Mrs. King and Coretta: A Posthumous Memoir Explores Public and Private Selves

reviewed by Patricia J. Williams

MY LIFE, MY LOVE, MY LEGACY
By Coretta Scott King, as told to Barbara Reynolds
Illustrated. 356 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.

Nearly every image of Coretta Scott King since her husband’s death has seemed suffused with preternatural stillness, her face fixed with the brave solitude of timeless interior bereavement. For all of her accomplishment and vivacity in real life, she has remained frozen in the collective imagination, among that sad pantheon of civil-rights-era icons: the political widow in a pillbox hat. King describes the weight of that identity in “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” her posthumous memoir, as told to the journalist Barbara Reynolds over a period of 30 years. “There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta. How one became detached from the other remains a mystery to me,” King says.

This book is distinctly Coretta’s story. While there is nothing to radically challenge the impression of her as carefully restrained, what makes “My Life” particularly absorbing is its quiet account of a brutal historical era, as experienced by a very particular kind of African-American woman: well educated, cautious, a prototypically 1950s-style wife and mother. The book’s cover features a picture of King, young and smiling, but still radiating that unmistakable aura of church-lady reserve.

Though such women have rarely been given voice, they were the staunch backbone of the civil rights movement. They raised funds as well as children, did the accounting as well as the housework, taught school and cooked the meals. They kept the minutes at N.A.A.C.P. meetings, played the organ at church, coordinated their husbands’ schedules.
Like Coretta Scott King, they operated within a regime that was both punishing and exhausting for being so utterly beholden to the politics of respectability. The pressure to disprove pervasive cultural stereotypes of slovenliness, ignorance, criminal threat and rapacious sexuality meant striving for perfection always. One could not risk being charged with the slightest human fallibility for fear of deadly retribution. The harshly unforgiving surveillance of the larger white community was reiterated within black communities as the stress of constant, and sometimes cruel, self-surveillance.

Living with terror is the thread that runs through “My Life.” This is a tale of church assaults before Dylann Roof, of cattle prods before there were tasers, of nooses before there were chokeholds, of Cointelpro before there was Breitbart, of voter suppression before anyone bothered to deny it. King’s earliest memories include her parents’ home being burned down when she was 15 years old. As she grows up, neighbors disappear. Bodies are found hanging from trees. Among the in-laws, her husband’s mother was shot and killed in the middle of a church service by a mentally disturbed man; his brother was found floating in a pool under suspicious circumstances; and when his father, Martin Luther King Sr., passes away at the age of 84, it marked “the first time any senior member of the King family had died a natural death.”

Some say that religion is, at base, a mechanism to handle the human response to mortality and loss. And for all the death and tragedy in “My Life,” it is King’s grounding in her husband’s theology of peaceful resistance that enables her survival against excruciating odds. Nonviolence, she reiterates, is not a matter of passively accepting whatever happens. It is active. It is a practice. As her husband preached: “Justice is really love in calculation.”

That power, of love as calculation, composes King, binds her together, time and again. Her practice of such belief is meditative, and becomes reflected in her diction: She speaks of endurance, overcoming, soul-sustenance for the long term. There is little in the way of open sadness in this book; after her husband’s assassination, she turns to the project of creating the King Center as a monument to him, filling the emptiness with boxes of his notes and speeches.

By the same token, there is a marked absence of expressed joy, other than at the birth of her children. Her emotions are muted in a way that is intriguing rather than off-putting. This disposition also presents the reader with a different way of looking at the world — one of extraordinary calm and the purest resolve. It is restful somehow, and generous, in a manner that is unfashionable in our culture of 24/7 emotional display. King’s language does not privilege personal happiness, private delights, exuberant emotional extremes of any sort. Rather, her life is filtered through prescribed priorities, devotions, principles, commitments. This is life lived in service to others rather than with concern for individual regard or even personal safety.

