Police Violence and the Discourse of (White) Fear

by Margarita Aragon

Last month, police in Cleveland shot a 12-year-old boy as he played in a park. Perhaps, you have seen the CCTV footage. In the silent stilted images, Tamir Rice wanders aimlessly, pointing a BB gun in various directions, before sitting by himself on a bench. A police car speeds into view and the boy stands up, before falling to the ground, our view of him then blocked by the police car.

Tamir-Rice-Shooting

After shooting Tamir within two seconds (literally) of arriving on the scene, the police then tackled and handcuffed his 14-year-old sister as she came running, having been told by other children that the police had shot her brother. When their mother arrived a few minutes later, again summoned by children who witnessed the shooting, she was threatened with arrest if she did not ‘calm down.’ In the seven minutes of grainy footage released by the city of Cleveland, you can’t see any of this. You can’t make out Tamir’s face before he falls or those of the officers. There is no sound. We see no blood. The images are merely the blurred and muted echoes of a horror. We can’t see him but we know. The child lay dying on the ground, alone, as the last seconds of the security footage tick by. The officers did not administer first aid for four minutes, 238 seconds longer than they took to shoot him.

If he was still conscious, perhaps one of the last sounds Tamir Rice heard was the voice of the police officer calling the incident into the station, ‘Shots fired, male down, black male, maybe 20.’

‘White people,’ thinks Stamp Paid, a ferryman and former slave, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, ‘believed [that] under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood.’

Consistently through the 20th and now into the 21st century, seething danger has been read into black bodies, their every movement and utterance potentially read as a threat or menacing, unintelligible noise.

Shortly before the beating of Rodney King, Laurence Powell sent a message through his in-car computer to colleagues describing a call he had just attended to involving an African American couple. ‘It was right out of Gorillas of the Mist,’ he wrote, employing the dehumanizing jungle metaphor, much to the apparent amusement of his fellow officers. Less than an hour later, after the infamous stop in which he and two fellow officers stomped, kicked and struck King with batons, he typed, ‘Oops,’ and then, ‘I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.’ Powell took a different tone when on trial for his part in the attack, telling jurors, ‘I was completely in fear for my life, scared to death that [if] this guy got back up, he was going to take my gun away from me.’

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Likewise, Timothy Loehmann, the officer who killed Tamir Rice, has also reported that he shot because he felt his life was in peril. Loehmann’s father told a local news agency his son’s story of the incident: ‘I was right there and he went for the gun. I had no choice.’

Why, we might ask, are so many men armed with guns – some of them trained officers and public servants – so very afraid? George Zimmerman was afraid of Trayvon Martin. Darren Wilson was terribly afraid of Michael Brown, who ‘made a grunting noise and had the most intense aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person.’ Michigan homeowner Theodor Wafer was afraid of Renisha McBride when she knocked on his door after a car accident. Sean Williams, one the police officers who shot John Crawford, in Walmart in August, with his fellow officer, David Darkow – again within seconds of arriving at the scene- reported that they shot because ‘the black male was in a position where he could shoot me or sergeant Darkow.’

The appeal to fear to justify white violence against black people has a long discursive pedigree. At the turn of the century, Ben ‘Pitchfork’ Tillman, a histrionic Senator from South Carolina toured the United States, lecturing audiences about the ‘black beast’ and the apocalyptic dangers of racial integration. Tillman was not so much a lynching apologist as a lynching promoter. In his fervent depictions of the racial threat, Tillman seemed to suggest that black ‘beastiality’ was enough to invoke the savagery of the white man. ‘I have seen,’ he stated in a speech before the Senate, ‘the very highest and best men we have lose all semblance of Christian human beings in their anger and frenzy when some female of their acquaintance or one of their daughters had been ravished.’ The sickening acts of the lynch mob, then, were not crimes but justice, the savagery of the white mob was but the primordial and righteous response to black savagery. The black man torn apart was therefore responsible for not only his own brutality but that of his executioners.

While an extremist, and highly distasteful to many of his contemporaries, Tillman’s basic premise, that lynching was practiced because black people were inclined towards immorality and lawlessness was widely accepted. Khalil Gibran Muhammad has argued that around the turn of the century, the discourse of black criminality, bolstered by the new ‘scientific’ data of statistics, became the most dominant version of the ‘Negro problem’ in the 20th century. In discussions of law and order, lynching and other forms of extra-legal violence, even if seen as abhorrent, often seemed to reaffirm black lawlessness and abnormality to outside observers. The sociologist James Elbert Cutler insisted that lynching was immoral and uncivilized, but he actively sympathized with lynching communities: ‘To men living in community where a particularly brutal and barbarous crime is committed upon a white person by a negro, the prompt lynching of the negro, even with some torture and cruelty, seems entirely defensible.’ Perhaps, accepting the premise for brutality, that the victim was a criminal threat, was easier than the far more disturbing reality. In any case, the ritual infliction of mob violence on black victims helped to solidify views that black people were criminally inclined and in need of ‘control’.

