Black mothers know well how to grieve dead children. We die, from curable diseases, from poverty, from police violence, in a world where skin tone determines our life chances. On Tuesday morning a Grand Jury in St Louis, Missouri, as expected, decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for murdering the unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Wilson joins a long line of white American officials who have taken black lives with impunity. In response, white liberals tweet #blacklivesmatter and profess their solidarity. All too often, this solidarity rings hollow.
The unspoken reality is that black bodies are necessarily threatening in this racial hierarchy, not just to avowed racists. Within hours of Michael Brown’s murder, the police released footage aiming to depict him as a criminal. The liberal media response was telling. Sympathetic outlets rushed to decry claims of his criminality, and a lengthy battle began over the dead teen’s image. The implicit assumption was that this mattered, that in order to render Mike a victim worth grieving, we had to see him as non-threatening.
That is a battle we can never win. When Mike knelt down with his hands up, Wilson reminded us that there is nothing we can do, no amount of subservience will absolve us of the sin of being black in a white world. Our existence as human is resistance to domination; having survived centuries of denigration and violence, we are still here. Enslaved and then impoverished, white society then blames us for the violence it unleashes in us.
So we get told simmer down, protest peacefully. These liberals sound so much like our oppressors because they are. Having professed their sympathy with black plight, they turn to law enforcement agencies to euthanise our rage. They arrive with guns to remind us that we are disposable. The mythology of African savagery has not yet escaped American popular consciousness – like the beast, we are to be caged or put down should we threaten social order. Theirs is the solidarity of the old paper bag test, when blackness was split into different shades of acceptability.
They police our expression and tell us it is for our own good, as if we need their advice about how to resist their privilege and power. They tell us to kneel down and bear the pain, as if these knees haven’t known enough gravel, as if the problem is that black mothers just don’t pray hard enough for their children. When people loot and riot, liberals demand from the powerless a nobility that has never been shown to us – Missouri’s Governor called for ‘peace, restraint and respect’ from Ferguson residents as Darren Wilson walked free having shown none of those virtues to Michael Brown. They ask us to be suicidal; as Oxford’s Professor Karma Nabulsi has put it, there are thousands of Ghandis in Palestine today, in graves and in prison cells.
Liberals ask us to play by the rules and cannot comprehend the hopelessness of people who would rather turn to violence; their experience tells them that American democracy is ultimately benevolent. If a good case is well presented, justice cannot be denied for long. Ferguson residents do not have the luxury of such naivety. They know too well that the same courtrooms we are told will give us justice once saw deeds to black bodies trade hands between slave-owners. We have nominal legal freedoms now, but they are useless when the state shows little will to protect us from the continued violence of white supremacy. Rioting is the only defence left for a community whose backs have been against the wall for centuries.
The liberal cannot understand this because, swimming in privilege, he cannot understand what it means to be dominated. Hence, as L.V. Gaither points out, acts like the murder of Michael Brown are so frequently dishonestly presented as “extreme” acts of racism in an otherwise healing society.
If it is radical to stand in defence of this skin then so be it. No matter where we are in the world we feel the repercussions of racial demarcation. We then are told to be quiet about it, to stop whining. Our self-defence is framed as beastly, as blind rage. They give us slavery, said wait for us to free you. They give us Jim Crow, said wait for affirmative action. They give us apartheid, then said swallow Truth and Reconciliation. We have been waiting to be human for too long. We refuse to keep going like lambs to the slaughter. If whether or not Michael Brown stole a box of cigarettes mattered to you; if you’re straining to hear from the ‘articulate’ peaceful protesters; if you think you’re reining our anger in for our own good, your paper bag test solidarity has no place in our struggle. Tell me liberals, what do we do when the wax is all burned out? What alternative do you offer to stargazing at liberation? You preach ‘peace’ to a people under attack. If your peace is without justice, it is just the calm before another storm.
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