"Let me inform you of who I am. I do not participate in any of you guys’ side laws or any of that. I do not participate in it."
I watched the video of Korryn Gaines’ traffic stop arrest in awe. Korryn literally refused to participate in the police state, and I’d never seen anything like it.
Korryn repeatedly asked the officer who he was, what authority he had over her, and where that authority came from. (She never received as satisfactory answer- because, as I touched on in Part I, the authority of this officer sits on nothing but centuries of genocide, centuries of slavery, centuries of theft, and present day threats of violence.)
She refused to use the framing and language of the police state we have all been trained to use: "Sir. You’re tryna steal my car, and you’re telling me that if I don’t get out the car, you’re going to kidnap me, and probably planning on kidnapping my kids too."
In saying “kidnap” instead of “arrest” and “steal” instead of impound, she challenged the idea of the police as greatly different than other group of armed and organized people who impose their will on communities.
Since Korryn saw the authority of the US police as illegitimate- which is fully reasonable- and since she also saw them as non-exempt from the perception and treatment she would give any other group of armed people attempting to exercise their will upon her…. when she looked at the police she just saw 3 armed men, who were part of an organized group that had been after her for months, who stole her tags, and were now trying to take her car.
“Why would I get out of my car? Why would I allow y’all to steal my car? WHY?!”
It was as if, instead of engaging with a known state actor on a street in 2016 who was saying he was going to take her car, Korryn was a woman in 1758 who had just encountered a white man in the forest for the first time, and the white man was trying to tell her that he had the authority to take her dog because King George II said so.
I so often hear scholars and organizers imploring us to “decolonize your mind!” But how many of us are brave enough to actually do it? To literally refuse to mentally participate in the frame, the language, the cognitive control of the police state? To take our minds there, to the height of resistance?
This is important. If, over something petty- like oh you from this block and we heard you was walking around on this other block, you know that’s not allowed- a gang (who had previously hurt her and caused her to lose a child!) busted into Korryn’s house talmbout “We’ve come to abduct you, let us in!” And she was like "Naw." And held her kids close and pulled out her rifle to defend her home. And said “If y'all dont leave me alone I'm gonna kill you.” Folks would be out here like wow so brave. So strong. So motherly. But because it the armed group of people were police, and the petty infraction were legal misdemeanors, and the abductors were taking her to jail... Korryn is crazy, she’s extreme, she’s a bad mother.
In reality, the thing that is extreme and bizarre in the American police state. This is an institution that was literally born out of Indian patrols and slave catchers. It’s authority was established via genocide, slavery, and theft. Any social contract that established it, and saw citizens agree to give it power in exchange for the service of “safety” was agreed to at a time when black people had no vote and no power as citizens, when we did not count as full human beings. That social contract has been re-ratified over and over again in, as we are seeing this election cycle, a political system where (when we are even allowed to vote) black people have no real choice. And the power this institution has today is backed up only by that social contract, by violence, and by the threat of violence. Yet, in the post- apocalyptic existence of the American Negro, we are expected to recognize, defer to, be grateful for, and praise the authority of this institution as though it were something we were ever meant to survive.
I believe that Korryn saw this whole set-up as bizarre. I believe she felt that pretending it isn’t bizarre and going along with policing meant engaging in a dangerous charade. And I believe she saw participating in the charade as antithetical to her freedom, and therefore refused to do so. That doesn’t make her crazy or foolish- that makes her a visionary, it makes her not of this time. It makes her a black girl who visited us from the future- a future where the police state has been dismantled and the world of today is recognized as the bizarre social landscape that it is.
Korryn Gaines was a freedom fighter, and she taught me.
PART I. KORRYN GAINES, THE STATE'S SPECTER OF DEATH, AND THE SHAM OF AMERICAN POLICING
Korryn Gaines was a freedom fighter, and she’s taught me so much from just one one video. In a twenty minute filmed interaction where she encounters the police after being pulled over for not having valid tags on her car, Korryn makes it plain that there is absolutely nothing undergirding our police or their authority except violence and the threat of it.
Korryn: They not gonna steal my vehicle, and they not gonna kidnap me the way they think that they are. They’re gonna have to kill me today.
Officer: Nobody wants to kill you over an uninsured vehicle.
Korryn: That is exactly what you guys wanna do.
