When crisis occurs, we can respond in several ways. We can crumble under the pressure and bury our heads in the sand. We can become bitter or self-pitying, or we can analyze the situation, learn from it and move forward.
No one would disagree that the ongoing issue of police officers killing Black people with impunity is a crisis on a HUGE level. Rather than becoming bitter, self-pitying or indifferent, I suggest we see this issue as a teachable moment (in addition to resisting it at every turn).
Every time a police officer murders a Black person in the United States and faces no adequate punishment for his/her deed, we protest or cry out for justice.
Whites collectively respond to our protest, usually in resentful and non sympathetic ways. We can learn much about the nature of this country via white backlash to Black resistance. This phenomenon reveals much about white supremacy, the perception of Black people, and whites’ own sociopolitical challenges.
The tragic and unnecessary murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley – and in a separate but related issue – New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, teach us about the issue of police brutality and its related consequences.
But our lessons don’t stop there. These tragedies also pull back the curtains of white American psyche and reveal disturbing attitudes, perceptions and instincts that forcefully explain the significance of race in our society.
First, we must understand that police brutality is not a new or modern phenomenon. State-sanctioned and organized violence has always been the “enforcer” or “muscle” behind the edifice of white supremacy.
This relationship began centuries ago when whites first invaded the African continent and snatched Black people to be their non-consensual laborers.
Coercion manifested again when European powers colonized the continent, and used indigenous labor to mine the soil for diamonds, gold, rubber and other resources to jump-start European industrial growth.
Whether under the guise of enslavement, colonialism, imperialism or modern inner-city occupation, military force was/is a constant. The only differences were the uniforms, weapons, and language used or time period in question.
Why was military force so crucial to the projects of enslavement, colonialism and imperialism? No one wants to be exploited, enslaved or mistreated. People typically rebel, resist and refuse to cooperate with their subjugation.
White supremacists therefore needed coercion to control our wealth and labor and intimidate us from mounting any resistance to their efforts.
Police – despite what we learned in school – do not actually exist to “protect and serve” the poor or marginalized. They exist to protect and serve state power, policies and property. They exist to monitor, intimidate, and control the masses so that the corporations and government can run smoothly and safely with minimal glitches.
This is not to suggest that modern police do not provide certain important services to non-affluent or melanated citizens. They do intervene in domestic disputes and help to prevent or solve a variety of petty crimes.
This should not surprise us, nor does this fact negate the oppressive role of police. A functional society requires some degree of safety and order (complete chaos and unpredictability is bad for business). Also, an aspiring police-state in a “leader of the free world” nation like the United States must carefully camouflage its sinister intentions, lest it lose face throughout the world and lead the masses to initiate full-scale revolution.
When we challenge police brutality then, we confront more than police violence; we also challenge the very nature and structure of U.S. culture, including its para-military components. Certainly the police force needs serious reform but even farther, the nation and its police force need to be dismantled and rebuilt with vastly different objectives, values, and methods.
While the corporate media and the police force itself will strongly disadgree, the police force exists to protect white racial and corporate interests and whites for this reason generally are supportive of them.
Some whites do acknowledge and oppose the disproportionate assault and murder of Black people by police officers. In city after city, whenever protests occur, we notice mixed crowds, with whites chanting, marching, “dying-in” and being arrested, alongside Black folk. Regardless of our political ideology, we cannot simply asume people’s politics based on their racial identity. We cannot easily place people in rigid categories or sides regarding the issue of police brutality. For example, We know of police watch groups and activities supported largely by white activists, and regular citizens. Their struggle and sacrifice are duly noted and appreciated.
Nevertheless, why do so many whites justify and support the very police forces that mistreat and kill us? Why do so many blame us for being attacked and killed? And what does this tell us about this country and about the nature of white supremacy? These are the questions of the hour, and here are some answers to think about:
- Many whites even when presented with the statistics and other evidence refuse to acknowledge anti-Black police brutality. This denial is sometimes psychological. Such whites don’t want to admit that this country still mistreats certain citizens because they desperately need to believe that this country, and by extension themselves, are as fair-minded, and good-hearted as they proclaim they are. How else can people rail against human rights abuses in other nations and psychologically distance themselves from their equally inhumane behavior? How else can they salute the flag, and praise American military campaigns against the “bad guys” overseas? In the divisive game of us vs. them, privileged whites need an outsider to oppose. Therefore, whites’ insensitivity to us meets a psychological need.
- Some whites don’t empathize with the pain and suffering of Black people because deep down inside they believe the racial stereotypes classifying Black people as violent, criminal and prone to exaggeration about racial injustice. In other words, when a cop assaults or kills one of us, they believe that we deserve it.
- The white establishment has long worked to separate whites and Blacks and encouraged even poor whites to have antagonistic relations with and perceptions of Black people. There was a time – the period during which the “United States” was a collection of British colonies – when poor whites and Blacks fought together to defeat the rich white planter class in the U.S. Privileged whites responded by legally punishing poor whites that sympathized with Black resistance rather than enjoying and defending their racial privileges. This created a false sense of alliance with privileged white elites against Black people with whom they shared class oppression. Creating rigid racial and class divisions among poor whites and Blacks serves the elite’s interests, as they can prevent possibly revolutionary interracial class alliances between Blacks and whites, and maintain control over both groups. In this sense, whites have been duped.
- Many whites have a deep-seated fear of Black violence and retribution. Given the opportunity, they believe, Black people will harm or kill them in retaliation for all the years of white discrimination, brutality and exploitation. They see the police then, as their security blanket against Black insurrection and therefore are prone to support and defend them. This also explains the exaggerated media, financial support, and “hero” status awarded to slain officers Ramos and Liu. This becomes necessary both to support American values and reverence for the police.
In conclusion, the verdict is clear. Our perspectives, values and interests are not shared by everyone. There will be times when whites and our own people are unwilling or unable to “get it.” In the case of whites, this is because they derive privilege and status relief from our subjugation. Our people cower in fear of their enemies, in addition to naive and unreciprocated feelings of humanitarianism and “oneness.” But our struggle is a righteous one, and we must wage it regardless of outside vindication or dissension from family members OR outsiders. Simply put, white folks don’t get to decide what Black people get upset about or how we choose to express our outrage. Black lives DO matter, and no one, cop or otherwise has a license to kill us with impunity. We are tired of people’s attempts to decide which of our issues is ‘worthy” of our attention or to champion and defend those responsible for our death. We are tired of being pressured to grieve for others or empathize with their pain, when NO ONE GRIEVES FOR US! When the two NYC police officers were killed, they were labeled “heroes,” flags flew at half-mast, and every media personality described their murders as “executions” or “assassinations.” The city began raising money to pay of the mortgages of their wives and children. Who cries for us? Who acknowledges our humanity and right to live? It is insulting that when our people are killed we have to defend why they did not deserve to die! Police officers lives are no more precious than the lives of civilians. Nor will we allow whites to determine our political priorities or “heroes.”
The sad reality here is that for all the so-called “progress” everyone tell us we’ve made, white supremacy, along with its insulting assumptions, perceptions, and unwritten truths, is alive and well. It is infuriating to know that the average person will get more jail time for killing a DOG than they will for shooting and killing an unarmed Black man. Just ask Michael Vick. This fact, and the fact that white folks are comfortable with and derive privileges from the racist state of affairs, practically guaranteeing a long life for white supremacy. It’s not just a simple matter of life and death, but of privilege, identity, and values. And that is the grand lesson here. Black lives, in far too many instances only matter to Black people…..
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.