Monday, October 16, 2017

Racism, Climate Change, Pollution: Disaster Capitalism@Work


The Brutal Racial Politics of Climate Change and Pollution


tuvalu-green-climate-fund
As I watched coverage of Harvey’s flood damage in Houston, Irma’s wreckage in the Caribbean, the devastating record monsoons in South Asia, and the fresh nightmares of Hurricane Maria, I thought back to another place: Charlottesville, where racists openly rallied to their cause—and were later defended by the president.

To explain why, let me point back to one of the least known—yet most outrageous—of the Trump administration’s early policy proposals: the proposed elimination of the Environmental Justice program at the EPA. While the division still exists for now, it has no more grants available for the current fiscal year, and its future is in limbo.

Environmental justice is the principle that people of color and poor people have historically faced greater harm from environmental damage, so special efforts should be made to prioritize their access to clean air and water. The environmental justice program gave small grants to communities struggling with these disparate pollution impacts. Its budget was small—just $6.7 million out of the prior year’s EPA budget of $8 billion, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Clearly, the proposed cut wasn’t about saving money. Instead, it points to a more sinister agenda—especially when paired with other planks of the administration’s environmental platform.

Disproportionate Harm
 Take Trump’s proposal to deregulate power plant emissions.

Air pollution is bad for everyone with lungs, but it disproportionately harms people of color and poor people, who are much likelier to live near coal-burning power plants. People living within three miles of coal-fired power plants have a per capita income 15 percent lower than the national average, and African Americans die of asthma at a 172 percent higher rate than white people. Deregulating toxic polluters is only going to worsen such egregious disparities.

Meanwhile in Alaska, Native villages are literally sinking into the sea and facing the loss of their traditional lifestyle as polar ice melts. Yet the federal government proposes eliminating the already meager assistance they receive, and won’t even name the problem they’re confronting. Absurdly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now refers to Arctic climate change impacts as “Arctic Change.”
Similar inequalities show up in the places hardest hit during this catastrophic hurricane season.

Refineries and other petrochemical facilities in Houston have been shut down in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey. However, storm damage at the Exxon refinery in Baytown has led to leaks of toxic chemicals, while the Chevron Phillips refinery in Pasadena reported to regulators that it may release known carcinogens like benzene.

Who lives near these facilities? Of the two Census blocks immediately adjoining Exxon’s Baytown refinery, one is 87 percent non-white and 76 percent low-income, the other 59 percent non-white and 59 percent low-income.

Outside the Chevron Phillips facility, the same pattern plays out: Residents there are 83 percent non-white and 74 percent low-income.

Living near these facilities—and in the storm zone, generally—is dangerous. But for some people, even trying to get away was dangerous. In a horrifying move, the Border Patrol continued to operate checkpoints on highways being used by people evacuating from the hurricane-affected zone, so undocumented immigrants had to choose between risking their lives or getting deported.

While Texas was still reeling, the Caribbean, and then Florida, was struck by Hurricane Irma. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a sovereign state that’s over 90 percent black, says that 95 percent of the structures on the island of Barbuda have been destroyed.

Americans sometimes forget that the Caribbean includes the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Though “colonies” would be a more truthful word, since these largely nonwhite islands have no voting representation in Congress.)

More than half the residents of Puerto Rico lost power, and a top utility official has warned that many of them will remain without power for weeks to months. The delay is partly attributable to the poor state of the island’s infrastructure, which hasn’t been maintained over a decade-long recession—one worsened by Washington-imposed austerity policies that prioritize payments to lenders over the well being of Puerto Ricans.

People in the U.S. Virgin Islands, meanwhile—over three-quarters of whom are black—are struggling with major storm damage and power outages, with minimal federal assistance and little coverage from the U.S. media. While federal authorities aren’t providing meaningful assistance to USVI residents, they’ve nonetheless mustered the capacity to block desperate evacuees from other harder-hit islands in the region from reaching the islands.

And before Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders had a chance to recover, they’ve been hit by Maria, a second major hurricane, that’s knocked out power for the entire island of Puerto Rico and caused severe structural damage to buildings. The mayor of San Juan expects it will take 4 to 6 months to restore electricity.


cleardot.gif
An Unmistakable Pattern
Neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, flooded quickly as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dumped 26 inches of rain on the city in late August.

There’s a pattern here.

The proposed elimination of environmental justice funding, assistance for Native Alaskans, and the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund (which assists poor countries with adapting to the effects of climate change and transitioning to clean energy) all appear calculated to pander to the most racist, nationalist elements of Trump’s base, who don’t want any assistance going to those they consider “undeserving.”

Yet who could be more deserving?

Black Americans are living with (and dying from) asthma caused by particulate pollution from profit-generating power plants. Native Alaskans are losing their homes and traditional lifestyles due to melting ice caused by climate change. Undocumented people had to risk deportation while fleeing a life-threatening disaster.

Globally, Bangladeshis, Indians, and Nepalis are suffering from catastrophic floods that are exacerbated by other people’s greenhouse gas emissions—not least our own, since the U.S. is the largest historical emitter of the carbon now warming the planet. And people in Antigua, Barbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico just got battered by a powerful hurricane intensified by a warming ocean.

All of these lives are systematically devalued by the powers that be precisely because of entrenched white supremacy—of the implicit kind (evidenced by the decades of foot-dragging by rich countries on the issue of climate change), as well as the brazen kind on display in Charlottesville.

We cannot truly confront the root causes and horrific impacts of climate change without challenging and undoing white supremacy.

--------------------
Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s the author of the recent report “How States Can Boost Renewables, With Benefits for All.”

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Writing While Socialist


Vijay Prashad, Mark Nowak
http://bostonreview.net
 
Editor's Note: Over the past year, the scholar and activist Vijay Prashad taught a series of nonfiction writing workshops to students, activists, workers, and journalists across India. The workshops sought to develop an ethics and practice of socialist writing to foreground what Prashad calls “the small voices of history.” Here he talks to the poet Mark Nowak, founder of the Worker Writers School in New York City, about the political valence of socialist writing in a time of rampant populism, racism, and xenophobia. This is the second in a series of dialogues between Prashad and Nowak. Their first conversation, The Essentials in Socialist Writing, was published in Jacobin.


