With all of the discussion about ISIS/ISIL, Al Qaeda, etc., one would think that the only terror on this planet is that derived from relatively small numbers of criminal fascists roaming the planet who claim to be Muslims. Yet that is not the only location of terror. In West Africa, for instance, millions live in terror as the horrific virus, Ebola, spreads, killing more than 3,000 people. Due in large part to the devastation wrought by neo-liberal policies on the health care systems of West African nations, Ebola has been spreading at an unanticipated rate.
There are other forms of terror, of course. Environmental devastation and climate change, which capitalism seems unable to stop but has also played a major role in advancing, threatens billions. Islands across this planet are threatened as water encroaches on coastal regions. And one need not be a rocket scientist to know that it is the working classes, the farmers and many other impoverished segments of society that will suffer on a scale beyond anything that will afflict the rich and powerful.
There is, however, a form of terror at work within the USA that is not named but are every bit as deadly and destructive as anything that ISIL and Al Qaeda can produce. This terror is racial terror, a reality that shapes the lives of millions of people of color. It is racial terror that helps to explain the shortened life spans of African Americans; the prevalence of various illnesses, or at least the high rate of illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, among people of color; and the flinch which we of color all experience in the face of racially-inspired insults, humiliations and micro-aggressions.
It is difficult for most white people to appreciate the racial terror with which people of color live. There are certain things that do not generally concern whites. They do not, generally, have to worry about the race or ethnicity of the person with whom they are driving. They rarely have to worry about being pulled over by the police when driving through a neighborhood that is not their own.
I frequently tell the story of attending the first Labor Notes conference in Detroit, Michigan in 1981. At the end of the conference a blond, Scandinavian woman was looking for a ride back to the East Coast. I had driven to Detroit from Boston with another African American man. We were asked if we could take her back to the East Coast. My friend and I looked at one another and, at about the same time, shook our heads “No.” It was not personal; the idea of two African American men driving across several states with a very attractive, blond woman was something that set off all sorts of bells and whistles. Yet, this is an experience that most whites would find difficult to fathom. In my mind’s eye, and that of my friend, we could imagine being pulled over by the police or being pursued by white men who were not particularly excited about the imagery, let along reality of two black men driving cross country with a white woman.
There is not a long distance between the fear of the experience of such racial terror, and the actual murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. These were cases of modern-day lynchings, which is one of the principal historic forms of racial terror in the USA. In both cases, irrespective of the actual or alleged attitude of the victims, Martin and Brown were gunned down not because of any violation of the law but because of a perceived threat that they represented to the perpetrator(s) of the violence…of the murders.
Many of us–men of color–have found ourselves in circumstances not dissimilar from either Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Only a few weeks ago I politely requested that a white man move out of my way in a very crowded area. I asked him three times “Excuse me,” only to have to push past him and hear him say to me “…Excuse yourself!” I turned and cursed at him and kept walking, but could such a curse have been interpreted by him as a threat to his life? Could he have later argued, after assaulting or killing me, that he felt threatened by my presence and that my language alone was enough to trigger his fears?
This may sound outlandish but it was Trayvon Martin who was murdered on his way home because George Zimmerman allegedly believed that Martin was in the wrong place at the wrong time and, further, that Martin–who was unarmed—allegedly posed a danger to Zimmerman’s life. Zimmerman had the gun; Trayvon had no weapons; and Zimmerman apparently felt justified in killing Martin.
What is so ironic in the notion of “Stand your ground” statutes and similar such measures really is the question of who, historically, has the right to fear whom. History answers that question unequivocally and decisively. There have been no mass lynchings of whites in the USA by people of color; we have not dropped bombs from the air on white communities; black police do not run amok through, let’s say, Italian American communities killing youth with abandon, claiming that such actions are justifiable based on the existence of organized crime in Italian American communities, i.e., the Mafia.
The racist terror that people of color experience is not limited to semi-random acts of violence or so-called police abuse. There exists a strong, racist, right-wing populist movement with a range of groups including Neo-Nazis, racist Skinheads, Neo-Confederates, Christian Identity, and right-wing militias that see themselves preparing for a coming race war. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are at least 688 such groups, many of which are well armed and some of which engage in terror attacks on people of color, Jews, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people, leftists, union organizers, etc., anyone, in other words, who does not fit their concept of an “American.”
