July 21st, 2016
“Tell me of the night your son was killed by the police,” I asked. She sat up and a deep sorrow moved in her eyes. “I had a habit of looking out the window to see my son,” Danette Chavis said. “But that night, I said to myself, ‘Oh, leave the boy alone,’ and took a nap. The phone woke me up and my daughter was rushing out of the door. I followed her and saw police tape, cops standing around a body. I yelled to see if it was him. But they wouldn’t let me close. Later, I went to the morgue and identified my son.”
We sat in the café; a few seconds passed in silence. She looked away as if seeing him dead for the first time and I regretted asking the question. Around us, people typed on laptops or chatted over coffee. They were so carefree. How do we reach a city that mostly looks at people of color in contempt or pity rather than solidarity? How do we get them to listen?
I looked up from my notebook. “Ms. Chavis,” I asked. “What do you miss most about your son?”
Making Wounds Speak
Imagine hearing that someone you love has died. Your heart would jump in your chest. Your body would clench like a fist around their memory. How angry would you be? How loud would you yell at the sky, at God, at anyone you could blame? Afterward, you’d float in a limbo of grief until you got answers, made sense of it and then slowly said goodbye. Gathering together with others at the funeral, you could complete the storyline of loss.
The stages of grief depend on narrative closure, the shoveling of dirt on the casket, the eulogizing of the dead. But for African-American parents whose children were slain by law enforcement, the stages of grief grind to a halt. The dead cannot be laid to rest because the cop who murdered them is not held accountable, and the violence is condoned. To eclipse the officer’s guilt, the victims are “niggerized” in public. Have a criminal record? It will be paraded in public. Ever took silly gangsta photos? They will be proof of a “thug life.” The parents see their child’s image warped as they learn of more Black and Latino youth killed by cops. In a solidarity of despair, they embrace everyone’s lost children, as if they can hear the dead repeating their final words, asking for their lives back.
In December 2014, 10 mothers whose children were killed by police held a rally in front of the US Department of Justice. Chavis was there and said into the megaphone, “None of us are safe. Law enforcement around the United States is brutalizing, arresting and murdering.” A large group surrounded her with signs and candles. One by one the mothers spoke. Some had fought for years, like Chavis, who started a petition—now 35,000 signatures strong—to send to former Attorney General Eric Holder, or like Valerie Bell, whose son Sean was shot dead by New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers in 2006. Other grieving parents were more recently bereaved, like Jeralynn Blueford, whose son Alan was gunned down by Oakland police in 2012. She stood in front of the rally, choking on tears, saying, “Alan’s last words were, ‘Why did you shoot me?’”
Holding up the faces of their dead in front of the Department of Justice, the mothers confronted our nation’s deepest contradiction. How can citizens be killed by agents of the very state that represents them, and no one be held accountable? All of them were women of color. Many were working-class. Their presence was already the answer. Beneath our formal trappings of democracy lies a long history of legal, race-based slavery and segregation, followed by a now-informal white supremacist regime in which white lives matter while Black ones don’t.
The mothers rallied in front of the Department of Justice, but it was dark and empty. Faced with a closed building but wanting justice, they poured into the street and marched on Pennsylvania Avenue. Blocking traffic, they walked in between cars and shouted, “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
From Slave Chains to Handcuffs
Years ago, I visited a traveling exhibit on slavery and saw tourists standing quietly around a table filled with rusted shackles and chains. The host pointed at one and said it was worn by those enslaved in the Middle Passage. I reached out, fingertips hovering above it, then pulled back. “Go ahead,” he said. “Touch it.”
I lifted it and felt a heavy sadness rolling down my arms into the shackle. Slipping my hand inside, I thought of those in my family’s past who were brought to this world wearing a thing like this. I wanted to rip the fucking metal apart. But I was only able to stand and hold a history I could not destroy.
Stealing Black lives at gunpoint is the most visible and violent evidence of history repeating in the present. To be Black in America is to be evidence of a theft. It is to be a descendant of human beings stolen from villages, stolen from their bodies, stolen from each other, sold and sold again. It is to see, in one’s family history, ancestors stolen from their language, stolen from their land and left as walking targets. Inevitably we, their descendants, are shot at with everything from microaggressions to all-out physical violence, from suspicious stares to racial slurs, from stop-and-frisk to bullets.
