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The global, historical and revolutionary implications of saying 'Black Lives Matter'

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A woman holds a Black Lives Matter sign. Image: Joan Villalon/Unsplash

Recent weeks have seen uprisings across the United States against the epidemic of police brutality and institutional racism, as well as vigorous calls to defund or abolish police across the country. There have also been demonstrations of international solidarity in multiple countries, including the U.K.FranceGermanyBelgiumKenya, Ghana, South AfricaJapan and New Zealand, with many of the protests and marches around the world highlighting local issues of anti-Black racism. 

These calls are not being entirely ignored. Less than two weeks after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council voted to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and reallocate the money toward community-based and directed social services, mental health supports and other care-giving initiatives. The mayors of New York City and Los Angeles have both committed to reducing police department budgets and reallocating funds toward social services. 

However, despite the widespread -- even global -- public support for the U.S. organizers and activists, and the spotlight on police conduct, U.S. police departments have reacted with violence and military-style suppression tactics.

A spotlight has also been shone on police brutality in Canada, including recently surfaced footage of RCMP officers beating and choking Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam. Protests and healing walks in Canada have highlighted the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who fell from a twenty-fourth floor balcony in Toronto after police were called to provide her aid, and Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman and mother who was shot and killed by a police officer in New Brunswick after police were called to perform a wellness check.

These events have also drawn attention to police violence against Black women in Canada, and once more to the country's epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

One of the most prominent declarations among these protests is the now-well-known phrase "Black Lives Matter," the name of the movement founded by organizers Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. It is easy to experience this phrase as direct and immediate -- an assertion that Black people's lives are not of lesser value than those of other people.

However, if considered in full, and in context, this declaration contains a revolutionary claim. To assert that "Black Lives Matter" is to reject the world as it is, and to indict the centuries of history which have brought us to where we are.

In the U.S., for example, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw wrote recently, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor -- and now, too, Tony McDade, David McAtee and Rayshard Brooks -- are "modern embodiments of racial terror dating back to a time we like to think long past: the reign of white impunity rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. In these times, there were no rules, laws, or expectations against Black life being taken."

From a global perspective, to assert the value of Black life is to condemn European scientific racism, the Scramble for Africa and European colonization of the continent, the Berlin Conference, the transatlantic slave trade, and the innumerable events and institutions which animate the past 500 years of structural oppression, extraction, brutalization and dehumanization of Black people.

I describe this as a revolutionary assertion because, with the structures of the world as they are, there is a certain aspect by which Blackness incurs a material and/or psychological proximity to death.

In a recent discussion on the abolition of policing and carceral punishment, geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore recalled her definition of racism: "the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death." As an example, Wilson cites activist and former Black Panther Michael Zinzun's work regarding the prevalence of severe cases of asthma among children growing up in housing projects in Los Angeles, caused by the ubiquity of vermin and decay -- mice, rats, cockroaches and the feces of all three, as well as mold, pesticides and other pollutants. The group-differentiated exposure to these environments increased mortality among Black and Latinx children.

In advancing a theory of "necropolitics," Achille Mbembe writes:

"the ultimate expression of sovereignty largely resides in the power and capacity to dictate who is able to live and who must die. To kill or to let live thus constitutes sovereignty's limits, its principal attributes. To be sovereign is to exert one's control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power."

Through this lens, structural racism as an assertion of white-supremacist sovereignty is the intentional creation of premature death among specific ethnic groups. It is murder as a political regime. Stating it plainly may seem garish, but this is the primary operating mechanism of world history that we are already familiar with -- this is the fact of colonization, enslavement, deprivation and dispossession.

Racial disparities in the application of police violence are prominent in public discourse at the moment, but they are far from the only inequities with mortal dimensions. Just as police brutality brings premature death to Black life, so too do innumerable structural inequities in this world.

On June 14, it was reported that at least 61 people died when a boat carrying primarily sub-Saharan African migrants sank on its way to Italy. Tens of thousands of Africans have died during migratory journeys in recent decades. Of the 35 countries with the most severe food crises in 2019 -- as identified by the World Food Programme -- 24 have predominantly Black populations: 23 African countries and Haiti.

In the U.S., Black women are three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related issues, and Black babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. Black transgender people in the U.S. are subject to incredibly high rates of violence, police violence and incarceration.

Similar data isn't available in Canada, but there is some evidence suggesting that such disparities exist here as well. During the coronavirus pandemic, Black people in the U.S. have been three times as likely as white people to die of COVID-19. In the U.K., Black people are more than four times more likely than whites to die of the coronavirus. Again, Canada neglects to gather this data.

Overall, disparities in healthwealth and well-being between Black people and white people persist in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and on a global scale

Eventually, these material facts construct an observed and assumed perpetuity -- everything that kills people, kills Black people more. This is the psychological proximity, the seemingly inescapable connection between Blackness and death. The inculcation of this apparent perpetuity -- that is, the psychological proximity -- is the coalescence of these facts into a persistent perception that this is the inevitable state of the world.

It's worth noting that this is not an exclusive condition; there are other communities which share this experience, through one mechanism or another. Indigenous peoples have also had such a manufactured mortality imposed upon them, exemplified by the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

In fact, a 2015 review found that Indigenous peoples in Canada experience disparities that are on some metrics greater than those experienced by African Americans in the U.S. Such a proximity is also imposed upon people who use drugs and people who are unhoused through public policy. 

In the context of the proximity to death experienced through Blackness, we must confront the fact that this is not a lamented, accidental consequence of world-historical trajectory, but rather a willful and fundamental mechanism by which the world operates.

Gilmore's description of racism vividly illustrates this fact. The "production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death" has been essential to the construction of the modern world. 

European colonizers and slavers felt they rightfully held dominion over the lives of Black people -- both "Black people" as multiple individuals, and Black people as, in their assertion, a sub-human species -- and they sought to embed this dominion into their nations and institutions, and thus into the international system constructed through Eurocentric and white-supremacist extractive capitalism. 

For 500 years, the premature end to Black life has been an assertion of white supremacy. Our world is not merely animated by anti-Black and anti-Indigenous necropolitics; it is reliant upon them

Ibram X. Kendi illustratively cites the naturalization of these structures, as expressed in American statistician Frederick Hoffman's 1896 text The Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. In Hoffman's eyes, "White Americans had been naturally selected for health, life, and evolution. Black Americans had been naturally selected for disease, death, and extinction." 

These dimensions of racialized mortality are expressed in countless ways, ranging from international structures to individual interpersonal interactions. In fact, the latter can reveal them in the most hideously symbolic ways. William Bryan -- the man whom filmed Gregory and Travis McMichael murdering Ahmaud Arbery, and who has been charged alongside them -- told investigators that McMichael called Arbery a "f*cking n*gger" after fatally shooting him.

In discussing these dimensions, however, it must be made absolutely clear that these are functions of racism, and not functions of Blackness itself. In spite of this world, Blackness is joyous and resilient. As Imani Perry writes,

"The masters were wrong in the antebellum South, when they described the body-shaking, delighted chuckle of an enslaved person as simplemindedness. No, that laugh - like our music, like our language, like our movement - was a testimony that refused the terms of our degradation."

Addressing the inequities experienced by Black people, and by Indigenous peoples, requires action on a global scale. Though, as Osita Nwanevu writes, "White backlash is, again, among the most potent forces in American life; both the last decade and our long collective history."

Nwanevu refers specifically to the U.S., but the observation can comfortably be applied globally.  

Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. His work focuses on reparative drug policy, inequity and inequality, structural racism and labour. 

Image: Joan Villalon/Unsplash

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