PRINT December 2013

Jared Sexton

Still from J. Cole’s 2013 video Crooked Smile, directed by Sheldon Candis.

THIS PAST SUMMER, J. Cole dedicated the video for his single “Crooked Smile” to the memory of Aiyana Stanley-Jones. In May 2010, Stanley-Jones was shot dead as she lay sleeping on her grandmother’s couch during a midnight raid conducted by the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team. She was seven years old. The video—for an otherwise uplifting song about resisting society’s relentless assault on the image and welfare of black girls and women—includes the depiction of a disturbingly similar police raid. After Cole laments that it “seems like half the race is either on probation, or in jail,” the video concludes with this modest appeal: “Please reconsider your war on drugs.”

US Attorney General Eric Holder, no doubt a J. Cole fan, announced in August that the “tough on crime” zeitgeist that has underwritten the largest prison buildup in the history of the world would now—presto—yield to a wiser “smart on crime” approach, though not, per President Obama, at the level of “some grand new federal program,” but merely within the discretionary parameters of the already ineffectual Department of Justice itself. Smart cops compliments of the people who brought us smart bombs.

The first generation of black voters wondered aloud whether they had achieved “nothing but freedom” through even the best efforts of Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. Given the relentless backlash against that second reconstruction otherwise known as the modern civil rights movement, and the still-widening racial wealth gap that the backlash helped produce, it is little wonder that the black constituents of the first black commander in chief, gathered together two weeks after Holder’s announcement, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, could not help but conclude that they had gained “a president . . . nothing else.” The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts had effectively gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act two months earlier.

The debut of Cole’s video coincided with the general release of Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station, which chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot and killed on an Oakland subway platform by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day 2009. “Crooked Smile” was also released in the season that witnessed the not-guilty verdict—widely expected, though no less outrageous—in the trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Less publicized was the contemporaneous trial of Detroit officer Joseph Weekley in the death of Stanley-Jones, which ended in a hung jury on June 18. His retrial on charges of “involuntary manslaughter” and “the careless discharge of a firearm causing death” is scheduled for this month.

Martin’s death and the earlier “officer-involved shooting” of Stanley-Jones reveal the same operative dynamic. In the rare instance that a police officer or surrogate is charged with a crime (or even subject to independent investigation) in the death of a black victim, the charges must diminish or deflect or deny the systematic nature of the lethal violence at hand. Moreover, the charges must entirely evacuate the aggression inherent in the prosecution of openly declared domestic warfare. In the case of Weekley’s trial, the effort to mitigate or deny culpability (the I didn’t mean to defense) quickly shifted toward a reversal of culpability altogether (somebody grabbed my gun and it went off). And in Zimmerman’s case, pursuit of the other morphed seamlessly into protection of the self. Standard operating procedure ad infinitum: Everything turns upside down—“Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” as the Red Queen put it—and a false debate ensues. “What were armed and dangerous state-sanctioned shooters doing there in the first place?” can never be asked.

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) reported earlier this year that in the United States a black person is killed nearly every day by someone directly employed or indirectly protected by the federal, state, or local government. The notorious “Stand Your Ground” laws—which, according to attorney Monte Frank, “empower ordinary citizens to act as vigilantes using lethal force”—have become emblems of a larger and more long-standing crisis of policing and prosecution, but their rollback, however welcome, would not save the day. Among other things, the law’s consistent rejection of black self-defense would still confront us. Consider, for instance, the cases of CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander, black women currently imprisoned for what would otherwise be called self-defense against gender and sexual violence.

Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station, 2013, 16 mm, color, sound, 84 minutes. Second from left: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). Standing: Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand).

What is at stake in documenting the casualties of “Operation Ghetto Storm” (to adopt MXGM’s sardonic term for such state-sanctioned violence) is neither the mission nor the morality of a Weekley or a Zimmerman or of the hundreds of other police officers, security guards, and vigilantes who each year take it upon themselves to end the lives of black people. Nor should this undertaking be understood, whatever conservative pundits may insist, as a distraction from the extraordinary rates of murder between civilians within many black communities (a situation that, to cite only the most pronounced example, has led some to refer colloquially to the Second City as “Chiraq”). Rather, what is at stake has to do with what enables all of this violence, and much more, to unfold as the normal state of affairs.1

From the dominant vantage, gun violence in many black communities is considered utterly banal, a point brought into stark relief by the official response, ongoing at the start of this year, to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in suburban Connecticut last December. Adam Lanza claimed twenty-seven victims, most of them young white children attending the first grade. Lanza was deranged, as it were, but his derangement prompted a national debate about mental health and gun control. We saw quite a different response to the shooting campaign in Southern California of Christopher Dorner in February and that of Aaron Alexis at the Washington Navy Yard in September, where the talk was all about enhanced security measures and stricter personnel management. The massacred students at Newtown might have been Stanley-Jones’s classmates, and yet tacit endorsement of the racial segregation ensuring that they would never have been neighbors in the first place—and thus ensuring that they would never be vulnerable to the same everyday violence—was the subtext of the somber pageantry, the half-mast flags, the moments of silence.