To be Black in America is to know white supremacy is a culture of theft. We feel it like a tornado that one can try to sidestep but that sometimes descends on us anyway, ripping us out of our bodies. It’s like an ancient vortex that split from another vortex, a slavery split from older forms of slavery that mixed with European capitalism, colonization and scientific racism. A whiteness took shape that churned through centuries and over continents, pulling people from their homes and “blackening” them. Whiteness is a social structure of extraction that rose in the triangular trade of slave ships, auction blocks and plantations. It was broken by the Civil War, remade as Jim Crow in segregated public spaces and redlined ghettos, then reinvented again as a war on drugs.
A few weeks ago, I reread Dr. Alexander Falconbridge’s “An Account of the Slave Trade in the West Coast of Africa”; he was an 18th-century abolitionist who sailed on four slave ships. The descriptions were ghastly. “ The men Negroes, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs,” he wrote. “They are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other position than lying on their sides.”
At home, I put down the book and picked up an autobiography written by one of my students at the state college where I work. Every year I teach a class in which students write 30-page memoirs, and many talk of family members in jail. This semester, one wrote of visiting her father in prison. At times, she was sad he was gone. Other times, she was angry and punished him by not visiting. But eventually she came back to see him. Year after year passed; he aged into a gray, bitter man, helplessly enraged that he missed out on her life. She wrote of leaving the prison and seeing men shuffling in leg chains; I couldn’t help but think of Falconbridge’s image of Black men with “irons riveted on their legs.”
The Thin Blue Line
“Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” wrote freed slave Olaudah Equiano in 1794, in his narrative of the Atlantic slave trade. “Why are parents to lose their children, brothers, sisters, or husbands their wives?”
The conflict that has driven history in the New World is Black people’s struggle to hold onto their humanity against a culture that objectifies them as property. Twelve million Africans were sold across the Americas. Wherever they landed, they fought back, and when they did, white men representing the state attacked them. In Haiti, these white men wore French uniforms and shot muskets at rebels. In America, they were slave patrols, searching forests for runaways. Championed as heroes in their time, they killed with a clear conscience, because they saw us as semihumans who would wreck civilization if let loose. Blinded by whiteness, they were caught in a vast cultural superstructure that rose from the economic base of slavery. It gave them racial privileges in lieu of class ones; it taught them a visual vocabulary of darkies, Uncle Toms, niggers, mammies, jezebels and brutes. The blood they spilled from Black bodies was the implicit ink of America’s social contract.
“Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” President Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. As smoke from the Civil War cleared, he pointed to the line we had crossed. Slavery was a national sin; those freed from it were its victims; those who defended it, the new villains. But it was a line trampled by white mobs and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, riding horses into the night to burn Black homes and then Black people themselves. The legal infrastructure of slavery was broken, but the culture of racism washed over the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments like a tide, its deep currents pushing back against the new citizens. In order to survive, each generation of Black people picked up that line drawn between slavery and freedom, held it up and carried it forward. But at every step they took, they hit the thin blue wall of the police.
In the South, white plantation owners pushed for the Black Codes, which criminalized everyday life: being unemployed or failing to pay a tax became a crime. Cops pulled thousands of Black people into the ever-growing convict-lease system that recycled the debris of slavery into a new form. In the first wave of the Great Migration, nearly 2 million Black people fled the South to the cities of the West, Midwest and Northeast. After their arrival, race riots blew up as white mobs hanged and shot Black people, and burned down Black neighborhoods. Police did not stop the violence.
Decades later, when Black people marched for civil rights in places like Selma, police beat them bloody. In the 1970s, when Black people defended themselves in groups like the Black Panthers, the police shot them down, leaving shattered windows and blood-soaked beds. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Black youth sold drugs to buy their way out of the ghetto, police killed or jailed a whole generation. And today, when Black and Latino youth want to walk freely, they are stopped and frisked by police.
In each generation, law enforcement has been the thin blue line against the Black freedom movement. Today the war on drugs, like the convict-lease system before it, has become an industry where the raw material fueling an ever-growing prison infrastructure is the criminalized Black body. From the economic base of mass incarceration a superstructure rises that trains white people, once again, to see “blackness” in a new version of the same old visual vocabulary—the drug dealer, the thug, the rapper, the hoe, the pimp and the junkie.
The old racial line between “Black” and “white” has been redrawn as the line between criminal and citizen. Up and down the class hierarchy from poor to wealthy, Black people have to dodge violence, from microaggressions to economic sabotage and from public sham- ing to physical attacks.
But always, it’s the bullets that are the easiest to see. Most of us aren’t killed by cops. Most of us “survive” racism. But every day another person of color is shot by police, and the holes left inside families are where loved ones used to breathe. The cops not only steal the lives of our children; they steal the lives of everyone who loved them. A part of us freezes in place, goes numb.
