Commentary Race

How To Pay Homage To and Honor Henrietta Lacks?

Bianca I. Laureano

How may we examine how we’ve benefitted from something horrific that we had nothing to do with but that allows for our existence today?

I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks two weeks ago. Yes, I’m about three years late and for good reason! I wasn’t ready to read the book. I knew there would be a lot of discussion about the anti-Black racism, xenephobia, ableism, and misogyny that I wasn’t ready to read about. Many of the folks in my life have shared how good the book was and encouraged me to read it as well. I didn’t have the same expectations of the book being a “good read,” but I also didn’t expect to have the reaction I had to the text.

Making a conscious effort not to read any written critiques or praises for the book, I began reading with a specific goal: How can I, someone who is benefitting from the misuse/abuse of Henrietta Lacks’ body, honor her without reinforcing the same oppressive experiences others have upon her and her family? How do I examine how I’ve benefitted from something heinous that I had nothing to do with but that allows for my existence today? As I read I was immediately questioning some things about the text. First, how was the text so comprehensive when it comes to sharing intimate and private moments Henrietta Lacks experienced when there were not witnesses? This book was said to be nonfiction, but some parts read as fictional to me. Half way through the text I wondered how do I see this form of data collection and methodology? Would I use this book as an example of “feminist ethnography” or “feminist research” and if I did would I support this approach? I think back to the forms of testimonio, oral narratives, that people of Color have shared. And then I remember the ways folks have tried to debunk our words and narratives. From Rigoberta Menchu, to the slave narratives, to youth questioning pop singer Rhianna’s experience with abuse, women of Color are often questioned, especially when we speak about our lives

When I remember my “Feminist Ethnography” class, and how, if I got the chance, would teach it similarly or differently, I considered if this book would be useful. How would I rationalize it being a “feminist” text if the methodology and data collection were so limited and unclear? Could this be a useful text to discuss some of those topics? There are many questions I still have unanswered from that class. Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.

Then I read this critique An Open Letter to Those Colleges and Universities that have Assigned Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the “Common” Freshman Reading for the Class of 2016 by Rebecca Kumar. I realized that I had the same questions and discomfort as did Skloot. Kumar specifically mentions parts of the text that I too had questions about their authenticity, such as a part of the book that Kumar describes as “voyeuristic.” Is it too fantastic to believe a woman knew her body so well that she knew there was a tumour on her cervix without having to feel for it with her fingers? What does this say about the ways women are expected to understand what is occurring in/to their own body? How does it set up the same situation the Lacks’ discuss of not questioning medical providers because they are doctors and know more? How does this fall into criticising alternative forms of knowing and knowledge, some of which Skloot calls “voodoo” and how Henrietta Lacks’ youngest daughter Deborah (and other family members) discusses Henrietta’s spirit being present?

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When it comes to the questionable non-fiction parts of the text I too am troubled as Kumar. Upon sharing Kumar’s letter with folks in my network there were many racially white folks who have read the book and who did not agree with Kumar for different reasons. I had to admit that I was not surprised that many racially white people who praised the text would disagree with what a woman of Color was stating. Her points require us to examine our own ethical philosophies and ways we consume the bodies and narratives of women of Color. When women of Color speak about racism and misogyny and oppression we need to listen and not just focus on debunking their positions and statements because they make us uncomfortable being self-reflexive.

How did Skloot come to decide/know (I can’t tell if it was her choice/decision or if she found this out from someone else) that Henrietta Lacks’ husband had been cheating on her and thus transmitting various sexualy transmitted infections, such as syphilis? From what I read Skloot had limited interactions with David Lacks who was aging and ill. How did she come to this conclusion or did she decide that on her own? I’m not comfortable with a racially white woman deciding that a Black man’s infidelity was the reason for certain illnesses and outcomes especially when she had the opportunity to ask him directly. This goes back to believing what Black men say when they speak.