Mark Nowak: You have facilitated a new series of workshops around India since we last spoke. How has this project evolved over time? What new ideas, techniques, or insights did you bring to the second round?

Vijay Prashad: With each workshop the broad outlines of socialist writing become clear to me. I am now able to better distinguish between capitalist writing—which typically emerges from the liberal, mainstream media and is intended to produce commodities—and socialist writing—which is intended to produce a confident community of struggle. The time in our workshop is spent digging deep to understand how to create these communities.

As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds.

This leads us to the question of style. It is a myth that style is a bourgeois concern. There is an assumption that socialists are interested in content, not style—in getting the point across in as transparent a manner as possible and not worrying about how a story is framed or what kind of mood it evokes. But the socialist writer is not merely a conduit from the picket line to the reader. The writer must shape the story. It is to encourage discussions of socialist style that I do these workshops in the first place.

Let us consider the Indian state of West Bengal, where the right is currently engaged in a concerted attack on the left. Every day there are new incidents of violence visited upon the working class and peasantry, particularly those amongst them who are communists. Recently the police attacked a demonstration by tea plantation workers, and some of the workers were injured. A writer reporting on the protest has a choice: should one write in the mode of grief, representing the workers as victims, or should one write in the mode of anticipation, conveying the intensity of struggle?

Tea plantation workers on strike in northern West Bengal, 2017. Image courtesy the Communist Part of India (Marxist).
The women protesting in the photograph above should not be taken for victims of a ruthless state. They are not mere spectators to history, they are the ones pushing history forward. The mainstream media does not take them seriously. It avoids telling their stories. It does not question the conditions of their lives and work. It does not ask how they have built up the courage to take to the streets against the more organized and powerful state. As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds. If we can narrate their struggles with honesty, then we can perhaps bolster their confidence. It is this confidence, and not commodities, that we seek to produce.
It is a myth that style is a bourgeois concern.

MN: I like what you say about the tea plantation workers in West Bengal. This is a discussion we have often had at the Worker Writers School in New York, led by long-time collaborators from Domestic Workers United. The students, who work as nannies, street venders, cab drivers, and retail workers, have seen journalists come in, listen to their stories, learn about their struggle for a domestic workers’ bill of rights, and then disappear. They ask, “Where did my story go?” How do you think workers can maintain some control over their own stories?

VP: Stories travel. That is always a risk. I like Eduardo Galeano’s great line that people are not made of atoms, they are made of stories.

Imagine a journalist at a protest, watching people march and chant but unable to comprehend them as anything but quaint or anachronistic. This is a journalist who sees the event—the meeting or the protest—but cannot see the process, cannot see the history of struggle. What use is this journalist’s story to the workers? Will there be anything but condescension in the prose? The workers won’t recognize themselves in the story. There are the liberal writers who approach workers with sympathy. They see them as victims, as people to be pitied for the terrible conditions of their life and work. Such writers want their readers to recognize the existence of injustice, but again only as an event—something to look at and bemoan. The intention behind such writing is to provoke the readers to act on behalf of the workers. In this setup, the workers are to be pitied, they are not seen as drivers of human history. Others have to act for them. No wonder there is little in their texts that workers can recognize. These victims are alien to them.

One of the ways in which workers are written out of the news and out of history books is that their lives are not seen as producing history. The mundane nature of working-class and peasant life is seen as reproductive, not generative—merely reproducing the world but not making new worlds. But history is produced by the sentiments of the workers and by their struggles. Attention to their everyday lives allows us to better understand extraordinary developments, which build off millions of small gestures made by ordinary people.
Socialist writing is intended to produce a confident community of struggle.

I recommend that people visit the People’s Archive of Rural India, a website that documents the lives of rural Indians, driven by the ferociously energetic and brilliant journalist P. Sainath. Nilanjana Nandy’s story about women who fought to sit on chairs in Rajasthan and Parth M.N.’s story about borewells in Maharashtra are good examples of socialist writing. Sitting on a chair is not only about sitting on a chair. It is about the increased confidence of women in rural India. Where this confidence goes is the next chapter in the story.

Left: Babli Devi, Kharveda village; Right: Sangeeta Bunkar, Kharveda village. Image courtesy the People's Archive of Rural India.
These small voices of history are the pebbles thrown into a pond that set in motion the cascading waves of history. Such stories are not taken seriously by mainstream writers, but a socialist writer must make them central. They are, after all, signs of confidence that lead from everyday life to extraordinary events. They are what workers, as readers, can recognize as real stories of their lives and struggles.

MN: So the liberal writer hopes to engage the reader to act on behalf of the struggling, downtrodden subject while the socialist writer hopes to document their subjects engaged in acts, minute and major, of resistance? How would you relate this in one of your workshops? Could you walk readers through one of your recent workshops to help us understand how you practice this in your pedagogy?

VP: There is a major political distinction between the liberal writer and the socialist writer. The socialist writer, to my mind, must believe that change is possible. This does not mean that such change is inevitable, merely that it is possible. Cynicism and pessimism are not the mood of the socialist. This means that when injustice is uncovered, the writer assumes that justice is possible. Perhaps the antidote to cynicism is to retain faith in the capacity of human beings to overcome the present. For this it is important to treat the people that one interviews not merely as repositories of information, but also as reservoirs of hope and anticipation.

Workers are not mere spectators to history, they are the ones pushing it forward.
What kind of hopefulness do people exude not only in their words, but also in their practice? PARI published a story about a man, Karimul Haque, who works in the hills of West Bengal. His mother died because there was no ambulance available to her when she needed one. Subsequently this man has turned his motorcycle into a kind of ambulance.

He now ferries people across the hills to local hospitals. In another story, Srilal Sahani, who lives just down these same hills and is in terrible debt, spends his mornings selling fish in the local market. In the afternoons, he rides his bicycle up and down the main street, beating on a small drum and singing songs. Both men are gesturing to life beyond the misery of the present. They have taken history into their own hands by attempting to improve the lives of the people around them. These may seem like small gestures, but they are significant to those whose lives have been impacted. Karimul Haque is saying to his neighbors that they need not to wait for an NGO to come to their aid, that they can make their own history.

