Last year, as I sat in my study in Southern California and watched videos of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct station on Lake Street burning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, a memory eddied up in the flames.
It’s one or two in the morning. Lake Street runs like a deep scar down the southern arm of the city. I’m idling in my parents’ green station wagon at a stoplight with a couple of teammates from the football team. Marcus, Ray, and me; three Black, intrepid, rusty-butt boys out looking for a thrill. Curtis Mayfield croons “Freddie’s Dead” on the eight-track player. A blunt passes from Marcus to me, in the front, then to Ray in the back seat. Soon, a contender pulls up beside us. White boys in letter jackets from a rival school. Their engine revs. Their windows roll down. They say, “Eat shit and die!” “Got to bring ass to get ass!” we yell back. Green winks the light. First car to the corner of Lake and Cedar wins.
We’re spotted by a patrol car. The white boys peel off long before they reach Cedar. The cops give chase to us, not the white boys. I careen right onto Cedar and make a hairpin turn into Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. I kill the ignition and take my foot off the brake so that the red eyes of the brake lights die. We scrunch down and wait. I don’t know how long we crouched below the windows. Somebody farted. Everybody laughs. Marcus asks Ray for a roach clip so the joint won’t go to waste. “After the revolution,” he says, sputtering smoke in the moonlight, “my grandkids’ll be like, ‘Grandpa Marcus, what’s a fascist pig?’ I’ll be like, ‘Don’t you worry, baby, I’ma take you to a museum—they got some on display.’ ”
Though we laughed at the joke, we treasured its inevitability. A world with no 5-0: life as it would be after the revolution. In 1972, we thought of revolution as a question of when—in five years, six, or maybe, on the outside, eight—not if. Only the time line was up for debate. The FBI director died in May that year. All summer long I wore a T-shirt like a bulletproof vest. It read, j. edgar hoover is alive and well in hell.
We were going to have our revolution. My dreams then weren’t of fair legislation or police reform. I loved football, chocolate, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao. I read Ramparts magazine, often aloud, the way Billy Graham read his Bible. The People’s Army of Vietnam had launched a spring offensive. It demoralized Nixon’s brass as much as the Tet Offensive had demoralized Johnson’s in 1968. When Saigon fell, we mused, America’s demise would not be far behind.
The war would come home. “Two, three, many Vietnams”: Che Guevara still called us from the grave. In 1972, a deep, abiding sense that Black liberation was inextricably bound to anti-colonial struggles around the world and working-class resistance at home went without saying for most people on the left, including that teenage boy who answered to my name. “Racism,” Fred Hampton said more than once, “is just a by-product of capitalism.” That was good enough for me.
Now, from my coastline of old age, I see how the funeral procession of Black death that litters this landscape tells a different story. Anti-Black racism is not a by-product of capitalism or patriarchy—or even colonialism. Nor is anti-Black racism in any way analogous to any other paradigm of oppression. Anti-Blackness is its own beast—a conceptual framework that cannot be analogized to capitalism, or any other ism. Nor is it a by-product of any oppressive necessity other than its own. The need to disavow the singularity of anti-Black violence, and the impulse to disguise Black suffering and rage (the need, that is, to characterize anti-Black violence as “class oppression” or even “white supremacy,” for that matter, and the impulse to disguise Black suffering as “exploitation of the working class” or as a kind of suffering that’s common to all people of color), are a need and an impulse that are shared by the police and the protester. Black people find ourselves trapped in the vise grip of a pincer move between two juggernauts: the state and our allies.
Black people are hemmed in by two strategies of containment that, at first blush, appear not only to have nothing in common (who in their right mind, one might ask, would equate the left and the state?) but are so hostile to each other (the left calling for the police to be defunded and the police characterizing protesters in the streets of Minneapolis, Portland, and New York as domestic terrorists) that it seems they couldn’t agree on lunch—much less a pincer move against Black people.
The word “strategy” may be a bit misleading, because it implies the pincer move against Black people comes about through conscious, if not coordinated, efforts by the left and the state. This is not the case. The state kills and contains Black bodies. The left kills and contains Black desire, erases Black cognitive maps that explain the singularity of Black suffering, and, most of all, fatally constricts the horizon of Black liberation. There are important differences. The nub of the anti-Blackness that saturates these desperate strategies lies elsewhere—in the shared unconscious beneath their disparate conscious acts.