There is unusual inspiration in that mien. Before becoming King’s amanuensis, Barbara Reynolds was a journalist assigned to do a story for The Chicago Tribune. They became such good friends that Reynolds changed her vocation along the way: “Before I started hanging around with Mrs. King, I wasn’t much of a Christian.” But hang around she did, and by the time King died in 2006, Reynolds had become an ordained minister. It is but one small tribute to the power of the King family’s dedication to a “Ministry of Presence.” The larger, more ecumenical meaning of Coretta Scott King’s life, love and legacy may be found in the peace-lending power, needed now as never before, of prophetic traditions that hold us and heal, “bringing into existence images and a destiny we had not seen or lived before.”

Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr professor of law at Columbia University and a columnist for The Nation.

A version of this review appears in print on January 15, 2017, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Mrs. King and Coretta.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Election Reflection

Race and sex stoke deep responses in the American psyche

Published in The Guardian, November 9, 2016

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/us-election-result-misogyny-america-panel-woman
Patricia J. Williams
Many years ago the great oral historian Studs Terkel recounted a story told to him by a woman who’d been molested by a relative as a child. She’d tried to tell her mother but no one would believe her. Yet one day when she was shopping with her mother and aunt, they spotted a black man far away on the other side of the department store. The women gathered the girl close to them, worrying aloud about the unbridled lust that that man might harbour toward little white girls. The now-grown woman told Terkel that, even as a young child, she could see the craziness in that moment: they could not see or hear that she was being assaulted by a member of the family, but instead marshalled their sexualised anxiety against the distant figure of a black man obliviously going about his business.

I have been thinking about that story quite a bit in recent weeks, as I’ve pondered the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s peculiar appeal to … well, any demographic, but especially a particular stratum of conservative women. I’m particularly intrigued by women who worry aloud about his extreme nativism or misogyny or careless grasp of foreign affairs – yet who then say that what really drives their allegiance is “hatred” of the supposedly murderous and licentious Hillary Clinton. This is often expressed as a repulsion so strong that, like the little girl’s mother and aunt, they are willing to give Uncle Donald a pass in the face of multiple allegations of sexual assault, breathtaking racism, unprecedented crudity, cruelty, verbal incoherence and globalised, soul-searing mendacity.

While the intensity of vitriol directed at Clinton still mystifies me to a great extent, Terkel’s story reminds me that there is an affective dynamic to all politics, an emotional narrative that may make sense in an alternate universe from which I may be functionally excluded. Race and sex stoke deep autonomic responses in the American psyche. Trump began his political career more than 20 years ago by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling for the execution of five teenagers wrongly accused of raping and beating a young white stockbroker who became known as the Central Park Jogger. Although DNA evidence pinned the crime to another man, Trump has never backed down from his assertion that he was right.

Similarly, throughout the campaign, Trump has evoked old tropes of a ravaged America, endlessly at risk from Mexican rapists, African American thugs and Muslim terrorists. Indeed, with endorsements from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and George Zimmerman, Trump has revitalised a narrative of warrior masculinity that dates back to DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation – the trope of strong, pugilistic white vigilantes fighting against corrupt, lying and libertine black invaders (literally black voters in that movie) – in order to protect the honour of frightened white women. It seems not insignificant that Trump has consistently appeared with a backdrop of attentive women, blonde women, beautiful women who smile and wave and whom he symbolically shelters from rapists and terrorists and the “very bad people” from “certain neighbourhoods”.

Like many of us Nasty Women of a certain age and weight, Clinton is not sheltered by such cowboy chivalry. In addition, her achievements as secretary of state were slandered or obliterated in ways underwritten by suggestions of race-mixing, combined with horrendous and ubiquitous caricatures of Barack Obama: the dangerously “alien” black man who stole the reins of power and, in a lustily miscegenous union with Clinton, supposedly “invented Islamic State”.