Also Skloot mentions a recorder she used, but never mentions it early on in meeting with the Lacks family. How does she get long conversations with the Lacks men long before they have consented to being recorded? Does she “sneak” the recorder and record the conversation in her pocket? If so, is that ethical? Is that what the Lacks family agreed to? How is this a misuse of obtaining information from living human subjects? Does she ever obtain consent to using those recordings?

Finally, the discussions of racism and race are odd for me to read. Not because I didn’t expect them, but because Skloot doesn’t discuss this at all in the text from her perspective. Instead she leaves it up to the Black folks in the text to bring up race and racism. This gives me the impression that she is “post-racial” and doesn’t think about how her whiteness may impact this narrative or how she’s normalized her own whiteness. She’s surprised how folks she contacts know she is white because it is only white folks who call asking about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. Why not spend some time discussing how her whiteness was something that gave her access in ways others, even the Black doctors she interviewed, did not have? Why not discuss how her whiteness gave her some protections, even in the spaces she described as being locations many would interpret as “scary” or “undesirable” for a white woman to go alone?

As many folks who have discussed and critiqued the book have mentioned, Skloot includes discussions of herself in the text, some even argue it’s an overwhelming part of the text. Why not go into a first person voice to address some of this? I’d especially like to hear how Skloot came to the decision on her own that a educational fund was necessary to create. Did she even ask the family what they wanted or did she decide what was best for them? (I’m not even going to go into the problems with her receiving immoral amounts of money in honorariums to speak about this text and how she’s been known to be difficult and not want to engage with students when at universities who pay her this amount.)

This book is important, and I don’t question that at all. It gives us reminders that oppression by and among medical professionals exists in this country today and is embedded in the (re)memory of many communities of Color in the US. What I do appreciate from Skloot is she uses the voices of the Lacks family and does not change their vernacular for easier reading or more acceptable text. Some folks may not like this approach, yet I find it important to have readers understand the words and vernacular of those speaking in an authentic voice.

In addition to Kumar’s discussion of first year students and the faculty who teach them using this text, the book has also attracted readers some may not have expected. Now, the text and the narrative have been immortalized in a different way: in the Hip Hop genre by one of my favorite MCs: DOOM. In his latest track, “Winter Blues,” from his album JJ DOOM (he collaborated with Jneiro Jarel hence the JJ in front of the name which is explained at the beginning of the video), references Henrietta Lacks. Here are the video and lyrics, bolded are the ones in reference to Lacks.

Melanin on melanin

Your dude need to recharge off your velvet skin

Make ‘em feel like, like twelve again

Soon as you give the green light I’m delvin’ in (x2)

Learn to balance, it’s real tricky

Like The Incredible Hulk turned back to Bill Bixby

Fuck masturbating, I’d rather wait than

Keep enough of that good stuff for the trading in

Each and every day making cash with Satan

Can’t eat can’t sleep, it’s exasperatin’