This right-wing, racist terrorism has accounted for more deaths of law enforcement officers, and more people generally than any alleged Islamic terror in the USA subsequent to the 11 September 2001 terror attacks by Al Qaeda. Yet such facts are not reported in the mainstream news and when anything approaching such charges are raised, there is almost immediate pushback by right-wing opportunists claiming that such charges are aimed at subverting the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.
It is in this context that it is important to reflect on the argument by Smith College Professor Paula Giddings who, in an August 28, 2014 piece for Agence Global [“Time for a 21st-Century Anti-Lynching Movement”] argued that what we are looking at is not simply a spate of police brutality cases or periodic acts of violence, but a continuation of the lynching ‘movement’ to which African Americans have been subjected since the days of slavery. I wish to take this argument a bit further.
In response to police brutality/abuse, there are frequently protests and acts of anger, sometimes taking the form of demonstrations and mini-movements. The Ferguson, Missouri uprising is, actually, a bit of an exception in that the protests have lasted longer than one usually comes to expect. In general, the protests wind down and, while bitterness remains, the incident drops into the recesses of our memories…until the next act. When we frame these atrocities solely in terms of “police abuse” and “police brutality” (which, of course, they are), we both limit the larger context for understanding this situation, but we also run into a challenge at the level of mobilizing the public. With regard to mobilizing, we must keep in mind that given the justifiable fear of crime in many of our communities, the population–and I am speaking here of people of color generally, and African Americans in particular–are not necessarily prepared to go all out in condemning the actions of the police. After all, they wish to ensure that they themselves are protected from criminal violence. So, there is an ambivalence that exists in communities of color as to how to approach both crime and police violence.
Killings carried out by individuals, as in the case of the Zimmerman slaying of Trayvon Martin, are recognized for what they are, racist violence. But such acts are rarely linked together. We are not presented with the broader context of race relations (and history) in the USA. More often than not we are presented with a story line that suggests that this individual case is both tragic and abnormal rather than part of a larger scenario.
Instead we should understand that the combination of the police abuse, individual acts of violence, and right-wing populist aggression is a reflection of contemporary racist terror, otherwise known as the spirit of lynching. It aims at suppressing dissent by suppressing the African American. It reinforces the racist hierarchy that has existed in the USA since before it was the USA. It is the delineation of limitations on the space, rights and actions of a population that is desperately feared not because of what it has done, but because of what was done to it. Each act of racist terror, or more accurately, the demonstration of and perpetuation of an atmosphere of racist terror reminds people of color generally, and African Americans in particular, that they are not accepted into the “white bloc’ because they are a suspect population.
Prof. Giddings is, therefore, correct that the violence that we are experiencing must be understood as lynching, and that what is called for is not simply an anti-police brutality movement or a “Justice for [the latest victim of racist violence]” movement, but an anti-lynching/anti-terror campaign. Such a campaign must be a campaign that seeks to accomplish several tasks. First, the campaign must reopen the history of the USA in order to demonstrate the background to racist violence and terror and its roots in the system created by the original settlers. Second, the campaign must pursue the struggle for the expansion of democracy and democratic rights. This includes a struggle against racial privilege and racial differentials in treatment that permit the current majority demographic to believe that actions taken against a ‘suspect population’ are somehow a priori, justifiable. Third, the campaign must defend the right of historically oppressed groups to self-defense. Historically oppressed groups, be they racially oppressed or oppressed by patriarchy, are asked to play the role of the perpetual victims, always turning the other cheek. They are not expected to defend themselves and are frequently punished for doing so. This must be altered in its fundamentals.
Through a 21st century anti-lynching movement we can actually move beyond despair and victimhood. Through a 21st century anti-lynching movement we can respond to the violent form of the ‘white backlash’ that emerged in the 1960s and has proceeded on like a juggernaut ever since, in the courts and in the streets. Through a 21st century anti-lynching movement we can get beyond the notion that racism and racist oppression are isolated to individual actions and are instead central to the mortar that holds the larger system together. Such a recognition is, perhaps more than anything else, what the elite, so-called mainstream, media most wishes to avoid.
Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. He can be followed on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.