Srilal Sahani won't allow debt to define him. In both these stories hope is not a theoretical concept, it is real and palpable. A writer who abandons hope is abandoning the stories of these people. These may be stories of survival and not of political transformation. But stories of survival are the first drafts of revolutionary action. In our time, we must write stories that are both about incubated revolutionary sentiment—such as those of Karimul Haque and Srilal Sahani—and stories of protest.

In a recent piece, Viet Thanh Nguyen points out that writing workshops are often hostile to politics. Aside from the art of writing, he notes, these workshops “did not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology.” This was not a problem in our workshops across India, where we took art and politics as equally important and indeed intertwined.

One example is our emphasis on “smashing language.” We drew up lists of hollow or dead words: development, freedom, growth, and sustainability. Having made this list, we then “smashed” the words, broke them up in order to awaken the meaning within them. The example I give my students is from the first few months after the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik leader Krupskaya recounts the “altered language” she heard from women workers and peasants in a meeting. The speakers, she recounted, “spoke boldly and frankly about everything.” Their language had changed. Communist futurist writers, such as Mayakovsky, drew from what they saw in these meetings. They had to “smash” their language to bring it back to life. The assumption was that the old Russian language was saturated with feudal implications. It could not be inherited without first being “smashed.” So in the workshop we do what Mayakovsky did to language, we plunder and pulverize it, playing games with the words.

You can well imagine what people do with words like development and freedom—how they play around with them until the words become meaningless and perhaps even imbued with new meaning. The emergence of new words shows how hope is embedded in our own fierce desire for a better world. It reaffirms the belief that we are not trapped as long as we are able to conjure, if only in language, an alternative world. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell reflects on the changes he witnesses in Barcelona. He writes: “There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” It is this attitude that our workshops hope to cultivate.

Change is possible. We are not trapped as long as we can conjure, if only in language, an alternative world.

MN: You mention Eduardo Galeano above. He is perhaps my favorite writer. In the past you have also talked about James Baldwin. Galeano and Baldwin are two writers who try to construct a bridge between socialist writing and literature, who borrow from both traditions to sketch extraordinary exposés of struggle and resistance. Are there other writers that clarify your conception of socialist writing?

VP: Baldwin is so important. Make language “clean as a bone,” he advised. I take that advice fully. There are many writers I admire for what they do with the stories around us. I have already mentioned the journalist P. Sainath, with whom I co-taught a workshop. He is really one of the finest socialist writers today. I would also like to encourage people to read the work of Brinda Karat, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). She spends a great deal of time traveling around India, interacting with workers and peasants who suffer and struggle. What I find most interesting in her writing is that she conveys the hardships that people face as well as the determination to overcome their conditions in equal part. In a recent column, she documented the assault and murder of a young Muslim boy, Junaid Khan, on a train in northern India. The story begins with a portrait of Junaid’s mother, Sayara, mourning her son, then documents the murder and the underlying Hindutva politics that caused it, and concludes with a call to arms against the suffocation of public space. Karat's writing evokes pathos and rage, but also complicity. It reminds us that nobody helped Junaid, and that our collective silence is what killed the boy.

Ryszard Kapuściński's ability to write about politics is almost magical. There are stories that he fabricated some of his experiences in Africa, and that is unforgivable. But there is an object lesson in the way he was able to bring his readers from Poland into worlds that they knew little about, to teach them about power and culture and to encourage them to puncture their parochial visions and take in the world. We forget that he was writing in Polish and was telling the stories of Iran and Ethiopia to people in Warsaw and Szczecin.

There are many heirs to Kapuściński: such as the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa and the Lebanese writer Sahar Mandour. They are novelists and journalists of the left, writing in Spanish and Arabic respectively, and telling stories of intimate worlds that have the capacity to explode into something dynamic and deliberate. You cannot have socialist writing today that does not engage with private, domestic worlds alongside the world of the streets. The latter is not enough.

MN: Speaking of hope, in recent years we have seen the rise of so many new social movements and so many energized, young activists participating in Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, #NoDAPL, protests against the “Muslim Ban,” and other anti-Trump protests. What writing advice would you give to people becoming politically active, some of the first time, in this moment? There seems to be an imbalance between the speed needed by today's technologies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and live-streaming, and the necessity of pausing and thinking about how to tell the story. How do we, as emerging writers in social movements, achieve any balance between the two completely different paces of our writing practice?
Stories of survival are the first drafts of revolutionary action.

VP: The difference between Twitter and long-form writing is in the length of the text, not in the thinking that goes to produce it. One could produce a thoughtless long-form essay as easily as a thoughtless tweet. To me the length or the speed of production is not the issue.

What is at stake is the understanding behind what one is writing. If one does not have a good way to explain these protests, one will struggle to report them either in a tweet or in a book. A socialist writer who wants to track these movements needs to take a step back and look at the historical dynamic of these struggles, where they come from and where they could potentially go, what stands in opposition to them, the closeness or distance of these movements from the people, and the question of whether the demands being articulated can speak to the lived anxieties of people. These elements—if answered with care and close study—will help the writer understand how to write about something, whether in 140 characters or in 500 pages.

Both those on the inside and those on the outside of movements would be well-served not only by accounts of what is happening, but also by accounts that provide the broader context. Our movements are born out of older movements, older uprisings that produce our confidence, and our movements in turn birth new and, we hope, broader revolts against the present order. That is the kind of historical sweep that socialist writers need to create. Their job is not simply to define the terms of an event, thereby rendering it mythical and impossible to replicate. The reader must not think, “I wish I was there.” The reader should think, “I was not there, but I’ll be there tomorrow.” The story has not ended, it is ongoing. Engels wrote that history moves “often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line.” It does not necessarily move in a progressive direction, and can just as often fall backwards. A story needs to represent that: the journey from and the journey towards.