In the endless wait for justice, families carry memories that grow in the imagination. When I looked at Chavis’ Facebook page, I saw a post about how her son Gregory would have been 29 this year. Other parents also keep track of the rites of passage their child should have had—like a wedding or graduation. The dead haunt us. They burn in our dreams. They ask for their time back. And more and more keep getting added to the roster of names, those shot down as the police aim at that invisible target on Black people, as they protect that line that so many pretend not to see.
To Protect and Serve
On March 1, 2015, four cops in Los Angeles’ Skid Row wrestled a homeless Black man down on the ground. They looked like a giant squid, wrapped around him as he thrashed in their grip. A lone gun- shot echoed. Then a loud volley of gunfire as his body fell silent. In the seconds afterward, they backed up as an angry crowd gathered and one man shouted, “Motherfucker! Motherfucker! They just killed that man!”
As I write this in the early months of 2015, more than 300 people have been murdered by police, only a tiny fraction of them in a gunfight. Most were unarmed. According to KilledByPolice.net, more than 3,087 have been murdered since 2013. By the time you read this, the number of dead will have climbed higher and higher. But no one can measure the full extent of this dizzying spiral of violence, because no federal-level, comprehensive database on how many Americans are killed by law enforcement exists. FBI Director James Comey told reporters, “It’s ridiculous I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country, last week, last year, the last decade.”
Alongside this theft of life are the smaller thefts of money, time and bodily integrity. Police enact a kind of ghetto tax, which traps the Black poor in a downward spiral. Every time I come home, I see a pair of cops on the corner. And every summer, the NYPD erects surveillance towers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And when my neighbors talk, they often tell stories of tickets they got for traffic stops, drinking on the stoop or just riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
In report after report, we see police departments run like giant vacuum cleaners over poor, Black neighborhoods, sucking money from people who have little to begin with. In 2010, the Village Voice published “The Blue Tapes,” showing NYPD cops being told by superiors to “pay the rent” by ticketing and arresting people for minor offenses. A thousand miles away, the US Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson, Missouri, police. It released a report saying that local law enforcement jacked up fines, used excessive force against Black people and essentially ran “debtors’ prisons” where people were jailed for not paying tickets. On August 25, 2014, Democracy Now! interviewed a man named George Fields as he waited in line for the funeral of Michael Brown, the Black teenager killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. He said, “It’s just a little too much when you get pulled over for menial things. You have to go through too much to get out, and you lose your jobs and what not, you know, for a $50 ticket and pull-over.”
And then there is the theft of one’s body. In city after city, police stop young men of color, frisk them and leave them seething with fear and rage. The cops’ handprints stain one’s skin. NYPD officers have stopped and frisked 5 million New Yorkers since 2002; most were Black and Latino men. Only now, after pressure, has the practice been relaxed. In Philadelphia, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report showing that since 2011, roughly 200,000 people have been stopped, and nearly 90 percent of the frisks were, again, of young people of color. Imagine living your adolescence in terror of being picked up, hassled, groped and bullied by men who can kill you.
Whether it’s on the books or not, cops across the country practice racial profiling and stop-and-frisk. In 2014, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton told CBS, “Every police department in America does it. The challenge is to do it constitutionally within the law … compas- sionately; you’re dealing with human beings.” But the humanity of those being stopped and frisked is already forfeited when they are profiled instantly as a problem. And this is condoned because the police are not creating racism but reflecting it. A larger implicit social consensus rules the city, a dominant narrative that Black and Latino youth, specifically males, are a danger. If not checked, the story goes, they will band together in wolf packs and roam the streets to mug, rape and murder. And often we, people of color, internalize this imagery until a pain shocks us out of our double consciousness and we see the true source of danger.
Months after Bratton’s CBS interview, I sat with Chavis and asked about her son. “The school he went to was rough; kids were selling drugs,” she said. “The police beat the crap out of this one kid and no one said anything.” Her voice seemed to punch the air with anger.
“My son was stopped by cops a lot,” Chavis said. “He felt powerless and depressed. I told him it was how he dressed.” She looked at me. “I don’t believe that today,” she said.
Killing the Future
“I believe that children are our future,” the girl sang on stage in the Bed-Stuy park, pushing her voice to sound like pop diva Whitney Houston. “Teach them well and let them lead the way.” I smiled and covered my mouth as my friend nudged me. When she finished, we applauded. As we left, my friend joked, “Well, do you think children are the future?” I looked at him like he was crazy, as if to say, of course they are. He shrugged. “I never felt like the future,” he said.
Decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. described a girl learning about segregation in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” seeing, he wrote, “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky.” More than 50 years later, I see whiteness like a roving vortex that steals childhood. I see it in the kids on my block, watching police arrest their parents. In New York alone, 120,000 Black men are missing from families; they’re locked in jail or they died early. The number goes up to 1.5 million Black men gone nationwide. I see it in how children gather on corners to recreate a family after theirs was ripped apart. I see it in how they taunt each other for being too dark, too nappy or too poor. And I see it in a CBS report about “hood disease,” a tacky name for the fact that Black kids in poor areas have post-traumatic stress disorder. They see so many shootings and fights that they are walking in a constant state of despair and rage.
And trauma freezes the soul, which is why as time moves forward, so many Black children fall behind. They are punished more harshly and expelled more quickly. In major cities, only 60 percent of Black males graduate high school. Stranded in the streets, those boys are profiled as older, as a threat, as possibly carrying a weapon. When cops bully them, scare them, fuck with them, it’s because our children aren’t seen as part of the future. Our children are disposable.
Standing on my stoop and seeing kids play, knowing the history they emerged from and the dangers they face, I wonder how many of them we will lose. And thinking of my hand in that rusted slave shackle many years ago, I wonder about the very first of us chained to this world. How many have we lost? How many of us have been killed by whiteness? How many dead thrown into the sea or buried on plantations, hanged or burned alive, raped or jailed? How many millions upon millions?
Can those lives be redeemed? Here in America? Around us is a nation taught to see us first as semi-animals, now criminals; it’s a vision produced from social conflict where the very idea of crime is a political tool the elites use to hammer the poor.
HSBC bankers can launder drug money for Mexican cartels without fear of punishment, while Michael Brown is targeted by Darren Wilson for walking in the street and shot dead. But underneath the conflict view of crime as a political concept, there is still a social-consensus view of crime based on innate human empathy, especially for children. So when Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Emmett Till are killed, all young Black men, all innocent, it forces the nation to confront one set of values with another. In that flash of contradiction, everything can be seen.
Into the moment of visibility we march. But when we do, we march into the streets to move the people to confront the state itself. We know from the evidence of our lives and from academic reports like “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page that our democracy is controlled by a wealthy elite. Politicians who work for the wealthy need the police to protect them from the people. And so the whole chain of command protects the killer cop. The ruling class give carte blanche to law enforcement, who in turn press down on those most stranded by the neoliberal state, the poor—and more so, the Black poor.
We march against the state, but also, inevitably, into it. Our struggle has been for the recognition of our humanity in a awed democracy, one split between the universal value of human freedom and white ethnic nationalism. We had to give ourselves to the universal, and that means that Black Lives Matter stands for large-scale transformation. If we win, our victory means an end to the drug war. It means abolishing the police state and ending the very source of crime, which is poverty itself.
But we’ve only won half-victories, and even those are gutted out. In the midst of protest, the question stands before us: How do we redeem our dead and the dead parts of ourselves? How do we end this centuries-old vortex of whiteness, ripping us apart? The one thing that is knowable is that the end of racism has to free us all or it will free no one.
“Tell me how your son died,” I asked. It was toward the end of our interview. Chavis and I were in our own bubble in the café, oblivious to everyone else. She took a breath. “He was caught in crossfire on the street,” Chavis said. “His friends tried to take him to the hospital, but police pulled them over and ordered them to put him down on the ground.” She took a moment and looked away. “They never called an ambulance. He bled to death a block away from the hospital.”
My own heart hurt. Imagining this young man, whom this strong woman gave birth to, dying in a puddle of his own blood as cops stood and ignored his pain. I wanted to meet her son and laugh with him, get to know him. You can feel the imprint of people you never met in the way others talk about them, the way family caresses their memory like a pearl. Hearing Chavis remember her son, I could tell he was a good kid, deeply loved.
“What do you miss about your son?” I asked. She half-smiled. “His laughter and how protective he was over his sisters.” She rocked back and forth for a second. “You know, the night he was killed, when I was asleep, I tried to get up but felt a weight on my chest. I think it was my son telling me what was happening to him, you know, that he couldn’t get up.
“Some families never recover. I know mothers on drugs. Fathers who are alcoholics,” she said. “A child’s death creates a division in the family. Some just want to let it go. They’re hurt, depressed. Others want to fight until they get justice. My youngest didn’t take it very well.”
“How so?” I put down my pen.
“She would sit up,” Chavis said, “and look out the window, waiting for him to come home.”
Nicholas Powers is a professor and a journalist.