In this alternative universe, Trump holds great appeal to those who were only recently forced to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and, in a profoundly felt sense, have never conceded that the American civil war is over.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

State of Exception

Americans Are Finding New Ways to Join the Surveillance State | The Nation 08/11/2016 5:40 PM

 

T here are a few recent reports that are worth considering in our hackable brave new world. The first is from Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Privacy & Technology, titled “The Perpetual Line- Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America.” It documents the growth of immense law-enforcement data banks—accumulated by the FBI and local, state, and federal police agencies—housing digital images of more than 117 million American citizens. These pictures are drawn from mug shots, driver’s licenses, passport photos, and the Internet. While facial-recognition technology is a genuinely useful tool in solving crime, the report highlights potential areas of infringement upon privacy, civil rights, and liberties, as well as a lack of transparency or public accountability. Indeed, unlike voice recordings, the collection of which is governed by the Wiretap Act, the gathering of visual images is pretty much unregulated.

This lack of regulation—and public ignorance of such systems’ existence—means that police departments are able to use facial recognition to identify and track law- abiding citizens as well as criminal suspects. Many police departments are able to run “continuous, real- time scans of people walking by a surveillance camera”—without warrant, reasonable suspicion, or any other limitation. The report found that of 52 agencies polled, only one prohibits officers from “using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.” In addition, facial-recognition technologies are manufactured by private companies using proprietary algorithms generally classified as intellectual property or trade secrets. Hence, few measures exist for ensuring accuracy through public oversight, regular maintenance, or published operating standards.

 

In addition, the potential for error—particularly racially based error—seems built into the machine. The Seattle Police Department even claims that its system “does not see race.” The Pennsylvania Justice Network’s system, on the other hand, comes with a manual whose only user options are: “Generic Male, Generic Female, Asian Male, Asian Female, Caucasian Male, Caucasian Female or Middle Eastern Male.” Another study suggests that darker faces may significantly reduce accuracy because of badly calibrated color contrast.

If this is not of sufficient concern, add in that there is a hidden but quite lucrative market in mining cell-phone customers’ data: It was recently revealed, for example, that AT&T has been secretly selling information like call time, duration, and location to state and local police departments since at least 2008. It doesn’t take much to imagine how other data from one’s credit cards, Siri, Facebook profile, reading habits, political preferences, entertainment choices, and residential-security cameras might be compiled to create profiles that define citizens as effectively as a new-age caste system.

 

If even that kind of surreptitious tracking seems not to trouble many Americans, perhaps it may take a more ominous cast when understood as a broad phenomenon in the global context. For example, the Chinese government has been building a comprehensive data bank that would rank all “natural persons, legal persons and other organizations” by adding up “social credits” accumulated in economic and social activities. China hopes to have a population-wide system of measurement up and running by the year 2020, giving “complete rein to mechanisms to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust.”

China’s plan purports to rank not merely government, business, or educational enterprises, but a full range of personal virtues, including traffic violations, attention to fire safety, one’s role as student, and the general “online behavior of netizens.” The report suggests online blacklists for nonconformity, with “exposure” as punishment, “rewards for reporting individuals,” with “credit reward alliances across multiple departments and regions, ensur[ing] that those keeping trust receive benefit in all respects, and those breaking trust meet with difficulty at every step.”

 

Similarly, New Zealand has invited teams of citizens to help monitor its network of CCTV surveillance cameras. “People really don’t realise they are being watched,” said one such volunteer. “That may sound nasty, but I’ve always believed if you have nothing to hide you have no problem with surveillance if it keeps everyone safe.”

Such casual faith in the panopticon assumes a degree of beneficent goodwill among the hidden overseers. It assumes reliable mechanisms of due process and appeal before the undisclosed algorithm calculates one’s threat level and deploys a disciplinary drone. It assumes close social bonds between the viewed and the viewer, and no deep, disenfranchising divisions between citizen and soldier.

