Dallas, Baton Rouge, and the New Level of Resistance

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by Yusef Imhotep

Dallas and Baton Rouge mark a new moment in the re-emerging Black Liberation movement, even if many activists aren’t ready to call what’s happening in the streets by that moniker.  Experts and pundits have already called both the attack in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstration and the attack in Baton Rouge 3 days later senseless and unacceptable violence.  What they are is a new level of resistance. The shooters, Micah Xavier Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) were clear. They shot those police officers in retaliation for the police murders of Black people. They executed their actions in a planned, surgical, and pointed manner. This is resistance, whether one approves of the methods or not.  Community activists around the U.S. have long predicted an eventual armed group self-defense resistance because no people could continue to endure the abuse and repression U.S. Africans have endured since the height of the last sustained resistance during the Civil Rights and Black Power era. What have also been predictable are the responses to this heightened resistance: Republican politicians and conservative pundits blaming the president for endangering police with incendiary rhetoric, the president himself  characterizing the shootings as “vicious, callous, and despicable,” and cowardly, public figures placing responsibility on the Black Lives Matter movement for supposedly creating a hostile environment for police, traditional Civil Rights leadership, Black elected officials, and Black celebrities calling for peace and decrying violence “from both sides” in the face of the violent oppression of Black people, and the characterizing of Micah X. Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra as mentally unstable, disturbed individuals. All of these responses either mischaracterize or obscure the real context for Dallas and Baton Rouge. They instead offer various forms of cover and permission to pervasive police repression.

President Obama has faithfully maintained business as usual in the United States, an able operative of the sector of the ruling class that he represents.  Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric the conservative and liberal political talking points regarding the incompetence or subversion of their opposition, they are united in their commitment to business as usual, the flow of corporate money, and the extension of U.S. military and economic hegemony internationally.  President Obama, like every president before him, is the president of white America. So when the antagonistic relationship between African descendents in the U.S. and U.S. society re-emerges in one of its most spectacular forms, policing, the 2nd first Black president finds himself in an untenable position. As an African descended man of color and a lawyer, Mr. Obama is well aware of the violence that characterizes police interactions with Black people.

However, Mr. Obama is also aware of the special place police hold in the hearts of white Americans, who widely view police officers, especially white police officers, as the great defenders of civilization and the American way of life, particularly in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, both of which, philosophical non-violence notwithstanding, were and are seen as periods of lawlessness and disorder.  An impetus to discipline, punish and corral Black resistance has animated public discourse and policy on law and governance since then.  So as far back as his first term when Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was erroneously arrested for entering his own house and Mr. Obama correctly and mildly identified the problematically poor behavior, the stupid behavior, of the police when they deal with African and Latino citizens, the conservative critics of the president have used those words to accuse him of inciting hatred and disrespect for the police.  The Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements both made it impossible to cling to the myth of U.S. innocence as they both revealed the heavy hand of the State in a contest for democratic space.  The professional conservatives refuse to see police repression of Black people for what it is.  They are committed to the lie.  It doesn’t matter what President Obama says.  His critics are a priori ready to lay blame at his feet.

What can I say of the president himself?  Because he is the primary representative of the U.S. state and the (problematic) embodiment of the American ego-ideal, he needed to say something about Dallas and Baton Rouge that would reassure Americans that he would defend the humanity and the mission of the downed police officers.  He described Micah Johnson’s actions as “vicious, callous, and despicable.”  How else could he characterize Johnson’s offensive?  He declared that there is no reason to shoot police officers following Setepenra’s attack.  He certainly wasn’t going to condone the shootings.  But the irony is thick.  These words came from the mouth of a man that maintains a kill list, approves the lethal use of drones, and has executed U.S. citizens abroad, liquidating their right to a trial by jury of their peers.  U.S. presidents are well acquainted with vicious, callous, despicable uses of violence.

The Black Lives Matter movement provides the easiest target for reactionary blame for Micah Johnson’s and Cosmo Setepenra’s actions.  Since the founding of BLM, defenders of the police and the criminal justice system have accused Black Lives Matter of making an already dangerous job even more dangerous.  This accusation simply went into overdrive.  Black Lives Matter has been disruptive, visible, articulate, resilient and resourceful over the last two years since the spontaneous and sustained resistance in Ferguson, MO, following Mike Brown’s murder.  They have kept the issue of both police and private citizen violence against Black people topical through their activism and organizing. Even as recipients of principled criticism from other Black activists engaged in a serious and independent organizing, Black Lives Matter has helped keep Black communities across the U.S. politically engaged with renewed energy.