Korryn was right. The state had seized her tags, and she believed they had been seized illegitimately so she felt no need to exit her car and have it be taken from her. Because she was not going to exit her car, she knew she would be arrested. Because she felt no need to give up her freedom that day (see Part IV), she was not going to be arrested willingly. And because she was not going to willingly allow herself to be arrested, she knew she was facing potential death. See, the way our policing system set up….
a. Armed strangers approach you and tell you you need to do or stop doing something
b. You do whatever the armed strangers say, or they attempt to arrest you
c. If you resist against the strangers’ attempts to take you away and hold you against your will, they taze you, beat you up, or kill you.
This if-then sequence must proceed accordingly, no matter how petty the original order from the police. It must to proceed this way under our system of policing because, paradoxically, violence and murder are the police’s foundational tools for keeping law in order in our society.
And because America believes that it is essential for every infraction to be punished in some way or else our society will quickly unravel. And because America believes that the authority of the police must be maintained at all costs, even if it means they must kill someone in the process of making the person do what they want- lest that authority (which again is grounded only on violence) be diluted or delegitimized and the police become unable to keep us “safe.”
It is hard, under these beliefs, for us to imagine a different way of enforcing laws and keeping society running. We shrug and say “Well but we need people to do what the police say. Law and order has to be maintained at some point,” and the unspoken ending to that sentence is “by any means necessary.”
Death then becomes a reasonable, rational, justifiable, and legal consequence for any infraction. For driving without tags. For jaywalking. For selling loose cigarettes. For walking down the street minding your business and rejecting a stop and search.
Korryn knew this. She knew that her defiance and unwillingness to participate in what she called the “criminal fuckin activities” of the police during a traffic stop was punishable by death, and she called it out. She was saying she knew society accepts that in order to preserve law and order generally, the death penalty is a valid consequence for doing petty crimes but wanting to remain free. She was saying she knew society accepts that living under the state’s specter of death is a sacrifice we must make to live in “safe” communities.
And she was saying that is a sham.
Korryn Gaines was a freedom fighter, and she taught me.
On Hegemonic Grief
I saw some trends I saw this weekend on my newsfeed. This is a conglomeration of dozens of different conversations I saw. Peep the difference.
A good number of Black people:
“Do not judge me for sharing in the grief of France. I also grieve with Lebanon and Palestine and the people of Syria, I grieved with Kenya and Charleston too. Surprise, I am a multidimensional person capable of holding numerous griefs simultaneously and grasping nuanced analysis. And also being excited about Patti Pies.”
Way too many white people:
“I mean, yeah. A lot of white people, and american/western people, and non-Muslim people openly grieve for attacks like the Paris attacks, but fail to publicly extend empathy when attacks like these happen in non-Western countries or to predominantly black brown or Muslim people. But my goodness.... they shouldn't be judged for their grief!!! Their posts (persistent recognition of only some people's humanity) should definitely not be shamed. I mean that's just low. And harsh. Pointing out white supremacist colonialist islamophobic mentalities is harsh. It is more important to not be harsh than it is to make someone aware of how painful it is to see their grief land on the privileged side of the die, and how fucked up their words and actions are, and how those words and actions hurt oppressed peoples.
And right now, when two connected attacks just happened in Paris and Beirut and received differential shows of solidarity, is not the time to discuss differential shows of solidarity. I don't know when the time would be other than when the differences in solidarity are most glaring, but this is not it! People are grieving!
I like peace. And unity. I like peace and unity.”
Do not confuse these sentiments to be the same. The first is an argument for humanity’s expansive capacity for empathy and solidarity. The seconds argues that words or actions should go unjudged if, at the same time they are displays of white supremacy and colonialist thought, they are also expressions of genuine and well intentioned grief. Never let that shit rock.
Never. In the midst of manhunts for missing white Canadians, scream out the names of #MMIW, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women who are forgotten. As huge crowds that were absent for black cis and trans women suddenly appear to march in the streets when the next black cis man is killed by police yell #SayHerName at the top of your lungs. When tears flow freely onto smiling pictures of assassinated American journalists but only graphic images of shorewashed Syrian infants can trigger tears for refugees, cry foul. CRY OUT CRY OUT for those at the intersections, for those at the margins of global and national societies, for those whose humanity is hard for those in power to wrap their minds around. CRY OUT, even if your cries come at the same time as collective mourning for those a little closer to the center, and even as you participate in that collective mourning.
If people tell you that you are shaming the aggrieved say sorry not sorry, I believe we can do better, be better, grieve better so yes, shame on white supremacist grief. Shame on colonialist grief. Shame on patriarchal grief. Shame on islamophobic grief. Shame on cisheteronormative grief. Shame shame shame, for our hegemonic grief is killing people. Our inability to see the other as worthy of our groans is killing people.