Yet here we stand, at a moment when divisions in the United States have rarely been starker. Some look at our president and are certain he is “alien”; others think it “obvious” that Hillary Clinton should be jailed summarily. Recently, Stewart Rhodes, president of Oath Keepers, a militia comprising of former law- enforcement officers, asked his membership to seek out voter fraud by engaging in “incognito intelligence.” His “call to action” included instruction on how to “blend in with the crowd…That may mean wearing a Bob Marley… or ‘Che’ Guevara tee-shirt.”

 

Having “nothing to hide” only gets you so far when there is no way to contest the judgments of a hidden gaze. “We don’t want the bad guys to know that we’re out there,” declared Rhodes. “We want them to worry about whether or not they’re being watched.” This appropriation of surveillance authority creates a pervasive us versus them mentality, eradicating the boundary between liberty and license. So here we are, fellow citizens—at a moment when libertarianism’s distaste for oversight intersects with technological totalism. We flow seamlessly, helplessly, into sweeping currents of the quietly totalitarian. •

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Will American Politics Survive Trump?” Canadian Public Broadcasting, The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, November 6, 2016

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/myth-of-an-independent-fbi-campaign-fever-chrystia-freeland-on-ceta-sir-simon-rattle-1.3832728/will-american-politics-survive-trump-1.3832732

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Backlash

The Nation Magazine,  OCTOBER 5, 2016

When Hillary Clinton was nominated at the Democratic National Convention, the party celebrated with a video of a glass ceiling being shattered, only to reveal Clinton emerging triumphantly from the shards.

Although her achievement is moving to me, a woman of a certain age, it is unclear how many younger Americans appreciate the profound—and rapid—revolution underwriting this moment. In an interview in New York magazine last spring, Clinton recalled an encounter she’d had many years ago, when she took the LSAT. A young man said to her, “If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.” The interview inspired a comment in which the writer complained: “I don’t believe for one second her story about the LSAT…. This is more of her play for sympathy and victimization.”

This is a bitter election, and there are those who will never believe that the sun is in the sky if Hillary Clinton says so. But I attended law school only a few years after she did, and her story is certainly exemplary of what my female classmates and I were told. And it’s more or less what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her eight other female classmates encountered in 1956, when Erwin Griswold, the dean of Harvard Law School, demanded to know how each of them justified taking the space of a presumably more productive man.

When I graduated from law school,  women composed only 8 percent of my class of approximately 500. Those numbers improved rapidly during the activism of the 1980s. Today, women make up approximately 50 percent of the students at most American law schools. Yet many do not know that Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and other icons of today’s legal landscape came of age in a time—again, not so very long ago—when most law schools struggled to find toilets that women could use. (Barbara Underwood, one of Yale Law School’s early female faculty members, was told to use the janitor’s closet.) We forget that the moral panic about bathroom access for transgender people has a direct precedent in the affective disgust that greeted the first generation of women—particularly pregnant women—who tried to use the toilets in formerly all-male bastions.

This amnesia about women’s history doesn’t mean that we have “overcome.” Indeed, such forgetfulness disguises the ways in which Clinton and other American women are still being subjected to debilitating disparagement and concrete limitations. President Obama’s election was so monumental and so unprecedented that it erased history in some quarters, particularly among the major media outlets who sold it as an unqualified feel-good story, and among well-educated, left-leaning whites, for whom he was something of a relief—“articulate and bright and clean,” as then-Senator Joe Biden once put it.

But that loss of the long view 
wasn’t shared by most African Americans, who anticipated and greatly feared a backlash, never having forgotten the post–Civil War reversals that quashed the electoral triumphs of the Reconstruction era and ushered in Jim Crow. Consider the trajectory of the so-called “Obama effect”: Gun sales jumped 90 percent in the month after the 2008 election, apparently thanks to right-leaning whites who thought that a black president effectively meant that a race war was upon us. That fear has been a constant ever since, intersecting with a form of backlash some have called the “Ferguson effect,” most recently invoked by Trump when he declared that the U.S. has “race riots on our streets on a monthly basis.”