Black Lives Matter employs non-violent direct actions like vigils, marches, die-ins, and disruptions.  One of their most recognizable memes since 2014 is the “Hands-up, don’t shoot” posture and slogan.  Black Lives Matter is decidedly non-violent. Those Black people and their non-Black allies demonstrating in the streets have not created the hostile environment.  They are responding to the hostile environment Black people endure every day, one in which Black lives so easily end at the hands of the police and private citizens without any guarantee of justice.  To do so amounts to an unforgivable sin in U.S. public discourse as it exposes the emptiness of claims to national unity.  Black protest cannot divide what was never unified.

Next, we have Representative John Lewis and the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hip Hop MCs and impresarios, and most prominently several NBA superstars declaring for peace, for unity, for family and for understanding on both sides.  On the one hand, these responses gloss over the antagonistic relation between U.S. State and Civil Society forces and the U.S. African population.  U.S. society developed at the expense of African life and labor, and the society continues to benefit from an exploitative social relation through various sectors such as the prison industrial complex and finance capital in the form of high-interest payday loans and sub-prime loans.  On the other hand, these responses assume an equivalency between the national Black community and the State.  However, the State is bound by its own laws and international law to serve and protect citizens, including Black citizens.  Historically, rather than serving and protecting Black citizens and Black communities, police agencies have aggressively patrolled Black citizens and communities like they are in enemy territory.  Black communities possess none of the firepower or the institutional resources available to the state.  Nor do Black citizens have anymore obligation to be law abiding than any other citizens and residents.  The admonition from highly visible African Americans for the masses to behave better, more respectably, arises from the same false assumptions of pervasive criminality in Black communities.  The police, as agents of the state, have a higher duty to behave ethically, and when they don’t, the state has a higher duty to hold the police responsible.  The regular and routine exonerations of police officers (and private citizens) or the minimal consequences for police officers (and private citizens) after they have shot or choked and killed Black citizens, and others, have created an environment of impunity in the face of the murders of Black people.  That is exactly why the value of Black lives has been asserted.  The only threat the Black community poses to police officers is the one that haunts their imaginations and the imagination of the society at large.  That phantom of Black criminality also infiltrates the common sense of the national Black community.

Highly visible veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Black elected officials, Black chiefs-of-police, and Black celebrities, all those who have most directly befitted from the advances gained with the limited opening of access since the Civil Rights Movement, have every reason to believe in the system.  It has rewarded them greatly.  So they try to walk a fine line, asserting the dignity and rights of Black people in the context of discrimination and racialized policing, but defending the fundamental credibility and authority of the system.  But this sector of the U.S. national Black community, the Black middle classes, the Black petty bourgeoisie, the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs after white women as a group, is upholding its part of the “new racial bribe,” the bargain with white power in the United States described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.  In the face of this, the U.S. African majority, the working class, the barely working, the mass incarcerated, the priced-out, suffer deeply all the worst effects of an exploitative, parasitic and violent system.  Those folks Houston Baker, Jr. defends as the poor Black majority in Little Africas all over the U.S. require no sensitivity training to understand better the plight of the police, as Russell Simmons recently recommended in Los Angeles.  Black Lives Matter and all the formations who demonstrate under that slogan and others who offer principled criticism of BLM are to be applauded for remaining in the streets and pushing back against attempts to shut down the movement after the shootings.  By doing so, they have challenged the turn to a new old narrative of police endangerment and police bravery by keeping the focus on police misconduct and systemic racism that demonstrate the colonial relationship the U.S. maintains with the U.S. African population.

