All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
Whenever there is an uprising in an American city, as we’ve seen in Baltimore over the past few days in response to the police-involved death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, there always emerges a chorus of elected officials, pundits, and other public figures that forcefully condemn “violent protests.” They offer their unconditional support for “legitimate” or “peaceful” protests, but describe those who break windows and set fires as thugs, criminals, or animals. And eventually someone invokes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement, reminding us that nonviolence brought down Jim Crow segregation and won voting rights.
There’s something that needs to be cleared up: the civil-rights movement was not successful because the quiet dignity of nonviolent protests appealed to the morality of the white public. Nonviolent direct action, a staple employed by many organizations during the civil-rights movement, was and is a much more sophisticated tactic. Organizers found success when nonviolent protests were able to provoke white violence, either by ordinary citizens or police, and images of that brutality were transmitted across the country and the rest of the world. The pictures of bloodied bodies standing in nonviolent defiance of the law horrified people at home and proved embarrassing for the country in a global context.
So anyone who calls for protestors to remain “peaceful,” like the civil-rights activists of old, must answer this question: What actions should be taken when America refuses to be ashamed? Images of black death are proliferating beyond our capacity to tell each story, yet there remains no tipping point in sight—no moment when white people in America will say, “Enough.” And no amount of international outrage diminishes the US’s reputation to the point of challenging its status as a hegemonic superpower.
What change will a “peaceful” protest spark if a “peaceful” protest is so easy to ignore?
It’s not only ahistorical to suggest that “riots” have never been useful in the quest for social justice, it is impractical to believe that the exact same tactics of movements past can be applied today. The politics of our time are different, so must be our social justice movements.
Does that mean “riots” are the answer? No one knows. If the anger of a people denied humanity and democracy is continually dismissed as lawlessness, perhaps these uprisings will prove only destructive. But if the people with the ability to change the system that produced this anger will only listen to the sound of shattering glass, then maybe this is the solution.
Either way, condemnation without understanding will only feed the current rage. If the elected officials, pundits, and other public figures are actually concerned about torn up buildings and burned out cars, they’d do better to pay less attention to King’s tactic of nonviolence and more to his message of justice.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the abolition of the police
A few weeks ago, there was a shooting at my apartment building. A total of five shots were fired resulting in, thankfully, zero injuries. I was home when it happened, but live on the third floor, away from the shooter’s target. The kids downstairs, who hang out in the hallway pretty much everyday, drinking, smoking, talking shit, and selling weed, had some of their beef meet them at home. That night, I remember hearing one of them scream, “They shot me bro!”—though it seems it was probably the shock of the gunshots plus the shattering of glass from the building’s front door that made him believe he was hit. It was frightening.
However, more frightening than that is the fact that nearly every night since the shooting there has either been a police car, parked across the street with its lights flashing, or two cops posted outside my building, right at the steps, standing guard. This is supposed to be the measure that prevents further violence, but the presence of the police scares me more than the kids selling drugs or the gunshots ever did.
One day, while walking into my building, avoiding all eye contact with the two officers, I heard one of them say to other “Wanna do a vertical?” as I put my keys in the front door. A vertical is when police enter a building and go from top to bottom, scoping the place out for any potential criminal activity. I remember that these are the circumstances under which Akai Gurley was killed.
Another night, I was walking to the bodega to buy some ice cream, and as soon as I hit the bottom of the steps, still needing to walk down the hallway to get to the front door, the officers eyes were fixed on me, and they didn’t let up until I was blocks away. I feel incredibly lucky, especially days later when video surfaced of Walter Scott being shot in the back as he ran away from Officer Michael Slager in South Carolina.
Slager originally stopped Scott for driving with a broken taillight. Scott ran away, possibly fearing he would be arrested for owing back child support, and Slager chased after him. The video doesn’t show when the Taser was drawn, but this interaction escalated to Slager using his taser on Scott, who managed to get away, at which point Slager drew his gun and shot at Scott eight times, hitting him with five shots. Were it not for the video taken by a local bystander, Slager’s account of the shooting—that Scott took the taser and because Slager feared for his life he had no other choice but to shoot him—would be the only account available. Now Slager has been fired and charged with murder.
That’s it, right? That’s what the movement was about? This is what justice looks like, correct? We’ve learned the mistakes from Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner, yeah? We’re going to start holding the police accountable.
I’ve said this before: there is no justice where there are dead black people. I’ll continue saying it, because if we’re satisfied with charges and potential prison time, we’ve missed the entire point of #BlackLivesMatter. This isn’t about getting “better” police, ones who exercise discretion in using force, but getting away from “needing” police altogether.
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote for The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police “serving and protecting” wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?
You abolish it. In 1964, Malcolm X told the students of Oxford Union: “You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it and now there has to be change and a better world has to be built. And the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods.” Abolishing the police is an extreme measure, but as a measure of justice, it should be our ultimate goal.
We don’t consider the abolition of police a viable position to take because we believe they’re the only thing standing between upstanding citizens and the violence of the deranged. We’re afraid of being attacked on the street, of having our homes shot at, and being left without access to equally violent retribution. But does this mean we want police, or safety and security? Safety and security are ideas, ones that may never be fully achieved, and the police are an institution that have proved themselves capable of only providing the illusion of safety and security to a select few. The bulk of their jobs has nothing to do with violence prevention. They spend most of their time doing things like Slager did in his initial contact with Scott—stopping people for broken taillights. Writing for Gawker, David Graeber of the London School of Economics says:
The police spend very little of their time dealing with violent criminals—indeed, police sociologists report that only about 10% of the average police officer’s time is devoted to criminal matters of any kind. Most of the remaining 90% is spent dealing with infractions of various administrative codes and regulations: all those rules about how and where one can eat, drink, smoke, sell, sit, walk, and drive. If two people punch each other, or even draw a knife on each other, police are unlikely to get involved. Drive down the street in a car without license plates, on the other hand, and the authorities will show up instantly, threatening all sorts of dire consequences if you don’t do exactly what they tell you.
