Anytime someone sends me a message that reads, “Have you seen this yet?” with a link to a news story about the Chicago police attached, I hold my breath a little before I tap my screen. That’s what I woke up to this morning – one of those messages, and this photo. In the coverage of the newly released image, much was made about the fact that former officer, Timothy McDermott, is still appealing the police board’s decision to fire him for posing in this picture. After all, four out of nine police board members didn’t see this photo as a fireable offense, and thought a mere suspension would have sufficed.
I’ll say that again: this very literal expression of the reality of American policing – a Black man dehumanized and brought to the ground by heavily armed white cops – was not sufficient cause, in the minds of four police board members, to remove McDermott from his position.
While I don’t wish to give this white police officer more attention that he’s already received – with some actually lamenting that he now has to drive a truck to support his family – I do feel the need to point out the irony of his punishment. McDermott was fired for creating a caricature of the violence police perpetrate on our streets on a regular basis. While he certainly deserves his punishment, the conversation his actions should provoke, however, is not about the two fired cops in the picture (one of whom was fired long before the photo’s release for leading unlawful raids and robbing area residents), but the culture of policing that it depicts. But that’s a conversation that many of us have attempted to have many times, and I must admit, I’m tired.
I’m tired of snuff films of police killing people of color. I’m tired of photos and text messages that reveal the racism of police being dismissed with a chorus of “not all cops” nonsense. I’m tired of hearing how they “risk their lives every day.” Do the people who repeat that tired refrain realize that policing doesn’t even rank in the top ten most dangerous jobs in this country? Do they realize that plenty of people work in high risk situations, in actual helping professions, without the option of killing people if things get scary? Are they aware of the actual death toll, or the demographics in play?
I’m tired of worrying, every day, that people I care about will come across cops like officers Finnigan and McDermott, and I am tired of people being told they’re “lucky” when the only damage done by such brutes is psychological.
Abolitionists often refer to the fact that modern policing stems from Indian Constables and slave patrols, but photos like this one very clearly connect the dots. I won’t delve into the arguments of McDermott’s attorney, who actually suggested the Black man in the photo may have been a willing participant in this horrid display (“What’s to say this individual wasn’t performing at a Christmas pageant in the district and was dressed as a reindeer and had taken the reindeer suit off?”), and that the rifles might have been wooden props (not that they “were,” but that they “could have been”) because his words don’t even deserve space here. What I want to address is forgetting.
The privileged have a way of forgetting the past, and distancing themselves from it. You hear it in the voices of those who defend the likes of Darren Wilson, saying things like, “It’s 2015, not 1915,” just as the white racists of the 1960’s would point out that they weren’t living in the 1860’s. We now live apart from that history, they insist, and need to get over it (read: forget it) and move on. But in a world where we are constantly bombarded by images of police murdering people of color, with text messages and emails that are slathered with anti-blackness, and where we hear daily stories of harassment, dehumanization, and abuse, our inability to fully isolate ourselves from this barrage of very real harm means that separation requires something more than historical distance. It requires the ability to forget history as it unfolds, in real time.
I’m not talking about those who quietly smirk over photos like this one. They are the same types who would have purchased lynching photos at the local gas station during the last century. There is no arguing with someone who understands exactly what all of this means, and delights in it. But there are many white people whose skin probably does crawl upon seeing images like this one. There are many who wish to separate themselves, and their willingness to play along with the oppressions of this system, from the reality of what this photo depicts. And in order to separate themselves, successfully, they need to push away the thought of horrors like this one. No matter how steadily they manifest themselves, each case must be some kind of aberration. Most police are good, they tell themselves. They insist that these are just the cases that get sensationalized, when in reality, these are just the stories that happened to get noticed.
Those who feel protected by police generally hail from more privileged classes, so when we attempt to raise the awareness of such people, we are in fact asking them to act against their own interest. Police enforce social norms that benefit their way of life. Martin Luther King Jr. relied on the shock value of state sanctioned brutality against peaceful Black protestors to provoke white people to question the structures that benefited them at the expense of others. The sight of fire hoses, batons, and dogs being turned on everyday Black people, dressed in their Sunday best, was enough to challenge the complacency of white America. But we live in a different time, when examples of police brutality and state sanctioned inhumanity rain down on us daily. It’s all at our fingertips.
It was literally the first thing I saw when I woke up this morning.
So how do you shock the conscience of people who have learned to forget in real time? How do you provoke a different reaction? Because Black and Brown people are tired of waiting for white people to acknowledge that the available evidence is sufficient to indict this system. We are tired of waiting for you to question your own comfort. We are tired of waiting for you to admit that the legacy of slavery and the shadow of genocide still color our efforts to survive on this stolen land. We are tired, and we will not continue to beg you to recognize our humanity. As Saidiya Hartman wrote in, “Lose Your Mother”:
“The apologetic density of the plea for recognition is staggering. It assumes both the ignorance and the innocence of the white world. If only they knew the truth, they would act otherwise. I am reminded of the letter that James Baldwin wrote his nephew on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. ‘The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,’ he wrote, ‘and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundred of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.’”
Black Lives Matter has demonstrated that there is a widespread rejection of the notion that we need to play by the rules and hope for the best, while appealing to the consciences of those who benefit from white supremacy. At a recent protest in Chicago, where attendees expressed solidarity with the uprising in Baltimore, I was particularly moved by the words of Damon Williams, of the #LetUsBreathe collective, who said, “You will no longer use the names of our martyrs to shame us into pacifism.” I felt the earth move with those words as he spoke. As a direct action trainer, I find community conversations about violence and nonviolence very important to my work, so I followed up with Damon to ask if he might expound upon his words at the event.
“As I was preparing for the rally,” he explained, “I looked to see what the major criticisms of the uprising in Baltimore were.” In addition to the usual, hypocritical hand wringing that such moments provoke, Damon noted that, “You see the establishment repeatedly trying to manipulate our sympathy for those most affected while exclaiming, ‘there is no excuse for such behavior’. And I disagree. Shattered spines and skulls without consequence are plenty excuse to fight back in various ways. It is the desire of the system to continue operating as it is, and for Black people to passively accept their oppression. But we have reached a point of collective resistance and will no longer tolerate our systemic destruction.”
Black and Brown communities are tired of being admonished for pushing back. They are tired of videos, words, and photos that emphasize and re-emphasize whose lives matter, and whose lives do not. But most importantly, they are tired of waiting for you to believe your own eyes. If you choose to disregard the reality that others are forced to live, do not expect your rules or preferences to govern their actions. As Saidiya Hartman said, freedom is “a glimpse of possibility, an opening, a solicitation without any guarantee of duration before it flickers and then is extinguished.” The Black and Brown youth, activists, and organizers of this country have seen a glimpse of possibility. It has come from within, and in spite of the rules, norms, and history of these United States. We are ready to build forward in a way that honors our debt to those we’ve lost and that embodies all that we might become. I invite you to stand with us, but we are done begging for your belief.