What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe. – James Baldwin
Back in 2015, before the White public became familiar with the long litany of murdered Black people from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery, I attended several performances of the National Poetry Slam in Oakland. Over 400 young people in 72 teams from around the country spilled their guts in highly sensitive, creative, politically-charged, original poetry. No one read their poems; they all recited, often weeping with shamelessly strong emotion. To get a sense of what they were doing, check out www.youtube.com/user/ButtonPoetry or www.YouthSpeaks.com.
Most of the performers were people of color, and many were gender-non-conforming. The most common theme was grief and anger over the continuing police killings of hundreds of unarmed people, and not just of men. This website lists fifty women of color killed by police since 2015.
I want you to know that when one of the poets spoke of “human sacrifice,” everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.
Six years later, I suspect that most POC would agree that the situation has not improved but worsened, despite those rare events when justice is served. So perhaps it’s time to ask, “Do Black lives matter?”
Every 28 hours, an African-American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. Year after year, 80% of the victims are unarmed, and almost none of the perpetrators are prosecuted, let alone punished. The Arbery case was an exception that came to light 74 days after his death only because the White murderers freely shared their own snuff video.
When this happens to white people, you can chant “All lives matter”. Until then, please show some respect.
A Google search on this subject finds plenty of posts, all by conservatives, that claim to refute those numbers. Sure, let’s play their game: what if the true figure was only 50% of that claim of 28 hours? Should we be any less ashamed that such police-on-Black homicides occur only every 56 hours?
This is mostly unrelated to the sobering statistics on intra-ethnic violence. Father Gregory Boyle (read his books) writes that in Los Angeles alone there were over a thousand gang-related homicides in the peak year of 1992. Those numbers plummeted for several years, but Oakland and a dozen other cities have seen record increases in the past two years, due primarily to massive job losses caused by the Covid pandemic. This kind of violence has always followed the unemployment statistics. As his Homeboy Industries t-shirts say, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”.
But we are talking here about the first kind of violence, sanctioned in almost all cases by the state, either by its hired agents “fearing for their lives”, or as legalized “Stand Your Ground” shootings by White civilians, but not by Black civilians.
No one with a heart and access to a real education can open him- or herself to the reality of racialized violence in this nation and not agree that Black lives matter – that is, anyone who can still retain the basic human empathy that they were born with. I’d like to think that this category includes the vast majority of Americans, even most of those who have been so dehumanized by the economy, the propaganda machine and the victim-blaming heritage of Protestantism as to support the con men who promise to relieve their anxiety with the rhetoric of hate and gun ownership.
Unfortunately, however, I’m not talking about actual, feeling human beings; I’m talking now about those sociopaths who control the reins of power at the corporate, media and political levels, the ones who authorize and encourage everything from racial profiling policies such as “Stop and Frisk” to organized gangs of White supremacist cops.
I’m talking about advanced capitalism in a world of military madness, tightened budgets, and lowered expectations; a world – or at least a nation – where the population greatly exceeds the number of available jobs.
From this point of view, the American population includes a very large number of essentially useless people. These are people who have no marketable skills in what has become a primarily service economy and – because of an irrelevant education system and the exporting of production to the Third World – will never have those skills.
In the eyes and schemes of our corporate masters, such people can be allowed to exist mainly as cannon fodder or as consumers. But a person without a job doesn’t qualify as a consumer. So millions of them, primarily POC, have become, quite simply, expendable.
Capitalism no longer needs them as it needed their grandparents who worked the factory jobs that once sustained a middle class. Those jobs still exist, of course, but – since the 1970s – mostly in the Third World.
From the strictly rational point of view of economics, whether liberal or libertarian, it makes no difference whatsoever if people starve or murder each other on the streets, with one exception: they can still fill our prisons. In this sense, they are neither producers nor consumers; they are the raw material, the natural resource (exactly like oil or slave-produced cotton) without which our massive and lucrative prison-industrial complex could not exist.
But please don’t allow yourself to think that these sociopaths act in a vacuum. They are the extreme expression of our American mythology. They act in our name.
They act in our name in other places as well, such as Israel, where those who manage the ongoing blockade of Gaza brag that they have calculated the precise, minimum amount of calories a Palestinian person can be allowed to consume before starvation sets in, and set their import restrictions accordingly.
Do Palestinian lives matter? For thirty years the U.S. government has subsidized a program in which over a thousand police officers and corporate security executives have received training by the Israeli military. Clearly, the aim of cops in both countries is similar: periodically killing large numbers of their minorities, literally keeping their numbers down to manageable levels. The Israelis call this policy “mowing the lawn.”
In our name.