I’ve been wrestling with how to approach the recent attacks on police officers. An outright condemnation doesn’t seem right. Not because I support what was done, but because, a clamorous denunciation would have played into a dominant narrative which did not need my endorsement and which leaves out certain nuances. I have in mind the widely agreed upon statement: “Violence against police officers is never justified.” As with so many things, my ancestors wouldn’t have allowed me to sleep at night if I had cosigned this and I don’t care who that offends. When I ask whether or not violence against police officers can ever be justified, I think of J.W. Milam a White “man” from Money, Mississippi who admitted in a national periodical to having participated in the butchery of 14 year old Emmett Till for the “crime” of whistling at a White woman. This admission did not disqualify him from going on to become a deputy in the Ruleville, Mississippi police department. (Being a racist child murderer probably helped his application.) The Ruleville police later became infamous for horrifically beating Fannie Lou Hamer and dozens of other non-violent voting rights activists. I reflect on the case of Fred Hampton, a Chicago Black Panther leader, whose apartment was raided by the Chicago PD, after they’d had Hampton drugged by an informant planted within his chapter. They broke into his apartment and shot the unconscious Hampton twice in the head. I reflect on Abner Louima who was brutally tortured and sodomized by members of the NYPD. I reflect on Daniel Holtzclaw who raped dozens of Black women wearing a blue uniform. I reflect on the torture of Assata Shakur in her hospital bed. I reflect on Jon Burge a police officer convicted for the torture of 200 (Black) American citizens. I reflect on cases beyond count which make it untenable for any knowledgeable Black American to give police officers the sacrosanct place in society we are taught they deserve. Violence against police officers has been not just justified, but morally necessary throughout American history. This does not mean that I favor what was done in Dallas or Baton Rouge. It does mean that I think violence against police should be judged based on a moral calculus, not mere narrative addition. Police + violence against= Always wrong. On the vernacular level, we have almost no frame work for evaluating cases where individuals commit violence against the state. Which is hardly surprising, even though the second amendment is commonly interpreted as enshrining the right of the citizenry to take up arms against their government, at every stage of American history the more or less democratically elected authorities have been treated as sacred. It is a necessity for every status quo to present itself as the repository of the society’s moral authority. The ability to paint “our” men with guns as honorable, noble and heroic while the other side’s are dangerous, violent thugs is the central legitimizing myth of any regime; whether the men with guns are soldiers or police officers.
As a people who have been on the “wrong” side of what it means to be an American for 400 years, we cannot afford to be held hostage by the prevailing nationalist and statist narratives, even, especially, in times as fraught as these. Now, in the specific matter of the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge: To consider the two situations individually: The Dallas police department seems to be as close to an exemplary force as we are likely to find in this country, for as much or as little as that is worth. At the moment of the shooting, the Dallas PD was acting as a model of civic moderation in its dealings with citizens exercising their civil rights. The Baton Rouge police, by contrast, after having murdered a man on camera and harassing a shop owner for bringing their abuse to public notice; has mounted a full scale assault on the US Constitution. Here we have the two extremes of American policing, community policing and jackbooted thuggery. When we talk about police officers in America, we’re talking about both. We’re talking about the horrible cases listed above, just as we’re about talking about the Black woman police officer who commented on my personal Facebook page laying out her efforts to model what policing should be in a free society. I expressed my unequivocal support for her as someone trying to navigate the complexities of being both Black and a police officer, one who took responsibility for what policing meant to the citizens she served. To her supreme credit, she did not seek to admonish me or even to moderate my language, she was simply reaching out as a member of the community. This is why we must be careful if we advocate or support random violence against police officers. Not because the good police officers by their goodness morally shield the entire profession; but because as serious reflectors upon violence, its roots and effects, we must take our analyses to their logical conclusions.
