Aug 30 2014

Blackness, Churning Oppression and Militarized Urban Space

This is adapted from a previous post in light of recent and current events in Ferguson…

who anointeth the city with napalm? (i say)
who giveth this city in holy infanticide?
– “Elegy” by Sonia Sanchez

That justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
– “Justice” by Langston Hughes

[Are you raging still?]
– “Untitled” by Mariame Kaba

For too many people it probably felt like a movie. We are used to seeing paramilitary troops riding down city streets on the big screen. Most of us, however, would be surprised to witness such a scene in our neighborhoods. But starting on August 10, 2014 and lasting several days, many watched in horror as Ferguson, Missouri police launched repeated tear gas attacks against civilians followed by piercing LRAD sounds and rubber bullets. The victims of these police attacks were mostly peaceful protesters with a very small number accused of ‘looting’ local businesses.

by Corina Dross (

by Corina Dross (

For those of us who pay attention to policing in the U.S., these images were awful but unsurprising and certainly not new. It was infuriating and painful to watch the police assault from afar without recourse. I wasn’t sure if I was a witness or a voyeur as time passed. Maybe there isn’t a clear delineation between the two. I was glued to social media; it made me feel less lonely and alienated. Others were seemingly as angry and disgusted by what they were seeing as I was and that gave strange comfort.

My Godson had questions. He asked if the police were going to “attack” his city next. Reflexively, I replied: “No of course not?” and he was relieved. As the words left my mouth, I wanted to call them back. I knew that I was lying and for good reason. I want to protect him and to reassure him that he is and will be safe. I know that I can’t promise these things but it doesn’t stop me from lying. The truth is I know that the police certainly have and will continue to deploy all available weapons against an increasingly cowed populace because they can. It’s that simple. In fact, law enforcement has been training for such eventualities right under some of our noses for years.

On March 21st, 2013, some residents of the Ida Yarbrough Apartments experienced firsthand the increased militarization of their local police force. Residents were frightened and traumatized when police officers in camouflage pants and blue jackets fired blank ammunition and threw flash grenades as part of a training exercise near their homes. Some residents in the soon-to-be demolished housing project were not informed of the drill in advance. The training exercise even included fake blood.

One resident spoke to the local newspaper about the ordeal on condition of anonymity:

“We wake up to the sound the next morning of literally small bombs,” said an Ida Yarbrough resident and state worker, who spoke only on condition she not be identified. “All you could hear was ‘pop, pop, pop’ of an assault rifle, police screaming ‘clear!’ I really thought I was in the middle of a war zone — and I have a four-year-old.”

Another resident, Lauren Manning, took to Facebook to air her grievances:

This is the Albany Housing Authority, APD, US Marshals et al. letting me, my family, my neighbors, my community and every other poor or minority person know we don’t matter. Apparently they have been given permission to “train” right outside my house complete with full gear assault weapons tear gas flash grenades and marshal law. I live my life in such a way that my 2 children should never have to experience a raid. But through no other fault than living in housing we have been subjected to pretend warfare. Y don’t they train for urban warfare in Adam’s Park or the Crossings in Delmar. Or in their communities? I AM ENRAGED. AND U SHOULD B 2. This is not over. Atrocities happen when good people stay silent. Additionally the residents/guest of residents who wandered outside as usual were told to stay in their homes under threat of arrest for trespass where they hold leases or were invited by the leaseholder thus enforcing marshal law or at the very least unlawful imprisonment. #WAKEUP….WE R NOT EACHOTHER’S ENEMY!

Ms. Manning launched a petition asking HUD for redress in this matter. The police chief apologized for being “insensitive” and suggested that they chose the location for training because it was “realistic.”

As I’ve written before, the idea of black communities as “occupied territory” is not new. In her essay titled “Militarizing the Police: Officer Jon Burge, Torture, and War in the ‘Urban Jungle’” which appears in Stephen Hartnett’s edited volume Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann (2011) suggests that: “Americans, as domestic political unrest and the war in the jungles of Vietnam intensified during the late 1960s, increasingly referred to ‘urban jungles’ to organize their comments about the homefront (p.48).” Furthermore, she adds important information to our understanding of the history of law enforcement militarization:

“Urban areas had long been constructed as foreign, racialized spaces; once they were in open revolt, their struggles with state authority were easily interpreted with the same rhetorical devices used for insurgent populations abroad. Thus, it is not surprising that over time, more and more voices called for the state to use the same tools and techniques employed overseas to subdue allegedly dangerous spaces. And so, by the mid-to-late 1960s, domestic law enforcement agencies had begun to interpret the conditions in inner cities as wars and had begun to turn for answers to military training, technology, and terminology (p. 48).”

