I don’t know what to tell you, Gentle Readers. The people among us who think black Americans inherently death worthy, deserving of nothing more than the faintest pretense to justify their execution by anybody who happens by, had a great weekend. Police officers previously investigated for excessive use of force executed Alton Sterling. They had him on the ground, freshly tasered, and decided that he’d gone for his gun. Other officers, who don’t appear to have had problematic records, stopped Philandro Castile on the road. He told them that he had a legal firearm in his possession. One opened fire and Castile died of his wounds. We will probably never know everything that happened in either exchange, but selling CDs and broken tail lights don’t make for capital crimes in any sane system except one looking for excuses to kill.
Not that long ago, these incidents would have gone unmarked outside the communities involved. The internet, smartphones, and a markedly less white America have done much to change that. To some degree, we could argue that the fact that the police don’t murder black Americans, or other minorities, as cavalierly as they have in the past makes the exceptions more notable. That these things now generate nationwide protests speaks to the progress, however tenuous, we have made in the past few decades. We still suffer no dearth of people happy to admire the murders, more who will justify and excuse them, and still more who stand by and watch. None of them pulled the trigger, but each in a small way acted as a co-conspirator.
Those people, like the shooters, come from somewhere. We produce them and encourage them to continue on. We feed them on myths of black criminality stretching all the way back to slavery. James Jackson believed in the 1790s that freedpeople would inevitably turn to crime. His and subsequent generations of enslavers believed that every slave, however declared happy, plotted to overthrow slavery and murder all the white people from newborn children to doddering senior citizens. A black person managed the remarkable feat, through some strange property of skin color, of simultaneous complete incapacity and peerless destructive power. If we have put slavery behind us, for the most part, then we have not put away the enslavers’ stories.
A nation that defined itself on violent opposition to tyranny could find many heroes in how the enslaved resisted their enslavement. We could put up a Nat Turner monument between Lincoln’s and Washington’s. We could put up a statue of Gabriel in Richmond. If we truly believe that the cause of freedom sometimes justifies great violence, Nat and Gabriel deserve monuments more than George Washington. He won his nation’s everlasting gratitude by killing a large number of British people, as well as some German mercenaries and American loyalists who we like to pretend didn’t exist. If we insist on keeping famous monuments strictly a whites only affair, then we could do better by John Brown than the impressive mural in Kansas. Washington’s example shows that we don’t take intramural violence between whites as cause to disqualify someone. Should we decide that watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants makes for the best sort of American, how can we exclude them?
As a nation, we don’t take the slave’s cause as just. We don’t see ourselves in them or their history as part of our own. We traditionally reserve that privilege to white men. As such, we take our side with the tyrants and despots. If we did otherwise, we might have to take a harder look at how we’ve arranged our society.
Which brings me to Dallas, where the end of a peaceful protest of Sterling’s and Castile’s murders ended with a black man murdering five, and injuring still more, the police officers then protecting the protesters. The news reports tell me that he did it in response to the killings. Should we mourn him as a martyr for freedom’s cause?
I have spent some time thinking about that. I don’t know if I have the right answer, or even a marginally good one, but I don’t think so. While a pacifist, I don’t see it as remotely my place to play the part of white man telling someone from a marginalized group how he should or should not behave. White men do that quite enough without my help. Murdering police will prove decidedly counterproductive, feeding into the very fears of the whites already already sympathetic to the idea that black people just need killing. But having heard often enough as a gay man that I ought to keep quiet and not do anything to arouse the hatreds of people who already wish me ill, I don’t think that makes for a good argument either. Hatred will always find a way, requiring mere existence alone to justify it. I do believe that we simply ought not to kill each other, period, but I know that argument will only persuade fellow pacifists.
What then distinguishes a slave uprising from violence directed at white supremacy today? Police officers represent all of us. We grant to them vast powers, in all likelihood more than we ought to, and defer to them much more than we should about how those powers get used. But they are the agents of a democratic state and free society. A violent attack upon the police as a class is thus an attack on free government itself, seeking to replace it with the rule of brute force. As countless examples attest, everyone but the especially brutal and malicious loses out in that scenario. We ought not do things which will empower the worst among us.
One can argue, rightly, that this government has a human rights record nearly sui generis in its horrors. It may not deserve all the respect we grant it. Its agents, police included, have very often served to frustrate and destroy the ends to which they have notionally pledged themselves. Many of these abuses continue today and fall disproportionately on people who I do not know and who do not look like me. In dismissing them, I have the privilege that white skin grants.
But the same government that stole lives and land, which protected slavery until the last possible instant, which stood by and cheered as white lynched blacks and white terror took back from the freedpeople almost all the gains they achieved, then did much of it all over again a century thereafter, is also the government that ended slavery and struck back against Jim Crow, against lynching, and now has a black man at its head. We congratulate ourselves far too easily about the progress we have made, often with the clear purpose of reversing it. I am no patriot; patriots and I get on poorly. I will not say that enough has been done to right past or present wrongs, or even that we have exerted ourselves consistently or in good faith toward those ends. But we no longer have a state which declares white power its ultimate objective and defends it to the point of absolute omnipotence over black lives and bodies. Its peaceable means of redress are often feeble, always slow, and frequently fail. But they do exist and have been used successfully. We have gotten better before; we can keep getting better. If we accept violence only as a last resort then we fall far short of requiring it now.
I write this from one of the most staggeringly privileged positions in all human history. My life is not at stake. I hope in writing this, in thinking these things, I haven’t simply turned a mirror on myself and found in it the glorious permission to dictate to the rest of humanity. I don’t think I have, but we always fool ourselves the best.