When a Black person is killed by police, America races to depict both them and any community response to that murder as violent. The police, armed with their guns, lament about how afraid they were of even wholly unarmed Black people. The victims are vilified, the protests deemed riots. Each time, America says to the police, yes, we understand your fear, we understand how scared you must’ve been. Then America comfortably declines to lend us their empathy or support for ending a violently unjust system, under the seldom questioned position that they condemn violence. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
There’s a peculiar dichotomy between America’s relationship with violence and America’s relationship with Black people. America loves violence. America has been at war for most of the country’s history, 225 of its 245 years to be exact. America celebrates war and violence so much that it even celebrates wars its lost. The south has hundreds of monuments dedicated to the confederacy and the civil war. America gives billions of dollars to the military, billions of dollars to militarize local police departments, all in the name of violence. Some might push back and say that the money is not for violence, it’s so America can defend itself if need be. I embrace that distinction— that there’s a meaningful difference between violence and self-defense.
How then, does this dichotomy exist? Where the same America that enslaved us, put us in zoos, used us for scientific experiments, sterilized us, lynches us, imprisons us in cages, whose police kill us disproportionately each year, tells us that violence is unacceptable, that a broken store window is violent but them killing us is not. How then, does America watch police brutalize and kill Black people on video and tell us our protests must be peaceful, as they send out militarized police to beat, maim, shoot, arrest, and even roll us over with their vehicles? How then, does that America tell us that Will Smith normalized violence, that they’re traumatized from witnessing a single slap?
How does a contradiction like this persist in spite of history—in spite of today?
The same issues that plague the Black community today, plagued the Black community yesterday. We’ve been trying to decide the best way to respond to and stop police brutality since modern policing’s inception. There’s never been a consensus, neither amongst everyday Black people nor the different leaders we’ve had throughout history. It’s more complicated than this but for simplicity’s sake, we can divide the schools of thought into two camps: those who believe we should always pursue non-violence and those who believe we must be armed to defend ourselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed that non-violence would reveal how we can struggle without hating and that we can fight a war without violence. He argued that we must always fight relentlessly for first-class citizenship while never resorting to second-class methods, violence, to achieve it. I wonder whether you can truly fight a war without violence if your opponent believes only in violence. I wonder whether we can call violence a second-class method when it’s the only method ever employed by the people occupying the “first class”—when it’s how they obtained and maintain it.
The Black Panther Party initially called itself The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Self-Defense didn’t just mean defending themselves against police brutality, but against poor medical care, unemployment, poor housing, and the numerous ways America inflicts violence upon Black people. They believed that Black people, like everyone else, have the right to bear arms and to defend one’s self and one’s community from constant police brutality, killings, and white supremacist threat. I wonder whether that could be true when Kenneth Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder for firing a warning shot when police officers forced their way into his home and killed his sleeping fiancé, Breonna Taylor.
There are many ideological differences amongst the camps but what they agreed on was that no one was more violent than America. The main difference between them was that one camp feared that if Black people fought back with violence, the brute force America would respond with, would overwhelm and decimate the community, so the only sustainable option was non-violence— as MLK put it, “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness.” While the other camp believed there was, as Huey Newton put it, a significant, transformative difference between how an oppressive state views “thirty million unarmed submissive Black people and thirty million Black people armed with freedom, guns, and the strategic methods of liberation.” They did not want war. They believed that they were already at war, with a violent state that had enslaved them, emancipated them on paper alone, and continued to rain down hellfire on them day after day as they stood defenseless.
Today, MLK may be commercially celebrated for his non-violence philosophy while the Black Panthers self-defense message is condemned as violent extremism; but leaders from both camps have been exiled, imprisoned, executed, and had their messages distorted while police brutality rages on; because there is no right way to address a problem they don’t want solved.
Police kill over 1000 people each year, so police brutality is literally America’s everyday reality.
On February 2, 2022, Minneapolis police shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke when they raided his home, executing a no-knock warrant he wasn’t named in. Within seconds of waking him from his sleep, blanket still wrapped around his head, they shot him 3 times and killed him. Officers initially lied, claiming he pointed a gun at them. Body camera footage later revealed that he was holding the barrel of the gun to his side, pointed at no one. Amir Locke had no criminal record and he legally possessed the gun he’d purchased to protect himself while delivering DoorDash. Many asked why the NRA didn’t rush to the defend a man wrongfully killed for his right to bear arms. For the same reason they refused to defend Philando Castile, who was also killed by Minneapolis police, during a traffic stop when he had a legally registered weapon.
Did the police know whether Amir Locke’s weapon was legally or illegally possessed when they decided to shoot him multiple times? No. Did they ask first? No. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark 20 times while he stood in his grandmother’s backyard and claimed they believed the cell phone in his hand was a gun. 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead for playing with a toy gun within 2 seconds of officer Timothy Loehmann getting out his car. If it’s okay to kill me if you even think I have a thing, how then, could I have the right to that thing, whether it be legally possessed or not.
Black people have been killed by police holding a million different objects other than a gun, America justifies it all the same. Black people have responded to police brutality in every way possible, America condemns it all the same. America was no fonder of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling than they were of the Ferguson protests. They were no more sympathetic to Breonna Taylor, who was asleep, than they were to Philando Castile, who was armed. They vilified them in their deaths all the same, they dismissed our pain all the same, they denied them justice all the same. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
We must call hypocrisy what it is.
I don’t know the best way for Black people to respond to police brutality. I know only that violence cannot be condemned by its faithful disciples; and that there is no hate in self-defense, just as there is no love in police brutality.
Poignant. As always, you are able to capture what many of us truly feel and put it into a well written essay. This part perfectly sums up everything we’ve been saying for YEARS: “The victims are vilified, the protests deemed riots. Each time, America says to the police, yes, we understand your fear, we understand how scared you must’ve been. Then America comfortably declines to lend us their empathy…” Thanks for sharing your brain, words, and work with us!
The close tho!!!