The police, then, are essentially just bureaucrats with weapons. Their main role in society is to bring the threat of physical force—even, death—into situations where it would never have been otherwise invoked, such as the enforcement of civic ordinances about the sale of untaxed cigarettes.
Ninety percent of an officer’s time isn’t devoted to our safety, but rather to things we may find annoying (or in the case of things like untaxed cigarettes, create a black market for goods that threaten the profits of businesses), inserting the potential for violence where there is cause for none. And when it comes to preventing heinous acts of violence (or holding the perpetrators accountable) that should be condemned by all, like domestic violence and sexual assault, the police are largely ineffectual. The police are not performing the function we say they are, and there are real ways to achieve a world with less violence that don’t include the police. We simply haven’t tried. Until we invest in full employment, universal healthcare that includes mental health services, free education at every level, comprehensive sex education that teaches about consent and bodily autonomy, the decriminalization of drugs and erasure of the stigma around drug use, affordable and adequate housing, eliminating homophobia and transphobia—things that actually reduce the amount of violence we witness—I don’t want to hear about how necessary the police are. They are only necessary because we are all too willing to hide behind our cowardice and not actually put forth the effort to create a better world. It’s too extreme.
When I say, “abolish the police,” I’m usually asked what I would have us replace them with. My answer is always full social, economic, and political equality, but that’s not what’s actually being asked. What people mean is “who is going to protect us?” Who protects us now? If you’re white and well-off, perhaps the police protect you. The rest of us, not so much. What use do I have for an institution that routinely kills people who look like me, and make it so I’m afraid to walk out of my home?
My honest answer is that I don’t know what a world without police looks like. I only know there will be less dead black people. I know that a world without police is a world with one less institution dedicated to the maintenance of white supremacy and inequality. It’s a world worth imagining.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith interviews Alicia Garza on the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement
Before he became the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson sat down to compose the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he wrote. At the time, he was a slave-owner. Hypocrisy aside, there’s a “duh” factor in saying “all men are created equal,” but Jefferson must have found value in the proclamation of a self-evident truth. The fact that he needed to spell it out might have reflected the reality that we didn’t then live in a world where all men were treated equally—and we don’t now.
On July 13, George Zimmerman was acquitted on murder charges for killing Trayvon Martin. Immediately thereafter, Alicia Garza, an organizer and special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, took to Facebook to write her own self-evident truth: “Black Lives Matter.” At once powerful and haunting, those three words have been embraced as the banner under which a new generation of activists and organizers is building a movement for racial justice. Like Jefferson’s “all men,” the statement is undeniable in its truth. But unlike the celebrated founding father, Garza’s words do not echo a hypocrisy. Instead, they challenge a nation that has failed to live up to its stated belief that “all men are created equal.”
I sat down with Garza, in the first of a series of interviews with the three creators of Black Lives Matter, on February 21, 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and we spoke about imagining a world where the fact that “Black Lives Matter” is self-evident.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: In everything you have written and every interview that you’ve done, you say that Black Lives Matter, as a movement, does not depend on convictions and incarceration for the sense of justice. Why is that?
Alicia Garza: What we are dealing with right now is a disease that has plagued America since its inception. Convicting a few cops isn’t going to deal with that disease. We’ve been trying hard this year to be clear that state violence is bigger than police terrorism. Although police terrorism plays a specific role on behalf of the state, it is not the totality of what state violence looks like or feels like in our communities. We’ve been shifting the narrative to talk about state violence being structural racism. Given that, what we are lifting up here is that we need a bigger vision than just Band-Aid reforms—we need to move towards a transformative vision that touches on what’s at the root of the problems we are facing.
The new movement against police violence was sparked by specific deaths of young black people, as movements of the past have been. In the moment, people want a sense of justice. The chant goes: “Indict, convict, send that killer cop to jail!” Is it hard to get people who are drawn to these rallies and marches on the basis of those deaths to understand that there is more to the movement than convicting the individual police officer—and we need to think bigger than relying on the criminal justice system?
In some ways, [the focus on individual deaths] allows us to build the movement. Right now, our movement is very segmented. Where are the people doing work around housing in this fight around black lives? They may not see the connection between the murder of young black people and evictions and the demolition of public housing. We need to, if we are going to sustain what we’ve started, but also if we are going to get free. Which is the point, right?
The thing that’s important in this moment is that our movement doesn’t become an intellectual exercise, but that it’s something that actually happens in practice. At the NDWA, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about state violence against black domestic workers [and their families]. People say, what’s the connection? Well, we are three-dimensional beings and black women who are working in other people’s homes also have families and are afraid for their children. These are women who are living in communities that have really high rates of unemployment where their kids can’t get quality education. They are living in conditions where over 60 percent of black domestic workers that we talked to said that they didn’t have food in the last month. Many are also spending way more of their income than they should on rent or mortgage. The way we organize forces people to choose what’s most important to them as opposed to creating movement space where people can understand and can put words to and have a framework around what they live every single day.
Is Black Lives Matter a movement aimed towards abolition of the police?
When we sit and think about what the world needs to looks like in order for black lives to actually matter, there is a debate: what is going to make our communities safe, how do we deal with harm, how do we solve problems that come up in our communities? I saw a piece in The Nationthat said we should abolish the police, which was awesome and in some ways is forcing questions that we have been afraid to talk about for a long time. The point to me is to be able to dig into these questions as opposed to being prescriptive about what the answers are.
