(reprinted from the NY Times)
Rage Is the Only Language I Have Left
Society has become horribly desensitized to police killings of Black men.
Opinion Columnist April 14, 2021
One of the first times I wrote about the police killing of an unarmed Black man was when Michael Brown was gunned down in the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was a Black teenager accused of an infraction in a convenience store just before his life was taken. Last summer, six years on, I wrote about George Floyd, a large Black man accused of an infraction in a convenience store, this time in Minneapolis.
Both men were killed in the street in broad daylight. Brown was shot. An officer knelt on Floyd’s neck. In both cases there were multiple community witnesses to the killings. In both cases there was a massive outcry. In both cases the men were accused of contributing to, or causing, their own deaths, in part because they had illegal drugs in their systems.
Between those two killings there has been a depressing number of others. In January of 2015, The Washington Post began maintaining a database of all known fatal shootings by the police in America. Every year, the police shot and killed roughly 1,000 people. But, as The Post points out, Black Americans are killed at a much higher rate than white Americans, and the data revealed that unarmed Black people account for about 40 percent of the unarmed Americans killed by the police, despite making up only about 13 percent of the American population.
Something is horrifyingly wrong. And yet, the killings keep happening. Brown and Floyd are not even the bookends. There were many before them, and there will be many after.
These killings often happen during the day and in public, not under the cover of night, tucked away in some back wood. And they are often caught on video. Tamir Rice was killed during the day. There was video. Walter Scott was killed during the day. There was video. Eric Garner was killed during the day. There was video.
Now there is another: Daunte Wright, shot and killed during the day in Brooklyn Center, Minn., not far from where Floyd was killed. There is video.
Very little has changed. The aftermath of these killings has become a pattern, a ritual, that produces its own normalizing and desensitizing effects. We can now anticipate the explosions of rage as well and the relative intransigence of the political system in response.
That is not to say that absolutely nothing has changed, but rather that the changes amount to tinkering, when in fact our whole system of policing must be re-evaluated and fundamentally altered.
That examination, oddly enough, starts with gun control. The police justify their militarization and armed-and-ready positioning, by correctly observing that they can be outgunned by a public with such easy access to guns, including military-style guns.
But once they are armed and anxious, they can be that way in all cases: against an armed suspect as well as one who is unarmed. To all interactions, they can bring personal biases, some of which they don’t even know they possess. And, in the blink of an eye, something tragic can be done, something that can’t be undone.
In addition, municipalities can deploy officers as a malicious arm of urban planning as well as a profit-generating enterprise. Police officers in gentrifying neighborhoods can make new arrivals feel safe by controlling and correcting existing residents. They can also be used to generate funds from fines to keep budgets in balance. All of this increases tense contacts between officers and citizens, so that even though only a tiny fraction lead to deaths, that fraction can still feel overwhelming.
It is all so perverse. And too often it is Black people, particularly Black men, who bear the brunt when all this pressure culminates in a killing.
So, it becomes hard to write about this in a newspaper because it is no longer new. The news of these killings is not that they are interruptions of the norm, but a manifestation of the norm.
There is no new angle. There is no new hot take. There is very little new to be revealed. These killings are not continuing to happen due to a lack of exposure, but in spite of it. Our systems of law enforcement, criminal justice and communal consciousness have adjusted themselves to a banal barbarism.
This has produced in me and many others an inextinguishable rage, a calcification of contempt. As for me, I no longer even attempt to manage or direct my rage. I simply sit with it, face it like an adversary staring across a campfire, waiting to see how I am moved to act, but not proscribing that action and definitely not allowing society’s idea of decorum to proscribe it.
A society that treats this much Black death at the hands of the state as collateral damage in a just war on crime has no decorum to project. That society is savage.
I am also no longer interested in talking about Black pain and Black trauma. (I am becoming ever more convinced that there is a prurient interest in gawking at Black suffering rather than a genuine desire to remedy it.) I now focus on my rage.
I’m sure that pain and trauma are present in me, but I’m choosing to subjugate their import. Rage has ascended to my position of primacy. America scoffed and was unmoved when, for years, we spoke out of our pain. So be it. Now, rage is the only language I have left.