The Long History of Racial Injustice in US Courts
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
~ Martin Niemöller
Some people have described this as a generation’s Emmett Till moment. Still many others have simply given up hope.
This weekend marked the release of Fruitvale Station, a film created to share the story of Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant III was fatally shot on New Years Day, 2009. The shooting was caught on film via camera phone, and shared with the world at large. The outcome of this case was that the officer responsible, Johannes Mehserle, was sentenced to only two years, minus time served. He served that time hidden safely away from the rest of the inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail.
The maker of the film, Ryan Coogler, comments on CNN.com that he would have been the same age as Oscar Grant if he were alive today. He is 27. Oscar Grant would have been 27. Trayvon Martin would have been 18. In an interview with CNN, Ryan reflected, “What gets glossed over is that we’re human beings too, like everybody else, young African-American males. Our humanity can often be found in our relationships with the people who are closest to us, and those relations aren’t often shown in headlines and whatever types of media you see us portrayed in. I hope the people can see a little bit of themselves in the character if they sit down and watch the film, and have a little bit of insight.”
This devaluing and dehumanization has taken place in many sectors of the United State’s economy and society and has for many centuries. And many of the gains that have been made in an effort to combat this have been rolled back. Others have never been addressed at all. What is difficult for many people (white people in general as they have been without this fear for many years) is to imagine that one day, they will be the parents in that court room. And given what we’ve learned with Edward Snowden, Guantanamo Bay, and the many increasing violations of the civil liberties of ALL “American’s” across the board, having a courtroom is an assumption. Without greater understanding of that, of the reality that one day, the parents in that court room will be white, fighting for a child having been killed by a drone or a mercenary or a National Guardsman’s. And that’s if they are lucky. And no one will care, because as we’ve seen before in history, there won’t be anyone left to do anything about it.
At the same time, as I write this, jury members who have spent weeks listening to the testimony and evidence have determined the fate of not just Zimmerman, but also of the now infamous Stand Your Ground law and once again, the entirety of race, and class relations in the United States of America. Many pundits and legal professionals who have observed the case made extreme efforts to communicate to the public that this case is not about race. One would be hard pressed to find any Black people in the United States, or people of color for that matter who could possibly agree with that. That, would simply be contrary to the whole of our known experience. Not that it can’t happen.
Well, perhaps hundreds of years of racial tension, the reversal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights act, and countless young black deaths at the hands of law enforcement that never reached the light of day have made not seeing this travesty of justice as difficult, if not impossible.
As my brother and colleague DLabrie, artist, President of RonDavoux Records and Deputy Director of Hip Hop Congress (www.dlabire.com) shared on his Facebook page, “This case is about race among other things! Was I born yesterday or maybe I forgot everything i ever learned about race in america JUST THIS ONCE. NAW FAM EVERYTHING in America is about RACE!! Especially with all this Black Death since the beginning…If you think this has nothing to do with race MOVE OUT of the good ol’ U S of A TODAY because you ain’t learned.”
When N.W.A. said “Fuck the Police,” They were speaking to a real and material history for many in America. A history that was playing out in the streets of Los Angeles among many places. It spoke to a history of law enforcement as the legal and sanctioned arm of repression and murder. “Slave Patrols,” sanctioned bodies of 3-6 (white) men assigned to capture and punish escaped slaves, were established in 1704 in South Carolina. They had badges, and were considered a perfectly legal bodies of operation.
KRS-One drew the parallels between the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color when he referenced the officer/overseer connection. The reality is, that “law enforcement” has been a often deadly force to Blacks, Latinos, Native American’s and those not under the protection of white supremacy. The same force that was utilized by a half-latino Zimmerman, who walked free as a result of this protection.
Hip Hop said “Fuck the Police” during a period and in an area of the country where history as shown time and time again that the the “law enforcement” agencies, far from being the servants and protectors of Black and Brown communities, were another force of repression, destruction and death. When songs like “Batteram” which depicted military occupation tactics in an American urban city, long before a drone program was even being considered in the public arena were release, the spoke to a reality that virtually every person of color knows, the same reality that Black mothers and fathers now struggle with sharing with their kids. The reality that they must look their child in the eyes and somehow get them to understand, “They will kill you and there will be nothing we can do about it.”
