Roderick J. Watts
City University of New York
Mark asked me to write something about the recent Mother Jones Magazine article on police violence against people of African descent (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/police-shootings-michael-brown-ferguson-black-men). The article is well worth reading especially if you have the research skills to propose a methodology that would help us better monitor efforts to stop the racist carnage. Where I am going with Mark’s invitation has taken me far afield of the article, an it is longer than I planned! Call it therapy for the negative emotions stirred up by these ongoing police killings. That said, I tend to be pragmatic. I will address the question of what we can do curtail this and other forms of social oppression.
Like some many of my friends and students, I was very angry, saddened and disillusioned by this latest high-profile tragedy in Ferguson Missouri where 18 year old Michael Brown was gunned down by police. This act, or more damningly the charade of a prosecution that took place and ended without an indictment is part of what see as racialized state terrorism. Although this term in typically reserved for state actions on a mass scale in places outside of the G20, the aims are essentially the same:
State terrorism is a systematic governmental policy in which massive violence is practiced against a given population group with the goal of eliminating any behavior that promotes political struggle or resistance by member of that group. Any state that engages in terrorism is not a protector of citizens; rather, it violates civil and human rights…”[i]
Ferguson is a place where the policing and judicial systems regularly terrorize Black and Brown communities that are already under attack from within and without. As is the case in many other places around the country, Black teenagers go to jail for nickel bags, while White adult police officers kill Black adults with the implied consent of judicial institutions that are supposed to make killers accountable. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out how this can terrorize, traumatize and demoralize communities of color everywhere in the system’s orbit.
Although policing in the USA can take the form of institutionalized racial terrorism, it was once a popular “sport” for amateurs during the era of lynching that peaked in the late 1800s. Ralph Ginzburg’s documentation of thousands of these murders began only just before the peak period in the starkly titled book 100 Years of Lynchings. He filled his book with photocopies of newspaper articles of the day that offer a glimpse of this populist terrorism. His is a simple, yet powerful act of social research. For the record, as Wikipedia notes “Lynchings were also very common in the Old West, where victims were primarily men of Mexican and Chinese minorities, although whites were also lynched.” This tells me that the dehumanization of Africans was so well accepted that it was difficult for people to see how once accepted, dehumanization spreads to new targets that were once seen as human. Dehumanization is at the heart of oppression. It may start with people who look like me, and others further in the margins such as transgendered Black women—but it will work its way up to others if we allow it to. Don’t we ever learn, that any one of us can be next?
The point of this historical reference is that US terrorism continues in the present moment through professionalized lynching in police departments and “stand your ground” legislation that shields amateurs from prosecution. But even this is not at the root of the social ills in Missouri and around the nation. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (2011) traces the centuries-long history of the dehumanization of Black men, aided by the pseudo-scholarly work of many in the academy. His thesis tracks with the book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II in 2009 (D. Blackmon) and also The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander in 2012. Today, the school to jail track that criminalizes youth of color figures prominently is the modern legacy of racial oppression. Carter Woodson’s book the Miseducation of the Negro from the 1930s shows how important caste is to White supremacy in major institutions like education. Violence comes in many forms. This history shows how the USA got to where it is today.
Scholars have always played ball on both sides of the divide of humanism and de-humanism, but let’s face it: the settings most of us spend our time in do not encourage us to be major players in the struggle for liberation. We are up against power players with the resources to manufacture and disseminate the narratives and consent needed to
further their interests. So what are liberation psychologists to do?
I claim no brilliant or original insights on this question, but I’d like to contribute to our on-going dialog and reflection on positioning ourselves in against oppression. First, psychology is not nearly enough—ours is a field of liberation studies and action (LiSA)–but you know that. Second, many of us pursuing LiSA have positioned ourselves in careers that give us a measure of autonomy. In my view, the challenge is to determine what our personal gifts are then commit to long-term alliances with social movements. Only a few of us have what it takes to excel at the vanguard of such movements or inspire the masses from behind a bullhorn. Racialized terrorism whether state-sponsored or through vigilantism needs “best practices” for personal and collective resistance. At the micro-level we can we engage with individuals and small groups. Members of marginalized populations and communities contend with an on-going pattern of traumatic experiences—wrongful deaths, discrimination, and the micro aggressions of daily live they encounter in public institutions . These traumas were vividly evident in the local response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson. We need LiSA professionals who can apply the healing arts and sciences through critical consciousness rather than from the perspective of the pathology-centered industry that dominates US mental health. See the book Advancing Social Justice Through Clinical Practice (Edited by Aldarondo), for examples on how it can be done.
At the organization level, those of us in the geopolitical North are reminded of Seymour Sarason’s work on the creation of settings. In particular, sustainable, social-change settings. I can think of two examples where LiSA can play a role. In the schools we can partner with teachers who do social justice education. Working collaboratively with young people we can help prepare them for roles in community organizing and ultimately movement politics. For example, I am working with my colleagues in planning the Free Minds, Free People conference convened by the Education for Liberation Network (www.edliberation.org) and co-sponsored by its wide variety of allies. The Network brings together teachers, high school and college students, researchers, parents and community-based activists-educators from across the country to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation. Second, many of us would like to see is a school to movement pipeline that connects school children, their parents and the surrounding neighborhoods so that the community capacity needed to push back on racialized terrorism and other forms of injustice can occur.
Healing+ Well-being, social movement capacity, institution building, and participatory research are all areas where so-called best practices from LiSA and play a role. Two last examples for the LiSA researchers reading this: My colleague Ben Kirshner and I are conducting a 4+ year, international study of youth community organizing in the US, Ireland and South Africa. We often hear leaders in the organizations tell us that they need brief position papers from scholars to bolster credibility with certain audiences. Better yet, they say, have these scholars who will stick their necks out as well and take a public positions on contentious issues.
Lastly, there is the challenging role of working with the police! Go to this story about a seemingly rigorous study that shows significant reductions in police violence for departments that began using body cameras to monitor their actions on the street (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/04/california-police-body-cameras-cuts-violence-complaints-rialto). Don’t sneer—having conscious people working in the belly of the beast as others engage in frontal assaults of same pack twice the punch.
Thanks for reading. I am posting this here first, because I value thoughts on these matters. I am also I am considering another version of this for the Community Psychologist. I would love to have some feedback and to hear about the niches others have found a meaningful place for their LiSA skills.
[i] Jalata, A. (2005). State Terrorism and Globalization: The case of Ethiopia and Sudan. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46(1-2):79-102