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© Documenting Ferguson

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The Victims of Police Lethality

by Dr. Christen Smith
June 25, 2020

This interview with Dr. Christen Smith, anthropologist and author, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Would you introduce your work a bit?

Dr. Smith | I'm an anthropologist. I study African diaspora communities and African diaspora anthropology. I completed my dissertation work on the use of theater as a form of social protest in the Black community in Brazil. I mention that because that work actually led me to look at police violence more specifically. Originally, I was interested in how theater and poetry impact the Black identity. However, when I first visited Bahia, the people I met from the Black community told me, “That's not our issue. You need to write about how we are suffering from racial violence." So I started to work with the theater group Choque Cultural, which did a play about antiblack racism in Brazil and its insidiousness. It focused a lot on police violence and police raids and stop and frisk. From there, I developed a theoretical critique of the relationship between the celebration of Black culture in Bahia and the killing of Black people in Bahia. There is a dialogic and clear relationship between these two things: the actual celebration of Black culture is dependent on the subjugation of Black people.That's the basis of my first book, Afro-Paradise, which focuses on police violence from a performance studies perspective. 

Afro-Paradise considers the ways that police violence repeats itself through time and space, and frames police violence as a performative enactment of the state and it's antiblackness. This frame shapes how I understand police terror, and particularly its transnational dimensions.

Police terror is, to me, a performance and a performative act. It iteratively brings the State into being, by enacting the State on the Black body over and over again.

This resonance has everything to do with the roots of policing: slavery in the Americans.

Slave patrols are the generative moment of policing across the Americas. When you realize that, you realize that antiblackness is deeply embedded in the structure of policing in our modern era, in this hemisphere.

The historical relationship between modern policing in the Americas and slave patrols changes how we must think about what to do in moments like this, when an officer kills someone like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. If you understand that antiblack police killings are repeated acts that are embodied, that are worn and taken off and put on, that are used by the state in order to constitute the state, then you start to be able to demystify some of the misconceptions that society widely holds about how and why these killings occur. 

I believe there are three main fallacies that we need to undo in order to earnestly begin to address the crisis of antiblack police terror. The first is the assumption that the problem of police violence is interpersonal racism. Many in this country believe that racist attitudes and beliefs cause antiblack police terror. I believe that is one of the reasons why, despite increased political attention on the question of antiblack policing, we have failed repeatedly to be able to solve this issue despite the best efforts of many. Teaching people the police about diversity and inclusion, or even teaching them to be anti-racist, will not eradicate antiblack police terror. Interpersonal relations and personality flaws are not the root of this problem. Policing as we know it is structurally defined by its relationship to anti blackness as a fundamental, guiding logic. Antiblack terror persists as a fundamental logic of policing because it is the ideological frame of policing. I use that word, ideological, very deliberately. The concept of structural racism does not sufficiently address the deeply embedded belief system that normalizes police terror. 

Police officers are, implicitly and explicitly, ideologically invested in antiblack policing. Violent behavior emerges from this antiblackness, and it cannot be rooted out by a simple change of opinion. If you fundamentally look at a Black person and do not see a human being, you can't just change a policy and fix policing.  

Another fallacy that I believe undermines our ability to move forward in this conversation on police terror is the assumption that antiblack policing is an issue unique to the U.S. and its history of violence, and antiblackness. It is not. In my book, I map the interchange between policing in Brazil and policing in the United States. These policies, and these actions are in dialogue. One of the things that struck me with George Floyd's death was the similarity between the way that Officer Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, and the ways that police officers in Brazil use similar bodily positions to enact terror in Black communities across Brazil. In my book I analyze a series of pictures of police officers stepping on Black men's heads in Brazil. For example, in 2007 a police officer in Salvador, Bahia stepped on a Black man’s head on the beach and pointed a gun to his back because a Spanish tourist had accused him of stealing. This picture bears an uncanny resemblance to another picture taken by photographer Luiz Morier in 1997 in Rio de Janeiro or another police officer stepping on a young Black man’s head in a favela in Rio de Janeiro--an image that also echoes a famous image entitled “Todos Negros” that Luiz Morier took in 1983 of a group of Black men being rounded up by a police officer by their necks in Rio de Janeiro. 

Todos Negros   blog

This resonance is one reason why I use performance theory to analyze transnational antiblack police terror as a choreographed performance. That kneeling/stepping action is something that you can identify in these different spaces. Or, to use a different metaphor, it is not that history repeats itself, it's that it rhymes. Police terror rhymes across time and space. So you have João Pedro, a 14 year old boy who was sheltering in place, being shot and killed in Rio a couple of weeks ago. And then you have George Floyd and then you have Breonna Taylor.

Which brings me to the third fallacy, which is the idea that this is just about Black men. I don't like the phrase "police violence disproportionately impacts Black men," because I don't think that's true. Statistically it is true. Statistically, when we count the number of bodies laying on the ground because of police terror, Black men are more often killed by the police than anybody else in this country. However, this statistical fact is the result of the way we chose to count. We measure police lethality by body count, but what if instead we also measure its lingering impact over time? My most recent work looks at why we need to disrupt the idea that body count--counting only those who die immediately from bullets, tasers, batons and knees-- is the most accurate way to measure the impact of police violence/police terror. I push back on this method of measurement because I believe that if we change our perception of time in relationship to police lethality (immediacy v. eventuality) what we will find is that Black women are disproportionately dying over time.

Black women are dying in the aftermath of their children being killed by the police, or their loved ones being killed by the police. They are also the victims of police lethality. 

