In the cellphone video, Black Lives Matters protesters held hands up in a gesture of innocence as they marched. The screen spins, goes dark. Then screams. Then running. You don’t even hear the gunshots.
The news confirmed our fears. Micah Johnson, a Black military vet had targeted cops in revenge for police murders of Black people. He shot eleven, killed five and wounded two. He also killed an illusion. Carried away with the bodies was the mirage of indefinite impunity. If politicians refused to hold police accountable for terrorizing us, Black populist rage will spill out of the courts into protests. Spill again into riots. And find its way to a mind that sees violence as the answer.
The criminal justice system, created this massacre. The prosecutors, judges and grand juries that stonewalled the people’s demand for justice, spiked the temperature of the street until a man’s Rambo fantasies ignited. He wasn’t the first. He won’t be the last.
How to Read Fire
“What happens to a dream deferred,” Langston Hughes wrote in his poem Harlem, “Does it rot in the sun? Or does it explode?” In a few lines, he gave us the steam-valve theory of politics. Under the strain of unmet expectations for justice, people’s frustration builds until someone explodes.
In a video of the Dallas sniper attack, Johnson, ducked behind a pillar, waited for the cop to turn. He strode up, quickly and shot the officer down. Calmly, he walked to his next position. Hours later, when he was pinned in a corner and talking to police, he said he wanted to kill white people, especially white cops.
For the second time since Black Lives Matters, a Black vigilante has slain police. The first was in 2104, when Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot down two cops. Now, again, gunfire echoes through the headlines. An unease has soaked the nation like gasoline. Is this the future of race relations in America? Because it sure was its past.
Since the first slave revolt to the Ferguson riots, violence has been part of the Black resistance against white supremacy. What changed is the narrative frame we use to read it, before it was a white one in which it was a threat to civilization. Today, the frame we use is implicitly Black. Historical rebellion in the African Diaspora has become justified in our culture. The Haitian Revolution? The Enlightenment in practice. Frederick Douglass beating his overseer? Taught in public schools. Black Panthers shooting at police who shoot at them? Now a PBS documentary. Nat Turner’s uprising? A celebrated new movie.
Yet there is an inverse relationship between the recognition of Black people’s legitimate use of violence in the past and the panic it arouses in the present. The split is created by the position of our historical lens, which is a Black integrationist frame. Looking back, we can feel nostalgic for raw forms of resistance that are no longer possible. We’ll cheer Beyonce in Black Panther garb at the Superbowl or laud Jamie Foxx as Django in the movie. But actually take up arms? Against racists? No.
Why? The Black middle and upper classes are more integrated into the American mainstream than ever while also being at a great distance from the Black poor. The class divide is mirrored in the split between our past uses of violence and how outdated it seems now. Or how far, we think we’re beyond it. The “we” is implicitly a middle class “we”. Which means “we” can indulge in nostalgia but it’s the poor who relive it. They riot and burn buildings. College educated youth are celebrated for embracing political reformist goals. And for using, non-violent direct action techniques such as the die ins, blocking traffic, disrupting brunch and taking the microphone at rallies.
Black Lives Matters is the first post integrationist movement; it does not have a separatist, Pan African ideology like Marcus Garvey’s UNIA or the Nation of Islam nor a position on self-defense like the Black Panthers. Instead, it puts all its energy into changing existing institutions such as the criminal justice system with its Campaign Zero.
On tactical and moral levels, it makes sense. Unlike majority Black nations who were ruled by a small colonial elite, we in the U.S. are minorities. Violent resistance would have been met with a cataclysmic counter reaction. Which is what happened in Gabriel’s Conspiracy or Nat Turner’s Rebellion in which black rebels were decapitated, hung and burned alive. Also people don’t want to kill. Murder stains our souls. So mostly, we used non-violent protest and legal challenges and drove a white supremacist America to evolve into a multi-ethnic, democracy.
But the shift to peaceful, direct action in pursuit of integration came with a price. It meant subjecting oneself to brutality in hopes of eliciting empathy from the white majority. It meant slow, achingly slow change, whose benefits trickled down through new legislation into the already privileged.
After the semi-victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black middle class moved into enclaves as the Black poor and working class, were left to bear the brunt of mass incarceration. A growing divide pushed them apart. Racism is inflected by class, the lower you are the harder it hits. Police brutality in poor and working class Black neighborhoods was ever present and yet to the nation, seemingly invisible, until cellphone videos surfaced showing cops choking, stomping, punching and shooting.
But the criminal cops were freed by courts. The streets burst into flames. The violence that was safe to celebrate as the past, reemerged in the present. First as riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. Now as a sniper who stockpiled bombs in his home. The dream deferred, exploded again.
On websites like the Atlantic Black Star, a few hail Micha Johnson as a hero. “To some degree Micah Xavier Johnson is a hero to the blackman. I'm also tired of all the peaceful protests only to be killed like flies”, wrote Black Lantern.
Parallel to the Black Lives Matters movement is a subterranean river of corrosive hate. It’s real. It has a tradition. It has martyrs like Malcolm X. It has spokesmen like Malik Zulu Shabazz. It has Facebook pages like the African American Defense League.
The militant Black Radical fringe was never a real military threat to the nation. It was however a depository of rage. It was a side channel for spillover resentment. Today our anger rises again, fueled by the violence that is right in front of our eyes. Cellphone recordings show us racialized police violence in visceral ways. Seeing a video of a Black man or woman being killed by cops, forces us into the position of the victim. See the man being choked to death. See the woman being slammed on the ground. That could be me.
The deaths crystalize our non-lethal, harassment by the police as well as daily racial slights, insults, the second guessing and just plain fear that people of color live with constantly. It all gets focused and wherever our Blackness is, whether upfront in pride, buried under a paycheck, masked by “proper talk” and straightened hair, divided by national borders or a constant alarm ringing in our heads; when these video hit, they hit us there and it hurts. And so we protest. And nothing changes. And we protest again. Nothing changes. Again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Where do you turn?
Here is a radical militant tradition as old as the Amistad that says, essentially, fuck all that. You will never get justice unless you fight back, kill if you have to but one way or the other, defend yourselves. Which is why Johnson is a terrifying glimpse into a possible future. He seems to have made a rational choice based in the moral universe of one Black radical tradition.
He may be the first of more. The lone wolf model, the clandestine cell model has spread because the social conditions are here to support it. Isolated men can fall into the rabbit hole of the internet and find many grand-narratives of epic war. The grand-narrative magnify their pain into a sense of destiny with eliminationist rhetoric that focus their rage into action. And America being America, guns are easy to come by.
Johnson wanted to be a role model for future action. Yet what he did was deeply flawed. He did not target police who killed innocent Black people, he shot at whoever was wearing a uniform. In the name of vengeance, he killed innocent men. A crime to balance a crime. He left families broken and missing a loved one.
Secondly, you can’t change a system through assassination, the laws have to be changed and that means political organizing and building public consensus. He set the Black Lives Matters movement back by using bullets instead of righteousness. The most precious part of ourselves is our humanity, our ability to see ourselves reflected in others and to make that truth the basis of political action.
When we march peacefully as we’ve been doing forever. It’s not because we are afraid of losing a race war. We don’t want to kill because we want to stay human. We don’t kill because there’s enough pain in the world and hate won’t heal bigotry. And yet we are dying every day. And yet we have to forgive to live. And still we die.