And Why Shouldn’t Black America Revolt?
After centuries of non-violent protest, prayers and dialogue, what's next?Miami protest photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Politics Features America
This article was originally published July 12, 2016, shortly after the killing of Philando Castile. It, unfortunately, remains as relevant as ever. As protests rose up across America this week in the wake of yet more black victims of police violence—George Floyd killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, Breonna Taylor killed while sleeping in her own bed, Botham Jean killed while eating ice cream in his living room, Atatiana Jefferson killed while babysitting her nephew, Ahmad Arbery killed by a former investigator while out jogging—we once again have to hope that maybe this time they will hold our attention enough to bring real change. Until there is justice, there can be no peace. The Civil Rights Movement can not be over until black and brown people in America don’t have to live in fear of those in power. Marin Luther King Jr.’s dream is far from realized, and Malcolm X’s words below still ring true. —Josh Jackson, editor-in-chief
If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.—Malcolm X
If she said one more thing about nonviolent resistance, I was gonna punch her in the face.—”The Americans”
How many people would be alive today, if all Americans were allowed to violently fight back against police, if and when the police are threatening their lives? If we were permitted to physically stop them, rather than just film them with cameras while they are killing us, would Philando Castile, or Alton Sterling, or any of the people we’ve lost, still be alive? In other words, what would it look like, if the police were even half as afraid of black people (and other people of color they target), as we are of them?
I ask because I’m beginning to think that my people have been trained to negotiate with terrorists. There is a myth that we desperately need the understanding and empathy of whites in this country—that we must do our best to appeal to it, endlessly—to avoid what should be the relatively simple task of not being killed by police (I say relatively simple, because there are whole countries throughout the world that exist without daily police brutality and murder, also known as lynching). The general idea seems to be that if we cannot get white people to 1.) see that racism still exists and is thriving, and 2.) decide to join us in our fight against it, then we will fail to create an America where black lives matter.
That’s an awful lot of work to do, considering blacks neither invented race or racism. We are being asked to not only survive these attacks, but also fight against them and convince those who’ve watched the same videos and who’ve seen the same statistics, that the problem they do not wish to see is real; that their America and their white privilege is literally killing us.
So here’s a question respectable black people aren’t supposed to ask: what if retaliatory violence is part of the answer to the problem America faces today, wherein black lives (and the lives of many other people of color) do not matter?
Let me back up, and tell you a mommy story, because I know how much you like those. My oldest son is shy and creative, which is to say… not all that “cool.” He’s seven and I realize that the cool kids at school wouldn’t be especially impressed with what he can create with a pair of scissors, paper, markers and some colored ducktape (answer: the coolest paper Deadpool action figures you’ve ever seen, but I digress). He’s never been bullied, but a couple of times he came home from school and complained of another kid bothering him, even hitting him. His father and I had wildly different responses.
I wanted my son to understand that bullies are just unhappy people. You should ignore them, you should tell a teacher, you should try to understand that they might not have a good mommy and daddy at home, that their anger is a reflection of some substantial loss or lack. His father, on the other hand, seemed to only want to know one thing: “What’d you do? Did you hit him back? You better hit him back next time.” The end, good talk.
Over the years, and after many more nuanced conversations about this with my son’s father, I’ve found myself wading towards some strange middle ground I never thought I’d be in. Of course, I still want my son to understand and consider the motivations and machinations of a bully. But, more than that, I want him to be and feel safe. I want him to go to school, without worrying. I don’t want him to be distracted, or to think he’s less than, because some kid’s parents are, perhaps, failing their child on some level. Sure, it’d be great if he could reach that kid, if they could come together and overcome their differences. But I’m not interested in sacrificing my child so that can happen. That’s not an investment, I’ve realized, that I’m willing to make. I will not trade the health and the well-being of my blood, for the betterment of someone or something that I did not create. I want him to be kind and to stay himself—shy, creative, Deadpool-obsessed. But I also need him to know when to fight back, principal’s office (though it’s not come to that yet), be damned.
I find myself wading towards a similarly new and strange place for me, as I witness America being… America. Like others, I’m no longer of the opinion that the police can be reformed, are willing to be reformed, or even need to be reformed, when there is such thing as a cop-free society.
