Over the last few incidents involving the police and African Americans, we have repeatedly been exposed to different indications of fear.
There is the fear of Michael Brown.
One article notes that, “The white police officer who shot dead Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August… reportedly told investigators he feared for his life in an altercation with the teenager just before the shooting.”
There is the fear of Eric Garner:
One article quoted someone saying that, “Reflecting on the experience of a close friend who is a police officer, she said, ‘They don’t want to pull out their gun, but no matter what their training says, at some point they have to defend themselves.’ Some people recalled nights spent waiting for sons or brothers who are police officers to return from patrol. They said they felt the same sense of unease bubble up as they watched the video, in which Mr. Garner, weighing over 300 pounds, became agitated as Officer Pantaleo tried to restrain him. ‘When you’re an officer, your own life is in danger,’ said Angela, 60, whose brother is a police officer and who, like several of those interviewed, declined to provide her surname. Officer Pantaleo, she said, was in danger that day. ‘He could’ve died himself.'”
This fear reminded me of what we were told officers felt about Rodney King years before and the “Big Black Man Syndrome”.
The basic story: well, police are out there doing what they do and then they come across these beings who frankly scare them a little bit. They are big, they are strong, they don’t feel pain like regular folk and they don’t really respond to logical reasoning or verbal instruction. Toss in a reference to “Mandingo” and yes we have officially jumped back to some of the oldest stereotypes concerning African Americans (the list on the link is worth looking at).
The current discussion of black males described by some police officers and their supporters reminds me of something like a character “AFROzilla” (not the wrestler), but some HUGE black guy, 20 stories tall who moves through the urban ghettos, crushing all that it is in its path (like how Mos Def described people’s image of Hip Hop in “Fear Not of Man”). In the AFROzilla story, the police stand effortless as the creature moves through the city. The weapons they fire are ineffectual – they bounce off. Nothing can stop AFROzilla – well, almost nothing. But the point remains: AFROzilla is out there and the only thing that stands between them and you are the “boys in blue”, so if anything happens out there (like one of the zillas gets hurt), give the police a break because they are doing this to protect you.
Given this, I was not surprised by discussion of the officer’s fear because this form of self-defense argument seems to be the only legitimate way that governments can use force against their citizens. Think back to the discussions of the political theorist Thomas Hobbes. States are founded on fear and thus it makes sense that fear would be connected with one of the most heinous acts that governments engage in: taking the life of a citizen that they are charged with protecting. This is especially the case in the US.
Consider it: governments are on the look out for terrorists/terrorism, insurgents/insurgency, violent protesters/protest, revolutionaries/revolution and rebels/rebellion as well as violent criminals/crime. This is a large part of what they do. Why are they looking out for these people/things? Well, because the citizens fear injury and death that might be associated with these people/things. So, to overcome this fear we, as citizens, allow (I repeat allow) those in government to wield coercive power (i.e., make it, distribute it, stockpile it, train people in using it and employ it) because it is said that they are going to protect us from the things that we most fear: injury and death. This objective, the right to do it and to use force while engaged in such behavior is often discussed in national constitutions and international treaties.
We allow governments to have this power because we fear what would happen if they did not have it. The problem here is that governments are the ones who collect (or do not collect) information on what we fear. They are the experts on what we fear. They are the ones who are or are not compiling information on threats (both real and imagined). They are, in a sense, the suppliers of the problem. They are fear mongers, as it were, creating and sustaining the myth of AFROzilla. They get plenty of help from the media and Hollywood – although this has changed somewhat over time.
Interestingly, governments are also the providers of the solution: “legitimate” violence. This is a bit tricky but this seems to refer to violence that is allocated fairly and proportionately to the situation that exists. One version of this is the “use of force continuum”. The idea is reasonable but its assessment/evaluation is not. The legitimate component/the proportionality idea presumes that threat assessment is some straightforward enterprise. But, this is anything but straightforward and people interpret the same video feed very differently in accordance to their varying sensibilities. But part of this problem is the persistence of the AFROzilla myth itself.
To get to a closer read of what is taking place in American streets and begin to change things, we need to kill AFROzilla. Now, I am not talking about the end of the Godzilla movie or King Kong where we throw every weapon we have at the creature and watch it fall off some tall building to the ground below. This is essentially where we have been – note the casualty rate of African American males to police harassment, arrest, violence, incarceration, sentencing and lack of parole. No, I am suggesting a different approach, starting from the bottom-up not the top-down (as it were). Remember the failed national conversation on race that President Clinton tried to have. Well, we need to try again and focus the effort a bit more. AFROzilla must be deconstructed and actual black lives need to be replaced in its stead. Perhaps in line with the Washington Posts “Being a Black Man” series, but bigger and more widely distributed across the nation across different venues because we know that everyone does not read or view movies or listen to music or attend teach-ins but they might do one of these. We need to go here because in 2014 we should not have to have anyone say that “Black Lives Matter”. We should just know it.