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The Right to Fear is the Right to Shoot

Thinking back, the last time I remember being afraid was after listening to CNN report the “not guilty” verdict of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of 14-year old Trayvon Martin. Feeling as if I were wasting my time watching the post-trial interviews, hearing legal analyses of the case and staring at the murderer of a black youth, I decided to take a walk. Without headphones to distract my wandering thoughts and without a phone to ease my restless hands, I focused on my ability to walk through the unfamiliar terrain of a nearby neighborhood. I ran cross-country in high school and so I was somewhat familiar with the geography of my hometown, but I never took notice of certain details of normal life. For the first time ever I counted the abundance of confederate memorabilia including flags, license plates, and BBQ grills that decorated the yards and driveways of several of my neighbors. Although I took the time to notice, in a twisted sense I had built an immunity to confederate memorabilia – usually ignoring it to the point of willful ignorance. But this scenery did not immediately bring my walk to a halt. What caused my panic was an innocuous “Neighborhood Watch” sign, an encoded message to unfamiliar or unwanted individuals to stay clear or risk arrest or – like in the case of Trayvon Martin – death. I was afraid due to the possibility of being killed by a neighborhood watch guard or vigilante in a part of town that was demarcated as “white.” In my panic I ran home to sit with the anxiety of racism, violence and having to pacify white fear to stay alive.

Fast forward to recently. Reading Achille Mbembe’s article, “Necropolitics” during the same week of the shooting death of Akiel Denkins by senior officer D.C. Twiddy brought some questions to my mind. As a black man living in North Carolina and not too far from Southeast Raleigh where the shooting occurred, I’m interested in why our bodies are so ordinarily thought of as weapons formed against humanity so often that black bodies invoke constant fear. Knowing that this world configures its routine in opposition to blackness making it so that black physical and social death are the prerequisites to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I can fathom an answer. Such anti-blackness is the reality and pinnacle of today and yesterday’s world order so much so that it becomes difficult to imagine anything else.

For example, on February 29th senior officer Twiddy so happened to be patrolling the neighborhood of Akiel Denkins – in the same way officer Darren Wilson just so happened to be in the area when he encountered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson “obstructing traffic.” According to the Raleigh News and Observer, Twiddy reports recognizing Denkins as having an outstanding arrest warrant related to a felony drug charge. While in the process of conducting “police business” – a term I will come back to in the latter portion of this essay – Denkins began to run between two homes and attempted to jump a fence. Initial reporting on social media broadcast that an unarmed black man had been shot for attempting to jump a fence without mention (or knowledge) of an arrest warrant. The accuracy of these initial reports are irrelevant, however, the beginning pieces of this narrative reveal the extent to which Denkins was marked and hunted by an agent of the state employed to capture criminals – dead or alive. Without a dash cam video of the shooting or many witnesses, we have come to rely once again on the word of the shooter, in this case, officer Twiddy, to recount the events.

As we read in the grand jury testimony of Darren Wilson, who killed 18-year old Michael Brown in August 2014, white police officers dress their side of the story in a façade of one-dimensional fear, invalidating or willfully overlooking the consternation of the black subject at the time of encounter. According to a report from Raleigh Police Chief C.L. Deck-Brown, “Officer Twiddy, fearing that Mr. Denkins was either going to shoot him or attempt to take his duty weapon, stepped back and fired additional shots at Mr. Denkins, who still had the firearm in his hand.” While white fear of blackness is always justifiable and able to be acted on, the same reason or rationale does not obtain for blacks who run from, fight back or evade arrest by police out of dire fear of the criminal justice system/ prison-industrial complex.

When we ask ourselves why this is the case, consider Michel Foucault’s use of the term “biopower” – the concept that a sovereign power (a state, a nation, a police force, a corporate executive, Facebook, Walmart) has the ability to determine who is let to live and simultaneously, who must die. In Mbembe’s understanding, biopower provides the necessary framework to answer questions about the “right to kill, to allow to live, or expose to death” (Mbembe 2003: 12) Put bluntly, biopower is at play inside an administrative office that governs if a mother and her child will have access to food stamps, if a family can obtain affordable housing, if a non-binary individual will receive proper medical service and which arrest warrants will be executed and at what time. These are but a few examples of how we become subject to and complicit in a world order set to kill or imprison entire black populations in order to allow for the longevity of white supremacy.

“Killing is our business and business is good”

Let’s return to the idea of “police business” or “business as usual.” In the conventional sense, slavery is historicized as a peculiar moment, yet integral to the production of the US. Nevermind that plantation slavery enjoyed a reign of terror for four centuries, first subjecting poor whites and the indigenous to its toils before mutating into a genocide of black diasporic bodies. Slavery was a quotidian phenomenon or “business as usual” that could not be ignored and was as much a part of the daily routine as gathering eggs, reading children bedtime stories or whipping a slave to death.

An historical example of “police business” came with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act (FSA) of 1850. A part of the Compromise of 1850, the FSA required that all captured slaves be returned to their legal property holders (slave masters) by state and local governments. Furthermore, the FSA deputized common white folks who could be liable to a fine up to $1000 (about $28,000 today) and six months in jail for not reporting or arresting a suspected fugitive. The powers of the FSA had tremendous reach and caused a major disruption to the lives of enslaved blacks and poor whites. Moreover, as noted in Saidiya Hartman’s third chapter of “Scenes of Subjection,” Seduction and the Ruses of Power, the dual character of the slave as person and property contradicted the extension of constitutional protections to enslaved blacks. As a consequence of this duality the suspected slave could neither request a jury trial nor testify on their own behalf. Another way of denying the constitutional protections of white men to non-normative (black, poor, disabled, queer) bodies is to kill.

Applying this analysis to the shooting of Akiel Denkins, I contend that Mbembe’s idea of necropower – the objective of killing the enemy of the state – enacted by the police manifests itself before the gunshots that would ultimately kill Denkins. It comes in the signing of the arrest warrant (the neo-Fugitive Slave Act) and a police chief assigning officer Twiddy to monitor the neighborhood of Denkins in order to carry out “police business.” There is not a separation in my view between the shooting of Akiel Denkins and the arrest warrant with his name on it as both bullet and warrant are markers. The arrest warrant was a literal marking for social death and when executed it becomes the pivotal justification for his physical death.

So what are we to make of Akiel Denkins running/evading/avoiding arrest by officer Twiddy? If we are taught in “Know Your Rights” courses not to disrupt “business as usual,” then why aren’t black folks unanimously exempt from death by police? What is it about black life that makes it subject to premature death on the daily? And without deifying Denkins (as the police and their attorneys find every way to justify his death) it should be acknowledged that philosophers, theorists, and scholars have considered the slave, the criminal and the “free” black subject as agents of their own resistance and suicide (Sandra Bland) inside an ubiquitous death world of police militarization, terror, mass incarceration and political, social and economic anti-blackness. Without a doubt the killing of Akiel Denkins will be recorded as “business as usual” in a world where proving police misconduct against blacks is an impossibility, yet black people’s fear of police is an oxymoron.

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Ishmael Bishop attends the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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