In the same way, we are living in political moment where for the first time in a long time we are talking about alternatives to capitalism. Socialism became this weird household word partially because right-wingers call Obama a socialist, which he is the farthest from. It is a political moment that’s opening up opportunities to envision a world where people can actually live in dignity. So whether that’s abolishing a criminal justice system that feeds off the labor and the lives of black and brown people, whether that’s abolishing an economic system that thrives on exploitation, poverty and misery: this is the time for us to not just dream about what could be, but also start to build alternatives that we want to see.
But the institution of policing won’t be abolished overnight. In the interim, what does policing look like in a world where black lives matter?
Quite honestly I’m not sure we can have both [policing and the valuing of black lives]. That’s me personally.
Right now we have a really harmful set-up where the police police themselves. They act as judge, jury and executioner, usurping democracy. That’s how we can get a situation where a white man in Wyoming or Montana can stalk and shoot a black chief of police and still be alive. Where people like Cliven Bundy can openly call for an uprising against the government and still be alive and holding property and land—but a little black kid can’t go into a store and get Skittles and an iced tea and live to see the next day. Another little black kid will lay bleeding out for four and a half hours in front of his mother’s home because he is walking in the middle of the street.
I’m not sure that the way that we can have policing where black lives matter because the institution of policing is rooted in the legacy of catching slaves. But what we can do in the interim is make sure that police departments don’t get tax dollars for tanks, for bazookas, for flash grenades and things like that. We can make sure that police departments that have been shown to exercise a pattern and a practice of discriminatory and quite frankly racist policing don’t get resources to do that.
The other thing we can do immediately is insist on more oversight over police departments—oversight that is accountable to the communities the police purport to serve. What this looks like is civilian review boards that actually have teeth. In the worst cases, review boards are still constructed by the police. People who are not going to raise questions or rock the boat are handpicked to play a role. Then we see amazing things like in Los Angeles, where activists just won permanent civilian oversight of the Los Angeles sheriff department, which has not happened before. They are fighting to ensure that there’s teeth and accountability and a redistribution of resources from militarization to community needs, so that we don’t need to put people in jails and prisons.
Black Lives Matter as a slogan and as an ideology has taken off, with a lot people embracing those three simple words. You created it in a moment where you needed to say it for yourself to affirm black lives do matter because there was a pervasive feeling that they don’t. How do you feel now about the way this phrase has been embraced?
That’s such a big question. You know, I’ve been reflecting a lot today. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination and I’ve been reflecting a lot on his contributions. One thing I really admire is that Malcolm talked about self-actualization, self-love and being really rooted in who we are unapologetically. When [Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and I] created Black Lives Matter, it absolutely was about: how do we live in a world that dehumanizes us and still be human? The fight is not just being able to keep breathing. The fight is actually to be able to walk down the street with your head held high—and feel like I belong here, or I deserve to be here, or I just have right to have a level of dignity.
Before [Black Lives Matter] I was hearing people not want to talk about race, even black people. They would say, “When we talk about race it sets us apart from everybody else.” I’m like, “We are different and that’s OK!” It’s actually OK to be unique and have your own contributions, to celebrate what it means to be black, how we’ve survived and thrived through the worst conditions possible.
After Trayvon was killed and when George Zimmerman was acquitted, I was in a public place with a lot of other black people. I felt like I got punched in the gut, but it was like we couldn’t look each other in the eye because on televisions across America that court said black lives don’t matter.
We carry that in our shape. We carry that in our physical body. So what’s profound to me about this moment is the way that black folks are looking at each other in the eyes, the way I was taught to by my mother, who came up in really different political conditions. She told me any time you see black person, you say, “What’s up.” I don’t give a fuck who they are, what they’re doing, what they look like. That’s a culture that we created to survive, a culture of solidarity. It’s what has kept us alive.
I’m really feeling that right and I see it. People come up to me and say, “I’m having a hard time sitting with the fact that I didn’t think this was going to happen again in my lifetime and I just resigned myself to it. Now I’m so hopeful and I don’t know how to feel about how hopeful I am because I’m also scared. I’m scared for what the backlash will be. I’m scared that you all will have to hold what we had to hold and you will have to watch your movement be dismantled.” They say, “We are rooting for y’all.” I’m like, no, “We are rooting for us.” It’s profound.
I don’t know how to wrap my head around what’s happening with Black Lives Matter right now, but what I can say is that I’m so in awe of how bold and brave people have been. I’m so in awe of the folks in Ferguson who are still fighting, no cameras. They are out there every day at the police station doing direct actions, calling out the mayor. They are in it. I’m really honored to be a part of this moment. This is a moment I have dreamed of my whole life. Growing up, I learned about the black freedom struggle and the Black Liberation Movement and was told that this was a “lull period” or that it wasn’t possible to have black liberation in our lifetime. So I’m just grateful to be alive in this moment where more and more people are saying: we believe it can happen and we’re gonna to fight for it.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the Starbucks “Race Together” campaign
My hope is that no Starbucks barista anywhere dares write “Race Together” on anyone’s latte and decides to have a “conversation about race” with customers who simply wanted to pay too much for a cup of coffee. Not only is it extra work for which employees are not being compensated, my gut tells me these conversations will go down with as much awkwardness and anger as the 1975 Saturday Night Live “Word Association” sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, “in which tensions rise as racial slurs are exchanged, boiling over when Chase drops the infamous N-word and Pryor responses with a death threat.”
However, if there is a barista out there just dying to take part in their CEO’s new campaign, I hope they choose only white people to “Race Together” with, and I hope they ask only one question: Where in America are black people safe from racism?
