On November 15th Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark. For the next 18 days protesters occupied the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis, just yards from where Clark was shot. The protesters came together under the banner of Black Lives Matter and, once again, showed the world that justice was not going to be delayed, today would be a new day. The protesters themselves, and their supporters, were multiracial. This was in no small part to the articulation –put forward nationwide since the inception of the movement– that Black Lives Matter held white supremacy, not white people, accountable. I also believe that white supremacy is the enemy, and that it claimed another victim in Columbia Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis: Michael Kirvelay.
On November 24th Columbia Heights police shot and killed Michael Kirvelay while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. His family called for help and informed the police of the situation. Michael was holding an unloaded BB gun which the family also informed the police officers of. Instead of doing their job Michael Kirvelay is dead, and another family is left mourning an unnecessary tragedy.
How is This a Racial Justice Issue?
White Supremacy, as I have argued before, is not about the color of your skin it is about a worldview, a value system and a set of norms. There is a difference between having white skin and being White. The police are the first line of defense for these ideals. They enforce them on the ground in our everyday lives. Therefore violence by police is inherently racialized violence in service of white supremacy. To not start here is to miss the point. Which Mark Obie does in his piece “One Street in Minnesota Separates Radically Different Policing Strategies.”
In the article Obie claims that the Columbia Heights Police Department is fundamentally different from the Minneapolis Police Department due to its embrace of community oriented policing. This is a dangerous assertion, if Columbia Heights PD is practicing anything different than Minneapolis PD it is simply a more polished white supremacy: white supremacy lite. The article, while seemingly in support of Black Lives Matter and the movement to dismantle white supremacy, actually ends up perpetuating the very ideas necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy. It is simply the “bad apple” argument on a larger scale. Ironically, given the often argued point that Black Lives Matter’s critique is at the institutional and systemic level, the article focuses largely on two officers: a Somali officer assigned to the Somali community and a white officer who is assigned to the high school (nothing says justice like police in the school, even nice ones.) The article uses these two officers as proxy to make the argument that Columbia Heights is doing something revolutionary. Nowhere in the article is there an examination of power; nowhere in the article is there a discussion of the history from which policing comes from. Both of which are fundamental to understanding the basis for policing. Most importantly the article –despite being written on December 14th, three weeks after Michael Kirvelay’s death– does not mention the shooting or the family’s claims of excessive force. In fact the article claims there is an almost nonexistent rate of excessive force complaints.
The Failure of Race Thinking
As long as you think you’re “white,” there’s no hope for you. As long as you think you’re “white,” I’m going to be forced to think I’m “black.”- James Baldwin
Columbia Heights is a small inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. It is working class and 70% white. For many of these families the benefits of whiteness are largely limited to what W.E.B. DuBois called the psychological wages of whiteness. They do not work at living wage jobs, many are paying mortgages to banks that could care less about them, and they have sub-par health care, among a great many other things. In short, they represent the perfect buffer (both geographically and socially) between the white elite and communities of color. It is only the constructed identity of whiteness that keeps communities like Columbia Heights and North Minneapolis from coming together to better their collective material reality. This divisive strategy –originated after Bacon’s Rebellion and remixed with policies such as the Southern Strategy— is playing itself out in 2015.
One of the first things that the ruling class in the colonies did when legislating whiteness was to allow these new whites to serve as police. These European- newly white- Americans would enforce white supremacy and protect the wealth of the elites (often literally as the slave patrol) in exchange for the promise of a few crumbs to better their own material reality. So, community policing may soften the edges of white supremacy but when push comes to shove, without an ideological shift, it is still just that, white supremacy. The story of Michael Kirvelay stands in stark contrast to the picture the article paints of a police force which “are trained problem solvers, not “robotic” enforcers… That means, for example, when they confront chronic problems…they apply protocols designed to drill down to what’s really going on. Drugs? Mental illness? Child abuse?” If this were true then how did Michael Kirvelay, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, end up dead? That answer is simple: he wouldn’t have. And,where did the police learn to treat life with such callous disregard? This is the insidiousness of white supremacy, it is cannibalistic, its violence will devour even those who should theoretically benefit. This is the system which even community oriented police departments are operating in, there is nothing admirable about ignoring this fundamental truth.
No one is free until we are all free- Martin Luther King J.R.
Black Lives Matter is right, the enemy is white supremacy. We need to remember that white supremacy does not only count people of color among it’s victims. It is only the made up idea of race and race thinking that has separated us into these groups and pitted us against ourselves. It is up to us, right now, to reject this frame. We need to stand together and reject the infrastructures that prop up white supremacy, the police being primary among them. When protesters for Michael Kirvelay confronted the police they were greeted with jeers, smirks and disrespect that mirrored the actions of Minneapolis PD at the 4th Precinct. Their demands are for the body camera footage to be released and the police prosecuted, similar to the demands for those of us supporting Justice for Jamar Clark.
While the paths to liberation are different, requiring different things from those of us perceived as white than communities of color, the end goal is a shared one: dismantling white supremacy. If this is true, we must reject the erasure of violence perpetrated in the service of white supremacy. Instead we need to understand, as Guante, G.P. Jacob, and Tish Jones remind us in “One Bad Cop,” the problem is much bigger than one cop or even one department. As Tish says ” call the problem white supremacy cuz we know that.”
To support the family of Michael Kirvelay donate here.