The most recent public case of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot in the back on Sunday, August 23, 2020, in the presence of his children, who were sitting in his car which he attempted to enter, demonstrates again how aggressive and corrupt policing can render one dead or permanently damaged in an instant. Jacob Blake, up until then a healthy young black father is now paralyzed from the waist down we are told, having been shot seven times in the back. We have come to assume that this is not the last of these police violations of Black people. The names and victims, men and women, grow at each encounter, and have become now a litany called out at protest marches all over the world, available in posters, a long list of young black people no longer able to live their lives.
Generally the police in these cases go free even if the victim is a young woman, Atatiana Jefferson in Atlanta, playing video games with her nephew in her home, shot in error by a policeman who was technically called out to protect the household but did not take necessary caution before going for deadly force. The case of Breonna Taylor who eerily graces the cover of Vanity Fair in her death, though justice still has not been served in her case, was caused by a home invasion by plainclothes policemen looking for drug dealers in the wrong house. Social media is populated now with several other versions of unjust extra-judicial punishments, often killings, of black people in the United States, many of which do not attain national attention. And every time it happens, people in the United States and around the world wonder how this is allowed to continue. Many claim they also fear their police in their countries, some of them trained by US police departments, will also see this conduct as the example of policing to follow, coming from the world’s superpower.
Last year, before the COVID19 dramas, when we lived sort of normal lives of socializing, a group of friends and I went to see “Queen and Slim”, a film in which this mode of aggressive policing hovers over the entire film, written and directed by two black women, Lena Waithe and Helena Matsoukas. In fact, I started to write a review of this film, feeling its limitations of its protagonists to United States borders at a time when there was an African Diaspora Year of Return to Ghana, did not allow enough imaginative possibilities for escape. From its very dramatic beginning when a young couple out on a first date is stopped for no real reason by a policeman clearly out to get a victim that night to its heart-rending conclusion, we are taken through a version of the tragic results of corrupt policing that replay themselves without ceasing. The horrible death of George Floyd and the world-wide responses notwithstanding, some say the police remain energized given that the US president has never commented on these and actually has empowered them to continue. And beyond that, the white militia was also encouraged to come out, the evidence of which is a seventeen-year-old paramilitary/militia member, with an assault weapon shooting people like one shoots game in Kenosha Wisconsin. In any other place in this would be a publicly-identified terrorist. But he was able to walk down the street unhindered after shooting two people.
What struck me is that an escape by road in our film, which begins in Ohio has them head South to Florida from where they plan to leave the United States. The fact that Cuba is only ninety miles away from the United States and a traditional haven for African Americans being pursued by the US makes it an iconic destination in the film. The film allows us to travel South with the protagonists, through US backroads, as they make stops at legendary diasporic locations (New Orleans, Savannah, Georgia both of which were legendary ports for the enslavement of African Americans). In fact, several representations of a kind of modern-day escape from enslavement operate in the film.
But this is where the domestic joy has its limits. A stark sense of containment in every day and structural racism that is a reality in the United States prevails. Cuba figures iconically in the African American fictive imagination as a place of escape. Revolutionaries like Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun were able to escape to live out their lives there. US Black Panther activists saw Cuba as a place of freedom from US capitalism but also corrupt policing. But our protagonists, not part of any movement, caught up in a deadly experience of being pursued by law enforcement officials end up being riddled with bullets on the tarmac of a small runway as they attempt to flee.
All revolutionary possibilities are lost right away in an ending which reminds one of similarly lacerated black bodies in Hollywood movies about slavery. But sadly this is the day to day reality, a possibility of death or destruction by the agents of the state. The killing of George Floyd in May, 2020 triggered mass movements and uprisings, but with a president who indicates that this is normal practice, and empowers policemen to do what they will, we can expect that this pattern of state-sponsored violence, followed by community protesting, becomes the norm as the US empire deconstructs before our very eyes. The truth is in spite of the administration touting the lie of success, Americans can actually go nowhere.
The underground railroad historically worked both ways though the journey north is what dominates. At Cape Florida in Key Biscayne, there is an Underground Railroad marker documenting escapes of enslaved Africans from the United States to the Bahamas. Still for most African Americans, Florida demonstrates the southern limits of the domestic state. While Cuba is only 90 miles away at its closest point, the symbol of possible escape remains grounded and end the possibilities of flying to an elsewhere. Nothing moves or is empowered to move except massive police violence. And all agree that there is a differential in the handling of white perpetrators – more care, they are not mowed down by gunfire; their humanity is constructed in the media and by other authorities.
Most countries in the world see the US, because it still has not put in place any of the international standards for managing these deadly ills, as dangerous to the rest of the world. In spite of the administration’s empty “used car salesman-like” boasts, the numbers speak for themselves. More Caribbeans have died of COVID-19 in the US than in their home countries. Caribbean countries have had to extend warnings to their citizens traveling to the US that they risk death in the United States at the hands of the police. Many US flights are barred from entering other countries. So much for American exceptionalism! Indeed, this is an exceptionalism that is more like American expulsion from the world community.
Carole Boyce Davies
Follow me on Twitter at @Ca_Rule
Photos: Stephen Melkisethian, Fibonacci Blue and David Andrews