Similarly, we must be on our guard against a “Hillary effect”—
a powerful resurgence of sexism. Trump has become its current mouthpiece, placing Clinton’s iconic attainments on behalf of women’s and children’s rights on the same level as accusations that her going to the bathroom is “disgusting”; that she “got schlonged” by Obama during the last election; and that “if Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (this last from a Trump fan’s tweet, shared by the candidate). After all, Trump has gone on record saying that he thinks women need to be treated “like shit,” and then lives precisely by that credo.

 

In his latest and most baffling attack, Trump has accused Clinton of marital infidelity. In his untethered opinion, “I don’t even think she’s loyal to Bill.” It’s like the unfunny version of Restoration-era comedy: accusing your opponent of having cuckolded and emasculated her husband and—somewhat confusingly in this context—of being too masculine to be feminine.

Trump’s scattershot broadsides—against women, men, cheaters, haters, Mexicans, Muslims, and crying babies—are crosshatched in ways that make pushback a challenge for many traditional pundits and advocacy groups. Trump possesses a singular ability to mix the poisonous waters of the culture wars into colorful new hybrids of exotic demonization. His words rain down like cluster bombs, exploding in so many pieces and directions that one scarcely knows how to assess the damage. His concept of civic worth is so exclusive that he enfranchises, privileges, and anoints no one but himself. “I alone,” he declared during the Republican National Convention, speaking as though he were an emperor. If there is hope to be found in this dismally divided insult-swamp upon whose edge America trembles, it may lie in this: Never have so many been so united in their marginalization.

Still: nothing about this moment can be taken for granted. Glass ceilings, once broken, can be boarded back up. The very brief history of women and minorities on the national stage makes manifest the urgent necessity of reinvigorating the very notion of politics itself. Defending human, civil, and other democratic rights is an unending struggle. Only the most generous coalition of human and civil-rights activism will succeed in the project of creating a world we might one day describe as “post-racial,” “post-gender,” and (I pray!) “post-Trump.”

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Trump L’Oeil

I was wending my way through the parking lot of a big-box store not long ago. A large, smoke-belching, unmuffled truck with the kind of mammoth tires one sees at demolition derbies hurtled into the lot and careened into a parking space some yards away. The sides of the truck were plastered with enormous political advertisements. “Make America Great Again,” the Trump banners read. (As the cloth furled and snapped and fluttered in the wind, however, it was “RUMP” and “RUM” whose guidance promised a return to gloryland.) The whole effect was bigger and more eye-catching than a float in a parade. The sight of it! The sound! Whether in approval or disapprobation, the entire geography of the parking lot reacted as one. Heads swiveled, eyes widened, mouths gaped.

The driver lumbered from his cab, sporting a long white beard stretching nearly to his navel. “What’re you staring at?” he snarled at a thunderstruck man of seemingly Asian phenotype, who was frozen in the act of unloading his groceries.

In many ways, this encounter was itself a pantomime of Donald Trump’s candidacy: unusual hair, dramatic arrival in clouds of smoke, spectacular parking job smack-dab on center stage—and then, with all eyes captured, the peevishly threatening demand not to be looked at so closely. Trump is the gilded monster truck of political ambition.

The scenario was also an enactment of Trump’s favorite precept: giving the finger to “political correctness” in the name of freedom of expression. I have the right to belch smoke in your face, call you a rapist or a murderer, and spatter you with mud. Now what’re you gonna do about it—cry like a baby? Freedom of expression is reduced to an arbitrary insistence upon one-way communication, a barked order. Making America “great again,” by this measure, is a command, not a hope. Get that crying baby out of the tent; move out of the way already.

This epitomizes one of the most tiresome assumptions that are insinuated into debates about freedom of expression: My right to call you a stupid monkey means that you have to shut up about it. If you don’t, you’re violating my free-speech rights.

