On the afternoon of August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. Witnesses report that when Wilson began shooting, the 18-year-old Brown ran away and was shot; he then stopped running and faced Wilson with his hands raised and stated, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” According to witnesses, Wilson then shot several more times and killed Michael Brown. According to a report in the New Yorker, “Wilson did not immediately call the shooting in or try to resuscitate Brown, and no E.M.T.s rushed him to the hospital.” Brown’s dead body was left lying in the street for several hours. The killing sparked days of protests and violent confrontations with police. A media circus ensued, as journalists descended on Ferguson to record this latest spectacle of police violence, and Black pain and rage.
Many people were shocked by the militarized force used by police and by scenes of violent street fighting in Ferguson that many Americans and Canadians associate with far-away war zones. This is North America, not Cairo or Gaza. Of course, such comments ignore hundreds of years of brutal state violence against Black and Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., as well as the violence that is and always has been directed at the poor, or at any resistance posing a threat to the current social order and racial hierarchy.
Many people were shocked by the militarized force used by police and by scenes of violent street fighting in Ferguson that many Americans and Canadians associate with far-away war zones.
Less than a week before Brown was killed, police in Ohio shot death 22-year-old John Crawford to death in a Walmart after a shopper called 911, reporting a man in the store with a gun who might “rob the place” or “shoot somebody.” Crawford was on the telephone with the mother of his children, LeeCee Johnson, at the time. He had picked up a toy rifle, the butt of which he was reportedly leaning on when police arrived. His last words were “it’s not real,” before he was shot and killed by the police. Johnson reported, “I could hear him just crying and screaming. I feel like they shot him down like he was not even human.”
In July, Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer. The 43-year-old father of six was accused by police of allegedly selling loose cigarettes, and was illegally placed in a chokehold by one of the officers. Cellphone footage of the incident led to widespread awareness of the case, and the chance to hear the final utterances of an asthmatic man pleading for his life: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”
Videos that document police violence and abuses of power – particularly directed at Black, mentally ill, and poor people – constantly circulate. This violence is normalized to the extent that when someone whose identities place them in multiple groups is killed – someone who is Black and poor, or Black and mentally ill – many are inclined to view their death as inevitable. An example of this tendency was the police killing on August 19 of a second Black man, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, not far from Ferguson. Captured in full on a cellphone video, some assessed the situation as “suicide by cops.”
The constant scripting of Black people as always-already criminal and/or pathological has profound consequences in our daily interactions.
This explanation requires that we accept unnecessarily lethal police violence as predictable and normal. It requires projecting a desire to die onto a victim of police violence based on behaviour that may be attributable to any number of things, including mental illness or the experience of systemic oppression. In many places, it is not legally permissible to assist another person in ending their life under even what some would argue are the most humane of conditions. Although reported to have been carrying a knife, Powell did not appear to pose an immediate and potentially deadly threat to anyone else’s life. Neither did Alain Magloire, a Black man in the throes of a mental health crisis who was wielding a hammer when Montreal police gunned him down last February.
A Black youth in Montreal recently shared a video on his Facebook page featuring a Black woman in a small store, chanting down an employee with dramatic religious fervour. The video was posted in July 2011, has 3,200 likes and 5,200 comments, and has been shared on Facebook over 83,000 times. Recent commenters on the video found it hilarious, speculating that the woman was “crazy,” on crack or some other drug, practicing voodoo, and/or creating a distraction to cover up shoplifting. Some described the video as “sad,” and the woman as needing help. A white woman apparently from one of Montreal’s ethno-racially diverse neighbourhoods commented, “Awww..I see these characters every day in Cote des Neiges…lol [sic].” The most recent comment was by someone whose Facebook account identifies them as the head coach of a youth soccer program in Dallas, Texas. He wrote: “Shoot it with a tranquilizer gun to get some rest.”
Before they were killed, what was the value placed on the lives of Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, and Trayvon Martin in our societies? What were the lives of Fredy Villanueva, Alain Magloire, Farshad Mohammadi, and Mohamed Anas Bennis worth? What about the lives of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada?
I was struck by how typical these comments are as people consume a range of spectacles of Black difference, performance, suffering, and rage alike. The constant scripting of Black people as always-already criminal and/or pathological has profound consequences in our daily interactions. Contrary to what mainstream Canadian historical narratives would have us believe, colonialism and the enslavement of Black and Indigenous peoples are very much a part of this country’s histories, and continue to shape social relations today. For this to change we need to recognize and challenge white supremacy and norms of respectability that continue to suggest that some lives are worth more than others.
Before they were killed, what was the value placed on the lives of Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, and Trayvon Martin in our societies? What were the lives of Fredy Villanueva, Alain Magloire, Farshad Mohammadi, and Mohamed Anas Bennis worth? What about the lives of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada? We can and must recognize one another’s humanity, identify with one another, and build stronger movements through working in solidarity across our differences.
rosalind hampton is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies. To contact the writer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.