Nowhere. The answer is nowhere. I know this, but maybe it’s time white people were confronted with the question head on and made to consider the answer. And when they’re asked, possibly while nervously sipping their caramel macchiato, the barista should play this video of the arrest of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson and ask, “Should black people at least be safe at school? Can they be granted that much?”
Johnson was arrested outside of a bar he allegedly attempted to enter using a fake ID. He’s been charged with “resisting arrest, obstructing justice without threats of force, and profane swearing or intoxication in public.” According to an e-mail sent by a group of, as Jezebel describes them, concerned black students at UVA, the incident unfolded as follows:
After Martese was denied entry to the bar, he found himself suddenly flung to the ground. The brutish force used resulted in his head and bodily injuries. His treatment was unprovoked as he did not resist questioning or arrest. In confusion, with blood painting his face and creating a pool on the bricks of the corner, he yelled out for mercy. Though he lay bleeding and crying out, officers continued to hold him to the pavement, pinning him down, twisting his arm, with knees to his back until he was handcuffed.
According to The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia student newspaper, the arrest record says Johnson “was very agitated and belligerent but [has] no previous criminal history.” After customer and barista watch the video together, the barista should ask, “Did Martese have reason to be ‘agitated and belligerent,’ having his body thrown to the ground, his face bloodied, because he tried to do something college students everywhere do?”
And if things haven’t gotten too tense at this point, they should then start talking about how Johnson’s exemplary credentials as a student have been mentioned throughout media reports about the incident, and ask this question: Does all that make a difference? If he weren’t an honor student, would he have deserved this treatment? Attending a prestigious university didn’t protect him from American racism, so why should his grades or student leadership? When will we reckon with the fact that there is no level of respectability a black person can reach that will distance them from racism, violent or otherwise?
This shouldn’t be a one-sided lecture on the part of the barista. The white person who’s likely to have gulped down everything in their cup including the foam should have to answer. White people everywhere should ask themselves this question daily. Where in America are black people safe from racism? They should have to answer honestly. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, if he’s really dedicated to this conversation, should kick it off. Then maybe I’ll entertain the idea of us being in this “race together.”
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the DOJ’s report on Ferguson
About a month after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and had yet to be arrested for doing so, I wrote:
The crime of killing a black person still is not greater than the crime of being black.
After Zimmerman had been arrested, I wrote:
Those new to the cause of defending black life will soon have to face the bleak truth black people have lived with for so long: we don’t often win. The justice system has never been kind when it comes to its dealings with black men. Emmett Till’s killers both died of cancer—as free men, never having spent a day in prison. The police officer caught on cell phone camera killing Oscar Grant served all of eleven months. It took more than five years for the cop who fired the first of fifty shots at Sean Bell to lose his job. Despite evidence of his innocence, Troy Davis was executed. And those are just the names we know.
That same month, after Dante Servin shot and killed Rekia Boyd, I wrote:
Even if the police are telling the absolute, 100% truth in this case, the actions of those endowed with the authority to kill should be subject to intense scrutiny. Police command a certain amount of respect, but given how tense and violent the relationship between them and the Black community has been, there is an understandable level of skepticism and apprehension Black people in general hold toward police. So even if it was an accident, it never feels like an accident. Black folk, particularly Black youth, feel hunted. And so long as police are not held accountable for taking the lives of young Black people, the cycle of death and distrust continues.
Several months later, after Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, I wrote:
We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the post-civil rights/Obama era is one in which racism either doesn’t exist or is waning to the point of irrelevance. Whether or not things are “better” starts to feel inconsequential when “better” still means young black people aren’t safe in their own skin. We haven’t come to grips with the fact that America is a fundamentally racist society. Racism built this country into what we know it to be today. It takes more than observing a Martin Luther King Jr holiday and electing a black president to unwind such deep-seated bigotry. We can’t eradicate it if we can’t name it, and so long as we refuse to name it, more Jordans, more Trayvons and more Oscars will die. Their blood is on our hands, and we’ve become so self-satisfied, we don’t even bother to wash it off. We keep moving as if they never existed.
The next summer, after a mistrial was declared in the case of Joseph Weekley killing Aiyana Stanley-Jones, I wrote:
Part of what it means to be black in America now is watching your neighborhood become the training ground for our increasingly militarized police units. The issue is that while, ideally, police would be interested in maintaining peace, when you turn them into soldiers who believe they’re fighting a war they will do what soldiers in a war zone do: harm and kill indiscriminately. Children aren’t exempt.
Less than a month passed before George Zimmerman was acquitted on murder charges for killing Trayvon Martin, and I wrote:
In a statement released the day after the verdict was announced, President Obama said: “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” But I ask him, and everyone else who says we must respect the verdict: How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called to respect exist in an open assault on our humanity? The arc of the moral universe bends slowly. Our lives are on the line right now.
At the beginning of 2014, a mistrial was declared in the case of Michael Dunn killing Jordan Davis (though he was convicted on other charges), and I wrote:
We desperately reaffirm for ourselves and our children the value of black life in a country that declares us worthless. We cry and renew our hope. And then we move on to the next one.
What then? How many more eye-opening essays must we write? How many more freedom songs must we sing? How many more marches and protests must we organize? How many more bodies must we lay to rest before America gets tired, too?
And last year, after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, I wrote:
Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?
Justice for Renisha would have looked like Michael Brown being able to attend college. Justice for Trayvon would have looked like Renisha McBride getting the help she needed the night of her accident. Justice for Oscar Grant would have looked like Trayvon Martin making it home to finish watching the NBA All-Star game, Skittles and iced tea in tow. And so on, and so on. Justice should be the affirmation of our existence.
