POLITICS: BROKEN RECORDS: RACISM, VIOLENCE AND THE POLICE
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, our social feeds have been inundated with images of distressed Black bodies. The knee of the state (exercising its usual lethal force) was once again spreading across the internet like wildfire. The names were different of course; Ahmaud Aubery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd but ultimately the sound was all too familiar; we know that racial violence administered by the police is the most broken record in the history of the Black experience.
'It was another blow at a time in which Black people were already bearing the brunt of the economic, housing and health inequalities.'
The wounds of anti-blackness were once again surfaced by the 9 minute-long video of George Floyd’s agony. It was another blow at a time in which Black people were already bearing the brunt of the economic, housing and health inequalities exacerbated under the conditions of lockdown. Despite this thousands still gathered to protest. This global movement of resistance has always been a direct response to the recurring physical and symbolic racial violence. On 5 June 2020, in ‘The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point’, academic and activist, Angela Davis, characterised this moment as a historical conjuncture several years in the making, reflecting on the combination of activist and intellectual work that has culminated in mass mobilisation. It is up to Onyx Magazine and other Black creative platforms to centre, document and archive Black voices that continue to emerge in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.
‘Eating the Other’ – that racialised subjects ‘will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate...'
Will Smith was not wrong when he stated 'Racism is not getting worse, it's getting filmed' on The Late Show in 2016. Video footage of police brutality forms part of the digital archive that has given the possibility of retribution a focal point. But it is important to ensure that we continue to document the loss of life without desensitisation. Black people are not the ones who 'need to see it to believe it.' And this is an issue in itself when we consider that videos and photographs of racist acts are not only captured for the documentation. The circulation of graphic images echoes a historical culture of witnessing; American lynching photographs and European colonial propaganda. There is a real danger of timelines and social feeds simulating what bell hooks describes in her essay as ‘Eating the Other’ – that racialised subjects ‘will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate - that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.’ The continuous consumption of pain in viral videos can also work counter-effectively; reducing Black lives to mere bodies in a digital gaze. The attempts to replace images of distress with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in their prime are deliberate acts of resistance. It is important for our lasting impressions to be reclaimed in political moves that redefine the narrative – it’s the only way to depict the holistic lives of dehumanised Black people.
In ‘The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point’, historian and academic, Robin D. G. Kelley, described the global pandemic as a catalyst for the political resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protestors manifested in all 50 states but as Annie Whilby notes in her poem ‘I Can’t Breathe’ ‘stateside ain’t the only place a uniform gets you out of murder in broad daylight’, calling British police to the stand.
Nuance is integral to the plight of Black British people and thus, police killings and the police procedures ought not to be conflated. Stephen Lawrence’s murder uncovered the institutionalised racism at the core of British policing. However, people repeatedly - and mistakenly - used his name in social media posts and on protest signs to exemplify police killings in Britain. In reality, the Macpherson Report critiqued the police’s investigation of Lawrence’s murder. Macpherson used the term 'institutionally racist' to describe 'the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin'. The disregard for the detail of Stephen Lawrence’s case affirms the critical nature of accurate documentation. Without it, we limit our opportunities to call out racism within the wider state infrastructure like our justice systems.
'Can we seize this moment to expose the limitations of the nation-state and its oppressive structures?'
Angela Davis warns that this wave of resurgence will be over sooner than later but urges us to consider how we might act in the aftermath. Can we seize this moment to expose the limitations of the nation-state and its oppressive structures? There is no question that ‘race’ is a social construct, a pseudo-scientific invention used to justify oppression. Still, the experience of anti-blackness has forged a collective Black existence that transcends borders in ways that are impossible for others to fathom. Racial oppression and capitalism are not just entangled at the roots of the social structures that govern and police our lives, they are also anchored to the global context. Through this notion of racial capitalism, scholars from the ‘Black Radical Tradition’ like Cedric J. Robinson challenge us to historicise the complexities of that entanglement. In this sense, we ought to be relational in our approach to opposing racism. When we march for Mark Duggan and Joy Gardner in Britain, we pay homage to George Floyd of the US and Adama Traoré of France and vice versa.