Finally, several commentators have declared, outside of their expertise, that Micah Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) clearly suffered from mental illness. Why else would they ambush the police?  They would have to be disturbed to do so, right?  Both men received their training from the U.S. military, the former from the army and the latter from the marines.  They executed their attacks in a tactical manner.  They used the element of surprise to their advantage.  They targeted armed forces.  They acted with purpose and offered rationales for their actions.  They conceived of themselves as politically informed, and engaged with a declared enemy.  They acted as militant insurgents.  From a Fanonian perspective, far from a sign of mental illness, the actions of Johnson and Setepenra manifest a turn toward mental health, a reasonable response to the violence of the white supremacist state and society and a claim to the right of group defense and group preservation.  As for those who claim the attacks were false flag operations to shift the narrative in favor of the police and further criminalize and alienate Black resistance, even if this were the case, and I for one strongly doubt that, the attacks have not been widely condemned by the grassroots, nor have the street protesters been deterred, and the example set runs a high probability of inspiring deeper resistance.  That does not mean that shootings of police will necessarily increase, but it instills a sense of consequence when the state is so unreliable.  To characterize the actions as the work of the nefarious covert state is to deny the resistance the therapeutic effects of militant group defense.  So even if one cannot condone Johnson and Setepenra on the grounds of a philosophical commitment to non-violent resistance or tactical cost-benefit analysis of armed action, they should not be characterized as disturbed.  They are certainly no more disturbed than their fellow veterans who joined U.S. police departments, nor more disturbed than the rest of us colonized bodies and minds who daily engage in self and group negating practices.

All the officers connected to the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore have been acquitted or had the charges dismissed, despite the official ruling of homicide.  This is why the resistance exists.  This is why, for some, the tactics of Black Lives Matter are insufficient.  This is why the resistance has intensified.  This is also why the repression will intensify.  As conversations on police and Black community relations move forward, or turn in circles, as calls for improved “race relations” continue to sound, the comments of Officer Jonathan Aledda of North Miami, Florida, should be kept at the forefront of the conversation.  Charles Kinsey, the behavioral specialist in North Miami whom Officer Aledda recently shot despite Kinsey stretching out on the ground with his hands up, asked the officer why he shot him.  Officer Aledda responded, “I don’t know.”  He doesn’t know.  He doesn’t necessarily have to know.  He did not act with reason.  He acted from thoughtless compulsion when confronted with a black body, a Black life. That should be most disturbing.



President Obama and the Limits of an Anti-Racist Politic (Also published at www.BlackFood.org)

 On the façade of the Los Angeles Sentinel office on Crenshaw Boulevard, two banners hang: one banner reproduces Shepard Fairey’s brand image of Obama and declares the Crenshaw neighborhood “Obama Country” while the other banner encourages the Black community to continue to support the President and defend him against attacks from his critics.  Dr. Jared Ball recently interviewed Ishmael Reed about Reed’s new book discussing the attacks on President Obama from the political Right and the political Left, Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media, or the Return of the “Nigger Breakers” (voxunion.com Dec. 31, 2010). The interview very quickly became contentious as Dr. Ball challenged Dr. Reed on what seems to be Reed’s unwavering support for Obama.  Dr. Reed correctly identifies the explicit and implicit racism coming from the U.S. political Right; however, the interview reveals a reactionary tendency to protect Obama from Leftist critics as well, including his Black Left critics.

Reed is joined in this by Amiri Baraka, a long time radical activist and defender of Black humanity.  This prevailing policy of supporting the President at all costs undermines the best intentions of Black defenders of Obama and his administration, if they intend the liberation of Black communities; this policy gives Black people what they don’t need: a reason to support a leadership whose actions demonstrate an antipathy to total Black freedom.  Obama is neither a friend nor a defender of Black people, and although we can recognize the racist anxiety his tenure in the White House has stirred in the U.S., and recognize the real danger that implies and provokes, we must not allow that recognition to blind us to attacks on the African world his Presidency facilitates, within U.S. borders and abroad.

Support for Obama continues to be based on the fact of his blackness, his undeniable African descent.  We luxuriate in the presence of the First Black President, a Black First Family, young, vital, beautiful, solid and intact.  We celebrate the example the Obamas set for our children.  Because they strike such a glorious pose in stark contradiction to the ordinary portrayal of Black families mired in disarray and conflict, Black people are encouraged to support Obama.  Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, the brilliant Black psychiatrist and author of “The Cress Theory of Color Confrontation” and The Isis Papers, has spent her career deconstructing the symbolic narratives of the global system of white supremacy.  Yet she has also called for Black people to get behind the President and make sure he is re-elected as a practice of self defense of the Black community and self love because the image of an intact, in love Black family in the White House works against the constant negative programming defaming Black people and Black families.  But the U.S. Presidency is the preeminent purveyor of white supremacy in the world, and the First Black President has been unable to mitigate that fact.  In fact, he has aggressively pursued a belligerent policy against the global African world.