These general conditions moved Jamilah Lemieux, writing for Ebony about the September shooting death of former Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell, to declare that black folks are “BEING KILLED FOR EXISTING.” Not for walking or driving or breaking the law; not for failing to work productively or for lacking proper documents; not for inhabiting valued land or possessing scarce resources; not for subscribing to an ideology or adhering to a faith; not for doing any particular thing or being any particular place; but, rather, for being at all. (Lemieux’s resonant commentary should attenuate any optimism about the Federal District Court ruling in the stop-and-frisk case Floyd v. City of New York and the implementation of the Community Safety Act to countermand racial profiling by the NYPD.) 2 This killing, though often sensationalized, is characterized by its ordinariness, its almost mundane popularity. And while the political and economic relations of racial domination are maintained by way of public policy and private practice alike, they are motivated and rationalized by the habitual reproduction of blackface performance in fact or in effect—onstage, on-screen, online—and the dissemination of cultural memes like the “hilarious black neighbor” or the “Harlem Shake” or whatever mess Miley Cyrus is into lately.

Perhaps 2013 was the year when we could not help but see, again and still, why global antiblackness, the unlimited assault on the very being of black folks, matters centrally to everything else that counts as “race matters” on the present scene, here and abroad. I would suggest this is true across the historical series: from the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty among First Nations peoples in Canada to the October 8 March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect in Washington, DC; from the racist Twitter uproar over Nina Davuluri’s Miss America crown to the appalling critical acclaim for Kathryn Bigelow’s paean to American empire, Zero Dark Thirty; from the bombing of the Boston Marathon to the assassination of antiracist activist and rapper Pavlos Fyssas in Greece; from the escalation of drone warfare to the operational expansion of the United States African Command across that continent to the next site of “humanitarian” military intervention.

All of these developments, for better and worse, reformulate matters of sovereignty, security, amnesty, and assimilation. And in doing so, they demand that we conceive of democratic possibility—as well as issues of political and aesthetic representation generally—within the ethical horizon of justice and equality established most profoundly by the international abolitionist movement and nourished most productively by an ongoing black freedom struggle whose dream has always been the creation of another world entirely. That struggle’s antagonist—the general police power that is antiblackness—has long sought to squelch or sequester the essential and animating problems: What, if any, are the ends and means of governance? What are the nature and provenance of rights? What is a citizen or a subject? What is a person or a people? Above all, what is the meaning and what are the prospects of living in common?

Cristina de Middel, Iko Iko, 2012, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8". From “The Black Radical Imagination.”

In Los Angeles this past October, REDCAT showcased an exceptional collection of film and video shorts (curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George) under the heading “The Black Radical Imagination.” Among works by Cristina de Middel, Amir George, Jacolby Satterwhite, and others, perhaps the most striking was Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Clayton Daniels’s animation The Golden Chain, 2013, named after the Yoruba creation story. The Chicago-based Bodunrin describes the project as follows:

The African Woman: mother of civilization, historically overlooked member of contemporary global society. She finds herself now in a distant, not-impossible future. A Nigerian space station in a remote nook of the solar system orbits a pinpoint of matter so dense it cannot exist on Earth. It is a re-creation of the birth of the universe itself . . . in order to ask the question: “Where will we go, given where we came from?”

Indeed, that question, posed at the singular point where blackness and the universe are coextensive, might begin to answer Harry Belafonte’s far less modest appeal when accepting the 2013 NAACP Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American: It is imperative, he said, “that we stimulate more fully the concept and the need for radical thinking.” Stimulating the concept of radical thinking would seem challenge enough, requiring that we continually push for a robust understanding of events that gets to the root of things. The more daunting, and more interesting, charge here entails making a necessity out of virtue, willing the need for the black radical imagination, the not-impossible blackness of the future anterior—the careful attention and creative openness required for any and every transformation of who and what we are or might be or become.

Jared Sexton is an Associate Professor of African American studies and film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine.


1. Gross health inequality annually kills more black folks than are lost to homicide in an entire decade. See David Satcher et al., “What If We Were Equal? A Comparison of the Black-White Mortality Gap in 1960 and 2000,” Health Affairs 24, no. 2 (2005): 459–64. See also the 2008 California Newsreel documentary series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

2. See also Mychal Denzel Smith, “Ending Stop-and-Frisk, Keeping the Racism,” The Nation, August 13, 2013,