North Carolina just passed a law that makes police body camera footage no longer public record. This is a blatant attack on the movement, a disgusting way of doing away with the veil previously set in place—a veil that suggested body cams would help, but required us to ignore the systemic realities behind it. The body cams fall off. Footage from cell phones and security cameras are often withheld—the police are breaking the law to do so, because they can. Ask Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel how far beyond the police this goes—how far the government will go to support and protect those cops who lynch.
And there is also much to be said about the problem with these cameras and what has now become a spectacle of black death. In “The E-Snuff of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile,” Courtney Baker argues that the video footage we once thought would save us, only produces more trauma and achieves no justice, in part because the media, rather than black activists, control the images and how they’re presented:
The images and videos of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths are coming fast and furious. They find us in our homes, in our offices, at the supermarket—anywhere we have access to the internet. Those of us who live daily with the knowledge and fear that we and our kin are hated and hunted, that we are not safe and that the police are often the cause of that sense of insecurity, are dealing with the trauma and indignity of the visual and video reminders of our own precarious lives. We are enraged, we are disgusted, we are mourning, and we are terrorized by the uncritically circulated spectacles of our destruction.
…We have seen these images of Black destruction before when they were put into service for a Black liberationist cause. However, in those instances, the harrowing images were contextualized and controlled by pro-Black advocates like the anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people. In its antilynching circular, the NAACP printed an explicit photograph of a lynching and used the caption to further manipulate the image’s reception. The caption instructed readers quite clearly. “Do not look at the Negro,” it read, “His earthly problems are ended. Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle.” Both Wells and the NAACP reproduced images of the “gruesome spectacle,” but their doing so in the Black press, in an explicitly antilynching context, counteracted the then-more frequent and popular circulation networks for these images which were expected to be kept in and controlled by white hands.
The videos and photographs of Castile and Sterling, like the videos and photographs of Garner, Brown, Scott, and Bland are not being kept and controlled by Black hands or even by institutions invested in the protection and defense of Black bodies. The contexts of care and of justice are absent and at times anathema to the mass media entities that carelessly circulate these images for titillation or profit or some bad faith interpretation of the exposé. As long as these images and videos are published alongside cries that blue lives matter and queries about black-on-black crime and recitations of the victims’ irrelevant criminal histories, they have no place in the public sphere. And they certainly have no place on my screen.
And in a powerful essay about the desensitization such video and imagery can cause (another violence, indeed) Ezekial Kweku made this terrifying statement:
…as I watched Sterling die, I was detached enough to critique the video of his death, classify it, find myself consigning it to genre. I’ve long passed the point at which watching these videos makes me feel like a helpless bystander — I am another distance removed. At this point, I am a critic of images of men like me, dying. I’m a connoisseur.
While the personal effect is devastating, Kweku notes, like Baker, that the political effect seems nonexistent, in part because we rely on the consciences of those who currently do not believe there is a problem:
The videos of the death go viral, everyone talks about how shocking it is, which really means how shocking it would be, in some other reality where this doesn’t happen often enough that it isn’t accidentally captured on camera several times a year. People will hope, either desperately or naïvely, that this will be the video that rouses America’s slumbering conscience, that thistime changes will be made, that this time the story is so clear-cut that justice will be undeniable.
What this misses, as many have pointed out, is that for these videos to prick the conscience, that conscience must already value the lives of those who are dying. Otherwise, the videos are simply lurid entertainment, the modern version of the postcard-size images of lynchings that were passed around during the last century. The only real difference is that today people revel in feeling sad, whereas back then people simply reveled. But the upshot is the same: the further dehumanization of black Americans, the further reduction of their lives to bodies on display.
This morning I watched yet another devastating video of a black person suffering under America’s police state. Dr. Brian Williams was one of many to work tirelessly to try and save the lives of the Dallas police offers who were killed by sniper and US Army veteran Micah Johnson. His voice shook as he explained the strange position of trying to save the lives of men he fears—men who he knows could kill him (and would, and do kill him)—and still be celebrated as heroes. They are protected, their lives matter, and his doesn’t, regardless of his presumed status as a doctor. This man made it clear that he’s been taught to be just as afraid of the police as any young (or old) black person in Baltimore, Cleveland or Louisiana. “I support you, I will defend you and I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you,” he said.
