"Appalled" by James Foley's murder, the president has vowed to be "vigilant and relentless." Doesn't the murder of Mike Brown warrant his rage and vigilance, too?
On August 9, Darren Wilson, a police officer from Missouri’s Ferguson P.D., executed 18-year-old Michael Brown in broad daylight in the middle of Canfield Drive. The unarmed teen’s gray matter and blood pooled beneath him, baking into the sweltering pavement for four hours as his lifeless body lay curled in the fetal position.
As is typically the case when police officers brazenly commit murder, Wilson is White. Brown was Black.
Ten days later, a video of White, U.S. journalist James Foley allegedly being beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) sent shockwaves throughout the country.
James Foley’s death has been contextualized as an American tragedy, one that requires the nation’s collective outrage and patriotism. The murder of Mike Brown, however, and the revolutionary uprising and military-style occupation of Ferguson that followed, has been labeled by some as a local issue, a distraction to be pushed aside as we mourn a “slain American,” something apparently Brown is not.
The stark difference in reactions to these two murders by many Americans—one occurring in a predominately Black town on the outskirts of St. Louis and the other in what appears to be a desert—has been a study in White privilege and U.S. racism blanketed by the silence of those who claim to be on the side of truth and justice.
Foley, who had also been kidnapped in Libya in 2011, was last seen in Syria on November 22, 2012. Before the video of his alleged beheading was even verified, President Barack Obama preemptively said that he was “appalled” by Foley’s murder. The very next day he released a statement, which read in part:
“Jim Foley’s life stands in stark contrast to his killers. Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages—killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children, and subject them to torture and rape and slavery.
The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
The U.S. and U.K. are reportedly “close” to naming 23-year-old London rapper Abdel Majed Abdel Bary as James Foley’s alleged killer. This is as it should be: justice, swift, sure and unapologetic. What tends to be forgotten or ignored, though, as patriots place their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to good ole ‘Murica, are the names of known domestic terrorists who have also raped women and “harmed Americans.”
We know the names Thomas Merenda and Franklin Hartley, two Florida police officers who raped women during routine traffic stops. We know the name Daniel Ken Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer who sexually assaulted seven Black women while on duty. We know the name Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who placed unarmed Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold and held him there even as he gasped, “I can’t breathe” before he took his last breath.
We know the name Joshua Colclough, the Louisiana police officer who gunned down unarmed Wendall Allen, 20, after storming into his home on an unrelated warrant. We know the name of unarmed Oscar Grant’s killer, BART officer Johannes Mehserle, and unarmed Jonathan Ferrell’s killer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick.
We know the name Dante Servin, the Chicago police officer who murdered unarmed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. We know the name of Joseph Chavalia, the Ohio police sergeant who gunned down unarmed, 26-year-old Tarika Wilson while she was holding her 1-year-old son.
We know that these murders happened against a bloody landscape where a Black person is killed by law enforcement every 28 hours in Operation Ghetto Storm.
And we know the name Darren Wilson.
If the president truly believes that it’s “necessary” that terrorists who harm Americans be brought to justice, he is either astoundingly hypocritical or he joins the ranks of those who clearly don’t consider Mike Brown to be American.
Obama didn’t use Foley’s murder as a springboard from which to pathologize Whiteness by discussing the pervasiveness of White-on-White crime or the need for absentee White fathers to be better for their children. He did not foist his responsibilities off on Attorney General Eric Holder or First Lady Michelle Obama. He did not straddle the fence nor hide behind his Oval Office desk to avoid being a leader.
He addressed the alleged brutal act of terrorism, forcefully and immediately.
But right here in the United States, nine days after Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown, the president situated the domestic terrorism of police forces armed and trained to protect White supremacy within the flawed context of entrenched Black criminality.
“We’ve seen events in which there’s a big gulf between community perceptions and law enforcement perceptions around the country,” Obama said in regards to the uprising in response to Mike Brown’s murder and the relentless use of military force to silence protesters.
“This is not something new. It’s always tragic when it involves the death of someone so young.
There are young Black men that commit crime. And—and—and we can argue about why that happens because of the poverty they were born into or the lack of opportunity or the school systems that failed them or what have you, but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted because every community has an interest in public safety.
And if you go into the African-American community or the Latino community, some of the folks who are most intent on making sure that criminals are dealt with are people that have been preyed upon by them.
