“Here on Earth, tell me, what’s a black life worth?/A bottle of juice is no excuse/the truth hurts/…ask Rodney, Latasha and many more/it’s been going on for years, there’s plenty more/When they ask me, when will the violence cease?/When your troops stop shooting n****s down in the streets.”-Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), “I Wonder if Heaven Got A Ghetto”
“I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”-Mike Brown (1995/6-2014)
Sometimes, I wonder what it is we’re really doing here.
We come to BC to get an education, we’re told to set the world aflame. We take an economics class to learn about prosperity, an ethics class to learn about goodness. We take a theology class and wonder why God lets people suffer. But we wonder from a distance. The suffering we lament happens in history books or news articles or on television, far away from us, but we can close the book. And we do close the book, and we go to Lower and complain that the lines are too long. We get to do that, because we are here and they are there. The distance between Newton and Ferguson is longer than the time it takes to drive there. In what follows, I try to traverse some of that distance reflectively, respectfully, thoughtfully, in hopes of discerning a way to think about ourselves and our society more adequately. My reflection is fragmentary, unsystematic, and incomplete; I do not offer these thoughts as an answer, but rather to think about the questions we are called to confront.
Last Saturday, Mike Brown was killed, shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri while he had his hands in the air. He was 18 and unarmed; the officer has been placed on paid administrative leave. Just like Trayvon Martin, I thought. Just like Eric Garner, or Jordan Davis, or Sean Bell, or Latasha Harlins, or Emmett Till. But I realized this impulse was misguided. It’s wrong to list out the well-publicized cases of black people who are killed by “authorities," as though these are the only lamentable victims of American racism, at the price of rendering unmemorable the countless casualties of police violence whose names were never spoken on TV. Murdering a child does not become a crime against humanity only when their name trends on Twitter. Mike Brown’s death does not need to be compared to other nationally publicized cases in order to be grievable.
For the communities whose members are slain or threatened on a regular basis, there is no special effort or media attention needed to memorialize the dead. Nor do they need any help understanding the context of surveillance, harassment, and violence in which these murders take place. In an age of stop and frisk, police militarization, and mass incarceration, the murder of an innocent differs only in degree, not in kind, from the daily systematized violence committed against black bodies in America. Mike Brown’s murder is tragic not because it is exceptional, but precisely because the extrajudicial killing of young black men is so common.
We live in a society where some people are allowed to die. Some lives are lives, and others aren’t. If (and hopefully, when) the murderer of Mike Brown finds himself in a court room, he will rightly be considered innocent until proven guilty, a right that was violently denied to Mike Brown. Police in America seem to have difficulty viewing black people as anything but guilty or possibly guilty, a presupposition that is only reinforced by our media and political discourse. A white man who opens fire in a movie theater is a promising, if troubled, student; a black teenager who is executed with his hands up has to prove he didn’t deserve it. In other words, white people retain their humanity even when they are placed in handcuffs; black people have to prove their humanity and thereby must demonstrate that they did not deserve to be murdered.
This is not a Ferguson problem, and no, we should not be shocked that it is happening in America in 2014. This points to a deeper injustice with roots in the very foundation of the American project. As we watch police officers with military equipment fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters (whom they dehumanize) and arrest journalists, any attempt to diminish racism to the status of America’s birth defect has been exposed as a dangerous lie. White supremacy birthed and parented our country, conditioning the very possibility of America as we know it. American exceptionalism is the name of the myth that legitimizes and reproduces the system, a myth we are taught as gospel and punished for questioning. It isn’t true. A country where black children learn from an early age that they’re seen as threats commits a crime against their humanity. A country that denies them that humanity even in death is not a humane country. A country where cops are allowed to kill black people is not a just country.
