Who ignores the real crimes?

September 3, 2014

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor dissects the moralizing lectures from politicians and pundits who claim so-called "Black-on-Black violence" isn't being taken seriously.

WHETHER BY coincidence or design, when African Americans and others mobilize and march against police murder and other extralegal violence, there are always commentators who use the moment to question why Black communities don't mobilize in the same way and with the same intensity against the murder of Black people by other Black people. Where is the outrage against so-called "Black on Black" crime?

When tens of thousands of people across the U.S. poured into the streets to condemn the murder of Trayvon Martin and then the acquittal of vigilante George Zimmerman, Black journalist Juan Williams asked, "But what about all the other young Black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are Black. And the overwhelming majority of those Black people are killed by other Black people. Where is the march for them?"

More recently, John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, raged that there were no protests in Chicago against the horrific murder of a 9-year-old boy on the city's South Side, unlike the demonstrations in protest of the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo.:

Black youth in Ferguson kneeling with hands up to protest the murder of Mike Brown
Black youth in Ferguson kneeling with hands up to protest the murder of Mike Brown (Bob Simpson | SW)

I didn't see protesters waving their hands in the air for network TV cameras. I didn't see the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson playing their usual roles in the political race card game. I didn't see white college anarchists hiding behind their white plastic Guy Fawkes masks, talking about being oppressed by the state. I didn't see politicians equivocating.

But the worst thing I didn't see was this: I didn't see the theatrical outrage that you see in Ferguson, Mo. A white cop in Ferguson--a place most people never heard of just two weeks ago--shoots a black teenager and the nation knows what to do. The actors scream out their roles on cue.

Kass basically dismisses the Ferguson protests as created by outside "race hustlers" and others, who are apparently only motivated to get on television and gain attention. This must be the case, according to Kass, because if African Americans were really concerned about murder, they would be "waving their hands in the air for network TV cameras" in Chicago, not in Ferguson.

Kaas creates a caricature of the protests in Ferguson in order to dismiss them. Of course, the reason why civil rights leaders, college students, elected officials and simply ordinary citizens made their way to Ferguson was because the people from Mike Brown's neighborhood and apartment complex began a wave of protests spanning three weeks, which demanded justice for an 18 year old murdered by police. The courageous demonstrations of African Americans in Ferguson--in the face of armored tanks, tear gas and military-grade weaponry--inspired Black people around the country who have grown tired of racist police profiling, abuse and murder.

DOES THIS mean that African Americans only care about deaths in their communities when they come at the hands of police?

This is an ignorant question, usually posed by those who actually couldn't care less about the murder of Black people until they can use such statistics or stories in a politically advantageous way.

People like John Kass and Juan Williams, who cry crocodile tears about young Blacks killed in random acts of violence, are remarkably silent when the conditions that create the greater likelihood of interpersonal or random violence are cultivated in working class and poor Black communities. Neither of these writers nor any other right-wing pundits--in their agonized concern about the state of Black America--have called for a mass movement against public school closures, or a mobilization to swell the ranks of the low-wage movement fighting for a higher minimum wage.

They care about Black boys and girls after they are dead, but they care very little, if at all, about the social death of young Black people, caused by budget cuts, mass incarceration and the racist brutality of police forces across the country.

In fact, Black parents and community members often do participate in marches and demonstrations that are aimed at getting young people to "put down the guns" and other local anti-violence initiatives. These marches are almost always significantly smaller than demonstrations organized against police brutality and murder. And why wouldn't they be?

The lives of all young people are precious and their deaths are tragic. But there is a world of difference between the random acts or interpersonal violence that take the lives of innocent people, versus the murder of a Black teenager at the hands of the state.

The murders happening in Black communities that are committed by Black people are overwhelmingly expressions of powerlessness and alienation. Police murders, state executions and other extralegal attacks on African Americans are expressions of power and oppression, and are intended to further subjugate and discipline entire communities.

It was not lost on any African American in Ferguson that Mike Brown's body was left lying on the street where he was shot, in the sweltering Missouri heat for four and a half hours for all to see. As one woman in Ferguson said, "It was very disrespectful to the community and the people who live there. It also sent the message from law enforcement that we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there's nothing you can do about it."

African Americans have experienced this kind of intimidation across the country, in places as disparate as Ferguson, Mo.; Dayton, Ohio; Los Angeles; Staten Island in New York City; and Chicago; to name a few recent cases. There are overlapping stories of police harassment, brutality and sometimes murder, all with the seeming intent to keep African Americans in their place. Recently released FBI statistics show that from 2005 to 2012, white police officers on average killed two Black men a week.

When hearings were being conducted about the New York Police Department's use of "stop and frisk," a state senator testified that former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told him Black and Latino men were targets of this racial profiling because Kelly "wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police."

The police purport to be public servants who "protect and serve" against lawlessness and disorder. But when police are the source of lawlessness and disorder, those subjected to their wanton abuse have the right to protest, rebel and even riot against the collective punishment that systematic police brutality represents. Such protests are bigger because there is a clear target, a generalized experience of police oppression and a collective understanding that the failure to confront police aggression means it will likely get worse.

MOVEMENTS ARE organized to wrench change out of recalcitrant institutions or other surrogates of authority that have violated the rights of the aggrieved. Movements develop out of momentum behind the idea that some condition can be transformed through the mobilization of a collective demand that the status be changed and the usual social order be altered.

The movement that has erupted out of the Ferguson protests has put forth many demands, including that the Department of Justice carry out an independent investigation, that the local prosecutor be removed from the case, and that the killer cop Darren Wilson be charged and arrested. There are also developing calls for federal legislation against racial profiling.

If mass movements were to develop in response to so-called "Black on Black" crime, who and what would be the targets of those movements? Would protestors descend on the homes of relatives of the perpetrators? What would be the demands and to whom would they be addressed?

When the questions are posed this way, the real intention of those who demand a "movement" against "Black-on Black" crime become more obvious. Not only is this call intended to pathologize crime in Black communities as unique and perverse--as something more heinous than murder itself--but it is also intended to direct Black grievances away from the state and back into the community itself.

Decrying "Black on Black" crime is another way of telling Black communities to get their act together and police their out-of-control youngsters. It is an expression of the "personal responsibility" rhetoric that, for four decades, has been used to dismiss public and private institutional culpability for the disproportionate rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and other social ills, which reflect the lopsided distribution of wealth and political power in the U.S.

None of this is to dismiss the very real problem of crime as a general phenomenon in the U.S. In communities that are particularly wracked by poverty and inequality, there is even greater number of all sorts of crimes, ranging from the petty to the very violent.

But the burden of these crimes is usually borne by the people in working class and poor communities themselves, not by the blustering, rich and often out-of-touch politicians who invoke crimes of poverty as a way to brandish their "law-and-order" credentials.

In this context, activists and community members must connect the disproportionately large budgets for policing, which increase in place of greater funding for public services, job creation and other necessary programs. It is the higher levels of poverty and social dislocation that make African American communities ripe for police scrutiny and harassment.

African Americans have a rich history of directing their collective anger at inequality and injustice toward institutions that maintain the status quo. A generation of young African Americans has come of age in an era of endless war, occupation, mass incarceration, unemployment and underemployment. They mobilized in unprecedented numbers to elect the nation's first Black president, but not much has changed in their lives. It becomes clearer and clearer that the police are not here to "keep order," but to maintain the current order of things--including the second-class status of the average Black person.

This collective experience is what fuels a new movement against police terror. We should welcome it.

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