So, this is not an argument that there isn’t real crime out there and that law enforcement doesn’t have a difficult job. And you know, that they—you know, they have to be honored and respected for the danger and difficulty of law enforcement.”
Yes, he really said that. Before Michael Brown Sr. and Leslie McSpadden could bury their baby, while Officer Darren Wilson is being protected from prosecution, and rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash grenades rain down on the citizen of Ferguson, the President of the United States decided to speak hypothetically about crime in Black communities and the respect we all owe police officers.
In this pivotal moment, when a U.S. city is on fire with righteous rage and the Ferguson Police Department is swollen with unchecked power, for President Obama to suggest that officers have legitimate reasons to be fearful when coming in contact with Black men and women is one of the most reckless statements that I’ve witnessed a politician make on the national stage.
His loyalty and priorities are clear.
Though Obama has been accused of racial cowardice on more than one occasion, this reeks more of purposeful withdrawal and political expediency. Cowardice suggests that one hesitates to act out of fear. But it is not fear that is at play. It is apathy, impatience, and an overwhelming sense that he and other political colleagues, such as Hillary Clinton, feel inconvenienced by the call to shine the light on police brutality, institutionalized White privilege, and the flagrant dehumanization of Black and Brown bodies.
President Obama has repeatedly voiced his concern about gang violence. But we can’t talk about gang violence without talking about poverty, the United States government flooding communities with drugs and guns, then enacting harsher sentencing for those caught trafficking in the very things that were pushed into those communities—as opposed to jobs and better schools. We can’t talk about criminality without talking about how this country breeds criminals for the Prison Industrial Complex.
We can’t have a discussion about symptoms without addressing the root. More to the point, it is imperative that we do not allow the myopic and flawed narrative of “Black-on-Black” crime to replace or overshadow the blatant, state-sanctioned murder of Black people and to be mindful of who it serves when we do.
Tragically, in a country where enslaved Black people were once considered 3/5th human, President Obama’s tone-deaf words and inaction are in keeping with the shameful legacy of both institutionalized and internalized racism in the United States.
And he is not alone.
The silence of purveyors and appropriators of Black culture on the murder of Mike Brown and the military-level occupation in Ferguson lends credence to the wise words of comedian Paul Mooney:
“Everybody want to be a nigga but don’t nobody want to be a nigga.”
During the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday evening, that seminal celebration of Black culture wrapped in White aesthetic, Chicago hip-hop artist and activist Common led a moment of silence for Mike Brown and for peace.
There was no mention of police brutality or the war zone that Ferguson has become as police officers assault peaceful protesters with weapons of war. Instead, talk of revolution was centered solidly within the hip-hop community, absolving the larger White audience of any responsibility while simultaneously allowing them voyeuristic access to what it means to be Black in America.
The network also aired a 15-second clip that was created to allegedly raise awareness on the situation in Ferguson and the daily reality of Black bodies navigating the world as targets.
The rallying cry of the Ferguson movement—“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”—could faintly be heard as the following James Baldwin quote appeared on the screen:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Is that right?
Well, then, here are a few facts that need to be faced.
Solidarity is not reducing Black pain and relentless police brutality to a 15-second spot to be played between Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
Black humanity is not something that can be saved through the equivalent of a Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty commercial.
White tears do not cleanse Black rage.
And while MTV is patting itself on the back for giving a damn, no doubt awaiting their thank-you cookies, Black people in this country are being maimed, raped, and murdered with impunity. Our flesh is being desecrated until nothing but dry bones remain.
Support for our right to live, simply to live, should not be dependent upon having our hands up in surrender. It should be present even when, especially when, we have our fists up in revolutionary rage.
That is what needs to be faced. We have earned the right to live and love in this country, to stand and inhabit space without the fear of our children being slain because their Blackness is perceived as a threat.
Ironically, so many of our unarmed boys—Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown—were murdered by racist cowards after leaving convenience stores. And it is the social and political inconvenience of respecting the sanctity of Black life in this country that has silenced those who claim to be allies while the beheading of James Foley has been declared something that must be avenged by any means necessary.
In this defining moment, it is crystal clear whose lives matter more.
And we will not forget.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. Please consider supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism by becoming a member. When you join, you’ll be entered to win a copy of Robin Marty’s new book, “Handbook for a Post-Roe America,” As a member, you’ll have access to our members-only newsletter and exclusive content. And we’re sending you some swag too. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps us continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.