June 4, 2020

WILK | Summers of Riots, From Brutal Winters of Delay

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Skittles, selling CDs, loose cigarettes, a missed driving signal, running away, a traffic stop, jogging, a toy gun, sleeping and a counterfeit bill.

It takes anything and nothing.

Since the national shutdown, it seems like everything is on pause — except for the vile apparatus of antiblackness and the deaths it churns out with ease, as American as apple pie, utterly unstoppable. Some people have said racism, being an American essential, is actually working overtime.

I saw Ahmuad Arbery’s murder before I heard about it. I held my phone and watched with the rest of the nation as he took his last steps. Only after would I become familiar with his name, and the name of the two men who lynched him. It felt like I was receiving the information backwards- which is sinister in itself because the possibility for an event that horrific to feel like it came out in reverse reveals that this terror is common enough for there to be an order to it. It’s routine. And then, as the video continued to circulate, people referred to his murder as a ‘modern-day’ lynching, but adding ‘modern-day’ suggests that type of racial terror is a thing of the past, and lynchings are occurrences belonging only to a faraway history that are unthinkable for here and now. Over hours, it continued to appear and re-appear all over my social media in an eerily similar fashion to the distributing of lynching postcards during that hideous historical period- Voyeuristic. Careless. Desensitized. You can’t even feign shock; we’ve grown grossly used to this.

His case wasn’t singular, not even close. We only had 19 days from when Arbery’s video surfaced before being confronted by the video of George Floyd’s murder. And that same day the majority of the country heard about the murder of Breonna Taylor: She was shot eight times by police who had broken into her home while she was sleeping. As in the case of Arbery’s death, her life was taken weeks ago and is only now receiving the outrage it’s owed. All of these individuals were killed in completely, unfortunately, common circumstances. Their names exist as additions to a horrifically extensive list of hashtags for which we mourn and mobilize, and they’re even less unique against the backdrop of names that don’t make the national news.

Because, as it seems will never cease needing to be pointed out, racism is systemic. It is the regime made by this routine-ness. The United States is home to a long, evil, socio-political history of anti blackness. One that has allowed the practice of consistently shoving black people up against metal exteriors or down into pavement, forcing them onto their knees and then crushing them beneath joints and shins or between arms and squeezing and pushing and killing as they are reduced to begging for breath. Begging for life. Only to have it be taken from them. American society has for so long deployed racism so systematically that these tragedies themselves are now formulaic.

It starts with the incident. The incident doesn’t necessitate anything particular actually happening. It relies, rather, on the combination of moral authority and the “white space” — white-dominated areas that exist in contrast to the black space. A key difference though is that while black spaces are typically avoided by white people, black people are required to enter and navigate white spaces everyday — which becomes inherently dangerous when subconscious white chauvinism puts forth the code that black existence here is conditional. So, black people live under the rule of reasonable suspicion. That is structural racism in action. Remnants of segregation policies and white supremacy act like poltergeists in modern society, invisible forces that push black people to the outskirts of public spaces as to not be in the way, or else. No matter if one is conscious of this or not, whiteness isn’t just a pigment of privilege, it’s a power. It’s a weapon to “make the rules” that, when wielded masterfully, like in the situation of Amy Cooper, has the potential to make a quiet morning in a park turn brutal. Thankfully, Christian Cooper left that scene physically unharmed, but there were both the intent and the possibility to hurt him for so much as asking that a white woman follow the rules. A reasonable request was interpreted as an instigation because it was made while black. See, white privilege imagines an audacity in blackness, one that threatened Amy’s moral authority, prompting her to call the police to act as an extension of her authority on steroids, to ‘show him who’s boss.’ Incidents can be as small as asking that someone leash their pet or occur devoid of any interaction at all; simply existing in a white space can trigger ‘reasonable suspicion,’ it has. And too many do not walk away from incidents like Cooper did.

