America's fear of black rage: Why tragic NYPD shootings are so misunderstood

I'm deeply pained by the murder of those officers -- but the dishonest rhetoric that followed must be called out

Published December 24, 2014 5:15PM (EST)

George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Ray Kelly        (Reuters/Allan Tannenbaum/Richard Drew/Carlo Allegri)
George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Ray Kelly (Reuters/Allan Tannenbaum/Richard Drew/Carlo Allegri)

On Saturday, two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, needlessly lost their lives when a lone gunman, suffering from clear mental health issues, executed them while they sat in their squad car in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Before killing them, he shot his ex-girlfriend Shaneka Thompson in the stomach, after breaking into her building and arguing with her about their past relationship. Because the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of various black men killed by police in the last several months, many commentators began falsely equating the act of a deranged vigilante with the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whipped into a predictable but regrettable frenzy, the NYPD blamed the mayor for showing empathy with protestors, declared themselves a “wartime police department,” and promised that they would “act accordingly.” In the midst of understandable grief and perhaps fear, the NYPD and those who support them uncritically have chosen to engage in the kind of dishonest, incendiary rhetoric that only inflames an already volatile situation. Let us not forget that the same police who claim protestors have gone to war against them antagonized demonstrators by wearing shirts proclaiming, "I can breathe" in the midst of demonstrations last week. Police also held #BlueLivesMatter rallies. Their callous disregard for Eric Garner’s life should be set alongside their demand for our automatic grief and empathy for these slain officers.

To be clear, I am deeply disheartened by the pain and grief that the families of Officers Liu and Ramos must now endure. Those officers did not deserve to lose their lives. But the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, John Crawford and Tamir Rice are worthy of equal empathy. These men and boys did not deserve to lose their lives either. Their families’ grief matters just as much. Their communities’ sense of an injustice having been done is just as legitimate. The truth about the magnitude of unjust and unjustifiable black death perpetrated at the hands of police officers does not go away because of the misguided, wrongheaded act of a lone gunman.

I resent the pressure now placed on black people to make a public show of condemning this act of violence against the police. Many of my friends obliged with pithy statements, with assertions that #AllLivesMatter, and even by posting blue ribbon memes to their pages. I will be doing no such thing. I reject the implicit argument that if I don’t publicly express outrage over two dead police officers that I must agree with them having been killed. I do not agree with the actions of a mentally ill killer. I wish Officers Liu and Ramos were home with their families this holiday season.

There is a disingenuousness to the argument that those who disagree with the ways that the police serve black and brown communities are complicit in these killings. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not blame the white community when young white men shoot up movie theaters, schools and public events. We do not argue that because those on the right have stridently resisted passing stricter gun control laws that they must have wanted the children at Newtown to be slaughtered. Yet, when Brinsley murdered these officers, too many white people took it as a sign of things to come, a signal that a band of black vigilantes would emerge from the darkness to slaughter “innocent” white people.

One of the hallmarks of white privilege is the presumption of individuality given to each white person, so that their acts are never taken as indicative of a group. Yet, as soon as one mentally unstable black person rants about killing police as an act of revenge and acts on it, suddenly the entire black community is viewed as dangerous. We don’t talk about Ismaaiyl Brinsley in the way that we have discussed any number of white mass murderers over the years.

When I argued that Elliot Rodger, the mixed-race UC Santa Barbara shooter, suffered from a heady combination of white privilege, male privilege and mental instability, the mere attempt to think about the political dimensions of his delusions netted me death threats. In Brinsley’s case, it is clear that his delusions were intertwined with the political struggles of the current moment. That does not in any way mitigate the severity of his mental illness. And it cannot become an excuse for the police to police black and brown communities more harshly.

It should, however, become an opportunity for us to get honest about the fears we have around racially charged situations. The thing we are not saying here, the thing that must be said, particularly as commentators leapfrog over clear mental health issues to malign Black Lives Matter protestors, is that white people deeply fear black anger. Many fear that at any moment black rage could boil over into deadly forms of violence. It is the reason that professional black people have a running internal joke about the things white people say to us, whenever they see more than three black people gathered together talking at school or at work. On more than one occasion, white people have been known to respond to such mundane conversations by asking if we were “plotting the revolution.” This fear of the unpredictability of black rage is the reason that black people are frequently characterized as angry when we aren’t smiling. Toni Morrison famously wrote about the ways that Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings had far more references to his warm smile and laughter than to his history as a legal scholar.

The police, whatever their color, fear black anger, too. And they “act accordingly,” by policing black communities with a finger on the trigger. That was true before they were a “wartime police department.” I shudder to think what a police force that has declared war on the communities they aim to serve might do.

The prevailing logic of this moment is that black and brown communities are supposed to willingly submit to the use of excessive force, surveillance and violence by the police, without ever “overreacting” to the injustice of it all. Any perceivable lack of submission, whether refusing to step onto a sidewalk on command or challenging excessive harassment for selling loose cigarettes, becomes grounds for a state-sanctioned execution.

We, as a nation, have choreographed the steps to revolution time and again, beginning with our break from the old country, and again during the Civil War, when we attempted to reinvent ourselves. But the specter of revolutionary violence, its legitimacy or lack thereof, haunts us, particularly when the use of violence as a tool of political change is in the hands of non-white people. That is the other unspoken fear here -- that black communities might legitimately take up revolutionary violence in response to the egregious injustices perpetrated against us. What Brinsley did was not revolutionary violence. But his act reminds me that to be black in this country is to be, among many other things, a witness to too much violence, both state and intracommunal. I have witnessed too much violent devastation in my short life to advocate its use haphazardly. I practice nonviolence as a way of life. And despite my sympathy with those black folks who are reconsidering that point of view, the shooting of Shaneka Thompson affirms for me that when black men take up arms against the state there is the real possibility that black women and children become target practice.

Our relationship to violence and its attendant devastations is one we must courageously interrogate. But the state’s acts of excessive and illegitimate violence against communities of color are no less worthy of interrogation than the callous act of this lone gunman. I refuse, then, to publicly affirm a statement like Blue Lives Matter. Tethered to that affirmation is my affirmation of a system that values blue lives over all other lives, that believes that black lives are an acceptable casualty of a longstanding war that the police have declared on communities of color. That kind of affirmation would constitute my complicity in the denial of legitimate grievances that black communities have against the state and against white people more generally.

The police want all the power, prestige and respect that come with being a police officer, but none of the responsibility. That responsibility entails keeping the peace, de-escalating conflict and valuing and protecting all lives. When the state gives you a gun and the right to use lethal force, you commit to being held to a higher standard. Our expectation as citizens is that the police will not callously execute members of the community with the same malicious disregard as this gunman did.

Many officers commit to this work and do it well. I rely on those officers, for instance, when I am forced to report the routine threats I receive from readers of my work. But far too many officers use a badge as an excuse to power trip. The unjust slaughter of these police officers does not obscure any of these facts for me. That all lives matter goes without saying. That the lives of these fallen officers mattered goes without saying. That black lives matter does not go without saying, and that must change. Until we as a nation can affirm that black lives matter without equivocation, we simply haven’t earned the right to say “all lives matter.”

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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