The murder of Walter Scott by North Charleston cop Michael Slager is further evidence that police violence is irresolvable without challenging the fundamental precepts by which the police exist. In a narrow sense it is encouraging that after ‘private’ video evidence of the murder was made public the North Charleston police chose to charge Mr. Slager with murder. What isn’t encouraging is that Mr. Slager’s (Black) partner who witnessed the murder apparently signed off on Mr. Slager’s account of events. Also less than encouraging is that the North Charleston police department had declared Mr. Scott’s murder justified until the video surfaced. The evidence that led to the charge of murder was ‘accidental’ as opposed to the result of an internal investigation.
Yet one more unarmed Black man is murdered by the police and the mainstream discourse centers around technological fixes— putting cameras on cops and ‘better training’ of the police. Cameras that the police control are a better method of covering up police violence and ‘better training’ implies that racism isn’t endemic to the broader system of policing, legislation, adjudication and incarceration. The questions not being asked are why the police exist in the first place; why they are armed and if they are to be armed, why citizens don’t have the legal right to defend themselves against police violence? The ‘self-evidence’ of the need for police is premised on maintenance of a social order that has violent repression as its ‘logical’ outcome.
Militarized and heavily armed U.S. cops. Original image source: Review Journal
Michael Slager was an agent of the state acting in that capacity when he murdered Mr. Scott. Mr. Slager’s role was political— his actions were an expression of the state’s power of ‘legitimate’ social repression. As a manifestation of American social history Charleston, S.C. was an entry point for kidnapped Africans brought to the U.S. to labor as slaves. This history illuminates the tenuous nature of the national ‘identity’ that relates Mr. Scott to Michael Slager when race and class remain more inclusive explanations of so much of modern history. Michael Slager would hardly have been so emboldened to murder a white descendant of slavers as he was to murder Mr. Scott. And with Mr. Slager hailing from New Jersey, the historical role of Charleston in the slave trade is nowhere near a complete explanation of his sense of racist impunity.
In earlier history in a place far away from Charleston, the original name of the Black Panther Party was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The stated goal of the Oakland Panthers in arming themselves, as was legal in California at the time, was to stop the Oakland police from murdering Black citizens with impunity. It wasn’t until the armed Panthers entered the state house in Sacramento that the modern gun control movement was born, notably limiting its interests to keeping the poor and powerless disarmed under the principle that, centuries of history to the contrary, concentrated social power exists to ‘protect’ them.
Kidnapped African, a human being, held in bonds. Original image source: aframerhist.wiki.
In the current age of racist / religionist wars for the benefit of economic interests and explained through geopolitics, America’s first Black President commits drone murders of the socially dispossessed overseas much as Michael Slager gunned down Walter Scott with implied impunity in North Charleston. This relationship between American colonial history, imperialism and U.S. wars had been well articulated by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other Black radicals by the time that Martin King came out in opposition to the Vietnam war in 1967. The Weather Underground had an office a few doors away from the Chicago Panthers and broad understanding had it at the time that mutual interests existed between Black and White radicals and between leftist revolutionaries and anti-war pacifists. This political context that tied seemingly divergent interests together didn’t disappear— it was re-contextualized in the neo-capitalist resurgence of the late 1970s and early 1980s by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as dissociated ‘individual’ interests.
Fred Hampton a few months before he was murdered by the Chicago police and the FBI. Original image source: The People’s Law Office (Chicago).
It most likely isn’t readily apparent to many readers how radically anti-historical, and therefore implausible, this ‘individualist’ frame promoted by the political-economic right is. An historical continuity can be drawn from slavery to convict leasing to modern day prison labor and mass incarceration. A material proportion of state actions can be explained in terms of the economic interests served. And an historical line can be drawn from for-profit prisons in eighteenth century England and their modern incarnation in the English speaking, anglophile U.S. This history unites ‘individuals’ in social struggle. The modern idea of individual ‘self-realization’ runs up against the social fact that Walter Scott was murdered because he was a Black man and not because he was the ‘individual’ Walter Scott.
The political content of the individuation of persons united through lived history is to deny the history. The overwhelming preponderance of slaves in the colonial U.S. were kidnapped Africans— they were placed together in American social ontology through being made slaves. This history has historical persistence through race-based social repression. When Margaret Thatcher argued that “there is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and individual women,” she inferred that history had ended because she said it did— that the historical continuity between slavery, convict leasing and ongoing race and class based repression were / are irrelevant to a new equanimity. Unfortunately, no one told the police, the courts, employers or the other lords of the existing order that history had ended.
Rodney King after LAPD beating. Original image source: 99problems.org.
The murder of Walter Scott appears ‘pure’ enough— sufficiently unprovoked, to have struck a chord with the ‘individualists’ who recall passionate accounts of Rodney King repeatedly and aggressively attacking the batons of the LAPD with his head. The point here is that what might be a social inflection point— the North Charleston police charging Michael Slager with murder, still faces the test of history. As fact and metaphor a long tail followed the Attica rebellion— whatever the relations between the guards and the incarcerated citizens at Attica, it was Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon who saw them all as expendable. While justice for Walter Scott, the individual, may be served by Michael Slager’s (by no means assured) extended incarceration the rest of this history remains unresolved.
This detour into the politics of individuation is necessary because there is little possibility of social resolution without recovering the realm of the social. Eric Garner wasn’t a white investment banker when he was murdered by the police and Mike Brown wasn’t Jamie Dimon’s demon spawn taking the family Ferrari for a test drive when he was murdered. The attempts by the police and racist apologists to assign culpability to Messrs. Garner and Brown is to remove history, the social nature by which they were targeted by the police as Black men, to make them individually responsible for a poisoned social history not of their making. The Black Panthers, indigenous rights groups and White radicals were able to (occasionally) perceive, and fight for, joint social outcomes because a broader social interest was understood to exist.
The Weather Underground. Original image source: thedailybeast.com.
After forty years of relentless repetition Reagan / Thatcher / neo-capitalist individuation is now deeply embedded in Western social ontology. To repeat: Walter Scott wasn’t murdered because he was an ‘individual’ but because he was a Black man. No amount of ‘self-realization’ by Mr. Scott would have changed the way that he was perceived by Michael Slager. Social resolution of Mr. Scott’s murder is to end racist police violence and race and class repression. Race and class are the targets of police repression, not the acts of some nebulous ‘self-realized’ individual. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher didn’t end social repression; they found an effective way of explaining it away. The outcome is the full recovery of unapologetic social repression.
The (Black Panther) Ten-Point Program
We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine
The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
We Want Full Employment For Our People.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We Want An End To The Robbery
By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.
We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History
And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.
We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We Want An Immediate End To
Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
We Want Freedom For All Black Men
Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In
Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,
Clothing, Justice And Peace.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Written: October 15, 1966
Source: War Against the Panthers, by Huey P. Newton, 1980
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. As White counterculture youth in suburban Atlanta in the early 1970s my friends and I were stopped and frisked by hostile cops every few weeks. They as often as not had their loaded guns pointed at us while doing so. As an active opponent of the Vietnam War it was commonly understood that we stood with A.I.M (American Indian Movement) and the Black Panther Party against the forces of war and oppression. We all marched together in the larger marches against the war. When Fred Hampton was murdered we rallied with the New York Panthers in solidarity. That this coalition of the radical left no longer makes ‘sense’ is a gift to the forces of war and oppression they don’t deserve.
Artwork by Rob Urie.