Looking at the LAPD and other cases, and several decades later you have Richard Donner, a Black police officer who took what some consider to be the wrong approach to what many consider to be the correct problem. Richard Donner, who was an officer himself, echoed the same sentiment that N.W.A. yelled out loud in 1998. “Fuck the Police.” And while he didn’t have the most coherent argument in the world, he said the exact same thing Ice Cube did. Cops feel like they have the authority to kill a minority. Even though today we know the term minority is outdated and inaccurate.
If we were to listen to Public Enemy who told us to “Fight the Power” around that same time period, we would know that we could not even consider that with having to deal with those who operate as the first line of defense often “occupying” and patrolling our communities, just as they did when the verdict was read. Hip Hop, as a cultural and social movement struggling to emerge as a political one, has always known this. And that’s a part of what makes it dangerous. It’s ability to tell this truth that much of America can not comprehend or fathom, and get young white folks to flip over police cars to the beat.
The interesting thing is, the very fact that there are any people out there, who think that this case is not about race, indicates that the race and class divide in America remains very real. In fact, while many find the timing of this movie and the conclusion of this case to be well timed, our friend over at Fox News have commented on how the “marketing” of this movie on the back of a high profile case can only be considered in poor taste. It’s reflective of a dynamic that has been emerging quite frequently throughout this trial.
It’s a dynamic that says very clearly that some people in America don’t have the option or the convenience to say something like, “let’s not bring race into this,” knowing that in America race is always right in the middle of it. In other words, those who are willing to make that statement are either too unaware or dishonest to have a conversation with some whom have experienced and know otherwise. Perhaps the universe does a great justice by allowing us to have a reflection on the impact of the lack of value of Black life as shown in something like Fruitvale Station as this deeply painful reality continues to play itself out in real life today.
The emergence of Occupy Wall St. was a significant moment in American movement history. It represented an objective section of the American population who have been dispossessed by the current structure of the system. Foreclosures, student debt, layoffs, the attack on workers rights, and many other elements of a system slowly beginning to eat itself alive drew large sections of the United States middle class into a conversation that they have not seen themselves as a part of for many decades.
Organizations like Move to Amend, which has swelled to well over 200,000 members since it’s inception only years ago, speak to a population who feel as though the decision around Citizens United, which gave corporations unlimited say in elections via campaign donations, is unconstitutional and contrary to the true spirit of the American Way. Struggles and controversy has most recently emerged over the U.S. Drone program and NSA spying that whistleblower Edward Snowden hipped us to. In other words, there are many sections of the country that are waking up to the reality of American life as experienced by many people of color since the creation of this nation.
Occupy represents an objective movement of some parts of the country to fight against some-thing, some-one. Maybe Wall St.. Maybe corporations. But here’s what we know. We know that the government spied on them. We know that the police peppered sprayed and whooped their ass. We know that the police, FBI, Homeland security, and various other law enforcement agencies did not hesitate to tear apart their camps, city by city, piece by piece.
We also know that the Occupy resulted in the creation of “separate” people of color’s movements. Groups like Hip Hop Occupies, The All People’s Revolutionary Party, and Occupy the Hood were just a few of the groups that emerged out the process of recognizing that although the objective movement of this population could be considered a positive thing, it still was not aware of it’s own whiteness and it’s impact. The whiteness of Occupy and groups like it often prevented it from successfully fusing with the many groups, social movements and leaders who’ve been in this fight for many decades. The legacy of white supremacy, patriarchy and it’s grip on the American psyche often makes it impossible for those who are all collectively impacted by the history of capitalist and colonialist oppression to authentically and collectively come together and work towards collective, objective justice.
