*By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, May 15, 2020)
Last week, Plain Talk reported on Hilary Beckles’ call to raise the temperature in the battle to secure reparations. In these COVID-19 times, few readers may have paid attention to the importance of the issue.
However, a few Eurocentrics jump on me as they claimed, “attempting to revive a dead horse”. They dared to say that I was racist for continuously raising matters of race that affect the life chances of people of African decent.
If ever there was a reason we must never let the issue of genocide, the enslavement of Africans, the retarding tragedy of colonialism and the continued dehumanisation of black people which is fuelled by racism fade from our consciousness, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, United States, for the crime of jogging while black, is a grim reminder.
Last week, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged Ahmaud Arbery’s killers with murder and aggravated assault. There can be little doubt that, without the viral spread of a video capturing Arbery’s harrowing final moments, no such charges would have been brought.
Seventy-three days before the charges were laid, Arbery, 25, was shot dead hunted by a white father and son in a truck.
Over two months had passed, and no charges had been filed by the local district attorney’s office. Within a day of the video surfacing, garnering millions of views and provoking mass outcry, the GBI began its own investigation. A day later, Gregory McMichael, a former investigator with the Brunswick district attorney’s office, and his son Travis were arrested and booked into jail.
It took the intolerable spectacle of a black man’s execution in public view, spread far and wide, for the state to consider — or be compelled to consider — even the possibility of consequences for those who so readily took his life. Why do we need to exhibit and share the brutal death of a black man for it to be asserted that he was murdered? Why is it still necessary that the world see a black life violently cut short for any institutional recognition that black lives should matter?
When Gregory and Travis McMichael saw a black man jogging in their quiet neighbourhood, it’s difficult to imagine that they saw a human whose life would be registered as a loss if taken. Instead, they saw a criminal threat, grabbed their guns, and gave chase. When the police and prosecutors originally in charge of the case said that there was “insufficient probable cause” for arresting the killers, and that Travis McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself” against the unarmed victim, they asserted that Arbery’s life was not a life worth preserving.
It was not enough for his family to demand justice. Millions of people had to bear witness to the extreme footage of a lynching and to demand action, for the state to begin to register that Arbery’s life had value. Yet Black people are told to forget and move on.
The murder of Arbery graphically demonstrates that a black person could be innocently going on with their life and be cut down by racist police or white citizen terror.
The series of events captured in this video confirms what all the evidence indicated prior to its release, yet the state refused to arrest and charge the murderers.
We have been here before. The fact that the McMichaels have been charged is no assurance the state will find them guilty. The racist logic of Georgia’s “stand-your-ground” laws may well determine that the father and son were justified in claiming self-defence against the black man they pursued. We know by now that the white men in these cases get to be the “self” deemed worthy of defence; Arbery was accorded no such selfhood, no such presumption of a life worth defending. Video evidence does not change that.
We watched Philando Castille bleed out in his car after he was shot by a cop, as his desperate girlfriend filmed; we watched Eric Garner gasping for breath as a New York police officer choked the life out of him; we watched Tamir Rice, aged 12, being gunned down by police as they leapt from their cruiser. None of the cops in these filmed killings was convicted. Videos of black people being summarily executed are hardly rare. And hardly ever do killer cops and racist vigilantes face significant consequences.
White people do not need video footage to establish their humanness. They are presumed, human. Sadly, the institutional dehumanisation of black life requires their loved ones and justice advocates to publicise the most brutal images of murdered black people to demand that those lives be recognised and valued?
So little has changed. In 1955, Mamie Till insisted on an open casket to show the murdered, brutalised body of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, who was lynched after being falsely accused of inappropriate flirting with a white woman. “Let them see what I have seen.” Images of his battered face circulated in magazines and newspapers; thousands of people visited his open casket. The two white brothers who beat him to death were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The circulation of intolerable scenes of brutality against black people remains necessary. Without it, there is rarely public and official recognition that the taking of black life, simply because of the person’s blackness, is an injustice. Yet such recognition is no assurance of justice. Indeed, even if the McMichaels are found guilty of murder, this cannot be called a circumstance of justice. There can be no justice while the conditions for racist lynchings persist, while black communities are forced to share the most violent images of what happened to their loved ones to assert that their lives mattered.
Let them continue to hurl the racist charges at us. Let them continue to say we are stuck in the past. We know that only when the white power system of racism, oppression and exploitation pay reparations for their crimes of genocide and enslavement, colonialism and racist terror committed against African people’s will they see us as human and treat us as human.
Until that day comes, the struggle for our very survival must continue. Now more than ever is the time to raise the temperature.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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