The point of this is not a survey of my “greatest hits.” I take no joy in having been compelled to write any of this. I take even less joy in the act of finding new words to repeatedly say the same things. It’s not any credit to me as a writer; it’s an indictment of the American refusal to address the roots of the problem. And that refusal has real world consequences, the most visible of which is the still growing list of martyrs of racist/state violence.
With that truth constantly looming in the background, the small victories appear inconsequential. The Department of Justice released its report on the Ferguson police department and confirmed what the residents and activists from the area have been saying since the small Missouri town became a bright spot on our collective maps: the police are shakedown artists, harassing the black community and filling the coffers of local government based on fraudulent and/or unnecessary arrests, summonses and fines, and doing so in a violent manner. It’s good to have this documentation. It’s good to have this evidence. But the desire of the American people to do nothing to address racism, much like climate change, is impervious to facts. No matter how much evidence you throw in our faces, we’ve decided it’s our right as Americans to pretend the problem doesn’t actually exist.
Also, Michael Brown is still dead. And Darren Wilson killed him. The DOJ has decided, as did a grand jury in St. Louis County, that Wilson is not criminally responsible for Brown’s death. There’s a temptation to say that the system worked in Wilson’s case, given the thoroughness of the investigation the DOJ undertook. He was allowed due process. The evidence didn’t support the filing of any charges, whether for murder or the violation of Brown’s civil rights. Wilson committed no crime that the state can prove.
This is not a win for the American system of justice. This is no justice at all. Michael Brown is dead. Let’s say his hands weren’t up when Wilson shot him. Let’s say he charged at Wilson. Let’s say he reached for Wilson’s gun. Let’s say he hit Wilson. Michael Brown shouldn’t have died because of that. His punishment for defiance of a police officer was death. If this is the best system we can think of, we need to be ashamed of ourselves.
There is no justice to be found where there are dead black bodies. There are no congratulations to be awarded when the killers of black people are absolved. This is deeper than Wilson and Brown having an altercation that ended in Brown’s death. It’s about how those two lives came to cross each other’s paths in the first place.
The findings of the DOJ report points us in the direction. The question now is what we will do with the information. The suggestions found in the DOJ report aren’t really transformative—they recommend collecting more data on race and using de-escalation techniques, among other things. They should instead be focused on decriminalizing nonviolent offenses and finding sources of revenue that are not municipal fines—things that will reduce the amount of contact between citizens and the police. If history is any indication, we will change something rather minor, celebrate the victory, and then act as if racism not only disappeared but we never actually had a problem to begin with.
And then I’ll go through my archives and wonder why I’m saying the same things again, and again, and again, and…
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the legacy of Trayvon Martin
Three years ago today, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I think it’s important to say it that way, even if it means mentioning Zimmerman’s name. Trayvon’s life wasn’t simply lost, he didn’t just die too soon—he was killed, his life was taken, and despite what a jury in Florida had to say, a person named George Zimmerman is responsible for his death.
In the years since he was killed, Trayvon’s death, and those of other young black men, served as a catalyst for a new generation of activists that seek to dismantle the structures of white supremacy that target and criminalize black youth. New organizations have been formed, new leaders have emerged, the spirit of resistance has been given a reboot, and a new movement has taken hold.
After Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in the summer of 2013, Alicia Garza, a longtime activist and organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, gave the movement its name—and ideology: Black Lives Matter. It started as a social media hashtag. It is growing into a political force.
The question at the center of this movement is: “What does the world look like when Black Lives Matter?” Not just in terms of policing, which has become a major focus in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City (and the state’s failure to bring charges against the police officers responsible for their deaths), but in all areas of our society. What does education look like when black lives matter? What does the economy look like when black lives matter? What does the environment look like when black lives matter? What does our government look like when black lives matter?
It’s difficult to answer those questions when everyday we are handed reminders that, for the United States as a whole, black lives don’t matter. Neither historically, nor right now—even after all of our “progress” as a nation. Instead, we’ve seen just how little black lives matter in the very institutions that are supposed to be an example of this country’s greatness. The Department of Justice just reminded us of this, only two days before the anniversary of Trayvon’s death, when it announced that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge George Zimmerman with federal civil rights violations. Even the laws created to protect us don’t protect us.
How, then, do we imagine a world where black lives matter? If after centuries of asking, demanding and fighting for equal protection under the laws of an already flawed system, we can’t seek refuge and find understanding of the value of black lives there, what choices do we have left? That’s what is at the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement. We need a new system, one where black lives (and yes, all other lives, but the erasure of anti-blackness—the cornerstone of American racism—clears the way) hold the same value under the law as they do within the hearts of black people.
But that requires us to ask more questions: what do black girl’s lives look like when black lives matter? What do black trans women’s lives look like when black lives matter? When the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown can be the catalyst for a mass national movement, but the deaths of at least six black trans women at the beginning of this year can’t do the same, what are we saying about which black lives matter?
We are in a place where there are more questions to be asked than answers to be offered. And that’s fine, but we have to be willing to ask the questions. We have to face the uncomfortable reality that no easy answer is forthcoming—though I happen to think abolishing the police and prisons, while investing more in social welfare, is a good place to start. There’s so much work to be done, and while that’s one of my least favorite cliches, it is a cliche for a reason. There’s always so much work to be done, if we’re truly committed to creating a world where black lives matter.
This movement started when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, but it’s neither defined by or limited to that moment. It will keep, however, keep going, until there are no more George-Zimmerman-killing-Trayvon-Martin moments to remember.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the American police state
The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith moderated a panel at the Schomburg Center last Wednesday entitled “American Policing: Lessons on Resistance,” featuring the voices of activists and organizers Charlene Carruthers, Ashley Yates, Phillip Agnew, and Dante Barry.
