Originally published in The Johannesburg Review of Books Vol. 4, Issue 6
As I write this, we are in roughly Month 5 of the global Covid-19 pandemic and Week 4 of the global demonstrations protesting police (and civilian) brutality against Black people. Regarding the latter, people keep asking me whether I think something is really going to change this time here in the US.
Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful. I have never seen protests this widespread go on this long for the cause of Black life. I don’t think I have ever seen this many non-Black people with skin in the game, as it were. It is heartening. Sometimes anti-Blackness seems like the one thing everyone else can agree on. When the police responded to the demonstrations by rioting, they hurt some white protesters as well, which didn’t help their cause any. But that does little to suggest that Black lives matter.
It is awkward, to say the least, when it is legal to kill you. By “legal” I mean that if they do it they probably won’t get into any real trouble. By awkward I mean that you know that it is relatively legal to kill you, and they know it is legal to kill you, and you know that they know, and they know that you know that they know. It makes for some interesting interactions. All those videos of white ladies calling the cops on Black people for no reason is just a visible example of a dynamic that hangs in the air all the time. And yet we go out into the world and live our lives. Sometimes I marvel at our courage.
The events leading up to the protests are, of course, not new. There have been lynchings as horrific as George Floyd’s happening for my entire life, and for many lifetimes before that, steadily. Thousands upon thousands. Lately, some of them have been on video, and a few of those have gone viral. The ones we are all aware of are but a minuscule proportion of what goes on every day in America. Every single day. Consider that this is not even the first time the police have strangled a Black man to death in broad daylight in the middle of the street in front of everybody on video. It’s like every permutation has already been done and now we are repeating ourselves. The police officers who strangled Eric Garner to death in broad daylight in the middle of the street in front of everybody on video did not get into any real trouble.
Sometimes when I’m stuck on something that doesn’t make sense, I imagine that thing in a context that would make it make sense, and then I step back and look at that.
I would understand Derek Chauvin taking George Floyd around the back of the police car and kneeling on his neck for nine minutes non-stop, even after Floyd had lost consciousness, like some sort of mad strangler, if they had just arrested Floyd for murdering Chauvin’s entire family. Like, if Chauvin had come home for lunch and walked in his house to find George Floyd covered in blood holding a huge knife and Chauvin’s entire family slaughtered. Like if at first his duty kicked in and he cuffed Floyd and called it in but at some point Derek Chauvin the father and husband overwhelmed Derek Chauvin the cop and during the arrest process he said, “You know what? Naw.” and changed his mind and slowly killed the man that he knew for a fact had just taken away everything he cared about for no reason at all. I would totally get that. And I would understand his buddies letting him do it. I know intellectually that in theory even that would be wrong, I guess, but we’re all only human. If that was what had happened and I were on Chauvin’s jury, I would be interested in learning about the “heat of passion” defense.
Similarly, if Breonna Taylor had not been an EMT but rather, say, a cartel boss, who had acquired billions of dollars by poisoning our children and killing (or worse) anyone who got in her way, and she used those billions to place herself above the law, such that it was a certainty that she would never do a day in jail no matter how much death and suffering you could prove she had personally ordered, then, frankly, I could sort of understand busting into her place without knocking and letting off twenty shots and killing her dead in her bed. I’m just saying, in context, that is arguably a viable reaction, even if you might react differently. Ditto re Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson. There are circumstances where going to their house and shooting them to death while they were minding their own business might be reasonable. It’s like the “would you kill Hitler” hypothetical. If I went back in time to 1935 and I was outside Adolph’s cottage with a gun and I looked in his window and he just looked back at me like Atatiana Jefferson did, I would not hesitate to shoot him, immediately, through the window. It is what it is.
If I were in my neighborhood and I suddenly laid eyes on the man who had molested my child—like, I had seen Ahmaud Arbery raping my child with my own eyes and I tried to get him but he got away, and then a year later I saw him wandering around my neighborhood, I just might grab my shotgun and hop in my pickup truck and chase him down and hit him with my truck and jump out and shoot him with my shotgun and kill him. Even if someone was videotaping the whole thing. I’d go to jail if I had to and I would keep my head up and I would do it all again.
