This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.
The first thing I want to say is that I applaud the audacity of our youth to get out there and establish a front line in the struggle against lynchings by police and the (in)justice system personnel in the United States. I recognize some demonstrators’ destruction of property as materializing an equation: Black Lives Matter more than whatever dollar value their actions extract from the ownership classes in USAmerica. One lesson to be learned is that if the life of an African person, a Black person, in America is taken wrongfully by the police establishment there will be a cost exacted. Although that cost inflicted can never equal the value of that Black life it does ring the bell in the minds of racist America that this generation simply will not accept it sitting down. In fact, they lay their lives on the line to go out and confront the police and National Guard state actors, much to the fear, sadness and alarm of all parents, educators and community members. While we prattle, they took action. This says it is incumbent upon our organized sectors to take more effective, powerful (translation in capitalist America: economic] action, both Black and white.
Second, I unequivocally call upon everyone to reject the equation of the “violence” of injuring and killing a human being, a Black person, with burning and destroying property. Destruction of “things” is categorically different from violence inflicted on “human beings.” The Black response to the lack of USAmerica sufficient response to the police killings of African Americans should not be spoken about as “violence,” because it is not directed against living beings. No matter how great the financial loss or property damage of burning and looting, it is just that, property loss that can and will be replaced. A human life can never be replaced. This is what USAmerica needs to be clearer about. One can cry out if so moved against “destruction demonstrations,” but not name them “violent demonstrations.” This latter becomes propaganda that supports a white racist ideology, a type of “infra politics”: defining and attaching labels to African Americans that signal that they are outside the commonweal of human concern; that they are “outlaw, outlander, and inhuman.” (Patricia Hill-Collins). No one wants violence. Unleashing the demonstration effect of fire is of entirely a different order of action.
The violent label belongs on police, not demonstrators. Ninety-nine percent of the demonstrations’ destruction in their wake is simply property destruction, unless it’s been perpetrated by the police. Destruction of material things is a “fighting act,” maybe a dangerous act, but not an intention of killing or complete disregard for likelihood of killing, as is the police brutality. What we have seen is inflicting of property destruction particularly through burning.
I also understand that this is bigger than Atlanta or any one city. While I understood the fear and anxiety of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms in her call to “go home,” amidst the commentators crying out, “why destroy in Atlanta?,” the fact is that May 28th was a nationwide response to the broad daylight murder-lynching of George Floyd. Across USAmerica a share of the destruction tally tied to that act was exacted.
Fourth, the insurance industry, which failed us by redlining and enforcing segregation against Black people in neighborhoods across USAmerica, by colluding to prevent the public healthcare that would have prevented the awful loss of life, disproportionately Black life, during this Coronavirus epidemic, and which is an extension of the racist mortgage industry that is supporting gentrification across USAmerica, needs to go on and pay out and use its overwhelming political clout to solve the problem of racist violence taking the lives of Black people, or they might continue to feel the burn. USAmerican streets where they insure property are unsafe and Black people cannot allow this to continue. No investments in property in USAmerica have a right to be safe while lives that matter are not safe.
There’s no time for business as usual. Police departments need to be completely reorganized, one by one, fired from top to bottom, and rehiring done based on important principles, such as the need for gender balance. All-male or predominately male institutions are known for perpetrating social violence, from the KKK, to the army, to the Boy Scouts. Break it up. Not a few women sprinkled in there, but fifty or more percent. Of course, women can be guilty too, but there is overwhelming scholarship that shows that when women are present in numbers sufficient to affect the overall culture, the culture of violence is brought down (Paxton and Hughes; Armah). Federal investigation, enforcement and remedies must be swift, decisive and weighty nationwide in response to citizen’s complaints and any local occurrence of police violence. Otherwise, violent police acts are likely to be met with defensive destructive demonstrations nationwide, and worldwide. This is people’s power.
Cynthia M. Hewitt, Ph.D., is Avalon Professor of Sociology and Chair of the International Comparative Labor Studies Program.