Commentary: Killing the Voice of Others

Tamir Rice, 12, was at play when he died, shot because of his looks and what he held: a plastic-filled pellet gun that threatened no one. Still, the boy was shot as a criminal, and “it was right for him to be killed”, officials are now saying as a court case prepares.  The legal killer versus the illegal one is much in the news these days.  The right to possess guns, the real ones, not toys, is hotly debated.  Many Americans, primarily the ones whose immigrant past has been banished to the sidelines, want to keep their guns ready against the threat of the other, more often dark than not.  But, ironically, the men and boys, predominantly looking like Loehmann, the Cleveland cop who shot Rice in four seconds, are the ones shooting off their guns in public, leaving carnage in their wake, at movie theaters, at schools, on campus, at church, in the streets, and elsewhere.  What is up with all this killing?  Are Americans at war with each other, stuck in a flip-flop show, sometimes fake, sometimes not, danger loose on the prowl?

Criminalizing others by complexion, culture, creed and then banishing them beyond the stakes of protection and belonging is no new game in America, but its virulence is stunning in the 21st century.  In the first decades of the last century, there was a Red Summer. That was because of all the blood that flowed following global war overseas, and the bulk of that blood was black. Not quite a hundred years later, the juxtaposed circumstances bear an affinity.  In Chicago then, versus Cleveland this time, a young black male is enjoying himself at play.  The Chicago teenager is swimming, not realizing he has crossed an invisible line dividing black leisure from white.  He is seen in waters marked as appropriate only for the privileged, and his intrusion unleashes a rain of stones thrown by white hands that take his life.  In Cleveland, a black male adolescent believes he can amuse himself with a game of cops and robbers, but he is the only one playing.  Real-life cops decide that he is not at play, and his life is taken.

From summer to fall in 2014 was a subsequent deadly time that historians may yet characterize as an era of publicly spilled red blood that is black.  In the six months from June to November, 2014, when Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, et al., were killed, hired hands, aka the police, with public approval, killed over three hundred and seventy-five blacks, according to incomplete but official count.  That breaks down to over sixty police killings of blacks and browns per month, and over fifteen per week.  So it is not to a single death that protesters are reacting.  It is the onslaught of justified death after justified death that is numbing and leaves the possible conclusion that the unwanted dark other, male, female, young, old is again American prey, as happened at the turn of the last century into its middle years, and the reason then may be the reason now, seeding political impotence, the fear of standing up to be felled into nonexistence. Those whose ancestors were once unpaid labor for centuries are being told that they are still ciphers to the Constitution, with lives that can be snuffed out and ended when the acceptable, fair citizens and their guard protectors so decide.

The timing of it all is uncanny. It is reactively political.  A surprise candidate slipped under the fence into the White House eight years ago, and now vote time is approaching.  In 2008, the African American voice was not silent.  It joined with others, and the unprecedented happened.  A seemingly tractable, silver-tongued Harvard law school graduate inspired most of the people, winning the election, but he had a broken gene pool with a glint of darkness coming from his African father.  On occasion, he was sympathetic to the racial victim.  Thus sullied, he was due for a hygiene refresher.  In 2014, a Boston Herald cartoon put him at a bathroom sink getting dental advice from a Latino male soaping up in the presidential tub, recommending watermelon toothpaste.  The fine print, not at all illegible, suggested that Blacks and Latinos were teaming up and could upset the political apple cart.  And now the news is bruited about that Asian Americans are the statistically significant group on the horizon, the ones with real political clout.  Now that is a minority, the status quo believes, that can be relied on to stay out of the bathroom with blacks and browns at poll time, holding to the white and yellow ideal.

But such purported numerical significance and supremacy is arrived at through a formula that criminalizes, ties the hands of, and hobbles the future for the actual black and brown majority, whose ranks have been reduced not only by repeated public executions but by assignment behind the locked gates of the nation’s prisons, as it performs its current role as the world’s leading jailer.  And those it shuts away, edging up on a million every year, are, for the most part, black and brown, male and female, young and old.  So whether the means of denial and control is a series of bullets or shut doors with no keys, the result is the same, elimination and containment.  The spilling of pool after pool of black and brown blood in city after city across the country is cautionary, intended to keep an inherited and created differential firmly in the hands of the usual suspects and families.  The mandate to surprise, kill, crush, and still an outsider voice at anytime, anywhere, for any reason whether it is quietly playing or driving or walking is counterattack in the book of war, which is as old as time itself.  Like Astyanax, Hector’s Trojan son, even the enemy child can be a threat, and can be slain in public view with due pomp and circumstance lest a chance survivor reach adulthood able to avenge a father’s death and a mother’s submission.  Crushing to naught the seed of a rival, hurt, and caged snake is thus right, to be justified by any means necessary.  Otherwise, an initially immigrant people, who banded together under the fictional flag of whiteness, turning themselves into Americans, would have to answer the call for democratic equality and protection under the law.

Who we are as a people and the direction we take forward to a more representative democracy or back to yesterday and its mandate of inequality and cheating for the win will be clear and unmistakable in the choices we make together in the next presidential election.

Barbara Lewis, Ph.D. heads the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston


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Barbara Lewis heads the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, where she is a faculty member in English. As a Francophone scholar, she co-translated Faulkner, Mississippi by Edouard Glissant, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As a cultural historian, she has published on lynching in drama, the minstrel stage, and the black arts movement. Dr. Lewis has taught at City, Lehman, New York University, and the University of Kentucky. She also blogs for The Public Humanist, and is a board member at New Federal Theater.

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