By Zak Brown
Antonio Martin, 18, was shot dead by police Tuesday night during an altercation at a gas station only miles away from Ferguson, Missouri; the city where unarmed Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by (legally absolved) officer Darren Wilson.
The list goes on. Indeed, the victims of police violence especially in communities of color are limitless.
In the United States, a Black individual falls victim to police every 28 hours. However, that number alone cannot describe the immeasurable violence committed against the Black body as it endures constant criminality, racial prejudice, and economic repression. To put it simply, there is a war going on in the streets of America. A war against every Black body. Whether this war manifests in direct state violence – the murder and incarceration inflicted by the police state – or indirect state violence – the internalized logic of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy, bringing a litany of gang violence, drug abuse, sexual trafficking and similar destruction in communities of color – the violence is there for all to see.
Despite this, the media has attempted to compare the killing of two NYPD officers by a Black individual, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, with the systemic oppression experienced by people of color; suggesting that all killing is equally detestable, and that we should condemn the killing of police the same way we condemn the murder of Black bodies. They (liberals and media pundits) have contested the popular slogan “Black Lives Matter” with their own slogan: “All Lives Matter”. The idea being that while “Black Lives Matter” contests a system where they (Black lives) are devalued, “All Lives Matter” whitewashes struggle and instead suggests that we forget identities (color, gender, etc.) in favor of a “universal humanity”.
This is a classic example of how Liberalism seems progressive in form, but is reactionary in substance.
All Lives or Some Lives?
The slogan “All Lives Matter” is attractive, and perhaps we can even resonate with that statement. Certainly all lives should matter. But, in white supremacist cishetcapitalism, it’s very, very clear that all lives do not matter.
Black lives don’t matter.
Queer lives don’t matter.
Women’s lives don’t matter.
Poor lives don’t matter.
If we are serious about challenging our dominant power structures, then we need to take seriously the present state of affairs. Our current reality is one wherein some lives matter more than others; wherein some people can “simply die” and nothing will be done about it; wherein certain people “must die” and everything will be done to ensure that. Nothing short of revolutionary struggle can change that. This is the point of holding a sign that says “Black Lives Matter”; it’s an open challenge to a racist system where Black lives generally don’t matter, whereas “All Lives Matter” would gloss over our social realities that make such a statement presently absurd.
However, no amount of idealizing or sloganeering, protesting or petitioning, philosophizing or preaching, will change the fact that Eric Gardner was murdered and most of society doesn’t give a fuck.
After all, he was just a “criminal”; he was just “resisting”; he was just Black.
Real change can only begin once we realize that the world is not as we feel it should be. More importantly, the world will not become how it should be simply when we begin to rethink it. Imagining an alternative world – where every life matters and all bodies are treated equally – is very important to any project for change; however, imagining alone will never grant us freedom. So please, if you’re chanting “All Lives Matter”, stop pretending and start doing. All lives may matter to you, but until they matter in society as a whole, your opinion is just that, an opinion.
What about the lives of the police being killed, do their lives matter?
Certainly their lives matter, arguably they matter far more (within society) than any of the victims of police violence. And that is precisely the problem. When a brown man is gunned down in New York, most of the media hardly notices. Slap a badge on that brown man, and you have crowds of police turning their back on the city’s mayor and declaring “wartime protocol” on the city’s poor inhabitants. It would also be ignorant to not examine the circumstances of these “assassinations” against police. Generally, when police are gunned down in such attacks, the intent is retaliation for some previous injustice – as it was in the case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley who directly referenced the deaths of Eric Gardner and Michael Brown on his Instagram prior to the shooting. This differs greatly from the circumstances of the aforementioned murders – Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, etc. – where Black persons are actively profiled and brutalized by the repressive forces of the state (police).
However, we should hesitate to glamorize such isolated acts of retaliation, or even consider them “heroic”. Not that such actions are “bad” or “wrong”, but that they are simply ineffective and even in some circumstances counter-productive – in the case of Brinsley, he himself is a poor candidate for “hero” considering his alleged shooting of his own girlfriend which occurred that same day. How can we declare a cop-killer to be a “hero of the people”, knowing his past of gendered violence? It would be nonsensical and simply wrong to do so. Basically, power is complicated and we shouldn’t rush to conclusions, and even if we disregard such consideration and “support” such action and “heroes”, what good comes of that? That’s just rubber-stamping an already-existing phenomena we have no influence over. Instead, we should understand why such retaliation occurs and how it can be made into something constructive to a wider movement.
Remember, the people make history; the people and their organs of expression make radical change possible. So while we would not condemn Brinsley or anyone else for “shooting back” at their oppressors, we would not support it either; we must necessarily move beyond this individual focus to larger institutional engagement. For anyone considering similar isolated action, they should weigh the full consequences of what could be a suicidal assault against police and perhaps examine more constructive endeavors in community organizing and education; essentially, we would much rather encourage the building of independent organizations among the oppressed than encourage lone-wolf acts which are often suicidal or terroristic.
We must also consider the fact that simply shooting police officers is no way to end police repression or institutional racism. This is not some plea to “respect our cops”. No, obviously the police are the first-line of repression – the street soldiers of white supremacist capitalism. However, there are nearly 600,000 full-time police officers in the United States, not including those auxiliary task forces and part-time public safety units. Taking violent action against all of them is neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, we must resist police repression while destroying the state’s very ability to police and in doing so making the swarms of repression obsolete. Destroy the identity of a police officer and his ability to police, and what does he become but a uniformed fool?
If you believe that all lives matter, then congratulations, your position is superior to the dominant narrative exercised by the current powers. However, to conflate this subordinated position – all lives matter – with the actuality of our present social system – many lives don’t matter – severely damages the project of revolutionary change; a project which is intrinsically built upon accurately depicting the present state of affairs in order to effectively change them.
We want Black lives to matter.
We want Queer lives to matter.
We want Women’s lives to matter.
We want poor lives to matter.
We want all lives to matter.
And to many of us, these lives already do matter.
But, until we can transform our opinion into a position with some relevance – through concentrated political struggle – our position has no weight in a complex and overwhelming system. The conquest of political power by the oppressed is the necessary prerequisite for a system where all lives truly do matter.