“Our generation has the memories of the unpunished murders of Schwainey, Goodley, and of Medgar Evers. There are going to be no more unpunished murders.”
-Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist and originator of the term “Black Power.”
Stokely Carmichael spoke those words almost 50 years ago. But the unpunished murders of black people have not stopped—they’ve evolved. Michael Brown’s murder, Jordan Davis’ murder, Eric Garner’s murder—these are nothing new. The extrajudicial murder of black people is built on a centuries-old foundation of white supremacy and propagated fear of blackness. I’m not writing that to be incendiary; I’m writing it to be faithful to historical events as they actually happened. I’m writing it to tell the truth.
By the time BLSA and LaLSA decided to take a Ferguson Solidarity photograph, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and #iftheygunnedmedown had become rallying cries. It was this year’s “I am Trayvon Martin.” They were cries for battles already lost, for a war being waged for centuries against black bodies. Our generation is weary from this war, having grown up with people telling us that racism is over, spouting our triumphs—the Civil Rights Act of 1964! Affirmative action!—and waving them like victory flags, like the “Mission Accomplished” banner flown regarding Iraq when that conflict had barely begun. We’re disheartened at having to fight battles that the rest of society won’t even acknowledge. Of being told that we’re overreacting to microagressions in elite institutions. Of having to justify our anger when we’re drowning in our own blood. So, I hesitated to take a “Hands up, don’t shoot!” photograph. I wasn’t ready to commemorate another lost battle.
Howard University and Harvard Law School had already taken their photos. What would our photograph be saying that theirs hadn’t? But as LaLSA President Luis Hoyos continued to move, I realized that my inaction was still action. Agonizing over whether the photo would be derivative was not an excuse to not organize it. I would be actively choosing to do nothing, and I couldn’t quite live with that.
So I tried to do what lawyers do best: building on the foundation of what’s already there. I focused on how our picture could add to the conversation instead of being duplicative. What were the Harvard Law School and Howard University photographs missing? The answer was obvious: non-black people.
Thus, Luis and I focused on building coalitions. This idea was fundamental to what we wanted to do with the photograph. We wanted everyone to think critically about police brutality, whether it affected them directly or not. We wanted to give everyone space to process their own thoughts and feelings, and not just the ones dictated by the immediate threat of violence. Understanding both that the thoughts and feelings of black people are never enough to push social progress, and that violence against black people is firmly embedded in American society, I hoped to emphasize that this is an American issue. How we as a larger American society confront this issue affects all of us.
In our emails to the Columbia Law School community, BLSA and LaLSA made sure to emphasize that these murders were not outliers, but the natural product of the way our police forces are designed and incentivized. Whether in Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Sanford, Bellaire, or Ferguson, there is a clear delineation along racial lines of which communities are being “protected and served” and which communities are being “policed.” Those are not the same thing.
Protecting and serving involves putting the needs of the community at the forefront, making sure that people feel safe. Policing is about maintaining order. The ramifications of that distinction are enormous. Besides the very real (and very justified) fear of violence from police that black people have, policing also serves as a reminder that black people are viewed as ticking time bombs, things to be controlled instead of people to be protected.
Studying law probably makes me more cynical than the average citizen, because I understand how our legal system actually works. It’s built on precedent, and we often talk about it as if it were morally neutral, objective, and free from biases or agendas. But tell me what precedent is set when every 28 hours, a police officer, security guard, or vigilante kills a black person—almost always with impunity. Is the extrajudicial killing of black people de facto legal? What conclusion would you come to if this were a line of cases you were studying for class? If we started with Emmett Till and ended with Michael Brown, could the lawyer in you honestly tell me that this doesn’t set a precedent? That the law isn’t absolutely clear?
But maybe you don’t think that this speaks to a larger societal issue. Maybe you can’t see that once is an incident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern, and thousands make it an institutionalized way of life. I want you to tell me that I should be satisfied because I’m at Columbia Law School and we have a black president. Tell me that I’ve made it, please. Remind me of my Ivy League education and offers of employment from prestigious law firms. Explain to me how everything I’ve worked for my entire life, how any of this is going to matter when I’m facing a cop who has to make a split second decision about my threat level and has been taught his whole life to accept that violence against black people is part of the job. Who has been trained to police—not protect—people who look like me. Who knows that he probably won’t be punished if he does react violently. Tell me again that I’ve made it. I want to hear you tell me that I’m overreacting or being sensitive, or making generalizations based on “isolated incidents.” I want to hear your voice in my ear when I’m fearing for my life.
Without a doubt, however, being a law student at Columbia affords me a certain level of privilege. I have a voice that I might not have had otherwise. Still, I get why many of us are afraid to move, afraid to take up space, afraid to speak out and organize. Historically, society has not been kind to revolutionaries. It has not been kind to people who sympathize with the oppressed. But ask yourself, do you think those people would have traded their principles and sense of justice for their lives? Do you think Martin Luther King, Jr. would have ignored the sanitation workers in Memphis? Do you think that John F. Kennedy would have renounced a commitment to Civil Rights? Do you think Malcolm X would have ever accepted being told to live on his knees?
While I am Trayvon Martin, and #iftheygunnedmedown, they’d probably find the most controversial picture to attach to my existence, I am also Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells, and Charles B. Houston. Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. I am James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Charles Blow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. You could be Eric Kulberg, or Jack Greenberg, or Walter Reuther. You could be Joan Baez or Cesar Chavez. We could all be one of the people history remembers as helping to help win the war for the oppressed people of America.
What do we want the history books to say about how our generation responded to injustice? Do we want to be viewed as apathetic and impotent, or resourceful and diligent? Progress is a process. It’s not neat, sexy, or glorious, and it’s certainly not a discrete moment in time. “The Revolution will not be televised,” ladies and gentlemen. It will be shouted. It will be bled.