Next, the victim. Victims of violent anti-blackness are exceptional in our justice system because they are put on trial instead of their aggressors. Death, for black people, is met with discourse instead of mourning, interrogation instead of empathy. For some reason, audiences always search for justification. Our bodies are used against us, reduced to objects misread as threats, scary silhouettes that demanded quick judgment, to be controlled only by chokeholds and bullet holes. They will say victims were breaking the law, resisting arrest or potentially dangerous, as if any of that calls for murder. If none of that, they will rummage through their lives, force their way in and search without a warrant and without proper cause because skin is suspect enough, and use anything they can as evidence that someone deserved to die. Arbery’s memory suffered this relentlessly, as the media pulled out irrelevant clips and old offenses to tarnish his innocence, to convince viewers that his murder was vindicated. In the case that they find nothing and one turns out to be a squeaky clean victim whose incident was a horrible “misunderstanding,” they will be held up on a pedestal for how they lived perfectly and still died for it, or were attacked for it, or had someone paint them as a criminal for it. A passion for bird watching and a Harvard degree made Cooper a perfect victim. and the public made sure to draw attention to that, “suggesting a hierarchy that says black people have to be exceptional just to be allowed to live.” In the end, though, exceptionality doesn’t even matter, because blackness was the factor that put a person in the position of the victim, and blackness largely dictates how others respond to it.

The response. The response to the racist murders of black people is a progression in which the end is unsatisfactory and there’s no guarantee of even getting there. Of the 7,666 times police officers killed people between 2013 and 2019, only 74 have resulted in a charge; without conviction. The remaining 7,567 incidents have resulted in no charges whatsoever. Considering that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, this unaccountability is suffered disproportionately. And civilian vigilantism seems just as immune to the law. George Zimmerman was acquitted after being charged for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to death. Despite a video of clear evidence, Arbery’s murderers lived completely unbothered by their vile, racist homicide for months after they committed it, and they might’ve never faced any sort of consequence had the video not resurfaced. Again and again, criminals in these situations have a habit of evading courts. And if they make it to court they evade jail time, no matter how egregious their crimes are. Taylor was an innocent woman who was sleeping in her house when she was killed by Louisville police on March 13th and her murderers have not been charged. None of those three men have even been fired, and I doubt their careers would be in any question if attention hadn’t been brought back to her case. I doubt the vast majority of us would even know about her and her tragic death if its details weren’t released at a point so relevant and timely. Immediately after Breonna was murdered, she was a nondescript “suspect” involved in a shooting during a police investigation. She was not even a ‘she’, just an easy lie by police to make sure they could steer clear of any trouble. Too often, the response is to cover up, pretend it never happened, ignore it. Until, that is, people find you out and get angry.

Then, the reaction. Reactions to these events are largely what determines their legacy, and that’s where we are now, isn’t it? Outrage, and its ability to disrupt everything else, is our only avenue if we want a chance at any bit of justice. Justice for Floyd, justice for Taylor, justice for Arbery, justice for Tony McDade. Despite this, many jump to delegitimize outrage and the protests it spawns. They demand peace from people whom the government has never let know peace — because they say it’ll accomplish more. But let us be reminded that it was a week’s worth of riots all across the country and the increasing insistence and militance of black Americans following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination which finally forced the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Some suggest that we vote our way out of this, but what has that accomplished? Dangerous racists like Amy Cooper vote — they vote for the very same candidates that proponents of this method of (un)change believe are the answer: She donated to Buttigieg, whose time as mayor in the South Bend produced high rates of incarceration on drug offenses for black residents and who only wounded the black community following the police murder of Eric Logan. Had she preferred conservative agendas, she would’ve supported officeholders who are overtly and casually racist and work hard to gerrymander and otherwise suppress black people’s right to vote. Clearly, if these are the mediums through which we react, we won’t get anywhere. Not anywhere good, at least, not anywhere better, not any closer to resolution.

To even say there’s an end to all of this feels like a dream, like an answer to a childish question that the bleakness of this reality has forced us to stop asking. Only now, it seems we’re not asking questions. Instead, we’ve decided if someone won’t flip the page, we’ll burn the book and write our own where we’re not doomed to suffer, awaiting some fairytale finish that no one planned to give to us. Parts of America have caught fire, but I challenge you to see how this rebellion is one of hope despite the narrative of anarchistic, senseless violence that people are trying to reduce it to. Rebellion expresses hope for a radically better world, and the complete and total structural transformation needed to get there. It requires the rationality to reject the old system as well as a hopeful imagination to believe justice is possible and to fight for it tirelessly, militantly, and against such brutal oppressors. From his speech “The Other America,” I impart to you the words of King: “And so we must still face the fact that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption. The question now, is whether America is prepared to do something massively, affirmatively, and forthrightly about the great problem we face in the area of race and the problem which can bring the curtain of doom down on American civilization if it is not solved.”

 

Alecia Wilk is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.