It made me angry, watching him hold back so much anger, watching him try to explain how he balances his fear and rage with acts of kindness towards police officers in his neighborhood. He mentioned his daughter—how he doesn’t want her to grow up feeling the way he feels about the police, so he tries to perform these acts in her presence. Then he went on to say what so many still say—that dialogue is needed. Open, honest dialogue about race relations in this country.
My heart broke, because I realized that my people—myself included—have been trained to crave negotiation with our terrorists.
In the past few years I have fallen in love with many writers and thinkers who address the state of race so boldly and clearly, I’m not always sure why I bother writing at all. What can I say that Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesse Williams, Michelle Alexander, Hari Ziyad and Claudia Rankine haven’t already said, more powerfully than I? Indeed, what are they saying that Baldwin, Morrison, Walker and so many others haven’t already said? Even Coates recently said that he’s got nothing “new” to add, because he’s already said it. We have all the Malcolm and Martin quotes we need to suffice “dialogue.” White people—especially the white moderate, who King deemed more problematic than the Klan itself—do not wish to read, or listen to anything which holds them responsible, which might require them to relinquish that which their privilege has bought them. And why should they? For blackness to be liberated in America, whiteness would have to no longer exist. In the words of Ziyad and Kevin Rigby Jr., “whiteness cannot be done well, cannot be done without violence or without being in opposition to Blackness and Black freedom.”
Knowing what we now know—how our people have prayed and protested and written endlessly about what can and must be done; knowing how our parents fought and waited, fought and waited; knowing that respectability did not save us, turning the other cheek and that Christian God we were taught to believe in still has not saved us (because we are here, but we are not safe), why shouldn’t Black America revolt? The Civil Rights Movement did not work, because it is still ongoing. How many black people, due to new Voter ID laws, due to mass incarceration, cannot vote? How many schools are still segregated
This photo of Iesha Evans standing in front of Baton Rouge police during a recent protest is the new favorite making the rounds, being hailed as iconic and legendary. It shows what we’re supposed to show—black calm in the very face of death. I admit, my breath was taken away when I first saw it too, but that’s because, like you, I was taught to be inspired by black calm, and not black rage, and certainly not black violence.
Earlier this year I wrote about how the slave narratives of 2016 were going to redefine the world. WGN’s Underground hadn’t aired yet, but I’d seen the first few episodes, and knew that it was history in the making—bold TV that would embrace black rage as never before. The Birth of a Nation wasn’t out yet, but I knew it was going to be huge—though I couldn’t have predicted it would break records. It seems that, as long as the work is fictional and as long as it is of the past, we are prepared to celebrate black rage and black uprisings. Another movie, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, worked brilliantly to present Martin Luther King, Jr. not as a mere pacifist, but as one who knew, precisely, the power and importance of violence. But King believed that black people and bodies would have to be sacrificed for the world to see what this land of the free was truly capable of doing. And the world saw. And still, here we are. Many of us still hoping, praying and speaking out against violent reactions from the black community—functioning under the illusion that body cameras, dialogue and white empathy will save us.
So, knowing all of this—knowing that America herself does not negotiate with terrorists, that American police are now permitted to use robot bombs to blow people up (especially if they are black men targeting police, rather than, say, white men targeting black churches) why shouldn’t black America revolt? Is America sending more troops to Iraq to have a dialogue? To protest? To pray? Those same Americans shouting “Support Our Troops,” are posting select MLK quotes today about why violence is never the answer.
It’s not that America is the country I want my people to imitate, it’s that history itself tells us that regimes fall when they are forced, often by violence and uprisings. We are not dealing with a few bad cops and a few bad policies. From the neighborhoods, to the schools, to the public and private prisons, to the highways, black lives do not matter. We can keep asking for them to, we can keep asking for better policing and we can keep explaining to our so-called white allies why and how we need them. Or we can literally, figuratively, poetically, emotionally and yes, when necessary (and… isn’t it necessary now?)—violently fight back. Will that make us monsters? Oh, but aren’t we superhuman demons already?
Or will that make us human? Will revolt by any means necessary, even, make us whole? Will we black Americans—pre-conditioned to believe that when we fight back, it’s a crime against God and man—ever even find out?
Shannon M. Houston is a former Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. She’s also a writer on Little Fires Everywhere, Lovecraft Country and The Looming Towers. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.