An example would be the death of Erica Garner who passed away tragically in 2017. Many people think of her death as the result of maternal mortality, which is true. However, we cannot discount the biological impact that we know that the specific stress of racism has on Black women's lifespan and their life expectancy. For example, we know that the stress of racism biologically ages Black women faster, causing premature death. If everyday racism is a stress factor that leads to maternal mortality among Black women, imagine the stress factor of losing a loved one to police violence. Imagine the stress factor of losing a loved one to police terror and having to watch that loved one die over and over again on television, on social media.

A 27 year old woman dying of a heart attack after having a baby is abnormal. Did Erica Garner have heart problems? Yes. Did she have other health complications? Absolutely. But why don't we think about police violence as another preexisting condition? I argue that if we do that, we will find that Black people generally are disproportionately likely to die because of police violence, Black women in particular. I think that police violence is impacting the health of Black women in ways that we have only begun to imagine. And I think that the deaths of people like Kalief Browder's mother Venida Browder, the death of Erica Garner in the wake of her father Eric Garner's death, the death of Atatiana Jefferson's mother and father in the wake of her killing. This gets repeated over and over again.

People are talking about how the protests will have impacted the Coronavirus crisis and whether or not we're going to see a spike over the next few weeks. Let’s also pay attention in these next two months to whether or not we're going to see a spike in heart attacks, strokes, anemia and any other depression related diseases and deaths of people close to those who have been killed by police.

I also read that Erica Garner struggled to find mental health support, another insidious component to this is the lack of resources available from the state, to people suffering from the hand of the state. 

Absolutely. It is a tragedy of justice that somebody like Erica Garner does not have mental health covered by the state that killed her father. That should be automatic. We need to start thinking about the public health impact of these killings beyond the immediate tragedy that focuses our attention. I want to draw people's attention to the fact that these stories have a media shelf life, and it's a very short one. Once that shelf life expires, people stop paying attention to these family members. They stop taking care of these family members. Organizers take care of them, sometimes, but not always. The families of the victims of police killings are not being cared for consistently and we are not making concerted attempts to measure the impact of these killings on these families’ lives. We don't know how many mothers and sisters and girlfriends and wives have died because of these killings. We just have no complete picture. As a qualitative anthropologist, I can tell you stories, but we need a national, comprehensive, public health understanding of the total effects of these killings. 

We struggle to grapple with the dimensions of police terror within our current parameters. When I bring up the concept of sequelae--the term I use to define the deadly, lingering effects of police terror-- people are quick to classify it as collateral damage or as secondary trauma. Some try to distance it from what they call the original trauma, a police officer shooting or choking a Black person. I would like to push us away from this tendency because I believe it obscures the picture that we have of the totality of this violence and its gendered dimensions. 

The first official autopsy of George Floyd did not acknowledge that the actions of the police officers led to his death. In a sense, the same critiques that we have with that autopsy report, we should have of these other deaths as well.

People want to tell us that Erica Garner died because she had a heart problem. But would that heart problem have been acute had her father not been killed in the way that he was? 

Completely. It also draws a stark contrast between the space white women's emotions are given relative to Black women. White women's fear is and has been historically weaponized against Black men – but Black women don't even have space to mourn.

Absolutely. I struggle with the fact that Black women are not allowed to mourn in the same ways as non-Black women are allowed to mourn. I talk about that a lot because that internalization is so insidious. I think about the last interview that Erica Garner did. She said, “I'm not okay.” She talked about suffering from depression. But the urgency of the need to fight for our survival makes it impossible to focus on taking care of ourselves. Racism is a direct threat, not only to us, but also our loved ones and our children. 

Most mothers will say they would rather sacrifice themselves than sacrifice their child. So they are going out and doing the work, while hurting unimaginably, but they cannot stop because the stakes are too high. That is what happened to Erica Garner. 

While some mothers fight, others shut completely down, and this is another transnational aspect of antiblack police terror. In my research I have looked at the ways that Black mothers become overwhelmed with grief and sorrow in the wake of the police killing their children in Brazil and the United States. Black mothers often have mental breakdowns and become nonfunctional in society because of what has happened to their children. If you can't function and you can't work, because the killing of your child has completely devastated your body and your mind, yet the state refuses to take responsibility for what it has done, and therefore refuses to take responsibility for your wellbeing, then what ends up happening is that either you die of hunger or you die in a mental institution.

What do you do now? What can we work toward?

I think we have to count differently. I think that we must talk about police violence differently, and we must create the infrastructure and the resources to support the families of those killed by the police. But again, these are band-aids.

The solution would be to stop killing Black people. That's the solution. I want to be really clear about that. 

The only way that this gets solved is when we engage in a clear and deliberate society-wide process of police abolition. One of the things that protestors and organizers are demanding right now is that we defund the police immediately. The police have too much power. They have too many weapons, too many mandates and little to no accountability. One immediate step that we need to take is to completely transform policing as we know it, starting by reducing police budgets nationally. To quote abolitionist Miriam Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” We need to divest from policing and invest in community resources like education and health care.

And if we invest in community healthcare, then one of the things that we need to do immediately is to fund health services for victims of police violence--those who have been physically abused and those who have been mentally and emotionally impacted by police abuse.

This means mental health support in addition to physical health support. This also means free healthcare, because again, how can you have your child killed by the police, develop a disease out of the stress of that experience, and then you, who have no insurance, can't pay to be treated for the diseases you develop because of that experience. We have to have that infrastructure, we have to have all of the kind of support communities need, both in terms of therapy and physical health support. 

Beyond this, we need to fight to dismantle antiblack terror. That’s really the only absolute way to solve this. Black feminists like Ruth Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Miriam Kaba, and collectives like Critical Resistance and Incite! Among others have done an excellent job of outlining demands for abolition and defunding the police. I think that is the only way forward. There is no reforming. We must take that seriously, and this is the moment to do that work. If we don't take advantage of this moment, we are going to repeat history down the road. We're going to have to come back to the cycle again, and nobody wants to do that.