Mad like burning off

All he needs is one warm hug to keep from turning off

I’m sure you could use a boost

Left the hooptie parked in hood with the screws loose

Bust the coupé out the driveway, stash house

Scooped you up, hit the highway and mash out

Matte-black like melanin on melanin

Of course the butter soft, black leather trim, set of rims

Let ‘er purr, not a scratch on it

Spin it back to the garage and put a latch on it

I need a handful of melanin

Feelin’ like the lambswool beard on your tender skin

It might give you a shock initially

As we reconnect up the flow, electricity

The phenomenal melanin bio-polymer

Follow with a glass a merlot, I could swallow her

Eat ‘er up like a SnackWell®

We could live forever like Henrietta Lacks cells

Melanin on melanin

Ask me where the hell I been soon as I felt her skin

Holdin’ hands, feet in the sand— grounded

Starin’ in them pretty brown eyes— astounded

I’ll share some solar power

If you let me pound it we could go for hours

And then again in the shower

Left her leg tremblin’— recharged the melanin

Girl you got it

Me too let that show

This is how you know

That’s that glow

Feel it yo

Love that glow

Even so

Feel it yo

I still remain with many questions, especially around how to honor and remember Lacks. What does it mean for me to recognize the privileges I have benefitied from by the misuse of a Black woman’s body? How do I pay homage and give thanks for her and her family while still holding myself accountable for the ways I’ve benefitted. This is something I’ve begun to discuss with my community. As my good friend Aaminah had mentioned when I shared I was working on this piece “You know, like how we talk about white privilege including the benefits that come from the system of slavery, even when white people say ‘but I didn’t have slaves! that was so long ago!’ Well, we have to talk in the same way about how we continue to benefit from this thing that we didn’t have anything to do with, we didn’t do it, we are horrified that it happened, but the fact is we still benefit from it! I don’t know how to have that convo with myself much less with anyone else yet. But I know it has to happen.”

I think it’s time for that conversation to begin. Let’s start.

Commentary Politics

It’s Not Just Trump: The Right Wing’s Increasing Reliance on Violence and Intimidation as a Path to Power

Jodi Jacobson

Republicans have tried to pass Trump's most recent comments off as a joke because to accept the reality of that rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large.

This week, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, if Hillary Clinton were elected and able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about it. After blaming the media for “being dishonest” in reporting his statement, the Trump campaign has since tried to pass the comment off as a joke. However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

Republicans have tried to pass it off as a joke because to accept the reality of their rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large. The rhetoric is part of a longer and increasingly dangerous effort by the GOP, aided by corporate-funded right-wing organizations and talk show hosts, to de-legitimize the federal government, undermine confidence in our voting system, play on the fears held by a segment of the population about tyranny and the loss of liberty, and intimidate people Republican leaders see as political enemies.

Ironically, while GOP candidates and leaders decry the random violence of terrorist groups like Daeshitself an outgrowth of desperate circumstances, failed states, and a perceived or real loss of powerthey are perpetuating the idea of loss and desperation in the United States and inciting others to random violence against political opponents.

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Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment came after a week of efforts by the Trump campaign to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential election well before a single vote has been cast. On Monday, August 1, after polls showed Trump losing ground, he asserted in an Ohio campaign speech that “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.”

Manufactured claims of widespread voter fraud—a problem that does not exist, as several analyses have shown—have nonetheless been repeatedly pushed by the GOP since the 2008 election. Using these disproven claims as support, GOP legislatures in 20 states have passed new voter restrictions since 2010, and still the GOP claims elections are suspect, stoking the fears of average voters seeking easy answers to complex problems and feeding the paranoia of separatist and white nationalist groups. Taking up arms against an illegitimate government is, after all, exactly what “Second Amendment remedies” are for.

Several days before Trump’s Ohio speech, Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that the result of the election might be “illegitimate,” leading to “widespread civil disobedience” and a “bloodbath,” a term I personally find chilling.

Well before these comments were made, there was the hate-fest otherwise known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), during which both speakers and supporters variously called for Clinton to be imprisoned or shot, and during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man not widely known for his high ethical standards or sense of accountability, led a mock trial of Hillary Clinton to chants from the crowd of “lock her up.” And that was the tame part.

The number of times Trump has called for or supported violence at his rallies is too long to catalogue here. His speeches are rife with threats to punch opponents; after the Democratic National Convention, he threatened to hit speakers who critiqued his policies “so hard their heads would spin.” He also famously promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who hurt protesters at his rallies and defended former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after allegations surfaced that Lewandowski had assaulted a female Breitbart reporter.

A recent New York Times video compiled over a year of reporting at Trump rallies revealed the degree to which many of Trump’s supporters unapologetically express violence and hatred—for women, immigrants, and people of color. And Trump eschews any responsibility for what has transpired, repeatedly claiming he does not condone violence—his own rhetoric, that of his associates, and other evidence notwithstanding.

Still, to focus only on Trump is to ignore a broader and deeper acceptance, even encouragement of, incitement to violence by the GOP that began long before the 2016 campaign.