Black supporters of President Obama can no longer place Obama’s policies at the feet of George W. Bush.  President Obama has not merely inherited the domestic and foreign policies of the Bush administration, messes that he has had to clean.  He has embraced them, extended them and further institutionalized them.  The world expects the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center to be closed, but that site of human brutality exercised in the name of life and liberty’s defense remains open.  As a candidate, Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, and he has.  The Obama administration has increased the use of drone attacks into Pakistan and Yemen.  The Obama administration continues to prosecute the war in Somalia, using compliant African proxies to frustrate the aims of the indigenous Somali popular resistance, who continue to gain ground anyway.  The Obama administration aggressively continues to pursue a policy of destabilization and regime change in Zimbabwe, as the recent WikiLeaks document postings have revealed.  The Obama administration continues to deploy AFRICOM to achieve U.S. interests in Africa.  U.S. interests continue to be corporate interests, despite democratic rhetoric.  The Obama administration continues to restructure Haiti as a 21st Century neo-colony, miring the Haitian people in a cesspool of NGO and MINUSTAH corruption and appointing Bill Clinton as a de facto viceroy to further entrench neo-liberal economic relations in the country.  The Obama administration continues to allow Black New Orleans, which is to say most of New Orleans, to languish in disrepair, dissolution and dispersal.  Obama’s Justice Department under Eric Holder continues to act aggressively under the Patriot Act, infiltrating peace groups and entrapping Africans in phony bomb plots designed by their own agents.

Since the murder of Oscar Grant, more than twenty U.S. Africans have been killed by U.S. police agencies, and 2 more hospitalized.  That, I’m sure, is an under count.  These have included Imam Luqman Abdullah of Dearborn, Michigan, accused of running guns to terrorists, but found shot in the back wearing handcuffs, DeCarlos Moore, James Rivera (15 years old), Tyron Lewis, Brandon McCleland, Troy Joiner, Shaquista Johnson, Deonte Rollins, James Davis, Danroy Henry, Jr., and 7 year old Aiyana Jones, killed while sleeping on her couch with her grandmother.  The police raided her home and an adjoining apartment in the kind of military operation commonly used as a policing technique.

The child was hit by the flash grenade shot into the room and shot in the neck.  The Detroit police had the wrong apartment, but they knew that. That’s why they raided both apartments, putting innocent people at risk as a matter of policy.  Law professor Michelle Alexander describes the practice in her recent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: “In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.  In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those who are completely innocent of any crime” (74).  This is Obama’s United States, same as Bush’s United States.

The ascendency/selection of Obama to the U.S. Presidency cannot be allowed to cover over the ugly soul of U.S. society and imperial reach.  The fact of his blackness in the seat of power does not equal Black Power.  President Obama has sworn to uphold the interests of the United States.  The interests of the United States are directly opposed to Black independence worldwide and domestically, despite its constant rhetoric and self-projection as the preeminent promoter of democracy and human rights.  The President of the United States serves the ruling class of the United States, and the ruling class of the United States demands maintenance of the status quo, the rule of capital and the rule of whiteness.  Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan was very direct about the meaning of Barack Obama’s election.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, on Real Time with Bill Maher and on The Colbert Report, Sullivan passionately explained that having Obama in office, someone who looks like the world at large, would facilitate the agenda of the West.  He would be perceived, at least initially, as one of them and thus sympathetic to their interests.  In short, he would be a stealth operative hiding in the open in white North America’s and Europe’s campaign to maintain global hegemony, to maintain the rule of capital and the rule of whiteness.

Unwavering support of President Obama becomes unwavering support for U.S. Empire and continued internal colonialism domestically.  Africans worldwide must be able to describe and expose the virulent racism energizing right wing opposition to President Obama and at the same time recognize, describe, and oppose those policies detrimental to Black life and development coming forth from the Obama administration.  We must also recognize that President Obama not only acts within the structural limits of a U.S. State designed to maintain the rule of capital and whiteness, but that he actually believes what he is doing is correct.  This is who he is, a corporate Democrat, attuned to the needs of Wall Street, and an admirer of Ronald Reagan.  We should take him at his word when he says Reagan was correct to attack the “excesses of the 60s and 70s.”  Does he mean an excess of freedom?