Black Lives and Institutional Violence

It’s painful watching the news when another black brother has been shot or choked by a white police officer. Likewise, it is difficult to understand how a black sister would hang herself while in police custody. Though the experience of by-standers can’t mirror that of the families directly impacted, the feelings generated are still visceral.

I can empathize with the protesters in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. I stand in solidarity with them. We all want change. Listening to an interview of Stanley Nelson on the NPR program, Fresh Air, I was quickly reminded of how the concerns of the protesters haven’t changed at all since the 60’s protests. The Black Panthers had similar concerns during the Civil Rights era. Most people who dream of a better world desire just treatment for black citizens and all others.

Still, I believe the movement misses a larger point. Black lives are treated no worse than “other” lives around the globe. The history of the world is filled with maltreatment of the other. Skin color is often the culprit that leads to the abuse of power, but not always. Sometimes, it is ethnicity, language, religious beliefs, you name it. All of these are fodder for human violence.

The human animal has an inherent need for power. Anyone who threatens the human group in power is subject to abuse by the authorities charged with imposing order and law. Does that mean the BLM should refocus its attention to broader issues? Unequivocally, the answer is no. But, it helps to put the situation in perspective; in a larger context. The context that I want to lift up is that of government-sponsored violence.

During an interfatith lecture at the Chautauqua Institute, I was introduced to this idea by Imam Hussein Rashid, a Muslim scholar and founder of Islamicate, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competence. Dr. Rashid argued in his lecture that state-sponsored violence can be traced back to the Enlightenment, which endorsed violence against the “other.” He points out how the Enlightenment gave rise to Jews being seen as “the stranger, the foreigner who has come to stay, but does not truly belong. The foreign body that must be ejected from the wholesome and healthy body politic.” It was Immanuel Kant who wrote, “The euthanasia of Judaism is the pure, moral religion.” One might view the Black Lives Matter as combatting the euthanasia of “others,” especially black “others.”

Rashid argues that we, the people, now “accept institutionalized violence,” which I break down further to municipal police department-sponsored violence. I wonder if this is what BLM really is going after. At its core BLM is disgusted with the body politic that by-stands as excessive force is applied to unarmed black people. The body politic would be those elected officials that do not object to the violence we witness against. Implicit in their inaction is a tacit agreement that the violence is acceptable.

I argue that many local police departments have a culture of violence that perpetuates violence against people of color. The most obvious is the city of Ferguson, Missouri where the U.S. Justice Department investigated and uncovered a host of municipally-endorsed practices designed to fleece Ferguson’s mostly black populace in the city’s revenue-generating campaign (a form of economic violence). The acceptance of this police culture by the majority culture is what perpetuates violence against black lives.

Such blatant systemic schemes waged against a town’s own citizens are a disgrace to the American form of governance. The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson reified what many people perceived to be happening, but had no power or system in place to prove it. That people of color were being blatantly violated by the officials elected to protect them is a downright disgrace!

Cases like Ferguson, where Michael Brown, Jr. was killed by a white police officer, and the case of Baltimore, where a black man, Freddie Gray, died at the hands of police officers sworn to protect its citizens are glaring examples of municipal police departments with cultures of ingrained, abusive power. It doesn’t help that Baltimore had a black police chief, who seemingly was totally inept at changing the culture.

Here in Durham, NC, where I live, Police Chief Jose Lopez, was recently early retired due to similar ineptness. He was forced out by the city manager. Local reports cited, “Spikes in crime rates, allegations of racial bias, and lack of transparency that have plagued the department under Lopez’s leadership.” These are politically correct words that mean there was a culture of culturally-accepted violence that the police chief was unable or unwilling to curtail. This is what the BLM movement aims to highlight and change. But as we witnessed with Occupy Wall Street, simply highlighting institutional abuse does not result in change.

It’s a steep, uphill battle. Even when the system works as people of color hope, the system doesn’t work. The Michael Brown case is a perfect example. Ferguson is a town in a state with a democratic governor elected on the backs of black people. Gov. Jay Nixon had the opportunity to affect the outcome of the Michael Brown trial by appointing an impartial special prosecutor, but he didn’t. When it was revealed that Bob McCulloch’s father, a former police officer, was killed at the hands of a black man, that should have signaled to Mr. Nixon that the case required a new special prosecutor. But no, Nixon failed to act.

Thus, the citizens of Ferguson were left at the mercy of someone entrusted to protect them, who had a serious conflict of interest and inability to carry out his mandate. Instead, Mr. Nixon implicitly sanctioned more state-sponsored violence. Black Lives Matter was borne out of this mess of a case. How can it expect to effect change when the system doesn’t work - even when the political conditions were ripe for a more just outcome, the system failed.

Human violence, while seemingly rooted in race and skin color in the U.S., is not limited to our native soil. The news from the Syrian civil war gets worse each day. Syrians are fleeing violence and human atrocities carried out by people of the same skin color. It’s worse on many levels.

I listened to a report this Monday about a man who was granted asylum here in the U.S. by the State Department. He had been identified as participating in peaceful demonstrations against the Assad government and was sequestered by government forces. While in custody, his kidney was removed. He reported that others had eyes and livers removed.

On many levels, skin color is a sanction for human violence. While black lives do matter, just as all lives matter, the deeper issue here is violence and the state's ability to sanction violence. What do you do with violence against black people in Africa? There you have Boku Haram, which is carrying out unthinkable crimes against its own black, Nigerian people. You also have countless national governments instituting violence against people with black and brown skin.

I don’t even want to get into black-on-black crime in our U.S. cities. The stats only make me sicker and feel more helpless. I belong to several organizations, secular and religious, that strive every day of the year, along with other socially-conscious organizations, to make a difference. Still, it sometimes feels like we are just treading water. 

What is my bottom line here? We can’t give up. But, it helps to realize the system is a monster in itself. Having a black president and black U.S. attorney general has made a significant impact. They are making changes, but it is a direly slow process. We've got to keep going to the polls, praying, and letting our pocketbooks speak for us.  

As people of faith, we must keep the faith. Solidarity with other faiths helps, too. Solidarity with municipal police departments that operate out of principles of justice and fairness is essential. That might be our best chance at stopping the violence.