In 2016, revelations from Dan Baum’s 1994 interview with Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman reemerged in Harper’s. Ehrlichman was assistant to the president for domestic affairs under Richard Nixon—which meant he was Nixon’s drug policy adviser. As Baum recounted to NPR:
[Ehrlichman] told me an amazing thing. I started asking him some earnest, wonky policy questions and he waved them away. He said, Can we cut the B.S.? Can I just tell you what this was all about? The Nixon campaign in ‘68 and the Nixon White House had two enemies: black people and the anti-war left…. We knew that if we could associate heroin with black people and marijuana with the hippies, we could project the police into those communities, arrest their leaders, break up their meetings and most of all, demonize them night after night on the evening news. And he looked me in the eyes and said, “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
If there had ever been any doubt that the War on Drugs was a cynical political tool manufactured in the Oval Office, Ehrlichman’s confession laid such doubt to rest. But what’s most instructive is what the confession reveals about the place of Black people in the unconscious of the state. The structure of the Nixon administration’s anxiety about the white anti-war left was very different from the attitude toward Black people. Nixon and his cronies were at war with the ideas of the white left. But they were not at war with the ideas of Black people—they were at war with the embodiment of Black people, the threatening presence of Black bodies.
The besetting hobble of multiracial coalitions is manifest in the ways Black members become refugees of the coalition’s “universal” agenda. In social movements dedicated, for example, to prison abolition, the “selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone”—to quote Noam Chomsky’s definition of how consent is manufactured and consensus enforced—and the way debate is bound within premises acceptable to non-Black coalition partners, work to crowd out a deeper understanding of captivity and anti-Black violence by limiting the scope of the dialogue to those aspects of state violence and captivity that non-Black coalition partners have in common with Blacks. It’s sometimes as blunt and straightforward as our coalition partners simply telling us to “stop playing Oppression Olympics.”
In the 1980s, I taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. The novelist Toni Cade Bambara gave a weekend workshop for teachers and advanced fiction writers. Before leaving town, she agreed to have dinner with me. During dinner, as I recall, she lamented the breakup of a coalition to fight rape in Philadelphia comprising Black women and white women. The white women had put forth a motion that they launch a campaign to educate the police about rape and how it affects their lives. The Black women were completely against this. The white women made comments about how they must try to weed out good cops from bad cops. The Black women scoffed at this. The white women said the Black women were too hasty in their rejection and had not put forth reasons that were good enough or offered an alternative plan. The meeting disintegrated, and, as Bambara lamented, so did the coalition.
Twenty years after dining with Toni Cade Bambara, I began to witness different manifestations of the same conundrum that the Black women in her coalition faced. As a graduate student of critical theory and, at the same time, as an activist in San Francisco Bay coalitions dedicated to abolishing the prison-industrial complex, lobbying Congress and President Bill Clinton to pardon political prisoners who were former members of the SDS, AIM, the Black Panthers, and the FALN, or organizing (unsuccessfully) to stop the passage of legislation that would allow children as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults and warehoused in adult prisons, I saw how episodes similar to the one Bambara had described kept repeating themselves. Our coalition partners were policed for their transgressions, and the counter-hegemonic ideas that they embodied. We were shot for breathing while Black. Black flesh stimulates a dread more fundamental than the fear of transgressions: the fear and loathing of Black bodies.
Bambara’s coalition between white women and Black women broke down not due to some ineffable, murky misunderstanding, but because the fissures in the room revealed a structural antagonism between the women, and this revelation was too much to bear. Even though white women are positioned as victims of violence in relation to white men, they are simultaneously positioned as beneficiaries, if not perpetrators, of anti-Black violence. They are on the policed side of violence against non-Black women, but they are on the policing side of anti-Black violence. They had little enthusiasm for that conversation.
Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America illustrates the double bind Black slave women faced when appealing to the courts for redress in the event of rape:
If the definition of the crime of rape relies upon the capacity to give consent or exercise will, then how does one make legible the sexual violation of the enslaved when that which would constitute evidence of intentionality, and thus evidence of the crime—the state of consent or willingness of the assailed—opens up a Pandora’s box in which the subject formation and object constitution of the enslaved female are no less ponderous than the crime itself or when the legal definition of the enslaved negates the very idea of “reasonable resistance”?