In the past, I’ve suggested that some rappers in the 1980s and 1990s likened their communities to “war zones” and the police to “an occupying force.” What I did not originally consider in my analysis was that these characterizations pre-dated them. Hausmann quotes Inspector Daryl Gates of the LAPD as saying that “the streets of America had become foreign territory” during the 1965 Watts rebellion. It turns out that modern rappers were responding to the conditions in their communities engendered by a war that had been declared decades earlier by the state. Around the same time that Inspector Gates was making his comments about Watts, black nationalists and other activists were describing themselves as inhabiting “colonies” within the United States and being “occupied people.” Here is a quote cited by Hausmann from Black Panther David Hilliard in his autobiography illustrating this concept:

“we’re a colony, a people with a distinct culture who are used for cheap labor. The only difference between us, and, say, Algeria, is that we are inside the mother country. And the police have the same relation to us that the American Army does to Vietnam: they are a force of occupation which will stop at nothing to keep us under control.”

Interestingly, the representatives of state power and their targets reinforced each other’s message that the inner city was “foreign territory.” Sadly by echoing the idea that the “ghetto” was a war zone (which reflected the perceived truth of their daily experiences in these communities), marginalized people were unintentionally reinforcing entrenched oppression. Within this context, it’s not difficult to imagine what happened in Albany, NY or in Ferguson, MO as being perfectly normal. It makes sense then that the police chief would consider the blighted housing projects of Albany as a “realistic” space to stage his training exercises. Where else would our militarized police forces “fight” their wars but in the ghetto inhabited by black & brown “enemy combatants?”

In an editorial in the New York Times about a lawsuit against stop & frisk in public housing, the presiding Judge suggested that these practices “had taken an emotional toll on many innocent tenants.” The editorial goes on to say:

She cited the testimony of Reginald Bowman, the president of a public housing resident leadership group, who compared life in the public housing projects under stop-and-frisk to a “penal colony” where law-abiding parents are set upon by the police while going to the store to get milk and cookies for their children.

Two days ago, at the ongoing NYC stop & frisk trial, State Senator Eric Adams testified that police commissioner Ray Kelly said that cops targeted black and brown people in particular because they wanted to keep guns off the streets. Kelly also “stated that he targeted or focused on that group because he wanted to instill fear in them that any time they leave their homes they could be targeted by police.”

All of these incidents convey that black people are threats that need to be controlled. They also belie our disposability. We are still non-persons, unhuman.  We live precariously. But what is also palpable in these incidents is fear: white people and the state’s fear of unruly/undomesticated/weaponized black bodies and also the fear that a history of terrorism has engendered in black bodies themselves. We are always unsafe living in our skin in this country. It’s a permanent condition.

This insecurity has historical roots dating back to slavery when “masters” used psychological control and torture as one of the primary tools for subjugating and pacifying black enslaved people. Limiting enslaved people’s ability to travel, to assemble, to move freely, these were among slaveowner’s obsessions. White masters feared that we would rise up in insurrection or that we would run. Both were unacceptable outcomes because as Walter Johnson pointed out in the New York Times, slaves were extremely valuable commodities. Our bodies had value to the white “Lords of the Land.” Our bodies underpinned their entire capitalistic enterprise. But today, black bodies are redundant labor. We are superfluous and are therefore expendable. After all, the unemployment rate for black male high school dropouts is now over 50%.

So our people are stopped, we are frisked, we are criminalized, we are targeted, we are invaded, we are jailed and we are killed. It’s all of a piece. It’s part of the ongoing “slow motion genocide” that shows no signs of abating. The machine grinds on and we struggle to identify one culprit but there isn’t just one. So many of us are afraid to speak the word. We are afraid to lay claim to it. It’s too awful to believe. No. It sounds too conspiratorial, too pessimistic, too alienating, too (something)… Yet there it is, at the forefront of our minds and on the tip of our tongues. When we are feeling brave and safe among those we love & trust we sometimes whisper the words: genocide…genocide… GENOCIDE.