For instance, in high school I first learned about the destruction of Pan-Am 103, the “Lockerbie bombing” of 1989. The bombing came to my attention as Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds due to his terminal prostate cancer. When I went to work at the local library the following afternoon, I picked up a book on the bombing which mentioned that the bomb had been placed in response to the Reagan administration’s unprovoked assaults on Libya. When I read this, my schooling in the narrative of unprovoked anti-Western violence committed by evil people in turbans began to crumble, it was a watershed moment. I would never mourn again for American or European victims of violence without reflecting upon what geopolitical forces drove the perpetrators. I never wavered in my opposition to targeting civilians, even as I acknowledged that the massive power imbalance which made Western adventurism possible, would have made it suicidal for the countries victimized by it to respond through open warfare. I therefore came to an uneasy detente, whereby I saw the particular victims as unfortunate yet necessary sacrificial lambs in the quest to hold the otherwise all-powerful West accountable. This moral detente began to fray as I realized, in thinking again about Lockerbie, which has become symbolic of my thinking about such matters, that my own mother had been stationed in Germany in 1989, that Pan-Am 103 had originated in Frankfurt and that it was quite possible for her to have been blown up over Lockerbie, in which case I wouldn’t be here right now. (I’m not claiming any kind of near miss, for all I knew she never flew out of Frankfurt, or, was back in America, or years away from another trans-Atlantic flight. All I know is that she was a American soldier stationed in Germany in 1989, a connection close enough for the implication to be felt.) It occurred to me that if the Americans on that flight could be seen as interchangeable symbols of a corrupt order which was being attacked, then I deserved to be on that plane as much as any of them.
Sure, I speak out against the brutality of Western power and yes, I am a descendant of America’s captive West African labor force not of immigrants who came here voluntarily. But all the same, these nuances are petty when weighed alongside the fact that I am an American, however much more cheaply my Black citizenship pays, and I benefit from American power. My tax dollars support the machinery of death, my body and labor make up the American leviathan, and if there is no power on earth to be compared to it, it is because I do my part to make it so. As much as I can attempt to beg off for the reasons laid out above, when I confront my own conscience, I’m forced to admit that if I were on the other side of this moral equation I would never accept this. If I were one of the people at the end of the bombs, I wouldn’t accept this.
Once I really thought about what it means for individuals to bear the moral weight of societies or institutions of which they are a part, I began to be a lot more careful with the language I use to talk about retaliatory violence. I still believe that blood for blood is a universal human language. I still point out that chickens ever did come home to roost and that no ingenuity can change this law. Actions, collective and individual, have consequences. It is these two lines of reasoning: that the powerless cannot always afford to play by the shining rules which the powerful claim to live by, alas it is only a claim; and what it would really mean for all of us to pay for everything we bear any part in making possible, that have torn my attempts to make sense of these retaliatory police shootings.
I strive to hear and respond to my own conscience in all things. Though I long to shout out angry, celebratory slogans, I know this misses important dimensions of what is going on. I know I must restrain the voice in me which says “the pigs had it coming,” as the focused Black revolutionary I strive to be, as much as I must restrain the voice that wants to join in unequivocal, pseudo-personalized mourning the way being raised as a “good American” has taught me to. This is not a tension between my Black side and my American side or my revolutionary side and anything else. This is me bringing the highest example of the Black revolutionary lineage to bear on a problem beset by competing voices. The tradition which I refer to is one of nuance and a radical commitment to humanity, intellectual rigor and demanding pragmatics.
I struggled with this because I have seriously considered the utility of anti-police guerrilla warfare in the ghetto. I will not dismiss it as a possibility, because I will not dismiss violence as a potential tool of Black liberation. I will however allow myself to separate event from tragedy. By which I mean, I will distinguish between the fact that it is perfectly natural for people to use violence in the face of a state which reserves an especially brutal share of its violence for them, and that it is tragic for any particular unexceptional family to bear the weight of history’s logic; and yet, someone must. Knowing this, I find myself more able to walk the line between what I feel is my obligation to individual humans and what I know by bitter struggle is my obligation to the human race as a whole, to the broad world. Insofar as the police officers killed were not particularly bad police officers, and to the extent that there is yet, often enough, something noble in wanting to be a police officer; I can mourn the edged scythe of history cutting its broad swathe so deeply through a few narrow, fragile, lives. Those who revel in anti-Black police violence may yet find that our patience is not infinite and that we too embody history in our persons, in our humanity, and that their own peace depends on ours.
The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.-James Baldwin
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