Arthur Rimbaud called a good poet a “thief of fire.” That is a lovely phrase. There is despair for humanity right now, but there is also optimism. That’s what our socialist writers must strive for—to be thieves of fire.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Police TerrorUSA, Inc. Is More Than Police Murders

Police Murders Are the Tip of the Iceberg

St. Louis police confront protesters in the wake of Jason Stockley's acquittal, September 15 
Colin Gordon ▪ September 21, 2017
dissentmagazine.org

The protests that have roiled St. Louis since the acquittal last week of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith are—in one respect—animated by the palpable injustice of the case. The trial judge gave little weight to Stockley’s declaration, during his pursuit of Smith, that he was “going to kill this motherfucker.” He accepted without hesitation or reservation Stockley’s claim to be acting in self-defense. He whistled past strong circumstantial evidence that Stockley planted a weapon in Smith’s car after the shooting. He made little of chilling detail that Stockley, in addition to his service weapon, was brandishing a personal AK-47 in defiance of departmental regulations. And he punctuated his ruling with the gratuitous aside, on the question of whether Smith was armed, “that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

More broadly, the protests mark a persistent outrage at police conduct (and misconduct) in which the deaths of Smith in 2011, and of Michael Brown in 2014, are but the most visible episodes. And they mark a persistent burden of unequal citizenship in Greater St. Louis, in which African Americans are more likely to be the targets of local government than its beneficiaries. Policing, in this sense, is not just a public service aimed at securing safety and order. It is, as Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver underscore, a highly discretionary exercise of “coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence” that represents for many—and certainly for the most marginal—the single most important point of contact between citizen and state.

“The meting out of punishment in the American criminal justice system,” add Tracey Meares and Ben Justice, “. . . . provide Americans with a powerful and coherent set of messages and experiences that define who is a citizen, and who is a problem.”

These patterns have a long history, and are hardly unique to St. Louis. But they are magnified in this politically fragmented and deeply segregated metropolitan area. As of 2017, St. Louis County alone counts 89 municipalities, 81 municipal courts, and 61 police departments. Local testimony—from the 1970 hearings of the United States Commission on Civil Rights through the work of Arch City Defenders and others in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—document exposure to serial traffic stops and low level harassment from one municipal fragment to the next, and a tangle of local warrant and fines that often trapped those charged with even minor offenses on a “municipal shuffle” from one court docket to the next. And this “byzantine maze of overlapping jurisdictions,” as reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Rebecca Rivas put it, has made it harder to accomplish any meaningful change in policing or the courts; “whatever you do in St. Louis City,” one reformer observes, “you have to replicate 90 times throughout the county.”

Traffic stops are one potent illustration of the disproportionate contact between black citizens of Greater St. Louis and their local police. Since 2000, the State of Missouri has required local police departments to report traffic stops (and their outcome) by race. The figure below plots this disparity index for the nine-county St. Louis region, for blacks and whites, from 2000 to 2016. At a disparity index of “1,” the share of traffic stops matches that racial group’s share of the population. Each dot on the graph is a police jurisdiction; the bars show the range from the 25th to the 75th percentile, with the midpoint line designating the median value for that year across all jurisdictions. The “whiskers” extend to a point 1.5 times the interquartile range (the difference between the 25th and 75th percentiles); all values greater than that are excluded as outliers.

Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016
Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016 [graphic]
Source: Missouri Attorney General, Vehicle Stops Report, 2000-2016.

For whites, the 100-odd police jurisdictions in the St. Louis region are clustered at or below 1 in every year surveyed. For blacks, the median disparity index is closer to 2, and the 75th percentile is over 3 for all but four of the years surveyed. A quarter of these police jurisdictions, in other words, stopped black motorists at a rate more than three times their share of the population.

These disparities were even starker when a traffic stop led to a search or an arrest. In 2013 (the year before Michael Brown was shot), the police departments of Ferguson, Olivette, Overland, and Kirkwood searched the vehicles of black motorists at twice the rate of those of whites, and arrested black motorists at almost three times the rate. In Bel-Ridge (just south of Ferguson) that year, more than three-quarters of all traffic stops involved black motorists; of the 775 black motorists stopped, eleven were subject to searches and thirty-two were arrested. Traffic stops of motorists who were not black did not yield a single search or arrest.

This data further corroborates the conclusions of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, published in 2015. In its report, the Department noted “the persistent exercise of discretion to the detriment of African Americans; the apparent consideration of race in assessing threat; and the historical opposition to having African Americans live in Ferguson, which lingers among some today” in describing local practices more interested in enforcing segregation than in ensuring public safety. The police “see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders,” the report concluded caustically.

Such sharply uneven experiences diminish and devalue civic life in other ways. A criminal record can short-circuit other avenues of meaningful citizenship—including education and employment opportunities, access to housing, and the right to vote. Both the rate and the manner of interactions with the police, of which traffic stops offer but one jarring example, undermine the faith of African-American citizens in the ability of their government to make fair and objective decisions.

Such policing practices “arrest citizenship” not just because they are unevenly targeted, but because the conduct of the police, and the charges themselves, violate basic norms of social and legal equity. “African Americans’ views of [Ferguson Police Department],” as the Department of Justice observed, “are shaped not just by what FPD officers do, but by how they do it.”
The problem here is twofold: first, local policing in Greater St. Louis has always leaned heavily on enforcement of the municipal code—a constitutional fog of petty offenses and citations.

Michael Brown was stopped under the auspices of Ferguson Municipal Code Sec. 44-344 “Manner of walking along roadway,” an exhortation to use the sidewalk that was, before its repeal in 2016, employed almost exclusively as a pretext for stopping black pedestrians. More broadly, much of the harassment that passes for policing rest on “contempt of cop” charges such as Failure to Comply, Disorderly Conduct, Interference with Officer, or Resisting Arrest—all of which are wielded overwhelmingly against black pedestrians and motorists. The result, as the Department of Justice tallied, are systematic violations of the First Amendment, and of the “probable cause” and “excessive force” provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

Second, this pattern of unequal protection under the law is accompanied by only the thinnest veneer of procedural justice. Police interactions with African Americans in St. Louis and St. Louis County have historically been marked by indifference and neglect of those seeking the protection of the courts (including early arrivals in areas of racial transition), and disrespect, disdain, and excessive force for those who are the targets of the law. In their scathing 2015 assessment of the County’s municipal courts, Arch City Defenders underscored this point: “For most individuals, the only substantive interaction they have with the Missouri justice system or with their municipal government is through the municipal courts, and the impressions instilled by those courts reflect on the entire municipality.”