He began the event by making his intentions clear. “I don’t want anyone in this room to mistake me for an objective or impartial journalist moderator. I have marched with, organized with, and written about everyone on this stage. I feel as much a part of the movement as I do a reporter of it. I have an agenda…we need to abolish the pillars of white supremacy and I think the police is one of those.”
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Bratton’s police state on steroids
When NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed last December, I thought the city’s police force would react with violence—more harassment, more arrests, more brutality. Instead, they turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at both Liu and Ramos’s funerals, and participated in a month-long “work stoppage.” During that time, overall arrests were down 66 percent and summonses for low-level crimes were down 94 percent, as they were only making arrests “when they [had] to.” Some observers, myself included, welcomed the work stoppage, as cops were essentially putting an end to “broken windows”–style policing, which disproportionately targets black, Latino and poor citizens, arresting them for “quality of life” offenses that are nonviolent and saddling them with court fees and fines. Broken-windows policing generally leads to more day-to-day harassment and abuse. But apparently, the violent reaction was saved for the city’s top cop.
Police Commissioner William Bratton, the architect of broken-windows policing, announced last week that the NYPD would be forming a new unit, the Strategic Response Group, that would be “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.” In his initial remarks, Bratton said this unit would feature 300 to 350 heavily armed officers tasked with combating the threat of terrorism and handling protests. This week, he acknowledged that protests and terror attacks don’t necessarily merit the same response, and said those situations would be handled by two different units.
“They’ll be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not,” Bratton said, speaking of the unit tasked with counterterrorism, though at the time he hadn’t clarified that there would be two different units charged with two different tasks. “They’ll be equipped with all the extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns—unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”
This week Bratton also tried to convince state legislators that resisting arrest should be upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony. “I think a felony would be very helpful in terms of raising the bar significantly in the penalty for the resistance of arrest,” he said. And since most district attorneys end up dismissing resisting arrest charges—often, police officers use them as a justification for use of force—Bratton would also “ask district attorneys to treat them more seriously than they have been treated in the past.”
With these proposals, Bratton appears to be trying to take the police state to a new level. Is he not content with a city that extracts revenue for its budget from mass arrests, summonses, and fines? Doesn’t look like it. It seems he would also like for the police to operate with unquestioned authority.
It doesn”t seem like special units for counterterrorism and protests would offer any greater degree of harassment and violence to Arab and black communities than already exists, just more specialized and with bigger weapons. But upgrading resisting arrest to a felony gives the police an opportunity to not only be seen as more justified in their use of force when they claim a citizen is resisting arrest but to use the threat of a resisting-arrest charge to make anyone and everyone compliant with any and every directive they issue. There will be little room left to challenge officers (next to none exists as it stands). With resisting arrest left up to the discretion of each individual officer, we could witness entire swaths of the city (I’ll let you guess which ones) turned into land harboring felons.
De Blasio remains committed to both keeping Bratton in as commissioner and sticking to the rhetoric of police reform. If he can’t see that the “reform” Bratton has in mind is a power grab for the police that amounts to a threat to democracy, he’s putting the city at risk of a takeover.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on how to honor MLK
The fact that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a National Day of Service bothers me. It bothers me perhaps even more than when I realized that, as a child growing up in Virginia, we didn’t have a King holiday. We celebrated “Lee-Jackson-King Day”—that is, Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson of the Confederate States of America, alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But at least Virginia wasn’t pretending to care about King’s legacy.
It’s one of the more unconscionable façades the United States maintains. Today, there is deep reverence for King—or for the King that makes Americans proud of their history. There is deep reverence for a message about love, peace, brotherhood and such easily appropriated themes. King is now an icon for colorblindness, which has become the overriding philosophy on how to deal with racism. No matter your political stripe, you pay homage to the man who was derided as an un-American communist agitator during his lifetime.
In some ways, the commitment to depoliticizing figures of great historical importance in order to fit into the narrative of American exceptionalism is quite impressive. Think of how much erasure had to be done in order to have Reince Priebus honor a man whose life work was to dismantle the system of white supremacy and fundamentally alter the American way of life. We’ve come such a long way.
Sure, every year journalists, activists, academics, and anyone who is committed to the idea of justice trots out their “the real MLK” quotes and articles and books, and we have a short memorial of what has been lost. We can all pat ourselves on the back for that. We are, in our way, doing the work of reclaiming King’s legacy.
But the King holiday still remains a national day of service, and that is upsetting. Because it isn’t a day of service in the way King served his people and his country, by disrupting the status quo. It’s a day of service in which we’re all expected to lend a hand to the “less fortunate” in the grand tradition of charitable giving. We aren’t asked to write our congresspeople, in service, to implement a federally funded program for full employment, as King advocated for in the Freedom Budget. We’re asked to serve soup to the homeless. We aren’t asked to demonstrate in front police precincts, in service, to demand an end to police brutality, an issue King mentioned during that famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but is never brought up in polite conversation. We’re asked to read books to poor children.
And I don’t mean to make it sound as if those charitable works are meaningless, particularly when so many suffer and whatever can be done to alleviate their pain, even momentarily, is surely welcome. But let us not pretend that we are honoring King when we are only assuaging our own guilt.
King’s legacy lives on Ferguson, in Oakland, in Cleveland, in Chicago, in Boston, in New York City and everywhere else where young protesters are taking over highways and disrupting brunches and dying in at malls. Is it annoying some people? Yes. King annoyed people. He was one of the most hated men alive. You don’t get to be that way simply because you preach about loving your neighbor. He was hated because he was a threat to the American empire. He helped to expose America as perpetrator of violence against its own people. His tactics were unorthodox and they made millions of people uncomfortable. There weren’t great swaths of America welcoming the protests he led with open arms. There were police ready to beat, shoot, and kill if necessary to keep black folks in their place. For all the talk about progress, the tactics of suppression haven’t changed.
