The deeply disturbing news that North Miami Beach police officers used mug shots of several black men for target practice is, simply put, absolutely disgusting. The action of these officers is deplorable and this behavior should be condemned by all people of good conscience.
But the issue at hand here is bigger than this case, these individual officers, or this particular police department. What we are dealing with is yet another example of the systematic de-valuing of black life that takes place in this society on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is that the system is always using us for target practice.
When these types of stories come to light there is always an attempt by defenders of the status quo to eschew the idea that something is fundamentally wrong in this country. We are usually told that the theft of black life by the hands of police, other state institutions, or armed vigilantes is perfectly justifiable. This was the message delivered by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the non-indictments of the officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
In the case of the North Miami Beach Police Department, the Chief claims that there is nothing wrong with using black people’s faces for target practice. While most people, including many police officers, may denounce this act of blatant racism, we should not limit our criticism to the North Miami Beach Police Department (though they are certainly deserving of our outrage). What happened here in South Florida points to the deeper logic of white supremacy that is interwoven into the very conception of criminality and policing in America.
The idea of using photographs of black people for target practice is only possible within a context in which black skin is associated with deviant, criminal, and violent behavior. From the time our brains are capable of interpreting social cues, we are taught that it’s usually someone with a black face that is trying to get over, take what’s not theirs, or threaten the lives and property of other people. These messages are constantly reinforced through movies, television, and news media.
More importantly, the stigmatization of black people is solidified in policies that keep us at the bottom of nearly every quality of life indicator and result in our extreme over representation in the legal and incarceration system. Until the very foundations of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation are dismantled, black communities will remain pinned at the bottom of the American social hierarchy. Meanwhile, these cases of racial bigotry and police abuses will pop up to punctuate what is a steady current of disregard for our welfare.
It’s fitting that this story came to light on the eve of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In 1967, in his final speech as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King warned that it would not be enough to simply integrate black people into the existing system. He understood that the deep issues facing black communities would not and could not be addressed simply by gaining the right to vote or making racial discrimination illegal. Dr. King recognized that our movement “must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.” He called into question the very legitimacy of an edifice that reproduces so much suffering despite having nearly endless resources at its disposal.
As we reflect on where we are in 2015, and look back on the state of the struggle during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, we see that while much has changed, the basic structure of American society has remained the same.
But we are living in exciting times when the prospect of deep change has fire and energy. Our movements are putting people into the streets and raising demands in ways many of us have never seen before. Our generation is calling for an end to state violence. We are calling for fair incomes and dignity at work. We are calling for climate justice. We have declared unapologetically that Black Lives Matter.
Superficial policy fixes will not quell our thirst for liberation. Nor will the firing of a few “bad cops.” In the spirit of Dr. King, the thousands of radicals that came before him, and the thousands that have come since, we are calling for the transformation of America. Anything less and we shall proceed, in the words of Dr. King, with a “divine dissatisfaction.”
“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.”
And might we add: Let us be dissatisfied until Black Lives Matter, until the targets come off of our backs, and until all people are free to live their lives in dignity and prosperity.
Ruth Jeannoel is Lead Organizer, Power U Center for Social Change.