Witnessing While White and the Violence of Silence

By: Simone Drake, PhD

pool party

On June 5, 2015, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan did an interview with New York’s 105.1 The Breakfast Club radio program that was an hour and a half long black public service announcement. Compared to his heyday in the late decades of the twentieth century, Farrakhan has been relatively invisible lately, an invisibility he attributes to mainstream media censorship. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, along with the upcoming twenty-year anniversary of the Million Man March, has compelled Farrakhan to return to more frequent public instructions for black people and the damnation of white supremacy. His messages have been calls for social and cultural reparations. In January he called for black military personnel to divest from military service and fight racial inequalities right here in the United States. In his most recent commentary, drawing comparisons to Palestinian resistance, he proposed that peaceful protests cannot produce change for people who are already socially dead.

His speech was an ominous prelude to a doubly tragic weekend for the nation. That same evening a pool party in McKinney, Texas would turn into a scene straight out of the heyday of Jim Crow when black children are forced to leave a community pool and a 14-year-old bikini-clad black girl is thrown to the ground and pinned by a white police officer. The next day, in New York City, Kalief Browder, who as a teenager was held on Rikers Island for three years without being convicted of a crime and during that time was subjected to severe abuse by authorities and inmates, would commit suicide. The violation of civil liberties—most notably a complete disregard for freedom of speech in Texas and an appallingly undemocratic criminal justice system in New York—received immediate media attention and public outcry.

In Texas, over seven minutes of the mayhem was caught on video. From the opening of the clip with blurred images of teenagers standing on sidewalks and in streets, and an officer running, assumedly tripping, and then MMA style rolling and jumping up to continue pursuit, I knew something was amiss. What ensued was a shameful display of the abuse of police power, and if not bad enough, the abuse was being committed by a supervisor, judging by the stripes on his uniform. The young girl who was the subject of the violence caught on camera (who knows what happened off camera) will perhaps force mainstream media to gender the Black Lives Matter movement in ways aligned with the African American Policy Forum’s efforts to compel policymakers to bring black women and girls into dialogues on racial injustice and violence.

There is, however, culpability beyond that of the offending officer. As the teenagers stood around (or were forced to sit and lay on the ground), some seemingly confused while others indignantly expressed their contempt for the treatment, the camera periodically captured white (assumed) residents of the community. Caddy-corner to the altercation, there was a group of white men and women watching the policing, almost like they were attending a lynching-bee. No one thought to question why the children were being treated as dangerous criminals. As the tensions escalated, several white men appeared, apparently acting as George Zimmerman-style “community watchmen.” Once the officer forces the girl to the ground by her neck and black teenage boys and girls rush toward them, a large white man stands between the two groups, keeping the teenagers from intervening. It was clear that neither he nor the other white man were attempting to protect the girl or the teenagers from police violence being inflicted upon them, too—they were acting as perpetrators of white supremacy and heralding the abuse of police power upon black bodies. This troubling scenario of dual culpability—officer and civilian—was further evidenced by the officer’s persistent profane demands that the black teenagers disperse, while he never once told the white men to stop interfering in police business. His tacit acceptance of their presence, and their tacit complicity in the violence (and inciting of a riot, ultimately, by those who called the police) brings Farrakhan’s commentary full circle.

Farrakhan was and remains a controversial political figure; one who has repeatedly been subjected to often times unbelievable misconstruing of his words. The fact that young people are finding his words and ideas relevant today perhaps suggests why certain unnamed race leaders have sustained popularity in the mainstream public sphere and Farrakhan has not. His promise of a fearless, non-passive revolution just prior to the tragedies in Texas and New York this past weekend should rightfully have the media and authorities concerned. When both State authorities (police officers) and civilians have the right to police black bodies, stripping those bodies of rights and dignity, people being subjected to the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy just might fight back as they did in Baltimore. And such a response would not be unprecedented—perhaps Texas has forgotten the Houston Riots of 1917, but when one history repeats itself so can another.

this blog was also ran on the NewBlackMan blogspot

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