As a nation, we aren’t prepared to embrace the radical vision of King. We aren’t in a place where we are willing to sacrifice our national identity in order to see the true ideals behind King’s dream. The least we can do until we are is not pretend that our yearly call to service is somehow in line with his legacy. If we’re going to keep that up, we might as well all be celebrating Lee-Jackson-King Day.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on how we'll need an economic program to make #BlackLivesMatter
Ava DuVernay is brilliant. Completely and awe-inspiringly brilliant. When I say that, I hope I don’t come across as if I’m shocked. I only mean to state it as fact. But it isn’t something that can be said enough.
She’s currently exposing that brilliance to the world in the form of her latest film, Selma, a historical drama about the campaign for voting rights among black people in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The film’s star, David Oyelowo, lobbied for DuVernay to come on board as director after a number of big names dropped out. For that, Oyelowo, too, can be called brilliant. There is no other director, to my mind, who could have so deeply tapped into the richness of the black experience in America, combined that with this compelling history, and retained the humanity of people we, as a nation, think we know and those we’ve never heard of. DuVernay did all of that and more.
I had the pleasure of speaking to DuVernay about this amazing film, the current movement to protect black lives, and much more. Our conversation only further convinced me that her brilliance isn’t something I, or anyone else, can convey. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
We spoke on December 27, 2014—two weeks after DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director, and on the day the city of New York held a funeral for Officer Rafael Ramos, who, along with Officer Wenjian Liu, had been killed a week earlier.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: You started making this film before Ferguson grabbed national headlines, before Michael Brown was killed, before there were a hundred-plus days of protest, before any of the backlash to the protests. But now this film exists in a world with all of these things on our minds. How do you feel about releasing it into this political climate?
Ava DuVernay: I think it’s just an honor to have something that might add to the conversation in some way. People are coming into it with heightened feelings. People are walking into this film about history feeling like it’s speaking to the present. For a filmmaker or storyteller, telling a story about the past and for it to feel current and urgent and immediate, through no doing of mine, but because of the time that we’re in is certainly moving and certainly an honor for us to have something to say during this time. It’s really just trying to provide some connective tissue between then and now and to just remind folks that this is not now, and maybe just illuminating that fact in some way might change some of our ideas about what the next steps are. If you know that what we’re taking is not a first step, but a step from a journey that’s been decades long, centuries long, then that perhaps changes the way you walk.
MDS: I’ve heard you say multiple times that you’re not a fan of historical dramas, and I can understand that because most of them are just really, really boring. They all seem to follow the same script. Selma is a big departure from that because we get this intimate look at the characters and the humanity of the people involved. But I feel there’s something special about that with regards to talking about black people because we don’t get to have our humanity explored on the big screen in that way.
AD: A film is a groupthink in a lot of ways. A lot of people put their hands on the thing by the time you’re at the end of it. I was in a very unique situation where I was the one who was able to have my hands at the wheel. But it was rare and it was because of Oprah, who made a way for me to be the one to tell the story and would not allow that to be compromised at any turn by anyone, no matter who wanted to. It’s rare. You know, you have someone like Spike [Lee] and Malcolm X. He had his hands on the wheel through that film—not to compare the films at all, but just to talk about the process of movie-making and the way it usually goes—but it is rare to have a black storyteller have some autonomy over [the] story. Also it’s just rare to have a black storyteller telling the story when it comes to history, period.
So I think when you don’t have that, you have this kind of groupthink that turns into a homogenization of the events, turns into us not being at the center of our own story, as people of color or women or what have you, and this kind of smoothing of the edges starts to happen, and that starts to contribute to this whole idea of “ugh, the same old thing.” And so with this I was very focused on not letting that happen. For whatever people think about the film, whether they love it or hate it, it is the vision of a black storyteller undiluted. For whatever that means for the way we are presented as people of color on screen. I think part of the reaction that some people have to history, particularly around black history, is just the way that it’s been told and by whom.
MDS:And with that, you’re telling a story in which the center of it is Martin Luther King Jr., but the name of the film is “Selma.” People could read this as an MLK film, but it really is about this community and it’s about this movement. How did you avoid making it just King?
AD: [I] just [didn’t] write it as just King. I wrote it for what it was. There’s a King story, and there should be a film that’s just King, but this film was about the voting-rights campaign. It’s about this small town that had been ripped apart by segregation and oppression and state-sanctioned terrorism, and the people who were living under that and who decided “no more.” And that’s fascinating. Why would you not tell that story? Just the idea of being able to paint a picture of King while looking at the larger portrait, the larger landscape… I think his story is told. To try to tell his story in the context of the people that he led is really, I think, a great way to tell the story of a leader. And in order to tell that story you have to bring in the people, you have to bring in the people who were around in him, you have to bring in the people that he led, otherwise you’ve got a story of a caricature of a leader. If you’re trying to tell a story of a leader and you are not talking about the people who [they] led or the context in which [they] led, you’re not really, I don’t think, interested in telling that story. You’re interested in upholding this iconography and this caricature and that’s what we were all opposed to.
MDS: There’s an ordinariness to many of the characters, but they still remain vital to the telling of the story and also the movement itself. Part of why this is noteworthy to me is that with the way we’ve lionized King or Malcolm X or whoever, it feels like we’re telling stories about these extraordinary people who respond to extraordinary times, or that they’re superhuman and they do it by themselves. But the way you told this story, it’s about the entire community. From the 80-something-year-old man who needs help walking to be a part of the protests to the woman who is cooking for these activists/organizers when they all descend on her house, these are all “ordinary” people that play a role in this movement.