Where I get stuck is that none of those people were doing any of those things. Not George Floyd. Not Breonna Taylor. Not Botham Jean. Not Atatiana Jefferson. Not Ahmaud Arbery. Not Sandra Bland. Not Eric Garner. Not Oscar Grant. Not James Byrd. Not Trayvon Martin. They weren’t serial killers or cartel kingpins or child molesters. They just existed.
This is a useful exercise for me. It helps me find the words for something I’ve known since I was a child.
They hate us like we murdered their entire family. The second they lay eyes on us. We’re just standing there. Or walking. Or sleeping. And the sight of us triggers this murderous rage that would give the fast zombies of 28 Days Later a run for their money. We don’t talk about this. We talk about ignorance and microaggressions. But they hate us like we’re Hitler, when we’re babies.
I just found these particular words, but I have been aware of this for decades. This tracks. This describes my life experience. It’s common. I would feel more hopeful about the current outrage if instead of talking about their disenfranchisement and fear we were talking about their bloodlust and poor impulse control.
I mean, look at how much racist violence has occurred in the US since the murder of George Floyd. America has not been shocked into self-reflection. Not even close. The core business of killing and brutalizing Black people continues unabated, impervious. Black people are being beaten and hit by cars and hanged and shot shot shot. To this day. Even while several monuments to human trafficking have recently come down, the pushback against this has been equally passionate and rises to the highest levels. Right now, millions of white Americans are openly, consciously bummed that they do not have a bunch of Black people chained up in a shed somewhere. I will never be able to fully express how weird they are.
And while the current movement to stop killing Black people for fun appears unprecedented in size, other aspects are familiar to me. Specifically, the empty gestures and meaningless declarations by our so-called allies. I hate the word “performative”—the word itself strikes me as kind of performative—but it is getting a lot of use these days, for good reason. I am happy and relieved to see this worldwide show of support. But, up close, many of the white people around me are working hard to process what is apparently new information for them. It is disappointing enough that the information is new to them when we’ve been telling them for literally centuries. But the way they are processing this revelation is also telling. They are trying to put a bow on it. They seem to be trying to put it behind them. I say this because of all the struggling I see to put something into words—declarations of my reality that usually have the word “hope” near the end. It’s like their intellectual or emotional or spiritual systems are working overtime to digest the momentarily unavoidable fact of where they live and their place in it. But not in order to break it down and incorporate it into their flesh and make it a new part of themselves. I see them working to push the knowledge through those systems and excrete it. Each act of genocide is protein to us but fiber to them. They can’t wait to shit out the discomfort and go back to sleep. I could be wrong, but that is certainly what it looks like. I mean, if you needed to watch this many public executions just to realize that something is going on, chances are you still don’t get it.
Because white people as a group are unwilling to examine their identity so that other people can live in peace, I think that it is right, or at least understandable, that I do not expect racists to stop being racist.
But there is another view. The long view. While I’ve heard that white supremacists think of the years since the civil rights era as a historical blip, an error that can be corrected, the fact is that there is no Black person in 2020 who would trade places with any Black person in 1920 (except for maybe Jack Johnson), and there probably wasn’t any Black person in 1920 who would have traded places with any Black person in 1820 (like literally any), and so on. No rational person would argue that Black people in America have made no progress since English pirates brought “Angela” and other African abductees to Virginia 401 years ago. Even I can agree that by 2420 things will almost certainly be much better. Ultimately, all this death and suffering is not for nothing.
So, I guess my answer to the question whether I think something is really going to change is a two-parter: Yes, but I’m not holding my breath.
I am not grateful for the COVID-19 pandemic. But I am grateful that it is happening concurrently with the latest lynching pandemic. In a decent world, Black people would be allowed to stay home right now even if there was no virus. Usually I have to process the terrorism and navigate the day-to-day slights and threats at the same time. But, thanks to the rona, I have not been out in the world since March, and I do not miss it at all. If, God forbid, there is a resurgence of the virus in the US, hopefully it will hit just before the officers who murdered George Floyd are acquitted.