Friday, December 9, 2016

"They Can't Kill Us All" by Wesley Lowery

In his Acknowledgments, Wesley Lowery calls the victims of racial violence “Rorschach tests in a divided nation’s debate of race and justice.” That seems a particularly appropriate choice of metaphor in light of the criticisms from some portion of our populace about the movements that have sprung up to protest police violence against black citizens. What do you see when you are shown an unarmed black man splayed and bloody on a city street, in a park, in a car, shot by police fire?

With all the incidents of racial violence in the past two three years now—can it really be so many for so long?—it is hard to keep straight when the outrage began and when it began to blossom into fury. Lowery began his reporting on police shootings with Ferguson in 2014. He was writing for the Washington Post. He first saw Instagram photos uploaded by his friend Brittany Noble with CBS affiliate KMOV in St. Louis, who had a list of local officer-involved shootings in her reporting history. “I just felt different. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t the typical police shooting scene,” Noble told Lowery.

When did “police shooting scene” become paired with “typical”? Lowery explains that it was during Ferguson that we realized there was no national data for police shootings. It needed to be collected, and was, later, by hand, by scouring newspaper reports from around the country. It turns out that the largest subcategory of people killed by police are armed white men, many mentally ill or explicitly suicidal. We don’t see the numbers here, but one wonders how many unarmed white men, as opposed to unarmed black men, become victims. There is no doubt that a close reading of the numbers would help us to understand the difficulties on both sides of the policing debate.

So Lowery begins with nearly three months in Ferguson: “There is this overwhelming feeling that they can shoot us, they can beat us—we can even have this stuff on video and the police officer still gets off” [Patricia Bynes]—and is drawn into a national crisis, ping-ponging around the country with each new shooting. The timeline and the incidents are laid out in order, along with the crescendo of voices in protest.

He notes the moment “black lives matter” goes viral for the first time, from a Facebook post by Alicia Garza, a 31-year-old activist in Oakland, reposted by fellow activist Patrisse Cullors. Black Lives Matter became “an ideological and political intervention” then, "in the face of deadly oppression." The name later became the name of an organization. “Its tenets have matured and expanded over time and not all of its adherents subscribe to them in exactly the same manner…” The division in what became the movement has been seen before between groups wishing to bring racial inequality to the nation’s attention. While some may not agree that "Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise," one has to admit it looks an awful lot like that.

Lowery introduces us to many young activists and spokespeople around the country who are anxious to be part of the dialog and the solution. That is the hopeful part of his narrative. Well-educated, articulate men and women around the country have poured their organizing and speaking skills into highlighting these issues for those who do not face profiling or harassment or intimidation in their everyday lives. Many may end up someday in political roles, if they can gain traction: ”No one is going to teach you. Power is never given, it’s taken,” one young aspirant was told by a prominent official. So be it, then.

The discussion of political leadership led directly to an eye-widening moment for me: “…the percentage of black registered voters in the South more than doubled—skyrocketing from 31% to 73%—between 1965 and 2005” (a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Not coincidentally, this is just the time the conservative Koch brothers began to systematically fund groups who would move far-right politicians into down-ballot races, beginning the process of changing the face of southern electoral politics so that new districts could be drawn without contention and restrictions on voting rights could be enacted.

One night in early 2016 I happened to catch the Colbert Report when DeRay Mckesson was guest speaker. That night he was trying to explain the Black Lives Matter to Stephen Colbert, who came off looking foolish and even a little resistant against the smooth, cool rationality of Mckesson. I learn from Lowery that Mckesson has become a huge figure in racial identity politics since 2015 when he involved himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. I have added the clip below for those who haven’t seen it.

I understand also that Mckesson has been involved in discussions President Obama convened with his advisors and other activists Lowery mentions, e.g., Brittany Packnett, (Campaign Zero), and Mica Grimm, (Black Lives Matter). It is thrilling for me to hear these voices, though I wish there were less contention among the groups about motives and means. The ends are pretty much the same, it would seem. The means…I guess we will have to see the response of the police and government, but not everyone wants the activists to fail in their pursuits.

The Stephen Colbert Report with DeRay Mckesson:

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