October 22, 2014 is the 19th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. This day has received renewed interest in light of the events at Ferguson, Missouri this year and because we are finally hearing the real stories of police brutality against people of color. Men, women and children of color as well as transgender men and women, people with physical and mental disabilities who have suffered at the hands of those who are being paid to serve and protect are finally being seen and heard. Sadly however, too many of their voices are being heard only after they have been silenced. We are all called to action to fight the institutionalized oppression by militarized police that has been at work much too long in the United States.
On October 18, I attended the 59th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP and I was particularly grateful for the keynote speaker, Professor Theodore M. Shaw from the University of North Carolina School of Law. During this distinguished and much lauded professor’s address, he used an expression that immediately made me perk up: “Crazy Making.” This is a common urban slang expression that I also often use to describe the effect of insane, repetitive behavior, and I’m sure I got the expression from a sitcom or at least from pop culture somewhere. He said it several times to great effect speaking about the state of black people in America: the continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men is “crazy making”; if you come from a legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual, it is “crazy making”; to be viewed as a monster by a culture…”crazy making.” He’s right; it’s a wonder more of us aren’t truly insane.
The events this summer in Ferguson, Missouri have become another touchstone in what seems to be an ongoing pattern of police targeting black youths with excessive gun violence. There are those who have already written off the court case, believing that the accused murderer Darren Wilson will be acquitted. But the sad truth is, not only is this not new, but there is an eerie precedent going back nearly 250 years that makes it clear the degree to which this situation is status quo in America. In 1770, John Adams, future President of the United States, stood in court and defended 6 British soldiers who had fired upon and killed a number of unarmed men in what would be called the Boston Massacre. Most specifically, one of the casualties was a black runaway slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. We often get the picture of the men killed in the massacre (including Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and ultimately Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr) as being heroes of the early American Revolution. In addition, we also think of John Adams as a man who dedicated his life and career to “liberty.” But the historical data comes across a bit differently. Adams’ words from the original court documents describing the crowd that attacked the soldiers say a great deal about his opinion of the accused:
“We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob.-Some call them shavers, some call them genius’s. -The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them: The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers”
Further on in the court documents we also find this assessment of Attucks (who was classed as ‘mulatto’) by Adams:
“[…]this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.”
Crispus Attucks had escaped from his enslaver some 20 years previous and had endured not only the persecution of being black in a slave economy, but the continued fear of being caught as a fugitive. His post slavery career had been spent largely at sea where, again, he was always subject to oppression and threat of recapture. By the night he was killed, Attucks had banded with a group of other seamen, and by dint of their trade they had an already contentious relationship with the British Army. But as an escaped slave, Attucks was particularly at risk of being pressed into service in the army at any time against his will. Simply put, by any standard, the life that Crispus Attucks had led to this point would have been “crazy making.”
Michael Brown was killed on August 9, 2014 for walking in the street. But video footage shows him having a confrontation with a convenience store clerk over cigars just prior to his murder. Darren Wilson’s traffic stop was unrelated to this at the time alleged theft, but certainly Michael Brown was carrying the awareness of his previous interaction with the store clerk with him. The court will now try to paint Brown as someone who was dangerous and “worth” killing. Brown was headed to college in a few days and by all reasonable character accounts, had a clear sense of wanting and knowing how to manifest a productive future. So why have a confrontation with a store clerk over cigars (note: video footage shows he actually paid for them)? Why put up even a slight fight against an armed and clearly confrontational officer? The continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men…the legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual…being viewed as a monster by a culture…it is all “crazy making.”
I won’t ever claim that black men are not to be held accountable for their actions. Nor do I intend to make the point that all black men are crazy or that we all steal. But to think that black men have had a 200+ year history of being public targets for various kinds of police brutality in the United States is astonishing. Both Crispus Attucks and Michael Brown are regarded as martyrs, but for very different reasons. We are taught to look at Crispus Attucks through the rosy view of his contribution to the American Revolutionary War. Clearly by John Adams account, there were those who would prefer to have seen him as the 18th century equivalent of a “thug” just as some would like to paint Michael Brown the same way today. Part of me has to believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions actually had little or nothing to do with feeling a patriotic kinship with a nation and people who would enslave him, make him a 20 year fugitive and keep his life in constant threat. I believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions had more in common with Michael Brown in that moment when he had the altercation in the convenience store. These are both acts of social disobedience that say to a hostile American culture, “I am not a slave in body or in spirit! I am here! I am real! I am a human being!” These are both men demanding a place in their world and willing to do something crazy as a way to show it. But in the end, the only truly crazy ones are us if we don’t use their legacies to end the real “crazy making” policies, systems and psychologies that plague people of color and primarily black men in this country.
End racialized police brutality NOW!
National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, October 22, 2014 – #O22