Once again, an unarmed young African-American man has been killed by the police under very questionable circumstances. That latest name added to that long and growing kill list is Stephon Clark; who was recently gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California by two police officers who fired at him twenty times. And once again the initial reports of what happened by police on the scene do not jive with video evidence.
How can we make sense of the pervasiveness, disproportionality, and persistence of such killings in a way that can help us make black lives matter? In my soon to be released Killing African Americans book I argue that to do so we must place them within the context of the long history of the use of violence in the United States to control African Americans — especially during those historical moments when we are perceived as getting out of our proper racial “place” such as after the abolition of slavery, the more recent white backlash to the successes of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and the still more recent racial backlash to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president which a couple years ago fueled the election of an overtly racist president, Donald J. Trump. Such killings function as a violence-centered racial control mechanism, which along with other violence-centered racial control mechanisms like the racially-targeted death penalty and mass incarceration, sustains today’s systemic racism; just as in the past the fatal violence associated with lynchings, the death penalty, and mass incarceration were deployed to preserve the racial control systems of slavery, peonage, and Jim Crow.
By examining those killings through such a political lens, it becomes clear why piecemeal criminal justice reforms do not, and cannot, work. Because they serve important economic, social status, and political functions for members of this nation’s dominant racial group they can only be seriously addressed through fundamental racial and economic changes. Such change can come only through African Americans and other people of goodwill mustering sufficient political pressure through social protests, economic boycotts, and other means to make it clear that those killings will no longer be allowed to happen with impunity. Viewing such violence through the lens of racial politics reveals that the ultimate–bottom line–reason the police and vigilantes kill so many African Americans is because they can; and the only way to stop them from doing so is by changing oppressive power-relationships. This means that both ameliorative and radical solutions to the problem, should focus on political and economic solutions; solutions that either stop the targeting of African Americans or ensure that there is sufficient accountability to prevent such killings from happening with impunity when they do. A good place to begin, of course, is by joining social movement organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
In Killing African Americans, I start by suggesting some ameliorative solutions. I present a list of some things I believe can be done to help reduce the number of police and vigilante killings of African Americans by making those responsible more accountable. That list includes: establishing local, state, and national data centers and archives for all police and vigilante killings; creating a legal defense hotline of pro-bono lawyers to advise people of their rights; monitoring the policies and pay-outs of companies that provide local governments with insurance that covers police misconduct; monitoring, and when possible, becoming involved in the negotiation of police union contracts to ensure that they don’t provide unreasonable protection for officers who use lethal force; monitoring and making public the records of the handling of local police and vigilante killings by mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, and judges; and developing police and vigilante accountability political platforms to be endorsed by candidates for elected office at every branch and level of government.
Other possible actions are: distributing smart phone apps to advise those confronted by the police and vigilantes and to record those encounters on cloud-based servers; pressuring local police departments to establish civilian review boards; forcing state and local governments to appoint special prosecutors to handle all police killings; bringing lawsuits that challenge existing laws and court rulings regarding when the police may use lethal force; organizing neighborhood “Copwatch” groups to monitor police and vigilante activity, and petitioning the United Nations to investigate and monitor the persistence of the disproportionate police and vigilante killings of African Americans as a violation of our human rights and its anti-genocide pact.
Ultimately significant changes can come only through major transformations in U.S. racial and economic relations. To make that happen we can begin with: massive and sustained protests that disrupt every aspect of American life (e.g., work, politics, transportation, religious services, and sporting events); economic boycotts that target all economic activity in communities that tolerate the lack of police and vigilante accountability; and programs of non-cooperation including jury nullification, refusal to pay taxes, and the refusal to serve in the military. Such actions can also include general strikes and slowdowns in which African Americans and our supporters refrain from making our normal contributions to society (e.g., work and school); and when necessary, the establishment of armed militias for self-defense.
To sum up, both the cause of and the solution to these killings is captured in one word, power. And when it comes to how power relations are changed no one has said it better than Frederick Douglass: “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Noel A Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism is scheduled to be released in June.