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.