In 2008, in what may appear to be a now forgotten but eerily prescient peek at the 2016 RNC, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and his running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, used race-baiting and hints at violence to gin up their crowds. First, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a claim that became part of her stump speech. As a result, Frank Rich then wrote in the New York Times:

At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Nothing was in fact done. No price was paid by GOP candidates encouraging this kind of behavior.

In 2009, during congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the health-care law, who’d been fed a steady diet of misleading and sensationalist information, were encouraged by conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Right Principles, as well as talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, to disrupt town hall meetings on the legislation held throughout the country. Protesters turned up at some town hall meetings armed with rifles with the apparent intention of intimidating those who, in supporting health reform, disagreed with them. In some cases, what began as nasty verbal attacks turned violent. As the New York Times then reported: “[M]embers of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.”

In 2010, as first reported by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), suggested that armed insurrection would be the answer if “this Congress keeps going the way it is.” In response to a request for clarification by the host of the radio show on which she made her comments, Angle said:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Also in 2010, Palin, by then a failed vice-presidential candidate, created a map “targeting” congressional Democrats up for re-election, complete with crosshairs. Palin announced the map to her supporters with this exhortation: “Don’t retreat. Instead, reload!”

One of the congresspeople on that map was Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords, who in the 2010 Congressional race was challenged by Jesse Kelly, a Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Kelly’s campaign described an event this way:

Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

Someone took this literally. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Tuscon grocery store at which Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords who, as a result of permanent disability resulting from the shooting, resigned from Congress. Investigators later found that Loughner had for months become obsessed with government conspiracy theories such as those spread by GOP and Tea Party candidates.

These events didn’t stop GOP candidates from fear-mongering and suggesting “remedies.”  To the contrary, the goading continued. As the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein wrote in 2011:

Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), offered a variation of the much-lampooned line during a speech before the Palms West Republican Club earlier this week.

“I get asked sometimes where do I stand on the Second and 10th Amendment, and I have a little saying,” he declared. “We need a sign at every harbor, every airport and every road entering our state: ‘You’re entering a 10th Amendment-owned and -operated state, and justice will be served with the Second Amendment.’” [Emphasis added.]

These kinds of threats by the GOP against other legislators and even the president have gone unpunished by the leadership of the party. Not a word has come from either House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decrying these statements, and the hyperbole and threats have only continued. Recently, for example, former Illinois GOP Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted and then deleted this threat to the president after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas:

“3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded,” former congressman Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, wrote just before midnight in a tweet that is no longer on his profile. “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Even after the outcry over his recent remarks, Trump has escalated the rhetoric against both President Obama and against Clinton, calling them the “founders of ISIS.” And again no word from the GOP leadership.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern used by the right wing within and outside elections. Anti-choice groups, for example, consistently misrepresent reproductive health care writ large, and abortion specifically. They “target” providers with public lists of names, addresses, and other personal information. They lie, intimidate, and make efforts to both vilify and stigmatize doctors. When this leads to violence, as David Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone this week, the anti-choice groups—and their GOP supporters—shrug off any responsibility.
Some gun rights groups also use this tactic of intimidation and targeting to silence critique. In 2011, for example, 40 men armed with semi-automatic weapons and other guns surrounded a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, in which a mothers’ group had gathered to discuss gun regulations. “Second Amendment people” have spit upon women arguing for gun regulation and threatened them with rape. In one case, a member of these groups waited in the dark at the home of an advocate and then sought to intimidate her as she approached in her wheelchair.
The growing resort to violence and intimidation in our country is a product of an environment in which leading politicians not only look the other way as their constituents and affiliated groups use such tactics to press a political point, but in which the leaders themselves are complicit.
These are dangerous games being played by a major political party in its own quest for power. Whether or not Donald Trump is the most recent and most bombastic evidence of what has become of the GOP, it is the leadership and the elected officials of the party who are condoning and perpetuating an environment in which insinuations of violence will increasingly lead to acts of violence. The more that the right uses and suggests violence as a method of capturing, consolidating, and holding power, the more they become like the very terrorists they claim to be against.