We should read Hartman’s book as an allegory of the present, because the “Pandora’s box” is precisely what the white women in Bambara’s coalition were anxious about. What kinds of political strategies of redress can be deployed by a sentient being who is always already outside of the political and, most importantly, whose exile white women depend upon for their own categorical coherence?
It is not just that the injury of rape does not translate for Black women in the same way it does for white women; it is that injury itself is the categorical inheritance of non-Black women—in the absence of any coherent notion of consent, the concept of injury has no representational supports within Blackness. We are confronted by two regimes of violence that are irreconcilable. This was the spanner in the works of that feminist coalition. More broadly, it is the spanner in the works of every multiracial coalition I’ve been a part of. But this paradox is rarely addressed because Black people are not given the space to express how our suffering and the violence that underwrites our suffering is not analogous to the violence and suffering that dominates our allies. It is as though the collective unconscious of the coalition knows that to open that can of worms would be to face the ways in which our allies, though enemies of the state, remain antagonists of the Blacks.
Hartman suggests it would be more precise to say that consent is not constitutive of Black subjugation; ergo, the sexual violence against Black women cannot even be theorized as a violation. What happens, then, when Black women (and men) are raped if Blackness and consent cannot be conjoined? This is the paradox that a suffering for which there are no words presented to the coalition. But coalitions, typically, are unwilling to entertain problems that arrive without solutions. The regime of violence that structures and saturates Blacks makes us objects of accumulation, rather than alienated subjects of exploitation.
The unwillingness of the white women to give the Black women space to develop their sharp refusal of the white women’s proposal (police education) into a deeper explanation as to how and why Blacks are not recognized as subjects of rights, claims, and consent was why the coalition fell apart.
What do the cops and the coalitions have in common? One flank of the pincer is composed of the police, the army, the prison-industrial complex, and the ancillary formations of civil society that bestow legitimacy, such as the media and the church. The opposite flank is the terror of our allies, who dress us up as workers, women, gays, immigrants, or postcolonial subjects: mirror images of themselves that fulfill the need to disavow—and the impulse to disguise—the singularity of Black suffering.
The stakes of this pincer move are high because they crowd out Black people’s capacity to be captured by our own imaginations. Our allies’ pincer move threatens the imagination and the enunciation of Black thought and thus should not be trivialized as an ensemble of bad attitudes that can be overcome through dialogue. This prong of the pincer is as constitutive of an anti-Black world as the police and the prisons. It doesn’t simply kill or warehouse Black desire the way the state kills and warehouses the Black body. It terrorizes us through an interdiction against Black performance, coupled with a demand for Black performance. The coalition craves and applauds Black energy, exuberance, and righteous indignation—as long as Black suffering doesn’t tag along.
In early June, as George Floyd was laid to rest and the Third Precinct stood gutted on Lake Street where Marcus, Ray, and I had raced dreaming of a world with no 5-0, I could not believe what I saw on the news. Coalition partners, from anarchists, to socialists, to non-Black supporters of Black Lives Matter, to the Minneapolis City Council, all calling for the abolition of the police! My mind and my body surged with the same exuberance that 48 years ago had surged through the bones of a boy who loved football, chocolate, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao, when Marcus laughed, “Don’t you worry, baby, I’ma take you to a museum—they got some on display.” I grinned from ear to ear and thought, “Marcus wasn’t jivin’—it’s finally coming to pass.”
But within weeks, the joke slipped back through my fingers like four decades of sand. For one hot summer moment, the cries of our allies had been authorized by the demand that Black suffering embodies; and their political desire was animated by a kind of Black desire that is normally crushed between them and the state.
That moment did not last. “Abolish” mutated into “defund,” “defund” melted into “delay,” and the zeitgeist shifted from unfettered Black rage to sober tutorials on activist websites and affinity gatherings on how to massage a message that was already massaged, to win the hearts and minds of Middle Americans as they watched us being gunned down on Instagram and the news. Black death, once again, was weaponized by our allies to incarcerate Black demands, kill Black desire, and soothe the psyches of everyone but us.
I called neither Marcus nor my grandkids. I closed my eyes and tried to see that Black, intrepid, rusty-butt boy who answered to my name. I needed to recall his optimism and his smile before he felt the world kneeling on his neck.