This assumption—the belief that communication flows in one direction only, that it is the role of some to speak and others only to listen—is a paradox that stifles rather than encourages debate. “Get ’em outta here!” is literally the Trumpian cliché, tossed impatiently at any hint of dissent. This much is bad enough in a comic-book villain. But in an aspiring state actor, we must seriously consider the repercussions should he, as president, be endowed with the actual, not academic, executive power to censor.

Perhaps one reason Trump has been able to get away with being so absurdly vague, vulgar, and uninformed is that he has positioned himself squarely as a culture warrior, not as a politician. The culture wars aren’t about the specifics of foreign policy or climate change or budget concerns. They are waged as performative skirmishes—symbolic, visual, and visceral. In one corner are the send-ups of campus eggheads supposedly surrendering Western civilization to the people who “don’t belong”: women with “fat faces” bleeding from their “wherever,” unruly affirmative-action minorities, LGBTQ victimologists, job-stealing Asians, and a mushily defined remainder of soft equivocators and kale-eating “liberals.” In the other corner are the tough guys, the red-meat-eaters, real men who live in a “real world” of no rules but ruthlessness: plain-speaking, strong-jawed, put-up-or-shut-up cowboy entrepreneurs, unafraid to get their hands a little dirty in the service of building beautiful walls around the beautiful empire, the beautiful castle, and their bevy of beautiful ladies in skintight dresses.

For more than 20 years—thanks in no small part to the outsize influence of Trump surrogates and influential fear-mongers like Roger Ailes, Ralph Reed, Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Steve Bannon—the two sides have hardened. There is no middle ground.

The arrival of a female candidate has seen a turn to scorched-earth tactics. “Girly-men!” said Arnold Schwarzenegger of his Democratic rivals back in 2004. It led to a stream of similarly misogynistic Republican invective, effectively setting the stage for Trump’s performative attacks on Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t even have to put it in words at this point, because she has been reduced at every turn to a physically unhealthy yet nut-crackingly strong, pantsuit-wearing, man-hating closet lesbian, a castrating shrewish fish-without-a-bicycle.

There are no words that Hillary can ever speak to change this caricature. Endless invocation of the First Amendment notwithstanding, these constructions play less upon the right to speak than upon how things are said. Thus, Trump’s talent for passionate spectacle vaulted him through the initial debates, largely because he wasn’t really debating. Instead, he’s been signifying in a wordless contest of manners, mores, images, accent, etiquette, and idiom.

Once we’ve been lured onto this emotionally charged field of rational bypass, words stop working.

And though we have plenty of words to describe the “coddling” of college students who seek “safe spaces” in campus settings, we have fewer popular terms to describe Trump’s bid to make the entire United States a walled-off “safe space” from global exchange. We hear a lot about who is “silencing” whom whenever those effervescent Code Pink ladies pop up, faithful as flamenco-pink-wigged whack-a-moles, to be dragged from Trump rallies. Much less is spoken about the chilling effect of campus open-carry laws in classrooms where the expressive power of the First Amendment and the Second seem to have become perilously confused.

So… what’re you staring at?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Standing Contested Ground

published in The Nation Magazine, August 15, 2016

He looked dangerous. He looked like a suspect. He looked like he was reaching for a weapon. The officer feared for his life.  This familiar litany was recited on the news more than once over the course of this vexed summer—a time weighted with foreboding, anxiety, and grief. We are all afraid of something: terrorism, random outlaws with PTSD, ominous political forces. As a result, gun sales have soared. Paradoxically, rising gun sales mean that it’s increasingly reasonable to suspect that someone pulled over by police to the side of the road will have one. Writes Ted Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, “in a society that worships gun culture and advocates the right to carry weapons, it cannot be that the fact that an individual has a gun automatically justifies shooting him.”

