Book review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation - by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
"Mike Brown was ... walking down the street. Eric Garner was standing on the corner. Rekia Boyd was in a park with friends. Trayvon Martin was walking with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Sean Bell was leaving a bachelor party, anticipating his marriage the following day. Amadou Diallo was getting off from work." (p. 13)
And then they were killed. By whom? By those employed to protect them: the police. All were unarmed. None was breaking the law.
This superb and terrifying book takes an unflinching look at race in the United States. It covers the history of racism in the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement, Black leadership, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the disappointments of Obama's term of office, and takes us all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond. In the process, it debunks the myth that Black deprivation is rooted in Black culture and highlights systemic abuses and injustice.
If it's not too big a contradiction, this book is one long, erudite, closely argued holler. Taylor has a knack of seeing the piercing detail and putting it into context. So when Mike Brown's slain body is left in the street for four hours, while his parents are held back by police pointing guns and threatening to unleash their dogs, Taylor recalls Charles Pierce's words:
"Dictators leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street ... as object lessons, or to make a point, or because there isn't money to take the bodies away and bury them, or because nobody gives a damn ..."
She tells us that Trayvon Martin's dead body was subjected to drug tests, while his killer George Zimmerman was not.
She explains how Reaganomics - the War on the Poor - disproportionately affected Black people, as he drastically cut social welfare and in a classic case of blaming the victim described fictional "welfare queens." When he couldn't cut free meals for children entirely, he infamously scrimped to the point of calling ketchup a vegetable.
Taylor also discusses the generational divide between the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s and today's activists. She describes how Al Sharpton's swinging into Ferguson to give speeches and blame Black protestors for street violence goes down like a lead balloon. Sharpton berates the crowd for betraying the murdered "gentle giant" Michael Brown, a man he'd never met, seemingly unaware that he's addressing Brown's friends and peers.
At a Washington rally stage-managed by the old guard of 60s activists, security guards are employed to demand VIP badges from those who wish to go on stage. As Taylor writes, this is not how modern movements work, with their decentralization and flat hierarchy. It reminded me of a passage in Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in which the younger generation of prisoners on Robben Island shocks Mandela with their aggression, their demands, their refusal to comply with the White "authorities." The world never stands still, not even for the great and the good.
Of Obama, Taylor writes, "We are led to believe that a man who can direct drone strikes in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, who can mobilize resources to any corner of the world in the name of American foreign policy, is powerless to champion legislation and the enforcement of the existing laws and rights in the interest of racial justice."
Taylor's conclusion is measured and wise. We don't know where Black Lives Matter is headed - there is no visible path to follow - but we know that the hydra that is capitalism, racism and class rule will not go down without a monumental fight. It's a bleak outlook, but then these are bleak times.
JJ Amaworo Wilson is a German-born, British-educated debut novelist. Based in the U.S., he has lived in 9 countries and visited 60. He is a prizewinning author of over 20 books about language and language learning. Damnificados is his first major fiction work. His short fiction has been published by Penguin, Johns Hopkins University Press, and myriad literary magazines in England and the U.S.