A brief study of history reveals to us that this was in fact intended, for many different reasons. Nelson Perry, in his book ‘The Negro National Colonial Question’, “White supremacy grew with the Anglo-American expansionism. So long as there was no real economic use for white supremacy in the U.S.N.A. or rather, in the English Colonies, it did not develop. It was only with the need to clear the Western parts of the original colonies that the concept of White Supremacy arose. With the development of chattel slavery in the South, a new rationale other than bringing the African’s here to make the Christian’s was needed; then the concept of White Supremacy slowly emerged. In practice is mainly based on color discrimination, i.e. ‘the whiter you are, the better you are.’”
One of the critiques levied at the Occupy movement most often was that it did not consider nor reflect the experiences and challenges that have been faced in social in political movements and moments before it arose. But objectively what could not be denied was that something was amiss in America, and herein lies the problem. In the American race/class conversation, it is virtually impossible for people to be objective. And as a result, the point that the filmmaker of Fruitvale Station is trying to communicate is lost. That point, is that ALL human life is valuable. And that ALL LIFE is valuable. Period. End of discussion. It can only be in a backwards system not designed first and foremost for the respect of ANY human life, in which one has to prove beyond the “shadow of a reasonable doubt” that unarmed 17 year old was not murdered by the older, more paranoid, armed man that is pursuing him.
The racial history of the United States often shows us that the structures and socialization process of white privilege and white supremacy are not only far from gone, but are alive and well. While many of us view institutions like the KKK and Skinheads as outdated, the reality is quite the opposite. Just one visit to website’s like www.stormfront.org reveal that not only is white nationalism alive and well. It’s becoming smarter. It’s blogging, creating social networks and expanding it’s base among white workers (and those not working) as a solutions for the challenges we now face as a country. As a part of the 2010 March to Fulfill the Dream, a caravan organized by the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, I travelled to cities like Selma, Mobile, Birmingham and many of the historical landmark cities of the Civil Rights movement.
I witnessed the City Council of Selma being taken over by an overt White Supremacist with the support and votes of the all Black City Council and the support of the local Chamber of Commerce. I spoke with young and old homeless folks who spoke of the Klan’s strength in local and state government, where they held judgeships, state and local positions of power, and where the family linage of Klan power how found a way to adapt. Far from experiencing an environment where the Klan had been overcome, I was treated to a South where the Klan, or at least it’s new formation, was winning. And nobody in this country was talking about it. Or was even aware of it like that. The progressive movement was behaving as though we were really on top of it. Meanwhile, the South continued to be the South. In the era of technology and global public marketing and connectivity, it is obtuse that no one knows it is happening, and yet that is the situation we find ourselves in.
Sadly, as James Baldwin once pointed out in ‘The Fire Next Time’ “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you.” My understanding of why he said that was not to belittle white people, but to address the fact that both history and science teach us that technically there is no such thing. Because of this divide, corporations continue to privatizing every element of everyone’s life, “private security” who may or may not even have to use the “justice system” continue to grow, and the struggle for humanity and the rights that come with them (food, water, shelter, health care, education, etc.) continue to be lost be lost by all as we fight for pieces of a pie that was clearly not designed for us to all eat anyway.
History has taught us this lesson again and again, over and over. And yet, here in America, our social and cultural construction, our general commitment to the structures of white supremacy, capitalism and neocolonialism are such that smart people, reasonable people, people who are otherwise concerned with and committed to freedom, equality and justice have missed entire key sections of history and the lessons that we can learn from that history.
The underlying causes and purpose of movements have been overlooked for the simple reason that they have embraced a myth that was designed for a simple economic purpose; to separate the darker slaves from the lighter ones, to make chasing those who were running away from earlier forms of slavery, imperialism and indentured servitude easier by distinguishing those who could blend in from those who could not.
Therein lies the danger. It was never truly the case that the forces who would consider themselves the rulers and great determinants of this country and now throughout the process of globalization, the world, really cared about or valued white life any more than they did Black, Latino, Asian, Child, Woman, Student, LGBT or endangered species. Historically, it has always, and it continues to come down to who owns what, which is always a much smaller number than any particular race, religion, gender or creed.
