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As painful as it is, the “failure” of the Staten Island Grand Jury and District Attorney Dan Donovan to indict Daniel Pantaleo for brutally choking Eric Garner to death has advanced the growing movement against anti-black state violence. First, it clearly nullifies any misplaced optimism that police body cameras might be an effective measure against police murders. None of the ambiguities that surrounded Mike Brown’s killing are present in the grotesque spectacle of Eric Garner’s murder. By now the whole world has watched the man die at the hands of police without betraying a trace of belligerence. The failure to indict Pantaleo and the officers who pinned Garner down as he repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breath” is a reminder that antiblackness is not a technical problem and therefore cannot be remedied with a technical solution. It is a brutal reminder, as if any more were needed, that public policy cannot undo state violence against black life, for the space between state policy and state practice is a chasm, where untold black lives have perished.
But more importantly, in the failure, or perhaps the refusal to indict Darren Wilson and Dan Donovan each of killing an unarmed black man, we hear the echo of Richard Pryor’s timeless proverb: “if you’re looking for justice, that’s just what you’ll find, just us.” You see, the brilliance of the “blacklivesmatter” rallying cry is that it is addressed, not to the perpetrators of state violence, nor to their supporters, but to the movement itself. It is addressed to black people and to non-black allies who recognize that their destinies are linked by a common fate. Those who stand arm-in-arm, blocking traffic, are saying, “black lives matter to us.” That black lives have no value to the state is as clear as Darren Wilson’s conscience.
The rebels in Ferguson and across the nation now recognize their power. They know that it was they who created a crisis in governance such that, antiblack state violence is now impossible to ignore. They know that were it not for the demonstrations, the walkouts, the boycotts, the writing, the art, the speaking, the meeting, the civil disobedience, and yes, the destruction of private property – the most sacrosanct of American values, that Mike Brown’s killing, Eric Garner’s killing, and John Crawford’s killing would be relegated to obscurity like the thousands who were killed before them. Thus the refusal to indict the killers in these cases painfully affirms the rebels of the necessity for sustained indignation and sustained self-organization.
But there is a hidden danger buried within those beautiful cries for justice. To demand indictment, conviction and incarceration, and to equate this teleology with justice, is to implicitly affirm that prisons are capable of providing justice. Policing, the courts, and the prisons operate in tandem, as a massive apparatus of state violence and racial containment. Its primary targets are the outcasts of American empire, the 21st century wretched of the earth: black and latino people, transgender people, undocumented people, people who live in poverty, people with mental illness, people with drug addiction, and people with subversive political views.
We know that the U.S. is a prison nation, confining 20% of the total global prison population. We know that the U.S. incarcerates more than three times as many black people as did Apartheid South Africa. Policing is the mouth of the criminal punishment system. By demanding that police be sent to prison, we effectively demand the expansion of prisons. This is a critical error. We must not seek justice from a genocidal system. Instead, our challenge to state violence must undermine that system.
As other’s have noted, the problem with Obama’s response to this growing crisis of governance, is that he proposes to allocate more money to the police. The Department of Justice has the authority to defund police departments. But reduction is not on the table. Instead, Obama’s promise of $263 million will make policing more expansive. Obama could have followed the lead of Congressman Alan Grayson who, in June, proposed to cut the 1033 Transfer Program, which facilitates the militarization of local police departments nationwide. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he plans to propose new rules regulating the use of military equipment. But we know better. We know that black life is always the exception to the rule. Rule 203-11 of the NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits the use of chokeholds, but it did not save Eric Garner’s life.
No, the task at hand is not to replace old rules with new rules. It is not to boost corporate profits by supplying more cops with more gadgets. And it is not equal opportunity mass incarceration (although it should go without saying that I am not suggesting that murder should go unpunished). The task at hand is to think outside of the criminal punishment paradigm. The task at hand is to create alternatives. The task at hand is to build community power. The task at hand is to redefine justice. The task at hand is to abolish the criminal punishment system. These are truly momentous tasks. If they come to fruition, it will only be collective. It will only be through the continued organization of Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices, Hands Up United, Critical Resistance, The Center For Nuleadership, Incite!, Project NIA, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and so many others. Again, to quote Richard Pryor, “if you’re looking for justice, that’s just what you’ll find, just us.”
Orisanmi Burton is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.