By Zoe Samudzi
Over and over again—for literal centuries—Black people have had to come to terms with the invisiblization of our murderers.
After prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against the remaining police officers facing trial “in connection with” the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray (and that two cleared officers would receive a combined $167,000 in back pay), Black America collectively responded with the combination of frustrated, sad, and unsurprised resignation.
According to the Baltimore Police Department charging documents, the three patrolling officers made eye contact with Gray who then fled on foot “unprovoked upon noticing police presence” (as though the presence of three white police officers in a predominantly black housing project or anywhere at all hasn’t been demonstrated as justification for fear, suspicion, or flight). Gray was taken into police custody “without the use of force or incident” shortly thereafter.
He died in a coma one week after his arrest. He had three fractured vertebrae, an injured larynx, and his spine 80% severed at the neck. The state medical examiner’s officer found that Freddie suffered a single “high-energy injury” to his neck. His spine injury was most likely caused by the transport van’s sudden deceleration: a rough ride. They concluded his death should be ruled homicide rather than an accident because the police officers failed to follow proper safety restraint procedures. And yet, not a single police officer was found to responsible for his death.
It is important to re-share the details of the incident because despite the evidence of gross police brutality, a policy-violating absence of seatbelt restraint, and a person’s death whilst in police custody, all six of the officers involved were either acquitted or had charges against them dropped by prosecution.
Time and time again, we’ve come to witness the operation of a multi-tiered legal system within a purportedly democratic nation whose pledge of allegiance concludes with the assurances of liberty and justice for all.
But we cannot indict a “broken” criminal justice system without recognizing the material consequences of the social and political understandings that birthed it.
The United States’ justice system seems a contradictory one, but only superficially. There actually isn’t any hypocrisy in that this country’s settler colonial Founding Fathers proclaimed independence in a document that declared “all men are created equal” in the same breath it asserted the threat posed by “merciless Indian savages.”
There isn’t hypocrisy in the fact the Constitution seeks to “establish justice” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” whilst also propagating anti-Indigeneity and codifying enslaved Blacks as three-fifths of a whole person.
Despite the nullification of the Three-Fifths Compromise via the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Black personhood still isn’t institutionally recognized as of yet.
Our entire metric of what constitutes justice ultimately revolves around a dissonance. There is a simultaneous institutional personing, humanity, and dominance of whiteness, and the un-personing, ownership, and subjugation of Blackness and other non-whitenesses.
Our notion of justice relies upon a system that was never meant to protect us or conceive of our humanity, a system into which we entered as chattel.
As Thomas Glave writes in Words to Our Now, “In the context of a race-ist United States, no black person ever can be.”
“Our murders are ungrievable because they are inconceivable,” Glave argues, because Black personhood and humanity cannot be seen or shared by white America. This is particularly the case when we are murdered at the hands of the police, agents of a state apparatus that holds a monopoly on “legitimate” violence.
We are dehumanized and un-personed and un-seen. We are largely unrecognized as deserving of recourse or protection by judicial systems.
Consider, for example, how white people often demand proof of the existence of racism in order to “rebutt” Black claims of racialized discrimination. There are retorts about black-on-black crime, the idea that “if you aren’t guilty, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” and the suggestion-belief that the police’s employment of fatal force is always necessary. So infrequently are Black narratives of oppression taken at face value. So frequently are Black people subjected to the denialism and revisionism inherent to whiteness.
We are perpetual threats, perpetual problems, perpetual defendants and guilty parties that warrant perpetual disenfranchisement, exclusion, political pandering, placation or altogether silencing. Never humanization, though.
Black representation within the system has been cited by far too many people as being a resolution to institutional discriminations. “President Barack Obama’s presidency showed Black Americans that the sky is the limit in America!” many have said, “Black lawyers, senators, city council members, business owners, police officers, judges, and mayors will bring about the reforms needed to better the black condition.”
But despite highlighting tenuous relationships between Black communities and the police, President Obama has stated that he has “been unequivocal in condemning any rhetoric directed at police officers.” Two of the police officers “in connection with” the murder of Freddie Gray—Officer William Porter and Sergeant Alicia White—were Black.
Despite being an emphatic advocate for racial justice in this case, three weeks prior to Freddie’s arrest and murder Marilyn Mosby asked city police to target North and Mount, the intersection where police contact with Freddie Gray first occurred, with “enhanced” drug enforcement efforts. While self-presenting as a reformer who is tough on police misconduct, Mosby has been criticized by Baltimore activists for her decision to not reopen the case of Tyrone West, for the prosecution of Keith Davis, and for the perception of her lack of transparency and accountability.
Witnessing this, can one really argue that what representation generally boils down to—greater access to a capitalist conception of mobility (and thus, proximity to whiteness)—is the solution for getting free?
Justice within whiteness can only ever fail us. The struggle for justice within whiteness presumes that winning the hearts and minds of those at the mantle of systems of racial domination is something we should aspire to, something that is even a possibility. Seeking justice within a structurally unchanged system means relying on solutions that have been widely proven as unjust.
If we define justice for the victims of police brutality as the trial, conviction, and imprisonment of their murderers, it means our reliance on the very carceral system we rally against to provide us with recourse.
“Justice or else!” was this past October’s quasi-ultimatum rallying cry for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. But what does “justice” actually look like? Is it solely punitive punishment within an unchanged racial capitalist system we acknowledge as being fundamentally unjust? Does it mean the example-making of a select few “bad apple” police officers while the rotten structure ultimately remains intact? Do we yet have the collective political imagination to conceive of what justice means short of systemic transformation?
I think we come closer to a conception of justice when we begin to investigate the potentiality of “or else”. This requires us to imagine systemic solutions beyond the existence of white supremacy. Are we ready for that? Have we collectively begun to imagine what that would entail?
Zoe Samudzi is a queer African feminist and womanist, and an incoming first year Sociology PhD student at the University of California-San Francisco.