Killing the Future: The Theft of Black Life

by Nicholas Powers, Truthout | News Analysis –

black in america

Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout

“Tell me of the night your son was killed by the police,” I asked. She sat up and a deep sorrow moved in her eyes. “I had a habit of looking out the window to see my son,” Danette Chavis said. “But that night, I said to myself, ‘oh leave the boy alone’ and took a nap. The phone woke me up and my daughter was rushing out of the door. I followed her and saw police tape, cops standing around a body. I yelled to see if it was him. But they wouldn’t let me close. Later, I went to the morgue and identified my son.”

We sat in the café, a few seconds passed in silence. She looked away as if seeing him dead for the first time and I regretted asking the question. Around us, people typed on laptops or chatted over coffee. They were so carefree. How do we reach a city that mostly looks at people of color in contempt or pity, but not solidarity? How do we get them to listen?

I looked up from my notebook. “Ms. Chavis,” I asked, “What do you miss most about your son?”

Making Wounds Speak

Imagine hearing that someone you loved, died. Your heart would jump in your chest. Your body would clench like a fist around their memory. How angry would you be? How loud would you yell at the sky, at God, at anyone you could blame? Afterward, you’d float in a limbo of grief until you got answers, made sense of it and then slowly, said goodbye. Gathering at the funeral, you could complete the storyline of loss.

The stages of grief depend on narrative closure, the shoveling of dirt on the casket, eulogizing the dead. But for African-American parents whose children were slain by law enforcement, the stages of grief grind to a halt. The dead cannot be laid to rest because the cop who murdered them is not held accountable, and his violence is condoned. And to eclipse the officer’s guilt, the victims are “niggerized” in public. Have a criminal record? It will be paraded in public. Ever took silly gangsta photos? They will be proof of a “thug life.” The parents see their child’s image warped as they learn of more Black and Latino youth killed by cops. In a solidarity of despair, they embrace everyone’s lost children as if they can hear the dead repeating their final words, asking for their lives back.

In December 2014, 10 mothers whose children were killed by police held a rally in front of the US Department of Justice. Chavis was there and said into the megaphone, “None of us are safe. Law enforcement around the United States is brutalizing, arresting and murdering.” A large group surrounded her with signs and candles. One by one the mothers spoke. Some had fought for years like Chavis, who started a petition, now 35,000 signatures strong, to send to former Attorney General Eric Holder, or Valerie Bell, whose son Sean was shot dead by New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers in 2006. Other grieving parents were more recently bereaved, like Jeralynn Blueford, whose son Alan was gunned down by Oakland police in 2012. She stood in front of the rally, choking on tears and saying, “Alan’s last words were, ‘why did you shoot me?'”

Holding up the faces of their dead in front of the Department of Justice, the mothers confronted our nation’s deepest contradiction. How can citizens be killed by agents of the very state that represents them, and not find any route to accountability? All of them were women of color. And many are working-class. Their presence was already the answer. Under our formal democracy is a long history of a legal racial slavery and segregation followed by a now informal White supremacist regime, in which White lives matter while Black ones don’t.

The mothers rallied in front of the Department of Justice, but it was dark and empty. Faced with a closed building, but wanting justice, they poured into the street and marched on Pennsylvania Avenue. Blocking traffic, they walked in between cars and shouted, “Shut it down! Shut it down!”

From Slave Chains to Handcuffs

Years ago, I visited a traveling exhibit on slavery and saw tourists standing quietly around a table filled with rusted shackles and chains. The host pointed at one and said it was worn by those enslaved in the Middle Passage. I reached out, fingertips above it then pulled back. “Go ahead,” he said, “Touch it.”

I lifted it and felt a heavy sadness rolling down my arms into the shackle. Slipping my hand inside, I thought of those in my family’s past, brought to this world wearing a thing like this. I wanted to rip the fucking metal apart. But I was only able to stand and hold a history I could not destroy.



Reprinted with permission from Truthout


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