There is nobody among us who can claim to be innocent or neutral. It is only because I find myself on the “right” side of this society that I can write this article, from a distance both physical and social-political. I care very deeply about social justice, but I do not have to wonder which of my Facebook photos would accompany the story of my murder. I am able to approach this problem from the distance of a commentator, someone concerned and even distraught over the massacre of black people in our cities, but ultimately still permitted to turn off my computer and go to Lower. I am, like many of us, free to not care.
What right do we have to comment from that distance? Are we permitted to observe the horrific stories of subjugated communities and turn them into objects of analysis for articles, essays, applications? Do we dare derive benefit on the backs of subjugated communities? Isn’t our resistance in some sense a mechanism for us to assuage some of our guilt while we continue benefiting from the stratified society that murdered Mike Brown? On the other hand, what right do we have not to cry out? What kind of human being can look upon Mike Brown’s body lying on the bloody pavement and not be outraged? If our Catholic education doesn’t teach us to speak up against persecution and racism, does it matter what else it teaches us?
We have no right to remain silent. But we also have no right to be consoled by our participation in the resistance. In other words, we are forbidden to pretend that sending some angry tweets is all that is demanded of us in the face of injustice. And we have no right to feel less complicit, because at the end of the day, oppression is never purposeless; American white supremacy is the basis of a political and economic status quo that benefits many of us. The problem isn’t racist cops, but rather a society in which black lives are simply counted as less human. Even in our outcry, we must constantly be self-critical, lest we unwittingly enthrone a truncated notion of the human and thereby collaborate with the very structures we aim to critique.
All we have the right to do is struggle. Struggle with the contradictions we live every day, struggle against a status quo in which an unarmed black teenager is not innocent, struggle towards the realization of a new political order. Personally, I find profound inspiration in the Palestinian concept of intifada, a “shaking off” that erupts organically from grassroots rage and produces a non-violent people’s movement for justice. Maybe we need an intifada in America (maybe the intifada is already on). Maybe that wouldn’t be enough; maybe we need a Messiah. But until that day, we are forbidden by the multitude of nameless, rejected, executed black teenagers to stop struggling. Mike Brown is dead and we killed him. We killed him through our assent to a society that made him a non-person, and we killed him through our silence. And if we don’t struggle against the dehumanizing forces of death, we will kill him, and others, again and again. There is no peace without justice, and until justice rolls down like waters, our peace will only come through the perpetuation of injustice.
We can’t change the fact that we can ignore stories of suffering, but we can change how we react to them. The Gospel of Mark famously features a Roman oppressor who recognizes Jesus’s messianic status at the very moment when he hangs bloodied and rejected on a cross. And maybe we’re lucky he did. Otherwise, Jesus could have easily been lost to history, another uppity Nazarene in a society designed to police, exterminate, and forget him. But somehow, somebody remembered his name, and now somebody must remember the murdered children of our day as signs of the times in a violent, white supremacist America. To be sure, I do not mean to imply that white, or otherwise privileged, people, are the rightful possessors of this memory; quite the opposite. We need to start hearing the stories of subjugation and resistance that have long been told and ignored, and respond to the claims these stories make on us.
In a few weeks, we’ll all be back at BC, and the tendency to forget this murder will inevitably assert itself. If there is any clear thesis in this article, it is that allowing ourselves to forget Mike Brown’s story is tantamount to participation in the system that killed him. We can either stand with Mike Brown through respectful participation in an intifada for justice, or we can stand with the state and its death machine. There are no other options. Our remembrance must be provocative, and it must be dangerous to the political status quo if it is to avoid reproducing it. Remembering the murdered should make powerful people uneasy; it should be threatening to those who seek to delay justice.
If we confine our concern for suffering to classrooms and community service, what is the point of pretending we care? If we write papers about “The Crucified One," but neglect the crucified multitudes whose stolen labor constructed our “exceptional” country, where do we get the nerve to call our education Catholic? If we are unable to look at Mike Brown’s body, proclaim that truly he is a child of God, and commit ourselves to the struggle for a political order which affirms the humanity of all humans, then what the hell are we really doing here?