And if they tell you that your critiques are valid, but that you should say them more gently? That you should be less harsh when you express your disappointment (with others and with yourself too) at the seeming insignificance of some people’s pain? That we can get dominant people to see oppressed people as human by hugging them and saying please softly? That you should wrap your anger in sugar and spice to make it easier to swallow? Say fuck. that. noise. and keep pushing yourself and those around you to do better, because we can do better, even when are are at our most grief stricken, our most shocked, our most emotionally broken and vulnerable. Those might even be the times when it’s most important.
This is me trying to process, trying to share what I witnessed yesterday in Baltimore, trying to amplify voices. Mostly what I saw were young black people overflowing with pain, exasperated at their core, keenly aware of the structural violence they have been subjected to for their entire lives, and willing to do whatever they need to do to end it because everything else they have tried has failed. One young man said he is willing to die for liberation.
I met a young man who in one breath grieved #FreddieGray, said Freddie used to buy his son candy, and in the next breath lambasted tax policies that subsidize second home ownership for the rich "Who owns these houses? People who don’t live here, and buy them for cheap to get a tax break, then let them sit here boarded up." He talked about the problem of so many Baltimore police officers commuting into his neighorhood from the far suburbs. He stayed out at Monday night's uprisings as long as he could, until he had to go pick up his son. He said he's marched and that didn't work, he's boycotted and that didn't work, he's voted and that didn't work, and asked "So just what the hell am I supposed to do? But the police tryna tell us we can't have human emotion."
Another talked about looting, about its roots in economic despair. "I saw my people out here gettin toilet paper. TOILET PAPER. Because they need toilet paper to wipe their ass, to wipe their kid's ass. You gon send em to jail over toilet paper? .....I want a job. People want to take care of their families."
I saw a small business owner and her daughter, Asian Americans, sitting in the busted doorstep of their store. They said everything had been taken. It was sad. Even sadder, to me, and I promise you this is not hyperbole, is that the state of that store looked indistinguishable from some of the HOMES that the students we were delivering lunches too LIVE IN. I could not tell the difference between blocks that had been hit by riots, and blocks that had not; that is the level of economic violence people are living under. I am now even more flabbergasted by the questions of "Why are people destroying their own community?" Folks straight up told me "we don't own anything here" and it was crystal clear to me that communities had already been destroyed by poverty, by exploitation, by structural racism long before any riots connected to the murder of Freddie Gray. As Jamila Lemieaux said in Ebony yesterday, "Baltimore Been Burning."
There are war tanks roaming the streets in groups in the middle of the day, passing kids playing tag like it's normal, like any of this makes sense. There are SWAT teams taking over random residential streets just because they can, and elderly women with grocery carts stressing out trying to figure out how to get around them to get home. There are police harassing clean up crews of volunteers and city citizens; police would allow them onto the street and then 5 minutes later start advancing upon them, asking them "Why are you on my street?!", forcing them to move. There are helicopters flying over neighborhoods constantly, and the woman I spent the day with told me that it isn't because of the uprising, it's like that EVERY DAY, every regular ass day there are helicopters hovering over these citizens, surveilling them.
And in response: there are Baltimore heroes. There were churches opening their doors, and teachers knocking on their students doors to see if they had lunch.
There was Baltimore determination. I met a young woman who was shot by rubber police bullets on Monday night while standing in the crowd. She caught one in the back and one in the foot, and lost feeling in her toe. Still, she returned.
There was Baltimore bravado, self-affirmation. I heard a young man proclaiming loudly "They think we aint human cause I sell drugs? They think we aint human because we don't speak the King's English? We rejected that shit! And we are smart, smarter than ever. I know I'm smart." He pointed to the broken-windowed apartments across the street. "I grew up in those apartments. My momma was a crackhead. I been out here since I was 11 years old. Surviving." Another young man said, "Black brothers and sisters... we together out here against these police. I'm a liberator, I'm a revolutionary... I know my worth, I know my books because I study... What Malcolm X said?"
There was Baltimore resilience (resilience being, the things we do to bring ourselves joy during trauma)- two blocks down from one of the tank barricades someone had brought out a boombox. They Don't Really Care About Us was blasting, a neighborhood man known as "Michael Jackson" was performing, and at least 40 people had gathered and were dancing with him.
I really encourage folks to get as much of your news about Baltimore as you can from social media. Try to read updates from organizers on the ground, listen to the stories of those most affected. Because the whole frame of so much of the Baltimore coverage is just trash.