Remember how the 9/11 attack led people to cancel or pull back from anti-globalization protests? It appears a similar dynamic could be at work as a shocking event challenges and divides a growing and effective movement making serious headway. Like anti-globalization protests before it, the anti-police brutality/ policing movement is going through its own birth pangs as the tactics debate (when is property violence appropriate?) and issues such as how to foreground anti-black racism (#BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter) have taken center stage in the multifaceted and large scale resistance efforts underway.
Saturday, December 20th, was a big day for movement news. While Minnesota’s Mall of America protest had people occupying space in the US’s largest mall to demand an end to police violence, half way across the country in Brooklyn, two police officers were shot and killed by a young black man who had ostensibly posted on social media before the shootings about his intention to “put wings on pigs”, citing revenge for the deaths of Brown and Garner as motive. The accused shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot himself dead on a nearby subway platform after shooting the officers. As of Sunday afternoon, there is little information and much speculation about the accused murderer’s life (including that the murders were part of a counter-intelligence plot to discredit the movement and justify extreme force). Much is uncertain, but it’s certain that the NYPD is already using this to suppress protest, repress entire communities, and further foment divisive public relations–especially with NYC Mayor deBlasio. How can recent police union behavior and statements be considered anything but a naked admission of a police force’s own extra-legal/ paramilitary ambitions?
At this writing we do know a few things for certain: the corporate state’s policing apparatus will do everything in its power to use this event as a further call to arms against protesting U.S. residents and communities of color. They will attempt not only to discredit a growing direct action-based movement, but also to aggressively attack protest groups and individuals they have been trying to get their hands on anyway. If Ismaaiyl Brinsley had been arrested and charged with the killing of two police officers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, clearly the anti-policing movement would be having very different debates and discussions. Now, in his death, many people righteously struggle to contextualize his motives or opportunistically use his actions for their own political reasons.
Not that probing Brinsley’s motives is entirely irrelevant–he shot a woman, possibly an ex-girlfriend, before the officers, for example– but the movement can hurt itself by participating in the posthumous quasi-legalistic media charade of “nailing down” his motives or state of mind. (This activity already inculcates participants in the state’s judgmental logic of condemnation/ exoneration–echoing media character assassinations of murder by police victims like Brown and Martin.) What if he was acting in concert with counter-intelligence forces? What if Mao’s little red book was in Brinsley’s pocket? What if he was an active member of a local Cop Watch group? What if he was a well-known local homeless man struggling with mental illness and addiction?
Initial activist reactions offer a range of responses: some grapple with the delicate issue of expressing compassion about the shooter’s life, death, and family; some timidly, or not so timidly, tiptoe around self-defense concepts and a deep understanding of the extreme nature of “revolutionary suicide”; some routinely denounce Brinsley’s actions–acting as guardians of the “real non-violent movement” against “unstable violent outsiders”; some have decided that was a police action he got entangled in. Then there’s those (new to the issue white activists, I am talking to you) who may have been active and supportive of the anti-police brutality movement, but will use this as an excuse to pull back. (Controversial events function as a movement’s filtering process, losing people who are too challenged to keep fighting and were just waiting for a chance to fold anyway.)
If there’s anything I am reminded of by this event, it’s the power of social movements, and anti-racist struggles in particular. For me, there is a connection between the cop murders and the movement. Before you jump down my throat insisting that I am “feeding the cops’ ideology” by saying this–hear me out, please, and don’t take my statements out of context. Since the drug war and mass incarceration/ deportation practices, many black and brown lives have been destroyed. You don’t have to be a front lines long term activist to have strong opinions about policing and institutional racism in America, and feel hopeless in the face of it, too. Frustration and anger is woven into the everyday fabric of people’s lives, and this includes individual consciousness, rhetoric, and self-understanding. Add to this an endless flow of social media, news commentary, and live feeds of protests and demonstrations all over the U.S. Some people may not be able to attend protests for various reasons (work, childcare, transportation, not living close to one, or a shy demeanor) but social media offers a strong way to feel emotionally connected to events since Ferguson began.
This access and ability to connect is both reason for the movement’s effectiveness and a reason to prepare for more controversial actions taken up by individuals in the name of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or against violent police generally. (And then there’s always police counterinsurgency activities…) In a large, multifaceted, international movement such that the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!/ anti-policing movement has become, no one can ultimately judge who’s a protestor or a non-protestor, who cares or doesn’t care, about “the issues”. (Who has an authentic political consciousness gauge and where can I get one?) We can only state if we support certain actions as part of strategies our organizations or ideologies endorse.
I believe, from what I understand about Brinsley’s biographical facts and his presumed state of mind before the murders, he understood himself as a target of racist policing. Go figure: young, black, and male in the U.S. A. But, As Dr. Johanna Fernandez wrote in CounterPunch, he could have also been acting in concert with authorities to execute a state plot to discredit the movement. We will never know the facts here, and it shouldn’t deflect from our understanding of institutionalized racism, anyway.
Whether or not Brinsley acted alone or in concert with the state, his life had a truly tragic end. If we admit understanding or empathy with people espousing extreme tactics — even cop murder — to express oppositional feelings, are we only throwing the police state, and its rabid NYPD, another reason for street level preemptive attack? (As if it ever needed a reason. We’ve clearly seen over the decades, if the state doesn’t have a reason to justify aggression it’ll make one up.) What about attempts to understand how social pressures like racist policing and mass incarceration damage people–like Ismaaiyl Brinsley? If we deny a careful consideration of the incalculable impacts movements can have, which include tapping into very real frustrations/ psychological dynamics leading individuals to act alone or as police agents, we sacrifice any potential unity than can be derived in a process of self-reflection and greater political awareness. Collective analysis may not lead to the unity of a shared position, but it could lead to an “agree to disagree” unity or a commitment to explore unpopular perspectives. Something beyond simple condemnation or exultation is called for here.
It’s a daunting situation and the corporate state wins again if we play into the terms of engagement it always sets by the very nature of its power. If Ismaaiyl Brinsley had survived and faced his accusers in court, we would see the movement split around “just” court procedures and outcomes. Some would want him evaluated to qualify for mental health rehabilitation services, some would want him routinely punished, and some would call for his freedom, with an understanding his actions were committed under extreme duress due to the pernicious police state apparatus (a kind of “black rage” defense– if you will.) From the looks of his social media posts, he knew he was probably going to die Saturday.
I shudder to think about what the state would do to Brinsley, and how the movement would split around his “just” punishment and desirable “rehabilitation.” (How are we going to rehabilitate psychotic racist police? Any ideas?) We would have to painfully endure a real trial of the Left’s anti-policing/ abolitionist positions. Instead, we are left to grapple with three dead bodies, many unanswered questions, and a big question mark about our ability to buoy the turbulence of building and sustaining a mass movement, focused specifically on the deep and festering wound of racist police violence, in the age of social media activism.
If we are going to posthumously speculate on Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s life, dare I suggest we use the very commitment to institutional analysis and human compassion that has served as a foundation of the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!/ anti-policing movement–and previous anti-racist movements– since its inception? As the saying goes, let’s “keep our eyes on the prize.”
Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. has written for Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine, Mint News Press, the NJ Decarcerator, Rethinking Schools, Alternet, and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.