Yet it’s also true that the history of the right to bear arms is shaped by exclusionary privilege based on race and gender. It is almost exclusively white men who may “reasonably” carry firearms to protests outside Target or political conventions. It is almost exclusively white men who do not need to retreat from domestic disputes while on ground deemed “theirs.” Nonwhites and women, however, are much less likely to be able to walk through the world with assault rifles (or toy guns, or the shadow of anything that might resemble a gun) and not be mowed down for that reason alone—either by police or the idealized citizen-savior.

Harvard professor Caroline Light has traced the history of our romance with legalized vigilantism. She dates it to the Reconstruction era, “when post-war political and economic turmoil and the enfranchisement of African American men fed late-19th-century gender panic, and the legal terrain shifted to characterize a man’s ‘castle’ and the dependents residing therein as an extension of the white masculine self.” Light (whose excellent new book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense is forthcoming from Beacon Press next spring) asserts that current policies, including defunding basic public services, have led to a situation in which “the state’s retreat from the protection of its citizens creates a perceived need for (do-it-your)self-defense.” The supposedly race-neutral idea of “reasonable threat” actually encourages a “lethal response to black intrusions into spaces considered white.”

Recently, an officer from the North Miami Police Department shot and wounded Charles Kinsey, a black therapist trying to help a severely autistic patient who had wandered away from a mental-health center and into traffic. Pictures taken by passersby showed that neither the patient nor Kinsey was armed. Indeed, Kinsey had identified himself, explained the situation, and was lying on the ground with his hands in the air when the police shot him. Such a twitchy hair-trigger response reminded me that the North Miami Police Department had been chastised just last year for using African-American mug shots for target practice. Is it unreasonable to wonder if such “practice” trains the eye toward what to fear and whom to kill?

Against this already charged backdrop, a judge recently extended Florida’s “stand your ground” law to protect police officers. The case at issue involved the death of Jermaine McBean, a 33-year-old black man who was shot three times after being spotted walking on a busy street carrying what turned out to be an unloaded Airsoft rifle. A judge dismissed all charges against Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza, based on his assertion that he had no duty to retreat because he believed that McBean was trying to kill or seriously harm him.

But “stand your ground” laws are a subspecies of self- defense. The idea is that “ground” is jurisprudentially defined as a space from which one has the reasonable expectation of excluding others—i.e., one’s property. What makes the idea of standing one’s ground so troubling is precisely the question of whose ground it is anyway—yours or mine? What, indeed, of “our” ground? Law-enforcement officers, after all, are charged with a duty to serve and protect public, collective geographies, not just “their” ground.

“Stand your ground” laws have extended the older defense of one’s “castle” beyond the walls of one’s home to one’s subjectively determined comfort zone—which, in effect, allows a public street to be turned into conceptually private space. However problematic this may be in citizen encounters, judging police by this measure would represent a seismic shift in accountability. It is a cornerstone of our legal system— and of international law—that police, as state actors, respond to objective standards, not fleeting emotions. Our expectation is that they will be well-trained in techniques of defusing confrontation, and that they will deploy force only as a last resort.

If the mere experience of fear justifies violence anyplace, anytime, we have set a dangerous precedent regardless of race, gender, or occupation—but especially in the case of police. As Nakia Jones, a black police officer in Ohio, stated in an impassioned video on YouTube, we must also look at the tension between the call of duty—which is one of public service, even self- sacrifice—and the unmoored fears harbored by those who don’t know anyone in the neighborhoods they’re assigned to patrol. There are at least some who, in the absence of training, experience, self-restraint, and proper support, may fill that void with assumptions and panic—who would place self-protection so far ahead of the duty to protect the community that they succumb much too easily to an ethic of “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Allowables” has gone viral of late, and perhaps it bears repeating as a counter-litany in these times of edgy stand-off: I killed a spider / Not a murderous brown recluse / Not even a black widow /And if the truth were told this / Was only a small / Sort of papery spider / Who should have run / When I picked up the book / But she didn’t / And she scared me / And I smashed her / I don’t think / I’m allowed / To kill something / Because I am / Frightened.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized