Only a couple of weeks after the Ferguson shooting, and only about three miles away, St. Louis police shot and killed another black man, Kajieme Powell, after he apparently shoplifted from a convenience store. The details of what happened in Ferguson are in dispute, which has allowed the law and order crowd to defend putting six bullets into unarmed Mike Brown – two into his head – as a proportional act of self-defense.
No such ambiguity exists in the Powell case. The police released cellphone video yesterday, and it is absolutely chilling. Powell emerges from the convenience store with a pair of canned drinks. He seems a little confused – puts them down, paces around, and so on. Then the police show up in a white SUV, and jump out, guns drawn (already! They decide to escalate before even arriving at the scene). Powell backs away, says “just shoot me” a couple of times, climbs up on a retaining wall, takes a couple of steps in the direction of the police… and then they shoot him dead. Total time between the police arrival and his death? About 15 seconds.
The video, of course, completely contradicts the police department’s story about a drawn knife and aggression on Powell’s part. When confronted with the contradiction, the police chief replied that “in a lethal situation, they used lethal force.” The only thing harder to understand from that video clip than why killing Powell was justified by the situation is how anyone can continue to deny that the problem is structural. I am not accusing the officers or the police chief of lying. It’s much, much worse than that: I’d be pretty sure they really did think their lives were in immediate danger.
I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, and vividly remember the video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Despite the presence of video that seemed to unequivocally show that King had been subdued, several officers continued to beat him with their batons. The city paid King a substantial settlement, but an all-white jury acquitted the officers of criminal charges (two of them were later sentenced under federal law). The acquittal sparked several days of rioting in Los Angeles, during which more than fifty people were killed.
The King beating and LA riots were part of a cultural moment, at least for some of us. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet was released in 1990, and “911 is a Joke” pointedly raised the unwillingness of white municipal authorities to enter minority communities. The follow-up Apocalypse ’91 began with the ominous line that “the future holds nothing else but confrontation,” before pursuing a literary (“when I get mad, I put it down on a pad”) confrontation with topics ranging from white supremacy (“By the Time I get to Arizona” and “One Million Bottlebags”), to the ways that black violence legitimates white stereotyping (“Nighttrain”), and the co-option of hip-hop by commercial radio (“How to Kill a Radio Consultant”). Other rap had been less concerned with the literary: NWA’s “Fuck the Police” diagnosed the problem clearly enough (“they’ve the got the authority to kill a minority”); Ice-T’s band Bodycount followed in 1992 with “Copkiller,” which was so explicit that the album was re-released without it. And then the issue sort of disappeared from the media. As one of the bridges on the Bodycount album put it, “eleven youths killed in gang-related violence. Now sports.”
I don’t think it’s cynical to wonder whether, had the Rodney King encounter happened today, he would simply have been shot. I also think it’s worth pointing out that police brutality against black men has been going on for a long time. By that, I do not mean a reference to slavery, or the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment was passed partly to force local police to stop whites from lynching newly freed slaves, and I am not referring to the violence of Jim Crow. I’m referring to the post-civil-rights-era carceral system, and it needs to be underscored that police violence is only one particularly legible point in what can only be called the abetting of white supremacy by the excessive policing of people of color. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Nearly 500 in 100,000 people in the U.S. are currently in jail, for a total of nearly 1.6 million individuals in 2010. That rate is five times the average of 100 per 100,000 people in comparably-developed countries. The burden of incarceration falls disproportionately on some (predictable) demographic groups. 90% of those incarcerated are men, and black and Latino men are particularly hard hit. As of 2010, black men were incarcerated at 6.7 times the rate of white men (3074 per 100,000 versus 459). Latino men are incarcerated at more than double the rate of white men (1258 per 100,000). Similarly, African Americans constitute 13% of the total U.S. population, while accounting for 28% of all arrests; 86% of those “stopped and frisked” in New York were African American, and 88% of those individuals were innocent of any wrongdoing.
Black women face their own problems: left to sustain broken communities and raise families while their partners are in jail, social services find it disturbingly easy to take their children from them and put them in foster care. Not very long ago in South Carolina, Debra Harrell was arrested and had her child taken from her because she let the child play in a park while she tried to make ends meet working at a nearby McDonalds (why was she working there, at subhuman wages? No doubt welfare reform). In the meantime, black women are apparently not allowed to defend themselves, either: Marissa Alexander faces up to 60 years in jail for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband after he threatened to kill her. This happened in Florida, the same state where Trayvon Martin’s killer got to walk in part because of a stand-your-ground defense.
And of course social assistance for the poor has been thoroughly gutted over the last thirty years as the poor get recategorized into “deserving” and “undeserving,” where the former are those who work jobs that pay wages too low to survive on (so the point is to bully people into internalizing an imperative to work). This combined structural assault on already marginal lives ought to be the real story. Here is sociologist Loïc Wacquant:
“The primary clients of the assistantial and carceral wings of the neoliberal state are essentially the two gender sides of the same population coin drawn from the marginalized fractions of the postindustrial working class. The state regulates the troublesome behaviors of these women (and their children) through workfare and those of the men in their lives (that is, their partners as well as sons, brothers, cousins, and fathers) through criminal justice supervision” (Punishing the Poor, 99)
We have another cultural moment now where the structural assault on urban communities of color generates highly visible moments of extreme violence, and there is a national conversation about this violence. I doubt the moment will last. One of the insidious aspects of systemic violence is that it can stay just under the surface, becoming visible only occasionally. When that happens, everyone can pretend to be surprised, worried about bad apples or inadequate police training. To be sure, it’s hard for most people to believe the police just gunned down an innocent person, so there are ad hoc, defamatory stories about how Mike Brown had probably shoplifted some cigars (in what morally acceptable universe does suspicion of shoplifting – fine, concede the point for the sake of argument: irrefutable proof of shoplifting! – justify summary execution?). Oh, and he was big. 6’4”. Therefore, etc. Brown’s family has had to dig out personal video of him in graduation regalia and underline that he was on his way to college.
The episodic, rather than systemic, narrative about urban poverty and police violence also licenses the heavy-handed response to protests: if you don’t see the systemic violence, if you only see the occasional bad apple, then you might be inclined to think that the main story out of Ferguson is looting. Those people: so prone to riot! And so the militarized, assault-weaponized police tactics become retroactively justified: see! always already on the way to looting! We must protect family, order, property!
Finally, the structural nature of the violence allows different people to see different things when they watch the Powell video. Indeed, research on implicit bias seems to show that people – black and white – are more likely to shoot a black suspect than a white one (the below is from this lit review):
“The first study supported this hypothesis, as participants “shot” at armed individuals more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White, and made the decision to refrain from shooting unarmed targets more quickly when they were White as opposed to African Americans. The second study required participants to make “shoot or not” decisions within even shorter time constraints, and this led to the finding that when participants neglected to shoot an armed target, the individual on the screen tended to be White rather than African American. And, in circumstances where the videogame character was displaying a harmless object, participants were more likely to mistakenly shoot African Americans versus Whites. Part three of the study considered the effects of prejudice and personal endorsement of the violent stereotype about African Americans; however, these did not predict shooter bias. In short, it seems that the shooter bias observed was a byproduct of knowledge of the cultural stereotype rather than personal endorsement thereof. Indeed, in study four, researchers found that African American and White participants displayed similar levels of bias” (38; it should be noted that a follow-up study found that police officers did better than untrained civilians).
We liberals are pretty good at diagnosing what I’ll call the “myth of the angry black man.” The narrative goes something like this: after a police shooting, when we discover that the black victim was unarmed and/or not obviously violent, we explain the event in terms of racist attitudes (explicit or implicit) on the part of the police officer(s) involved, and maybe some racist training videos. “We” know better: black men are not constitutionally angry and more than white people are. So the correct remedy is better police training, or screening of officers. And we are comforted in the knowledge that those remedies are, indeed, absolutely mandatory.
But the myth of the angry black man does more work than that, work which I’m going to call (reworking just a bit a trope from Ladelle McWhorter) the “myth of the myth of the angry black man.” The myth-of-the myth serves to occlude structural racism: if the problem is the false consciousness of police officers, then all roads lead to remedying that specific problem. The myth-of-the-myth lets everyone but police officers and the people they shoot off easy by locating the problem in individual acts by individual people. One problem is that it makes it impossible to propose that black men have very good reasons to be angry. Another is that it lets media attention focus on looting, and not the situation that caused it (this attention is fed by a culture that fetishizes its confusion of property and freedom). Another is that it reduces the shooting victim to a passive role in his own demise. “We know” that he’s “not angry,” and so we quit asking about how he found himself in a situation where he is perceived as angry. And so the deep structural features of his life – for example, the deep and abiding implicit biases most people have in favor of white people; the efforts of the neoliberal state to dismantle anything like a social safety net for people whose livelihoods disappeared in the wake of corporate mergers, leveraged buyouts and outsourcing; the current neoliberal assault on public employees as somehow parasites we could all do without; the deliberately racist efforts to obtain votes by making non-white people really scary or seemingly irrational (“welfare queen,” Willie Horton); the way that media is complicit in portraying any non-white person who shows emotion (say, after winning a heavily hyped football game) as a “thug;” the fact that white people commit crimes at the same rate as nonwhites, but don’t go to jail for them; the catastrophic effects of the war on drugs – all become invisible. We can’t ask really tough questions like the one Leigh Johnson did: is it a stretch to call the contemporary U.S. an apartheid state?
To put it differently: Clive Bundy is alive today, and was not shot even though he and his supporters repeatedly pointed guns at police. Kajieme Powell and Mike Brown and Eric Garner and a lot of other people are not. It turns out that you get your white privilege even if you deny the sovereignty of the federal government.