Commentary. A thousand deaths a year are at the hands of the police, and a third of those killed are Black. Violence is the canvas that connects the African American experience.

The thin blue line between privilege and subjugation

In the United States, the police kill 1,000 people every year, the result of a violent and punitive conception of repressive order. But not only that: one-third of the victims are African-American, in a country where Blacks make up only 13% of the population. Thus, the body count is unmistakably and inextricably linked to the racial, and racist, skeletons in the country’s closet.

The trail of blood and the nation’s bad conscience both go back to the “strange fruit” of Southern lynchings, to Emmett Till having his face beaten to a pulp in a Mississippi puddle for allegedly looking at a white woman, to the endless drip of the news: Michael Brown, Stephon Clarke, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, Adam Toledo, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, George Floyd, and on and on. The only recourse of the victims is the painful and desperate anger which comes out regularly – and futilely – in the streets and against storefronts in Los Angeles, Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Sacramento, Atlanta, and this week in front of the Akron courthouse.

African-Americans are asking how is it that white supremacists armed to the teeth, like Dylan Roof (Charleston), Kyle Rittenhouse (Kenosha) or Payton Gendron (Buffalo), are usually arrested without a shot fired, while young black men are routinely gunned down for failing to stop at a stop sign or having a broken taillight.

The US remains a nation that devours its own dark-skinned children. Such was the case with Devin Brown, 13-year-old, riddled with LAPD bullets, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, mowed down in Cleveland, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who died on a dark alley with terror in his eyes and his hands up, Ma’khia Bryant, killed in Columbus, Ohio at age 16, and now Jayland Walker, 25, in Akron. In each case, it was enough for the police to claim they were acting in self-defense to be automatically exonerated.

In the official narrative, the police represent the “thin blue line” that protects honest citizens and the social order from the threat of “thugs.” But this “thin blue line” has turned more and more into a symbol for the cops who are loyal to their own, and a core issue for a “police party” opposed to the African American movement. Over the weekend, a thin line of blue lights was displayed at the windows of the Akron police station, an unequivocal statement of support for the officers who did the shooting.

As noted by Connie Rice, a decades-long activist for police reform in Los Angeles, many police departments are directly descended from recovery patrols for fugitive slaves. No one has been able (or willing) to contain the white supremacist dimension of policing as an instrument of social control and the maintenance of racial order. Viewed from the wrong end of the gun, the thin blue line retains that fundamental connotation of a boundary between privilege and subjugated people. The slogan “Defund the police,” on the other hand, refers primarily to the deconstruction of this notion. Not coincidentally, BLM militants call themselves “neo-abolitionists,” to emphasize the continuity of their struggle through the centuries.

Meanwhile, the lesson internalized by each new generation of African Americans is that they must live in constant danger. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his own experience, he ended up seeing cops as “menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could-with no justification shatter my body … The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical Jaws.”

Violence is an invisible web that connects the African American experience. Daunte Wright, killed by Brooklyn Center police, had been a student of George Floyd’s partner. Caron Nazario, threatened and tortured by two officers in Virginia last year, is related to Eric Garner, who was strangled in Staten Island by other police officers in 2014. The mother of Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panthers who was murdered by the FBI in 1968, had been a babysitter for Emmett Till, whose cousin sat with George Floyd’s family during the Minneapolis trial – and so on.

A parallel and hidden history that every African American knows intimately and every white person is too easily able to brush aside.

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