All violence is not created equal. One day we hear of yet another black person killed by a cop and the next we read of a black man ambushing police officers. Many of us feel comfortable denouncing both as equally tragic: at the end of the day innocent people died and we mourn all loss of life. It’s a travesty that a black man was killed and an equally terrible thing that officers were killed. To me, though, this can’t be the final word. It’s not an apples to apples comparison.
We know how the story will end for the trigger-happy cop who kills a black man. At best, a Grand Jury will review the situation, then the cop will eventually walk away from it all with no real punitive action taken against him. For all intents and purposes, not only are the cops innocent until proven guilty, but there’s actually no recourse for proving them guilty. When officers are killed, on the other hand, the situation is quite different. The gunman and all parties involved will most definitely be put on trial and the case aggresively tried by the state, and we all have a pretty good idea how it will end: that the gunman will be punished to the full extent of the law.
All violence is not created equal, and I think that when we pretend it is, we do a grave disservice to the most vulnerable, to those who have no recourse for justice in a court of law. In light of the imbalance, let’s call this what it is: it’s state-sponsored violence. It’s a violence that disproportionately hits the poor — black and white — but of all the state-sponsored violence, people who are black receive the brunt of it, proportionally.
I’m not saying that I don’t mourn the deaths of the officers, but what do we expect? President Obama commented on the ambush of Dallas police officers by saying, “there are no possible justifications for these attacks or any violence towards law enforcement.” Debate that point one way and then the other, but I think it misses a greater truth, the brute reality that violence begets violence. State-sponsored violence will beget more violence. It’s an old biblical truth. We can funnel more power to the government and give our officers more guns, but it won’t change the fact that we reap what we sow, and as the black bodies pile up and the videos continue to stream, it’s important to make distinctions and to look at the cause and effect of all the carnage. The ultimate responsibility must lie with the abuse of power on the part of the powerful.
We live in very strange times here in the United States. Despite how much we’ve progressed, despite generations and generations of “civilizing,” and despite how technoligically and intellectually sophisticated we’ve become, we continue to see case after case of abuses by the powerful that go unpunished and almost completely unchecked — from the sanitized offices of financial profiteers whose unbridled greed crashed our economy to the concrete streets and urban sidewalks where cops are able to kill with virtual impunity. It goes to the very top, to the White House itself where a President can enter into two ill-advised wars overseas, drain the treasury of the nation, spill the blood of his citizens (to say nothing of the death count and instability created overseas), and when it’s obvious that it was all for naught, we shrug and move on. Bush lied, people died. So what?
Abuses of power continue to occur, unchecked, and for the powerful the bar is much lower, and legal accountability is sometimes completely absent. It’s time to change our thinking on this, it’s time to flip that paradigm. With greater power comes greater responsibility. This is why all violence is not created equal. It’s also why we need to work to mobilize the public in opposition to the lack of accountability among the powers-that-be. It’s all or nothing. United we stand, divided we fall. We can’t pick and choose on this. That’s how the powerful continue to get off the hook, time and time again.
Things don’t have to be this way. I believe that, but all violence is not created equal, and the fault for all of this lies with the powers-that-be in our world who are not held to account for the chaos and violence that they create. This, in turn, creates the conditions for more violence to arise.
For the rest of us, real change begins and ends with us, with our solidarity, with the sense that we are all in this together, and that the culture and society we wish to create is one in which people come into powerful positions with great reluctance, knowing that they are held to a standard as great as the power and position that they hold.
The Presidency of Obama has done nothing to change the violence and chaos in the world. If anything, things have gotten worse. As Zoe Heller recently put it, “his administration has coincided with the most drastic decline in the economic fortunes of African-Americans since World War II…By any metric you care to mention — home ownership rates, unemployment rates, incarcertaion rates — the quality of African-American lives has either remained the same or sharply deteriorated during Obama’s time in office.”
Most of us can see the writing on the wall: we know that neither Clinton nor Trump will substantially change things or work to flip the paradigm and hold the powerful to account. Obama may be a well-intentioned leader who has simply failed in his quest to bring hope and change, I can’t say I have as high a view of either Clinton or Trump — I think they are both in it to win it, motivated by the desire for power — but whatever may or may not be true for Clinton and Trump, our current political reality should give us all the more reason to own the fact that we are the ones we are waiting for, and it should give us all the more energy to work from the ground up in solidarity.
** Zoe Heller quote from “Hillary & Women,” in The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016.