Of course things have changed, in no small part due to the political and intellectual resistance and demands for justice that black communities have been making for more than a century. Things have changed, but the legacies of slavery and the racist terror that followed it still linger. The discourse of black criminality, which predominates today, is antithetical in important ways to Tillman’s paroxysms. Today, the killers of black men and women do not present themselves as the proud defenders of white supremacy but the innocent victims of happenstance, where they believed their very lives were in danger, situations in which they ‘had no choice.’

The criminal records, violent pasts, and/or menacing characteristics of the victims of police killings are routinely conjured to justify their murder. As Tamir Rice was 12 and thus insufficiently menacing in his own right, one local media outlet instead focused on the personal histories of his parents in order, apparently, to explain why the police shot him – the ‘pathological’ black family, of course, long having been a critical ingredient in ideologically cementing blackness and criminality.

When the Rodney King videotape was released, it was said by many in communities routinely brutalized by the police that the only thing unusual about King’s beating was that it had been caught on video. But still it seemed, for once, the crime would not, could not, go unpunished, not when it was recorded in black and white and plain to see. In our hyper visual, hyper securitised society, we have now seen Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice murdered on footage taken by mobile phones or security cameras. Oscar Grant’s killer served less than a year in prison for shooting him in the back at close range while he was being restrained by another officer. Eric Garner’s killer, as we have recently been told, will not be indicted, though thousands, if not millions of us, have now watched the moment when a police officer continued to strangle him as he gasped that he could not breathe. We have learned, again and again, the power of the ‘line of duty’ narrative to reinterpret blatant, seemingly undeniable evidence of the most reckless, the most murderous uses of force, as well as the manner in which the coding of black people as vicious and immoral upholds this narrative.

As anyone who reads the comments sections in news stories about police violence knows, a favourite tactic among those defending the police is to cite ‘facts’ about ‘black crime’. A favoured theme in this regard is that there is a ‘liberal’ conspiracy to silence the endemic violence black criminals supposedly perpetrate against innocent white people (‘REAL hate crimes’). The ludicrous irony of claims that ‘black criminals’ are somehow invisible or unpunished in a society in which in many localities black people are ten times as likely to be arrested as people who aren’t black people and in which one in three black men will likely be imprisoned in their lifetime, of course, never dawns on those who perceive any discussion of institutionalised racist inequality as the contemptible peddling of ‘race cards’.

zimthumbIn attempting to defend the reputation of his brother after the latter killed Trayvon Martin, Robert Zimmerman tweeted a picture of Martin next to a picture of De’Marquise Elkins, a teenager accused and later convicted of shooting a baby while attempting to rob the child’s mother, captioned ‘A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words, Any Questions?’ To make his semiotic connection between these two completely unrelated teenage boys clearer, he later added that the ‘liberal media’ should ask if what Elkins and his accomplice did ‘to a woman & baby is the reason ppl think blacks might B risky.’ Of course this comment merely confirmed the suspicions so many of us already had about George Zimmerman – that he shot Trayvon Martin because he deemed all black boys to be threatening. To Robert Zimmerman, the fact that Elkins had a gun and Martin had a bag of Skittles is of no consequence. It doesn’t matter if the person shot down has candy in his hands rather than a gun, a wallet, a bottle of medication, or nothing at all. They are held responsible for the threat the shooter feels. Their perceived ‘riskiness’, the jungle perceived to be pulsing inside their dark skin, is to blame for killer’s actions and ultimately for their own death.

Stamp Paid, the ferryman in Morrison’s Beloved, thinks to himself that white people were so afraid of the jungle they perceived to be lurking ‘under every dark skin’ – the jungle they had themselves made – that it grew, spreading, invading its creators. ‘The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.’ The character’s insight is not meant to suggest that white people are innately savage or bestial. Rather, I believe, it points to the way in which domination engenders – indeed necessitates- its own feverish imagination, its own nightmares of subversion.

Stories are now emerging suggesting that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir Rice is mentally and emotionally unstable. If there is a trial, no doubt the court will attempt to determine, in legal terms, to what extent Loehmann believed his life to be in danger (not whether it was actually in danger, because it is already clear to everyone that it was not).

In social terms, the problem is not whether or not a fully trained, fully armed police officer genuinely feared that a twelve-year-old boy with nothing in his hands was a mortal threat. The problem is that there is anyone, let alone the legal system, that could find this idea plausible to begin with, and that, faced with the body of a dead child, could deem the consequences justifiable. This fear- whether the officer genuinely experienced it or not- is not a justification; it is an indictment of a society, of a history, which has made the conditions of this ‘accident’ possible. This fear- whether truly felt or cynically claimed- is not innocent; it is the shadow of a jungle.

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Margarita Aragon is a sociologist whose research focuses on histories of racism, and in particular on the experiences of Mexican and African Americans in the United States. She recently completed her PhD at Goldsmiths College in London and is the mother of three young children.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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