Commentary Race

No Sense in Slaughter: ‘Law and Order’ Policing Is About Irrational Fear

Katherine Cross

The wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

“Senseless” is our favorite adjective to describe not just mass killings but all manner of murders. To most any person, regardless of class, race, or station, there is no sense to be found in slaughter. But this depth of unreason plunges further still with some crimes. Such is the case with the mass murder of Black Americans, performed in increments measured by police shootings. No sense, logic, or order can be imposed on something so inherently chaotic, so without reason or purpose.

Yet, countless white people on social media and mass media alike try to find a reason for the murder. He wore a hoodie. She didn’t follow instructions. He didn’t drop the toy gun. He twitched his leg threateningly. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. She was playing her music too loud. They should’ve fixed their taillight. This apparent desire for justification satisfies not only the racist conviction that it is somehow acceptable for a Black person to lay dead from an officer’s sidearm, but also the “just world hypothesis” that too many of us remain addicted to: the false belief in a world where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where “everything must happen for a reason.”

To be sure, racist systems of power in the United States have methodically propagated the idea of Blackness as a threat that needs to be controlled, which is a twisted kind of logic unto itself. In this environment, however, where so many—particularly white people—have been weaned on the notion of Black criminality, the wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

As we search for answers in the wake of atrocities—in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities—we can begin with this senselessness.

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This attempted analytical strategy is not a new endeavor. In writing about Nazi internment and concentration camps, for example, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt strove to do the unthinkable: Find sense in a pit of murderous chaos. But it was precisely a lack of sense, she discovered, that was key to the experience the Nazis—and many totalitarians before and since—had tried to create.

There’s no small irony in my invocation of her to understand this epic, continually unfolding crime. Arendt’s contempt of Black youth movements toward the end of her life was breathtaking in its bitter and intellectually uncurious contempt; she, too, had revealed herself to be an anti-Black racist. But like so many people who indulge such prejudices, her more transcendental ideas—such as this one—endure even with her failings.

As Arendt wrote:

The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (Emphasis mine.)

Her point was that the terror of the camp lay in its disconnect from logic. You might face punishment even if you did nothing wrong, either according to the rules of the camp, or a higher moral authority. Your labors were Sisyphean, their own punishment, and rarely serving some higher end. Even when they were practical labors, they were deliberately inefficient, meant to cause suffering rather than ensure the speedy production of some good. For Arendt, this was central to totalitarian life.

This was how you made human beings superfluous as human beings, as she put it. You removed all sense from their lives, rendered their labors fruitless, took the very thing that makes us human—meaningful activity and life through our work—and rendered it an engine of vile nonsenses. If nothing you do has any connection to your prosperity or well-being, then what really is the point of life but random thrashing?

Whether Arendt herself might have approved of this understanding of her theory or not, the “daily production of senselessness” has bled out of the camps of Europe and into the day-to-day practices of police forces around the world, especially in the United States. In police brutality, too, we see a world of unreason. Death has no connection to guilt or what one can be meaningfully said to “deserve.”

This is what makes the plaintive wailing of the “All Lives Matter” crowd so tone-deaf, especially when they veer in the direction of critiquing every breath of those who have been restrained from breathing freely. Consider Megyn Kelly’s unconscionable second-guessing of Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, for not rendering aid to her dying partner outside of St. Paul, even as a police officer brandished a gun in her direction. Or CNN analyst Harry Houck, who said that the very fact Reynolds filmed the atrocity is cause to doubt both the sincerity of her affection for Castile and the man’s innocence. Each of these perversities is, of course racist; neither would happen if the victims in question were not Black, period. They are also attempts to impose order on what is inherently chaotic and without sense: the summary execution of innocent people, en masse, by the people whose very job is to maintain that vaunted “law and order.”

