back. And not only did most of the people in the crowd have masks on, but there were community organizations passing out masks, as they were already doing because of covid-19. People asked why I didn’t have one on. Because of the tear gas, a lot of us had to remove our masks, but it wasn’t people blatantly trying to not social-distance and protect themselves.

Protesting feels generally like a much harder thing to do, with so many additional complications now.

It’s very complicated, and the reality of the situation is that we shouldn’t be in it. That is the biggest issue here. Had even one of these officers stepped up to say, “Hey, this man is in handcuffs already. He is down on the ground. He doesn’t need officers on his neck and back for over three minutes, with bystanders pleading, and telling you he is bleeding and that he can’t breathe.”

And, you know, Isaac, one of my biggest things is that this is not just a civil-rights issue—this is a human-rights issue, and the fact is that black people’s humanity is being denied constantly. And I worry about the humanity of individuals, and not just the police, because we know a lot of black people are dying at the hands of non-police officers. But specifically police officers—how can they turn off their humanity and kill black people in cold blood for what a lot of the time seems like nothing? It reminds you of much of the history of lynching in America. And now we are just being lynched without the ropes.

Source: The Multiple, Unfolding Crises for African-Americans in Minneapolis | The New Yorker

%d bloggers like this: