The media may not cover them much anymore, but Black Lives Matter protests have not died out completely. At their height, last summer, multiple cities convulsed in protest simultaneously. Smaller gatherings still trickle into public parks in cities like Washington, D.C., they have not stopped totally; nor, at all, have the police killings that prompted them. On December 22, a Columbus, Ohio police officer, Adam Coy shot and killed 47-year-old Andre Maurice Hill. The victim was black, the police officer is white. Like other such incidents, Hill did not assault or threaten the officer with a weapon. In plain English – the killing was utterly unprovoked. The body-cam footage confirms this.
According to NPR, the police responded “to a non-emergency call about a man sitting inside a car repeatedly turning it on and off” in a garage. For this, Hill was executed. Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther called for Coy’s firing, adding “from what we can see, none of the officers initially at the scene provide medical assistance to Mr. Hill.” In other words, they watched him die and did nothing. Also in Columbus, another black citizen, Casey Goodson Jr. was shot by a white sheriff’s deputy, Jason Meade on December 4. So much for the bad apples argument regarding the Columbus police department. This is a thing, as we have seen repeatedly. It’s how American police departments function – by killing people, disproportionately black people. And that’s why the country blew up in the summer and into the fall, because the African American community had enough of it.
There have been over 900 fatal police shootings per year, every year, since 2015 in the U.S. While he does not dwell on individual cases of police brutality, Marc Lamont Hill keeps them ever present in his new book, We Still Here. Institutional police violence and the George Floyd rebellion it provoked are some of Hill’s subjects. He also zeros in on the context – the Covid-19 pandemic: “For perhaps the first time in modern history, a global health pandemic was spread from the privileged down to the poor…Economic power enables social distance…‘Sheltering in place’ is a luxury of the privileged.” Hill also discusses the dangers of getting sick posed by attending crowded protests. But that danger didn’t stop thousands of people from pouring into the streets. Nor did it stop the right-wing backlash – from Fox news repeating its sensationalized and sometimes fabricated stories about riots, looters and violence ad nauseam and from armed, radical rightwing terrorists, who swarmed out of the woodwork.
Hill calls for defunding the police. This call began as a “marginal political position held by radical anti-prison activists. Today it has been embraced by influential members of congress.” But this is an uphill fight. Centrists Democrats and Joe Biden have already fled from the “defund the police” campaign, convinced that it is a vote-killer, as any observer with a functioning brain knew they would. Biden reportedly recently lectured civil rights leaders against defunding the police at a meeting to discuss something utterly unrelated, namely his agriculture secretary. The president-elect prefers the “there are good-cops and bad-cops” approach to police murders. Meanwhile rightwing media became hysterical about defunding the police, just as that media distorted and lied about BLM protests to bolster Trump’s reactionary election campaign.
We Still Here links violence against minority communities to covid, citing “Corona capitalism.” This term “refers to the economic conditions and institutional arrangements that made the vulnerable more likely to experience premature death during the Covid-19 pandemic…68 percent of Americans said that money would be a factor in their decision to seek care if they had coronavirus symptoms.” Another focus is confinement combined with being “death eligible” – as are the over two million people in U.S. prisons, which Hill calls death camps during covid. Rikers in New York City is one of the worst. Hill cites it, observing that “75 percent of people in Rikers are not convicted of any crime. Most are awaiting trial and…cannot afford cash bail.” But covid has transformed their cases into death sentences, without “trial, judge or jury.”
A related horror of this plague is that before it, 60,000 U.S. prisoners were in solitary. Now – 300,000. The UN has called solitary confinement torture, but these people have been done in by “the politics of disposability.” Some prisoners struggle to conceal their symptoms to avoid solitary, while the lucky ones work for pennies to bury covid corpses. As Hill explains, the trap prisoners find themselves in “is a quintessentially American logic: the moment you are no longer exploitable, you become death eligible.”
Indeed, for the police in the U.S., whole communities are death eligible. U.S. police, unlike their European counterparts, are prolific killers. Proportionally they kill many more blacks than whites, and this stems from their provenance. Hill quotes Angela Davis that “the practice of modern policing is rooted in early slave patrols,” the groups of whites who hunted down escaped slaves. In response, Hill advocates “historicizing policing,” i.e., teaching its brief history in schools and making students aware that a society without it not only is possible, but used to exist. Feudal societies lacked police. So did early capitalist ones, until the nineteenth century. Historicizing police could acclimate people to the concept of living without it.
Policing proves Hill’s maxim that “there is no such thing as a non-violent state.” The state asserts a monopoly on violence. Some protesters challenged that, as of course do rightwing militias. The police, however, have treated those militias as allies, as an extension of police power. And when those right-wingers killed protesters, the police all but blessed their efforts, treating Kyle Rittenhouse, for instance, with kid gloves, in contrast to their “shoot on sight” approach to antifascist Michael Reinoehl. That extrajudicial murder was publicly and criminally advocated and then applauded by Trump, because Reinoehl had allegedly shot a fascist. But Rittenhouse shot BLM protesters, so he was coddled.
So in a sense, the state monopoly on violence includes under its umbrella fascist militias. In these circumstances, it’s hard to see how the larger-scale protests won’t resume at some point. They are a human struggle, a human cry against life and death in what Hill accurately calls “a fascist, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist empire in decline.”