The unspoken corollary to all these excuses is always “therefore they deserved to die.” They didn’t put their hands up fast enough, therefore they deserved to die. They ran, therefore they deserved to die. They were walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, therefore they deserved to die. They made a Facebook post where they had a “thug” selfie, therefore they deserved to die. On and on and on.

It is here where discourses about “respectability politics” come into play—the idea that we as marginalized people should not treat “acting respectable,” as defined by those in our society with the most cultural capital, as a path to acceptance and liberation. Castile did everything right. He was gainfully employed, beloved at the school where he worked as a cafeteria manager—and his long history of being stopped by the police testified more to the racism of local police departments than any wrongdoing on his part. During this final traffic stop, he politely informed the policeman about his concealed handgun, as he is obliged to do by law. For doing everything “right,” he ended up dead from several shots to the chest.

This is not to suggest that it would be “logical” or “just” or “sensible,” of course, if all Black victims of police brutality were only those people with criminal records, who resist arrest or run, or who had weapons; those people are not somehow more “deserving” of death or abuse. And even if they were the sole victims of police violence, a similar senselessness would prevail—in a world where a minor infraction or a long-ago served sentence would still lead to summary execution, where police who have been able to capture even dangerous white suspects alive can only ever seem to put bullets in Black “offenders.”

This, in the end, is the reason. Black people are killed indiscriminately, no matter their job, their level of education, their erudition, their politeness, their criminal record or lack thereof, and so on.

Black Lives Matter—for all the unjust slanders hurled its way by politicians, police union bosses, and Twitter trolls—is actually an example of a profoundly dignified attempt to restore order in the best way possible. Its tactics of peaceful but highly visible protest demand better of us all, non-Black people of color and white people alike. It summons us to our better ideals, calling for the restoration of sense, and reason: the simple recognition that Black lives matter and should be afforded the full suite of human and civil rights. That requires structural change; it is not something one law can fix. It’s beyond the scope of body cameras, certainly.

BLM’s staunchly nonviolent ethic, and its humane approach to police—which unequivocally condemns recent attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, while seeking justice for the victims of police—actually makes a better claim to being about “order” than all the defensiveness of the police, and their many paid defenders in the press. “Law and order” politics and policing have always been about irrational fear and hatred, never about order in the sense of creating a safe life of sensible and predictable outcomes connected to one’s actions. The sole “logic” to be found in all of this is being seen as a mortal threat because of the color of one’s skin, and this fact produces a special kind of terror.

All victims have been rendered superfluous as human beings, to use Arendt’s phrase. Black individuals live knowing that all of their efforts can come to nothing due to the caprice of a racist police officer’s bullet.

With such senselessness ruling the day, is it any wonder some will abandon all reason in response, as with the killings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge? That some may feel murder is all that can meet murder? The problem is indeed a lack of order, but not for the reasons many police chiefs and white twitterpaters may think; the “order” police currently uphold is one of utter chaos with no rhyme or reason behind it, save the fundamental irrationalities of racism and fear tinged by racism. There can be no order when mothers and fathers must counsel their children in the nearly vain hope that “good behavior” might save their lives from a police officer frightened by the color of their skin, when no right action or a life well lived is any insurance against such an ignoble death.

So is it a surprise when “the law,” a term synonymous with the police themselves, is increasingly not respected for its own sake? As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic about Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas:

In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.

When you scaremonger about Johnson’s crimes, or about the need for “law and order,” this is all very much worth remembering. To many in this country, the police are simply the legal gang: vice by another name, tied to the coffers of the state, with only a gloss of virtue to separate it from the illicit variety. The murder of police officers remains criminal and tragic, both for all the obvious reasons, and because the realm of unreason and uncertainty they create is slowly consuming them as well, as Coates notes.

This is one of many reasons we must cease casting about for a just world and instead seek to create one—first by acknowledging the lack of justice in the one we have.


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