In 'I Can’t Breathe', Annie Whilby records the message that cases of police brutality are more than just singular racist incidents. They are a combination of patterns that involve behaviour, power dynamics and state-sanctioned violence. She draws our attention to conditions of breathlessness, the rise and fall of Annie’s voice fix our emotions on a never-ending list of names that is exhausting but not exhaustive. Her rhythmic tone mimics the burgeoning rage, frustration and contempt bound to assertions of Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 marks a dynamic shift in the rhetoric of politicians and journalists. Instead of focusing on just individual prejudice, they are finally beginning to discuss issues of structural racism. Most recently, in the UK, Grenfell Tower, the Windrush Scandal and the BAME Covid-19 report have led us to this point. Moreover, articulations of All Black Lives Matter, Trans Black Lives Matter and Black Womxn Matter are bringing forth what feels like the most intersectional approach seen within the movement. While scrolling on Instagram, I saw a photograph of someone holding up a sign that read: ‘Stop killing the mandem, the gyaldem and the transdem’ – I have never seen anything that acknowledges the multiplicity of Blackness to this level in previous waves of protests.
'Through documentation, we can speak to each other directly about what is happening and where we are at present.'
In Göran Hugo Olsson’s film ‘The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975’, rhythm and blues artist, Erykah Badu, reminds us that: 'We have to document our history'. The forms of documentation are powerful and varied; from music, photography, films, podcasts to essays and poetry. Archiving Black voices as the movement evolves is essential to future understanding; it provides us not only with better expression but better organisation. Through documentation, we can speak to each other directly about what is happening and where we are at present. As such, 'I Can’t Breathe' by Annie Whilby ought to be more than another Instagram post entangled within the web of social media.
I can't breathe.
My chest is feeling tight.
The familiarity ain't right.
I can't breathe.
My throat is closing up.
The walls are closing in.
I can't breathe.
My face is hot.
My jaw is clenched.
I can't breathe.
Tears burning cheeks.
I can't breathe.
Hairs stand on end
Piercing skin like needles.
I can't breathe.
Another brother slain
Police brutality remains.
I can't fucking breathe.
Scroll past another snuff movie
I fucking can't breathe.
I can't believe
People still don't get the message.
Still share shit for shock value.
Yet when the blood is dried
#blacklivesmatter is a distant battle cry
I'm tired and I can't breathe
The importance of getting the message out
Shout it from the rooftops
If you must share another black man's last breath
Embed that shit.
Trigger warning that shit.
Your outrage is valid but think of those brown eyes in brown heads who just can't take anymore of that shit.
Black people don't need to see it to believe it.
This news story is a tale older than time.
That pigs knee
On George Floyd's neck
May he rest in everlasting peace
But he can't breathe.
And whatever I feel pales in comparison,
My breathlessness is short-lived
My breathlessness is not a reality
George Floyd can't breathe
Eric Garner can't breathe
Breonna Taylor can't breathe
Sean Reed can't breathe
Tamir Rice can't breathe
William Green can't breathe
Atatiana Jefferson can't breathe
Alton Sterling can't breathe
Walter Scott can't breathe
Ryan Twyman can't breathe
Freddie Gray can't breathe
Philando Castile can't breathe
Laquan McDonald can't breathe
Korryn Gaines can't breathe
Oscar Grant can't breathe
Sandra Bland can't breathe
Mike Brown can't breathe
Botham Jean can't breathe
And let's not forget
State side ain't the only place a uniform gets you out of murder in broad daylight.
Mark Duggan can't breathe
Kingsley Burrell can't breathe
Olaseni Lewis can't breathe
Rashan Charles can't breathe
Edson Da Costa can't breathe
Dalian Atkinson can't breathe
Azelle Rodney can't breathe
Police brutality invites others who love authority
But hate black bodies
To do the same.
And exercise their god given right to stand their ground
As black souls are gunned down.
Trayvon Martin can't breathe
Ahmaud Arbery can't breathe
These lists are not exhaustive
But I am exhausted
From a sister struggling for breath across the sea,
Love, pain, tears and solidarity.
Annie Whilby is a spoken word artist and PhD student at the University of Brighton. I selected 'I Can’t Breathe' because it captures the ebbs and flows of the Black experience. Her words express racism’s unwavering grip on society and how its intensity varies across time and space. She has asked for those who can to donate to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.
'The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point', a conversation hosted by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) with Angela Y. Davis, Herman Gray, Gaye Theresa Johnson, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Josh Kun in June 2020, available on YouTube.
'The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975' a documentary film directed by Göran Olsson in 2011.
Will Smith: 'Racism Is Not Getting Worse, It's Getting Filmed', a news article in The Hollywood Reporter in 2016.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson in 1999.
Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition written by Cedric J. Robinson in 1983.
Eating the Other in Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks (1992).