AD: Absolutely. And beyond them it’s also just the idea that these are not superhuman people. We really have to deconstruct our heroes. I think that’s our job. We can’t just hero-worship. You have to know what you are looking at and what you are holding up. I’ve had people come out of screenings talking about the scene where you see King eat a biscuit. He eats!? Yeah, he eats. He smokes?! Yeah, he was a smoker. He laughs? He plays with his children and tussles around? He gets upset, he’s depressed, he has an ego? Was he mad about Malcolm? Like, was he mad about the ideology or was he mad that his wife was in love with Malcolm?
The things that I’ve been hearing from people are just fascinating to me, because so much of it is just him walking, breathing, and being a normal brother from Atlanta. And the fact that all that has been stripped away and he has been reduced to these four words, “I have a dream,” and that’s it. I have a dream, I believed in peace, and then I died. And that’s really about the broad strokes of what most people know. In terms of knowing anything more about the radical ideas and the bold tactics that went into his thirteen years as the de facto leader of the civil-rights movement, [they don’t know any of that]. It’s a shame, I think. And that’s what we were trying to do, just tell more. That’s all. There’s so much more to tell. And did we get it all? No, but hopefully it sparks some interest in him as more than just a kind of…this yawn and the roll of the eyes people do sometimes when you say “King.” No, no, that [making a caricature] was done to him. So it deserves a closer look.
MDS: Part of the movie that sat with me and made it so I was saying to myself, “This is a phenomenal film, I don’t know if I can watch it again,” was the violence and the way it’s portrayed. It’s deliberate that you slowed it down, and make people sit with what exactly was done to these people. But I wonder about the limitations of our sympathy or empathy for seeing black bodies tortured in that way. I understand the purpose behind it, but I wonder if a general viewing audience appreciates it.
AD: I don’t know. That’s not anything I was thinking of when I made it. As we were working on these scenes, it was about telling the truth of it. Because ultimately, we’ve become desensitized to violence. You can see people be beat in a night march, but not to jump in and actually see… so you can see someone being manhandled, but to not jump in and slow down and see the look on the woman’s face when two white men put their hands on her and pull her down—that’s something we slowed down to make sure you could see the fear, the humiliation in the face. And that’s important for me, not even to make people take a look at, for me to take a look at as a storyteller. To see Jimmie Lee Jackson shot, and okay, usually that’s the end of the story. The troopers storm out and it’s over.
There were two looks there that were important. The look on [Jackson’s] face, like, it’s over, I’m dying, this is over, this is how it ends for me. And that’s the story of so many young black men in this country—caught out somewhere, not thinking that the minute you walk into that cafe, or the minute that you’re walking home with your Skittles, or the moment that you were on the street corner really minding your own business, that that is it for you and this is how it ends, like so many statistics. So I wanted you to see that look on the face. And the mother afterward who gets that news. You have to look at her. You have to see the morgue afterward. You have to look at that grandfather. Because these men aren’t just dying; they’re leaving broken, shattered dreams, and families behind. That is a fabric of our community. It’s interwoven, it’s ambient in how we live here. The idea of making folks, and really myself, stop and look at that.
There’s one way to shoot and there’s one way to present it and there’s one way to edit it, and there’s another way to do it where you just say, “We will take a moment here and we will honor this moment.” So that was the idea behind it. And I don’t know how much people can take or not because at the time of crafting it. I’m just trying to get to the truth of it. And it may be too much for some, I don’t know. But we just try to tell the truth with that stuff.
MDS: And I appreciate that. I guess I’m just sitting here with the thought, “I wish that those images could move people so that they understand black humanity,” but we watched Tamir Rice be killed, we watched Eric Garner be killed, and people still label them thugs. I’m trying to figure out where the line is drawn, what is the threshold that people have to get over in order to see our humanity?
AD: I don’t know what it’s going to take. Nothing that we can do as people of color, or progressive people or allies, can be in that context or should be—in my view, which is different from King’s view, even, or some of that tactics that are in this film, which are kind of “show and tell.” That generation was very much about dressing in a certain way, presenting in a certain way, for a certain end—to tell the story that we are human. “I will dress this way, I will have this car, I will have this house, I will have this job, I will present myself as just as good as you so that you will see that I’m just as good as you.” The question is—and it’s an ongoing kind of cyclical question, one day I’d feel one way about it one day I’d feel another, [but] it is a question I ask myself and I try to resolve—does any of that matter? That presentation, does that matter? Does it change the needle? I don’t know.
You have these cops today, who asked protesters to not protest, to respect the slain officers—officers that were slain for no reason except one guy wanted to kill them—it has nothing to do with the protest, it has nothing to do with people raising their voices. And yet protesters and people who are challenging police aggression were asked to stand down, [but] at the funeral of the officer, [the police] protested by turning their backs on their mayor. There’s no outward presentation, there’s no answering any call for respectability, that we’re asked to do [that] really makes a difference in the end. So the question is [whether to] be yourself, follow your own mind, build as you will, as opposed to trying to fit into some of the respectability politics. It’s a question that we’ve all as conscious people had to ask ourselves, but it’s something to think about. But I think, what do we have to do to [get others to] see our humanity is not a question I ask myself at any point. I don’t need to prove that to anybody. That becomes a question in the filmmaking, that becomes a question in the writing, in the storytelling that we’re all doing. The narrative that we’re all weaving is, “Am I here to be myself or am I here to prove I am myself?” That’s a question for each person to answer.
MDS: It’s at this point Kiese Laymon [Vassar College professor and author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America] would say, “Fuck it, just make some shit for us.” So I’m glad you made some shit for us.
AD: [Laughs] That’s a good brother.
Selma opens in theaters nationwide today, January 9, 2015.
Read Next: Lessons from Selma