In short, police across the region have snuffed out any semblance of equal protection and equal citizenship for half the population of the City of St. Louis and nearly a quarter of the population of St. Louis County. This regime of policing, at once systemic and chaotic, is just one iteration of the refusal of equal citizenship playing out hour by hour across the country—in stark racial inequalities on every metric from school suspensions to executions, in pervasive entanglement with the police and courts in particular for young black men, and an in era of mass incarceration without historical precedent or current analog. These are the conditions that shield state actors no matter how egregious their conduct, and that extend to others the state’s constant attention but not its protection. These are the conditions that made it possible for Jason Stockley to murder Anthony Lamar Smith and walk away free.


Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A 2016 discussion from the Original Founders of the Black Panther Party

Here's a raw video of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party that actually started in May 1966 in Harlem, NY and then spread thruout the USA.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Respectability Politics and their Failure to Keep Black Americans Safe

Respectability Will Not Save Us

On the History of Respectability Politics and their Failure to Keep Black Americans Safe

 By Carol Anderson


Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She is the author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, which was published by Cambridge University Press and awarded both the Gustavus Myers and Myrna Bernath Book Awards, and Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, also published by Cambridge. Her most recent publication, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide, won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and has been named one of the best books of 2016 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Globe and Mail and is also a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Pick. 

NOTE: The following article contains graphic images of lynching.
It was well after the Civil Rights Movement. Decades, even. Yet, the bodies of black people continued to pile up—the victims of police and vigilante violence. Their names read like a memorial to the fallen: Amadou Diallo, Tarika Wilson, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Kathryn Johnston, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Kendrec McDade, Michelle Cusseaux, Jonathan Ferrell, Laquan McDonald, Danette Daniels, Cedrick Chatman, Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, and far too many more. As children, fathers, wives, even a 92-year-old grandmother were gunned down or choked to death, #BlackLivesMatter activists asserted “respectability will not save us.”

The politics of respectability, deployed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, was supposed to have put an end to this. This denigration of black lives. This legal and cultural propensity to define African Americans as un-citizens and, therefore, unworthy of rights. If the language of post-racial America is to be believed, the Civil Rights Movement had finally made audible how hollow the nation’s civic pronouncements were whenever the United States
Declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal;

Sang:
O’er the land of the free;

and Pledged:
with liberty and justice for all.
African Americans had long been well aware of the U.S.’s “mocking paradoxes.” In the 1930s, Langston Hughes poetically chronicled the chasm between the myth of the nation and its brutal reality. In a searing indictment of democracy, he declared, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’. . . America has never been America to me.” While disfranchisement—which shut down the ballot box to nearly 95 percent of blacks in the South—and unequal schools that mocked the very concept of separate but equal greatly conscribed the lives of African Americans, it was blacks’ vulnerability to legal and extralegal domestic terrorism that defined how tenuous their very existence actually was.

Indeed, one year before Hughes published his searing poem, Claude Neal, a black man accused of rape and murder, was dragged from his jail cell in Alabama, transported to Florida, hoisted onto a platform, castrated, branded, and tortured while a throng of onlookers clamored wildly for the dismembered fingers and body parts tossed to them by his executioners.

Shortly thereafter law enforcement in Alabama and Florida, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concluded that no crime had been committed.


 Photograph of body of Claude Neal hanging from a tree near the Jackson County Courthouse, later sold as a postcard. From NAACP, The Lynching of Claude Neal, courtesy of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Similarly, only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II, a mob stormed the Sikeston, Missouri jail and dragged Cleo Wright, a black man accused of attempted rape, out of his cell. Although Wright was already bleeding profusely from multiple gunshot wounds incurred during his arrest, the mob wanted to inflict a death that the African American community would never forget. They tied his bullet-riddled body to the bumper of a car, drove into the black neighborhood, doused him with five gallons of gasoline, set him afire, and watched as the man, who was miraculously still alive at that point, burned to death while the smell of his roasting flesh wafted through the church windows that Sunday morning.

The grand jury, after hearing the evidence, soon concluded that no-one in the mob had committed a crime.


Photograph of the body of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, Mo, 1942. Retrieved from the Library of Congress. 

In fact, the 1940s witnessed a spate of killings—a 14-year-old African American boy in Florida, who sent a white girl a Christmas card, paid dearly for that transgression by being thrown in the river, his hands bound as his father was forced to watch the child drown; a veteran, his wife, who was pregnant, brother-in-law, and her sister, were hit with a fusillade of over 60 bullets that splattered their bodies into the red dirt of Monroe, Georgia; a soldier, glad to be home from fighting the Nazis, was blowtorched and dismembered in Louisiana; a slew of World War II veterans who dared approach the ballot box in Georgia and Alabama were gunned down for believing they were American citizens who had the right to vote; and then there were the three lynchings in Mississippi that happened within one week. All these murders led to the same conclusion: either no crime had been committed or that it was impossible for law enforcement to identify those who had killed black men, women, and children in broad daylight. U.S. Congressman Arthur W. Mitchell (D-IL) surveyed the racism gripping the United States in the 1940s and asked pointedly, “Is this democracy?

The equally sinister companion to lynching was Southern Justice, which used the criminal justice system to ignore the rules of evidence and flaunt jurisprudence to “legally” execute African Americans—such as the 1951 case in which the State of Mississippi sent Willie McGee to the electric chair for raping a white woman long after it had become crystal clear that the crime never happened. But, in the end, his innocence simply didn’t matter. That same year, Florida sheriff Willis McCall, angry that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for two black men accused of rape, drove them into the woods, stopped the car, pulled out his sidearm, then gunned down the handcuffed prisoners. One man, although shot three times, survived and told a tale that exposed the lies in the sheriff’s story of an escape attempt foiled only by his trusty weapon. Nonetheless, despite cold-blooded murder and attempted murder, McCall kept his job for twenty-one additional years until he finally lost a re-election bid (but was found “not guilty) after bludgeoning yet another black man to death.

The ease with which American society could explain away the slaughter of black people crystallized for African Americans with the 1955 kidnapping, torture, and murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Money, Mississippi. When his killers, who subsequently proudly confessed in Life magazine, were found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, that was the breaking point.

Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity. They adopted the “politics of respectability” as a key tactic to short-circuit society’s penchant to justify the unjustifiable.  Their rationale was simple: stereotypes— “ethnic notions,” in the words of filmmaker Marlon Riggs—had consistently transformed African Americans in the eyes of white people from human beings into “beasts” and “coons,” who were violent, ugly, savage, and feral. The stripping of blacks’ humanity, they argued, had provided a psychological, legal, and linguistic excuse for the extrajudicial violence they faced. Drawing on a tradition that went back to the turn of the century, blacks in the movement worked hard to curate an image as God-fearing, hardworking, law-abiding, and family loving Americans. The point was to skillfully use the new medium of television so that the brutality that rained down on black people—especially respectable ones—would shock the conscience of the white public and lawmakers. As the Paley Center for Media noted:
By 1960, 90 percent of American homes had television. Television became a catalyst for change on a massive scale. People in the northern states could see what was happening in Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis and vice versa. In addition, television helped Southern blacks unify, for while local Southern media rarely covered news involving racial issues, they now had access to national newscasts that were witnessing and documenting this revolution.
That is to say, the politics of respectability made visible that the only possible reason why Selma, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark would snatch schoolteacher Mrs. Amelia Boynton by the collar when she tried to register to vote was because she was black. Similarly, racism was the only way to explain the bomb that destroyed the home of former city councilman and Nashville civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby. There could be no reason but sheer racial hatred that blew up a church in Birmingham on Sunday morning and sent four little black girls to their graves.

The politics of respectability was envisioned as the leverage to compel white Americans to see the violence and destruction done to human beings in the name of democracy. Scholar Gary Dorrien, therefore, concluded that the politics of respectability was essential; “there would have been no civil rights movement without it.”

“Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity.”
 
The politics of respectability were in obvious play when African Americans in Alabama decided to draw a line in the sand over the arrest of middle-class secretary and wife Rosa Parks after she defied the Jim Crow laws on the buses in Montgomery. E.D. Nixon, president of Alabama’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) state branch, “knew instinctively that Rosa Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery Negroes—humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.” She was not the first to personally challenge the degrading system that assaulted African Americans’ soul and dignity on public transportation. But the others did not have the respectability quotient of Mrs. Parks. The black leadership had already refused to take up the case for Claudette Colvin, a pregnant, unwed, 15-year-old who also defied the law but whose stereotypical profile made her, in the mid-1950s, problematic as the symbol of black resistance.

While scholars often focus on this self-policing action in the black community, especially the demand that poorer blacks adhere to a code of decorum, those critiques, while valid in certain aspects, ignore the obvious. Respectable or not, some of the strictures, such as the importance of education and sobriety, were essential for the very well-being of the black community. To put it another way, those values were not inherently wrong, misguided, or class-based, and they helped to sustain and protect African Americans and their families.

For all that it does, though, respectability offers little to no protection against anti-black violence. Indeed, in the late 1890s, rights activist Alexander Crummell declared “‘Blind men! For they fail to see that neither property, nor money, nor station, nor office’ were capable of saving the race” from the terror of lynching and the stripping of constitutional rights that defined the rise of Jim Crow.

Respectability politics were always too flawed to be fully viable.

First, the standard for respectability requires blacks to have a level of probity and purity that is close to sainthood status. Any intimation of impropriety—an arrest, a child born out-of-wedlock, on welfare, or even carrying a cigarette—creates an Achilles’ torso that makes the black body vulnerable to deadly force.

Second, the politics of respectability defines the whole by the singular, where the violent or sexually rapacious actions of one black person becomes the societal Rosetta Stone to decode and explain all African Americans. In short, the vaunted individualism that conservative ideology defines as quintessential Americanism dissipates in the face of blackness.

Third, the politics of respectability links rights to behavioral performances and not to the fact that blacks are human. Fourth, with so much focus on behavior, very little attention is paid to the important role institutional, systemic racism plays in fostering continuing inequality.

Finally, the politics of respectability assumes that blacks were responsible, because of their purported criminal actions, for being lynched and disfranchised. And, as Ida B. Wells discovered when her friends, successful businessmen, were lynched in Memphis, accusations of rape were just a pretext:

 “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race down and the nigger terrorized.”

Nonetheless, during the civil rights era, African Americans had, essentially, made a deal with the larger society. They would do everything that they were supposed to, indeed, what the overwhelming majority had been doing all along, and, in turn the United States would finally keep its end of the bargain—freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity with liberty and justice for all. The U.S.’s betrayal of that bargain, however, has poured thousands out into the streets in protests and led the overwhelming majority of African Americans to question the very legitimacy of the legal system.

One of the key moments en route to today’s political insurgency was the killing of Amadou Diallo. On February 4, 1999, the NYPD spotted a black man standing in his apartment building’s vestibule. Forty-one bullets later, Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, was dead. The moment the four police officers realized that they had killed a man whose only weapon was a wallet, the NYPD set out to “dirty up” Diallo, “to find dirt that could be used to justify the shooting.” They searched his apartment looking for anything to “taint his character.”

They took his roommate down to the precinct and interrogated him, demanding to know “who were Diallo’s enemies?” Questioning that only makes sense if the slain man had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. They smeared him with innuendo, asking why Diallo, who had simply left his apartment after a long day at work to get something to eat, “had been acting in a manner suspicious enough to attract the attention of the officers.” These attempts were not new.

The New York Times noted that “in the past when police officers have shot people,” the NYPD then “revealed the criminal records, if any, of the shooting victims.” Diallo, however, did not have one. The police explained, nonetheless, that they were looking for a black serial rapist that night and saw him. Yet, as even one of the officers, Sean Carroll, had to “admit. . .Diallo really didn’t closely resemble the description of the man they were pursuing.” But still, they shot, with two of the officers emptying their clips, reloading, and firing again.

When they could not destroy Diallo’s respectability to explain away 41 bullets, they went after a much easier target: the black community in the Bronx and the eyewitness. The officers’ defense attorneys argued that it was irrelevant if Diallo was armed or not. The only thing that mattered was that the police had a reasonable belief, given the crime-filled neighborhood, that the West African immigrant had a weapon and would use it. The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police. Although, that supposition is preposterous—no-one, for example, argues that white males, who account for 79 percent of all mass shootings in schools, should be automatically considered a threat and gunned down before they step foot in any educational facility—it was a defense strategy grounded in New York law.
More than a decade before Diallo’s killing, Bernard Goetz, a white man who said he felt threatened by blacks on the subway and, therefore, had to shoot them, walked away from all charges when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that any “reasonable man” would have done the same. The New York Times winced, “there is little to applaud in a ruling that would justify murderous conduct by all who think they are afraid.”

