When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X famously commented “[President Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon… Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad.” Following the backlash of what many considered Malcolm’s callous remarks, the Civil Rights leader clarified his original statement on air by saying the president’s assassination was a result of the climate of hate in America, that ultimately it must be a reflection of something deeper. Half a century has passed, and still the significance of Malcolm’s words linger not because so many people found them insensitive, but because he touched on the truthful lived experiences of those who have found themselves on the receiving end of United States empire. He was among the few of his time to acknowledge that America, sooner or later, would reap what it sowed.
Last Thursday night’s events in Dallas, Texas, which culminated in the deaths of five police officers and several wounded, are again a matter of America reaping the future it has made for itself. It is through this realization that any discussion moving forward must pass if we genuinely are invested in sowing a better future. To condemn the actions of Micah Johnson, the now dead and alleged shooter, for resorting to violence or armed struggle without acknowledging the constant stream of brutality visited upon black people in America is disingenuous, hypocritical, unfair, and lends itself strongly to the rationale of victim-blaming. If the preexisting oppression suffered by all those with a complexion similar to Johnson is ignored, America will double-down on its trajectory of continued escalation. There will be more violence. More people will get hurt-and, as we have already seen, it will not just be those beneath a boot and a badge.
Abusive and Self-Centered
It was John F. Kennedy himself who said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. If we can understand the former president’s words but for a moment, it cannot be denied that continual brutality visited upon a group of people eventually will elicit an explosive response. Without total erasure, Micah Johnson’s decision to “shoot back” cannot be viewed isolated from the 1,715 people police have shot and killed in the past 18 months, let alone the black men recently killed by officers inMinnesota and Louisiana (Philando Castile and Alton Sterling). The takeaway message behind Johnson’s decision should be clear: The thin blue line has been put on notice that the business-as-usual of brutalizing black and brown bodies will no longer prevail-and that if it is to continue, there will be hell to pay. But if the past is any indicator, police will afford no sympathy and no change.
For decades the reactions among officers of all creeds across America to the horrors of police repression have been virtually nonexistent, or downright disgusting. In the wake of the shootings that killed Michael Brown and Antonio Martin, message boards reserved for law enforcement agencies were rife with pro-cop bragging, almost as if these young men’s lives were trophies to be collected. Knowing this, it hardly can be argued that police are uninformed about the daily horrors served at their own hands, and so their lack of response or divergence from a culture of brutality can only be seen as devolving upon a condition of willful, collective complicity. The absence of remorse, empathy, and/or the willingness to change among police officers signals the institutionalized mentality of an abuser. And as has been the individual and collective history of abusers, they do not change unless they are forced to change.
As Lundy Bancroft, an expert on domestic and child abuse, observed:
“An abuser doesn’t change because he feels guilty or gets sober or finds God. He doesn’t change after seeing the fear in his children’s eyes or feeling them drift away from him. It doesn’t suddenly dawn on him that his partner deserves better treatment. Because of his self-focus, combined with the many rewards he gets from controlling you, an abuser changes only when he has to, so the most important element in creating a context for change in an abuser is placing him in a situation where he has no other choice. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that he will ever change his behavior.”
Transposed onto the institution of policing, there seems to be no remorse felt for slaying young men and women of color. The fear in Michael Brown’s eyes had no effect on whether or not Darren Wilson unloaded six bullets into an 18 year old’s body. It did not suddenly don on Daniel Pantaleo that Eric Garner might deserve better treatment than being choked to death on a Staten Island sidewalk. Baton Rouge officers cared far more about themselves than they did Alton Sterling or his family. And all the protesting in the world falls repeatedly on hardened, deaf ears because officers’ focus on the preservation of a system where they gain power by controlling other people gives them no incentive to change. We ought to know by now that the most important element in creating the context for change of any kind, whether it is reform or abolishing the police entirely, is placing the institution itself in a situation where it has no choice.
Police Brutality is State Terrorism
In his speech “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” now deceased professor Eqbal Ahmad elucidated five types of terrorism: state, religious, mafia, pathological, and political terror of the private group, or “oppositional terror.” Of these types, the focus in mainstream political discourse and the media has almost always centered itself on discussion of just one: “political terror of the private group.” As Ahmad pointed out, this is “the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property.” Rarely discussed is state terror, which, unsurprisingly, has the highest cost in terms of human lives and property. Ahmad estimated that the disparity of people killed by state terror compared to those killed by individual acts of terror was, roughly, 100,000 to one. Of course, there are subsets Ahmad did not mention that splice state terror apart, one being the state’s enforcer class-the police.
We do not often talk about policing in the terms of terrorism because it is counter to everything we are taught, but a brief look into history can help us understand it as a function of the state. As David Whitehouse notes, the creation of modern police served two primary functions: To control the political and economic potential of the labor class in the North and slaves in the South. In the Carolinas in particular, slave patrols modeled the evolution of its police force by providing a form of organized terror to deter potential runaways and slave revolts. Whitehouse quotes one historian as saying “throughout all of the [Southern] states [before the Civil War], roving armed police patrols scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.” The methods employed were certainly chilling: lynching, lashing, rape, and feeding slaves to hungry dogs, to name a few.
So why all the need for control? In 1984, George Shultz, the United States Secretary of State under President Reagan, described terrorism as “a form of political violence.” Prior to the Civil War slavery was indispensable to the Southern economy in much the same fashion as low-wage labor was to Northern factories. In short, white supremacy was essential to America’s economic and political power structure. Deploying an institution to forcibly maintain such a power structure can only be defined as an obvious expression of political violence. Today, fromprofiling policies like Stop and Frisk, to the War-on-Drugs which dis-proportionally incarcerates black (and brown) people, to itssentencing-laws that increase in severity if you are black, to the fact that a black person is killed by cops or vigilantes every 28 hours, policing remains a form of political violence precisely tailored to maintain America’s classist and racist hierarchy.
Respect Existence, or Expect Resistance
In the aftermath to come, Americans should remain vigilant of the mainstream media’s tendency toblame-both-sides equally, regardless of the lopsided casualties of police violence. And whether or not Americans will agree or disagree with Johnson’s actions should not be the question we explore most. Focusing on his actions alone is a convenient diversionary tactic which enables America’s white supremacist power structure to delegitimize his anger and sweep the issue of state terror back under the rug. Instead, we should ask how are we going to communicate to police officers that if they wish ever again to be secure from the consequences of their violence, their top priority must be to stop terrorizing black and brown communities. That if they truly desire their own safety, they will first have to stop murdering people-or else more chickens, inevitably, will come home to roost.
Finally, white people in America must reconcile with the fact that progress in this country has come primarily in name only, not in the lived experiences of its historically oppressed communities. Because white supremacy was built into the heart of the American judicial system, from policing to prosecution, Johnson’s militancy is a reflection of a man who felt he had no other recourse. When Malcolm X choose to clarify his statements about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in the same breath he articulated the shallowness of superficial steps forward: “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” If the knife will not be pulled out voluntarily, the only moral, just, and righteous thing to do is to forcibly remove it. Only then can healing begin.