On July 17, an unarmed Black man, Eric Garner, was harassed and put into a fatal chokehold by police officer Donald Pantaleo on Staten Island in New York. On August 9, an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Neither Pantaleo or Wilson were indicated for causing the deaths of Garner and Brown. Neither have apologized for their actions, instead representing their racially motivated actions as a reasonable response to the threat of Black men.
#HandsUpDontShoot, #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreath, #ShutItDown, and many other tags of anger and frustration followed in social media, emerging from and pointing back towards the ongoing oppositional movement within Black communities against excessive police violence and harassment. As Julia Craven reports on the Huffington Post (11/25):
A black person is killed extrajudicially every 28 hrs, and Black men between ages 19 and 25 are the group most at risk to be gunned down by police. Based on data from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, young Blacks are 4.5 times more likely to be killed by police than any other age or racial group. African-Americans have comprised 26 percent of police shootings though we only makeup 13 percent of the U.S. population, based on data spanning from 1999 to 2011.
Almost as quickly as #BlackLivesMatter trended in social media, #AllLivesMatter was asserted. An assertion politicized on December 9 when Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, issued an email with the subject line All Lives Matter and a content appealing to her campus community to help one another heal and work for social justice. Equally quick, the tag was criticized for deracializing an essentially racist reality: as if all of us are treated the same in a society predicated on white privilege and nonwhite criminal deviance; as if everyone is equally at risk of being killed or harassed by the police.
While McCartney apologized, officers with the NYPD organized a rally on December 19 to support the police of the nation and their comrades in Staten Island by wearing t-shirts and carrying signs that read “I Can Breathe” and trending #ICanBreatheJustFine.
After a couple of weeks, at least among Native social media users, #NativeLivesMatter began to be used. Native journalists and activists, in particular, insisted that Native people, too, experience the racism of police violence and harassment. As Johnnie Jae wrote for Native News Online (12/21):
This is about the incarceration rate of Native Americans being 38% higher than the national average when we are roughly two percent of the U.S. population. This is about the reasons why Native Americans receive and serve longer sentences than non-natives for the same crimes. This is about how a person is more likely to serve prison time for animal cruelty than for the rape or murder of a Native American. This is about how law enforcement officers are more likely to receive medals of honor for the murder of indigenous people than be indicted. This is about addressing the reasons why law enforcement turns a blind eye when it’s our girls and our women raped, murdered and missing. This is about the reasons why our boys and our men die for hypothetical and minor crimes. This is about the pain, the loss, the anger, the strength and the indomitable spirit of OUR people.
It seemed that no sooner had the tag appeared that Rapid City police shot and killed Allen Locke, a Native man, on December 20. Locke, allegedly charging an officer with a knife, was inside a residence at the Lakota Community in Rapid City, South Dakota.
To Be, Or Not To Be
There is something empowering and powerful about being seen and heard. About having the racist, sexist violence against you, and your community, genuinely recognized.
There is something empowering and powerful about having the the violence called out by others in genuine solidarity as not representative of the world they want to live in together.
But there is something very difficult about assuming that in the act of being seen and heard by the system one is trying to change, that one is being respected, cared about, loved, and taken care of. That in the act of being recognized within and/or by the system, its social and legal reform will naturally follow.
But this is not the first time we have seen unarmed Black and Native men killed with impunity and without any subsequent accountability (Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Allison ‘Cowboy’ Gorman, Kee ‘Rabbit’ Thompson, and too many others to name). And if the statistics of the past are an indicator of the future, it will not be the last time.
So what is it that will change the system? If we assert enough other nonwhite and nonmale identified bodies into a trending tag- or by- line, if we can show the racist and sexist prevalence of the violence across our communities as a structural problem, will that be the thing that leads to change?
Expecting the system to change itself simply because its injustices have been seen and heard has never worked. Expecting people to change who benefit from the blind and deaf forms of justice that define the system as it is will never work.
What if instead of looking to society for recognition, we looked to one another?
What if when the Black communities of Ferguson and Staten Island talked about the racist and sexist violence and harassment they experience, they addressed Native experiences of violence and harassment as well? What if the work towards the reform of policing in relation to Black communities included a call for the redress of Natives land rights?
What if when the Native communities of Rapid City and Albuquerque talked about the racist and sexist violence and harassment they experience, and its historical and current links to land dispossession and destruction, they addressed Black experiences of police violence and harassment?
What if land dispossession and police violence were indelibly linked? What kinds of political consciousness, pedagogical interventions, are required for that indelibility?
If we understood our struggles as linked, if we linked our demands for social reform and legal accountability, we wouldn’t need to substitute #BlackLivesMatter for #NativeLivesMatter, or vice versa. We wouldn’t need to trend by tag- and by- line because we would already be taking care of one another. We would already be taking responsibility for one another’s health and well-being. We would be refusing the system’s pie-chart of resources, revenues, and taxes for our relationships to one another as a starting point for systemic transformation.
In many ways, recognition is an existential crisis of being in an imperial, colonial world. The only alternative I can imagine is one in relationship, in an ethic of responsibility to one another that doesn’t measure whether or not we are being respected, cared about, loved, and taken care of by our hits, trends, retweets, and shares. Because nothing will ever change if our thinking is mired by the marketability of our visibility and audibility.