For all of my brothers and sisters who don’t think this is about race (and it is not just white people), or who at least want to believe that they can somehow magically keep it out of the discussion, reflect on this. If it’s not about race, than that only leaves one other possibility for what this is about, which is the overall value of human life for those of us who don’t possess the power to make that determination for ourselves. Trayvon Martin, no matter what color he is, did not deserve to die. Drones are robots that don’t have to care about what color someone is. The continual protest of Obama’s Drone program, and the potential executive kill list that goes with it is a huge issue for many in United States who feel like their human rights are being infringed upon, even threatened.
Stories like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant speak to the experience of people in America who have always had that experience, with or without drones. In fact, the Los Angeles police department, one of the most infamous law enforcement agencies in this country responded to the great migration of African American’s from the South into Southern California by hiring racist police officers from the very same places.
At what point in human history will we choose to value all human life, no matter where it comes from as not only equally valuable, but beyond discussing in terms of value. At what point will we value that life, regardless of the circumstances, “beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt.” We could debate and discuss the definition of value all day, but for the sake of this conversation I will say this. There are certain things we simply do not view in terms of value because for use these things are beyond that conversation. In other words, while we’ve been trained or conditioned to think of all things in terms of their use, cost, price, or some other form of measurement, we all know and have experienced that which exists beyond this context.
Water bottles may have a value, but water does not. Water is beyond value, because without water we simply cannot be. Air cannot have a price tag placed on it, because the ultimate cost of not having air, or having clean air is that many o us will suffer, if not simply pass on. Indeed, while it is important to think of that which we, as humans, produce in terms of value, it is not practical to think of that which is beyond our productive capacity in the same terms. And yet, that is how we’ve learned to think ourselves. As price tags. Given what slavery has done to the collective consciousness of this country, this should come as no surprise. But that doesn’t make the cost of it any less painful.
Sometimes we refer to things as priceless. But even that assumes that the term price is the standard. Black people came into this country with a price tag on their neck-and insurance companies backing that cost-attached to the noose that could be tightened at any moment, for any reason. Hundreds of years of that, doesn’t just suddenly get reversed. Especially without sincere and consistent efforts at reconciliation.
The Voting Rights Act, however, can and does get reversed. Roe vs. Wade, however, can be. The gains of collective bargain and workers rights pretty much has been reversed. The entire concept of freedom and liberty is pretty much out the door, if that hasn’t been noticed yet. Many of us have never viewed ourselves as having enjoyed that liberty, but an immanent question remains. What does that mean for ALL of us? Not just those who are immediately and obviously impacted, but also those who, know it or not, or in the line of fire. At least, that is what history has taught us if we are paying attention.
Our planet is not ‘valuable.’ Without our planet, we cannot exist, and as such no discussion of value can even take place. It’s very existence is a question of something beyond value as is the life that it produces. At least before some societal or otherwise human imposed structure says something different. History has also given us an opportunity. These things are not set is stone. Our collective decisions, the ones that we make as communities, as movements, as whole’s larger and more immoveable than individuals, can change the course of motion. What decisions, on the wake of this most heinous, and yet not unexpected tragedy, will we make next.
The reality is, that it doesn’t have to be this way. On the very same day that this verdict arrived, the family of Steve Salinas found some justice when the San Jose police department was ordered to pay 1 million dollars in restitution for his death by taser some many years ago. They were assisted by the support and leadership by the organization Silicon Valley De-Bug (www.siliconvalleydebug.com) There are organizations, like the Women’s Economic Agenda Project in Oakland (weap.org), that are working to tie together the struggles of workers, mothers, youth, unions, educators and all of us who are impacted by the ideology of the 1 percent, to form solutions that leave nobody behind. And there is still the unfortunate reality of Marissa Alexander, a woman that was given the mandatory minimum of firing warning shots against her abusive husband. She’s still in there. This, as 30,000 prisoners and California, and thousands of other prisoners strike against the in humane conditions that Michelle Alexander refer’s to as, “The New Jim Crow.”
There are are many collectives and individuals working towards a different vision right as we speak. What remains unknown is if we will successfully grapple with the demons of the past the challenges and the present quickly enough to secure a brighter future for generations to come. And a safer place for all of our children, today.
Shamako Noble serves as Secretary of Culture in the Green Shadow Cabinet of the United States.