“The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police.”
 
Schrrie Elliott was the one who had so much to fear. Coming home to the Bronx that evening, she had witnessed the four officers jump out of their car, weapons drawn. She saw Diallo on the small porch. She heard “‘Gun!’” And then a barrage of gunfire. Diallo’s bullet riddled body jerking with every strike. More gunfire. Then silence. Elliott ran for blocks, trying to get home to safety.

She kept silent for weeks about what she had witnessed but the nightmares would not stop. An unarmed man. Four cops. A hail of bullets. Blood. She eventually told a reporter; she had every reason to not trust the police with her story.

When word came down that there was a witness, the officers’ attorneys and the press went straight into ethnic notions mode. The defense called her an “adverse” witness, who “hated the police.” But that was to be expected, the lawyers continued, she had a long criminal history; she was arrested multiple times for drugs and actually served time in prison. She not only was hostile and a criminal, she was also a sexually promiscuous, bad mother who began having children at 15 years of age and could not manage to create a home where any of them could live with her. But, then again, that was to be expected; the home of this convicted felon was in “the projects” —public housing. She “lacked credibility” the attorneys charged. The only thing that could be believed from Schrrie Elliott, the defense lawyers continued, was that the police were afraid for their lives when one officer yelled “Gun!”

The jury in upstate New York—the trial had been moved out of New York City—agreed and “found the officers’ actions reasonable under the circumstances.” In the context of a crime-filled neighborhood, police on the hunt for a black rapist, and a black man standing on his porch, forty-one bullets were quite reasonable. One defense attorney crowed, “The point is the police officers have to be able to do their job and do it the right way.” The other defense attorney was outraged that the prosecutor would even bring charges against the officers for shooting down an unarmed man. This whole trial, he asserted, was nothing but a capitulation to “mob justice” where Diallo’s death sparked weeks of protests and marches in New York City.

The head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, saw the killing, the trial, and the acquittal quite differently: “This case is in many ways another example of racial profiling at its worst. It’s hard to believe this kind of force would have been used if Diallo was a white man standing in his vestibule not causing any kind of disturbance . . . The fact that the accused officers were even acquitted on the charge of reckless endangerment is equally as unbelievable.” In other words, despite a man, who embodied respectability, despite the fact that he was unarmed and still mowed down by nineteen of the forty-one bullets fired at him, the justice system roared back, there was no crime here.
That same cadence played its haunting refrain in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, lay on the ground with a bullet in his heart. The Skittles and Arizona iced-tea he had just purchased from a nearby 7-11 were next to him. His killer, George Zimmerman, stood there with the murder weapon tucked in his waistband.

Minutes before the fatal encounter, he had spotted Martin walking in the gated community and called 911. It was raining and the teen had his jacket hood up to cover his head. Zimmerman, however, saw: black-male-in-a-gated community-hood-up and deduced that Martin was a “real suspicious guy.” “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” “Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male . . . Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is . . . These assholes, they always get away.”

Zimmerman was determined that this one would not escape. He got out of his SUV with his loaded 9mm and began to follow Martin, who was on the phone with teenage friend, Rachel Jeantel. When the 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was now following Martin, she informed the neighborhood vigilante, “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman ignored her and continued to stalk the unarmed teenager through the neighborhood. Moments later, Trayvon Martin was dead, and Zimmerman claimed self-defense.

After a cursory initial investigation, the chief of police insisted that “there wasn’t enough evidence to refute Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.” The black community’s retort was unequivocal: That “doesn’t even make sense,” said Ben Crump, the Martin family’s attorney. “Trayvon Martin, a kid, has a bag of Skittles. (Zimmerman) had a 9 mm gun. Trayvon Martin didn’t approach George Zimmerman, George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin. So how can he now assert self defense?” But the police chief was adamant, “The evidence and testimony we have so far does not establish that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self defense.”

On one hand, Lee was right. But only because the police did not conduct a real investigation, including swabbing for gun powder residue, knocking on all of the neighbors’ doors to see if anyone knew who Martin was and why he would be there, or even sending a homicide detective to the scene. Indeed, the police held up Zimmerman’s supposedly “squeaky clean” record to explain why there had been no arrest that night—or for weeks thereafter. His relative whiteness gave him an aura of respectability and the benefit of the doubt that the unarmed black child simply did not have. And, Zimmerman’s halo of racial innocence protected him despite the killing, the previous arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer, and calling 911 nearly 50 times in the first two months of that year.

That disparity became heightened after intense African American outrage led to Zimmerman’s arrest and trial. The backlash was intense. Martin morphed from a 5’8”, 158 lbs. 17-year-old into a brutal, 6’2”, 170 lbs., pot smoking, hoodie-wearing, jewelry stealing, gold-toothed, aggressive thug that had attacked a man, who was older, less athletic, and vulnerable. The only equalizer was a 9mm. Or as one commenter on Breitbart.com remarked, Trayvon Martin was just “another black punk who got what he deserved.”
His friend, Rachel Jeantel, with whom he was on the phone during the stalking, was discredited in much the same fashion as Schrrie Elliott. She devolved in the media and the defense’s case from a multi-lingual high school student traumatized by hearing the blow-by-blow of Trayvon Martin’s death, into an illiterate, ignorant, inarticulate stereotype, who became the butt of jokes, black shame, and derision. “Let’s be honest,” one columnist wrote “Jeantel’s very presence on the witness stand (broadcast live on national and international television) conjures up all kinds of age-old race, class, and gender-based stereotypes about black women. The large, full-figured, dark-skinned black girl. Not a great communicator. Not very articulate. Head hung low. Appearing to roll her eyes and head as she verbally sparred back and forth with defense attorney Don West. And, stunningly, she tweeted about needing a ‘drink.’”

“The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death.”
 
Indeed, Jeantel was stripped of her respectability and “outed” when Zimmerman’s attorney handed her the transcript of her recent testimony and asked Jeantel (taunted her, even), to read it back to the jury. She could not. While the nineteen-year-old bore the full brunt and humiliation of that exposure, Miami’s Norland Senior High School—where only 28 percent of the students read at grade level, the largest share of curricular funding was allocated to vocational education, and nearly one-quarter of all students do not matriculate—remained unscathed.

