In 2017, I wrote an essay titled “I Don’t Give a Fuck about Justine Damond,” which outlined my perspective on Ms. Damond’s death at the hands of Mohamed Noor, a Minneapolis police officer who also happened to be Somali American and Muslim. My thesis was this: How can I be concerned about a white woman shot and killed by a police officer when there are countless Black people who suffered that fate to the stunning silence and antipathy of the vast majority of white American populace?
The essay was met with the characteristic outrage from white people (but not only white people). They accused me of disrespecting Damond’s memory and being inconsiderate of her family’s feelings. I was also accused of being a hypocrite for not condemning the actions of the cop as I had in previous incidents involving Black victims. Even some of the people closest to me believed that I had crossed a line and thought that I had been too harsh in my assessment and should if not show reverence then certainly remain silent on the matter.
But I could do neither, not with the blood of Black people flowing endlessly in the streets. I insisted that there was a purpose to my position. I had predicted that the outcome of Damond’s death would be unique and that, unlike in the numerous cases in which the murder of a Black person by state agents was considered “justified” and the agents themselves regarded as valiant, the officer who killed Damond wouldn’t have access to the protections or rationalizations that his white compatriots had always been given.
And I was correct.
Without so much as a raised pitchfork, Noor was fired, abandoned by a union that defends even the most egregious actions of its officers. He was swiftly charged, swiftly convicted, and swiftly sentenced to twelve and a half years in prison. And Damond’s family was swiftly compensated, settling for a hefty $20 million from the city of Minneapolis, not at the expense of police forces but at the expense of the taxpayers.
If we are to accept that this is what justice looks like in a penal and punitive nation like the United States of America, the question, for me, is then, why isn’t it applied unilaterally? Why did it take the threat of burning the entire country to ash before the forces of “law and order” would arrest and charge the non-Black (and that’s important to note) police officers caught on camera murdering George Floyd, a Black man? Why are the officers who murdered Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, inside her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, still free to murder another day? Police kill Black people at 2.5 times the rate they kill white people. In 2015, for example, more than a hundred unarmed Black people were killed by police, and only four cops were convicted of any crime in those cases. Experts believe police kill Black people at an even higher rate, but since the nation keeps such spotty records, perhaps intentionally, it’s difficult to grasp and easy for some people to dismiss the magnitude.
The answer to these questions is obvious and yet it’s an answer that this country—from the time it was just a patchwork of greedy and insatiable Europeans who pillaged and plundered the unsuspecting Indigenous people of this land until today—refuses to confront:
The United States of America is, by its very nature, anti-Black.
It isn’t the only anti-Black nation and it isn’t only anti-Black (it also despises the Indigenous, the queer, the trans, the poor, the disabled, and many others). But anti-Blackness is, indeed, the American fact. The nation was constructed on the notion that white people are the only fully human beings on earth, and that humanity exists on a spectrum that moves from the “purity” of whiteness to the “impurity” of Blackness. This isn’t merely some abstract idea; it’s the foundation of every American institution and what animates every American person. It’s what allows, for example, the American media to uphold the pretense that pro-Blackness and anti-Blackness are equal moral propositions or that there can ever be “both sides to the story” when it comes to a state agent murdering a Black person.
Someone should tell the truth. American policing evolves (and I hate to use that word, since I believe policing in this country hasn’t evolved; shape-shift, maybe, but evolve: never) out of the antebellum plantation system of overseers, slave catchers, and lynch mobs; militias of white men (but, again, not only white men) who were charged with (or self-appointed to) the duty of hunting, caging, abusing, and murdering Black people with the blessing of the government. The coalescence of these ragtag arrangements of barbarism under the banner of state will is what we now know as policing. Few of the tactics have changed between then and now. The traffic stops and stop-and-frisk are merely the modern version of slave patrols, where any Black person seen off the plantation was confronted and asked to prove who they were and where they belonged. It’s important to note that in New York City, stop-and-frisk yielded results that were surprising to racists: though Black and Brown people were being stopped at nine times the rate of white people, white people were more likely to be found carrying contraband. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response was that even more Black and Brown people needed to be stopped even though his own data indicated the opposite.
That’s because Bloomberg is like most Americans indoctrinated from birth to project all of their fears and sins onto Black people, willing to ignore logic and warp reality to make us their scapegoats. Aside from our cultural productions (America would have no culture without us) and exoticized bodies, they need us because they need someone to blame. And whether they know it or not, most Americans, when they see a Black person menaced by cops, feel a bit of comfort in knowing, whether we call it slave patrol or police patrol, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. These Americans are safe—but more importantly, their property is. And always, their happiness is defined by our misery.
Thus, the refusal of Americans to call evil by its name is an appeal to their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Whiteness, and therefore Americanness, can only function under false pretenses: of its own superiority and of its own innocence. These things become pathological. It’s why white people can be more outraged at, say, the looting of a Target store than the murder of a Black person on camera. It’s how they can devise something like the “George Floyd Challenge” and go viral on social media by filming themselves kneeling on each other’s necks and laughing. They do not understand that in doing so they’ve dehumanized not George Floyd but themselves, for the entire world to see. These people are the dreams of their ancestors just like we are the dreams of ours. Theirs imagined a day when their descendants would be able to own lynching postcards that were no longer static (and that’s how these videos of Black death function: motion lynching pictures). Ours just imagined a day when we would be free.
That is the beauty of these uprisings—which are happening in all fifty states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and all around the world, joined, surprisingly, by non-Black people who I can only imagine could no longer suffer under the strain of the guilt that is their blood memory (but not only memory). They hint at the possibility of Black liberation. It will not be achieved, of course. The United States of America would unleash the full fury of its military might upon its own citizens before it would allow that to happen. An America without its proverbial knee on the necks of the Black populace is not America at all. And that is their greatest fear: the collapse of all they hold sacred, which is held together, really, by the fiction that Black people are not people.
We must resist even if defeat is imminent.
I don’t believe we will be liberated from the American regime through superficial and incremental reforms (do you reform a lynch mob by giving them a willow tree instead of a sycamore from which to condemn the hanged?). That is the sacred knowledge that Assata Shakur prophesied for the flock to receive. What is required is a reevaluation, a dismantling. And no nation will go down quietly—especially not one whose character is no different than that of a tick, sucking the blood of the warm body to which it has attached its mandibles until it’s engorged, leaving disease in its wake. When I was a child, I was told that one way to remove a tick was to light a match and hold it near.
The thought of fire frightens me. It can be painful, deadly even, if not deployed with the utmost care and precision. But it can also be cleansing. Nature itself renews the forests in this way, making room for fuller, lusher, greener, more abundant spaces where decay had once resided. And if this is true, if James Baldwin was correct and the rainbow was, indeed, a promise, then what have we to lose that hasn’t already been lost?
I suppose we’ve had the solution the entire time. But given our proximity to our oppressors and our already weary bodies, it was simply too risky to take the chance. I’m still scared, for me and for you. Because we are at the crossroads now (don’t you hear banjo playing?), pushed here by the unrelenting robber barons who have stolen everything from us including our own souls. And all we have—all we have—is the torch in our hand to light our way forward.
Raise your torch high, for that is the stance of liberty; and, as I believe singer Usher Raymond put it most plainly:
Let it burn.
Robert Jones Jr. is a writer from New York City. He has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin. Jones was recently featured in T Magazine’s cover story “Black Male Writers of Our Time.” His debut novel, The Prophets, will be released in January 2021.