West was not done with Jeantel. When she seemed confused during questioning, he would chide her, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” It soon became clear, in fact, that many in the court patently refused to understand her English. For example, after saying she heard “get off me” over the phone that fateful evening, she was asked, “Could you tell who was saying that?” The response was telling. The official transcript read, “‘I couldn’t know Trayvon,’” and then “‘I couldn’t hear Trayvon.’” Yet, as Stanford University linguistics professor John Rickford pointed out, “neither of these makes semantic sense in context.” He noted that “When another linguist and I listened to the TV broadcast of the recording played in court we heard, instead, ‘I could, an’ it was Trayvon.’ . . . she definitely did not say what the transcript reports her to have said.” He observed, “On talk shows and social media sites, people castigated her ‘slurred speech,’ bad grammar and Ebonics usage, or complained that, ‘Nobody can understand what she’s saying.’”

The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death. Many African Americans were angry with Jeantel for not being able to code-switch, moving seamlessly from Ebonics with her friends to standardized English on the stand. One person, who self-identified as black, lashed out: “She has to be the most, ignorant, ghetto, uneducated, lazy, fat, gross, arrogant, stupid, confrontation Black bitch I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. Yes, I said it . . . and I’m Black.” Or, as Rickford conceded, “People speaking non-standard English are even seen as being of poor character.”

In short, black respectability and not George Zimmerman, the man who had killed an unarmed teenager, was on trial. Social media and commentators transformed Jeantel, who was fluent in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, into “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans.” One commentator remarked: “You could swap her out for a three-toed sloth and get the same witness value and response.”

Jeantel, in two days of testimony, lost the protection that any teenager would have had, who had been traumatized by the death of a friend whom she had known since second grade. She lost the innocence of youth as questions about her size and complexion led to unflattering queries about her actual age, eating habits, credibility, and her intelligence. Zimmerman, on the other hand, walked away unscathed, especially because his lies, his wannabe cop fantasy, and propensity for violence never fully called into question his initial statement that he was the victim of an attack.

On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner were dispatched to a park in Cleveland, Ohio where they had reports of someone with a gun. The police rushed to the scene and, within moments of their arrival, opened fire. They called it in: “‘Shots fired, male down,’ one of the officers in the car called across his radio. ‘Black male, maybe 20, black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.’”

Laying there bleeding to death, with neither of the police officers performing any first aid, was not a 20-year-old man but a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice.
As a recent study of police officers indicated, “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.” Worse yet, the researchers’ “findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association,” which is a dehumanization process, “predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children.”

Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback gave a compelling account of why Rice had to die. The basic tenets of their story were that Rice was not alone, there were other people at the table in the pavilion with him. When Loehmann and Garmback pulled up, Rice grabbed the gun and tucked the weapon in his waistband. The police then issued three separate warnings to him “to put his hands up but he refused.” Instead of complying, the police asserted, Rice reached for his weapon and pulled it out from his waistband. Then and only then did Loehmann open fire.

The story held up until the video, which the officers did not know existed, told a very different story. There was no-one near the child when the police arrived. The supposed threat to bystanders that Garmback and Loehmann had conjured up evaporated in the grainy, but damning footage: They pulled up within just a few feet of the pavilion, Tamir Rice stood, and within two seconds he was shot. For the original story to match up with the video, Garmback would have had to drive directly in front of the pavilion, Loehmann get out of the police car, Rice reach for the gun, the officers yell, “put your hands up!” three times, the child refuse to comply each time, and then Loehmann fire two shots – all within two seconds. The improbability of that now played out on television screens around the nation.

But, the fact that the police had just lied about the shooting death of a 12-year-old boy and obstructed justice did not become the story. Nor did the U.S. Department of Justice report that “identified the Cleveland Police Department as thoroughly corrupt, and marked by the routine use of excessive force.” Neither did the shoddy vetting process in hiring Loehmann, whose record in a much smaller, suburban police force was abysmal. Deputy Chief Jim Polak of the Independence Police noted that during “firearms qualification training he [Loehmann] was ‘distracted’ and ‘weepy.’” “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.” Polak concluded: “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies.”

What should have been an intense investigation into the systemic flaws in the criminal justice system in Cleveland became, instead, an opportunity for the police, the prosecutor’s office, and elements of the media to shred whatever innocence and respectability that a 12-year-old playing in the park had. The Northeast Ohio Media Group ran the headline: TAMIR RICE’S FATHER HAS A HISTORY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, to provide “a frame of reference . . . why he [a child] had a toy gun.” After delving into the unsavory background of the father, the next story revealed that Rice’s mother was a convicted felon and drug trafficker.

The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child.

They were unworthy.
The prosecutor made that clear when he suggested that the reason the parents insisted upon an indictment and a trial had nothing to do with justice for their murdered son but was, instead, for financial reasons. District Attorney Timothy McGinty remarked during a community meeting, “They waited until they didn’t like the reports they received” from law enforcement specialists labeling the killing “justified” and “reasonable.” “They’re very interesting people. . . let me just leave it at that . . . and they have their own economic motives.”

“The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child. They were unworthy.”
 
The ease with which a 12-year-old (Tamir Rice), an immigrant (Amadou Diallo), a high school student (Trayvon Martin), as well as a 92-year-old grandmother (Kathryn Johnston), a 7-year-old sleeping on the couch (Aiyana Stanley-Jones), a father (Eric Garner), a young mother (Tarika Wilson), and a fiancé (Sean Bell) could be “dirtied up” and their respectability and humanity stripped from them has sparked an insurgency in the black community. The seemingly endless string of deaths was hard enough; but the subsequent smearing of character, of lies, of repeated “not guilty” verdicts even when the killings were caught on film made a mockery of the very concept of justice for the vast majority of African Americans.

When traditional formats for securing justice appeared unresponsive, #BlackLivesMatter took to the streets and airwaves chanting “respectability will not save us.” Scholars and pundits from Brittney Cooper to Ta-Nehisi Coates echoed that refrain. The “thug-ification” of blacks killed by the police and vigilantes sparked an uproar on social media as African Americans asked, “if they gunned me down, which photo will they use?