Body Cameras and Choke Holds: No Substitution for Repentance

While body cameras may, in fact, offer some small technological step towards accountability, the filmed choking of Eric Garner by a police officer makes plain one thing: the socialized fear of black male bodies is a cultural problem, requiring a cultural solution.

That a grand jury had video evidence of police using a banned choke hold which killed a black man for absolutely nothing close to a violent crime, and yet, this jury refused to allow this matter to even go to trial is evidence that our society is in deep trouble.

The ability for black men to live freely in our country, to be treated equally under the law, both when innocent and guilty of crimes, is a justice matter. But justice cannot come through surveillance or even more carefully written laws, though those may well be useful tools for holding our society accountable for our actions.

Instead, we must face the root of the problem–black men who are free to live their lives constitute a psychological threat to white men who have been handed a cultural identity of ownership.

As theologian James Cone points out, lynching did not become popular until after the abolition of slavery, because under slavery, to kill a black man was to lose the economic advantage of owning him. But after the abolition of slavery, the deep rooted myth of white male ownership was undermined, and in order to reassert control and social power, lynchings were instated so that, through fear, white men might maintain some sense of their fragile identity as owners. To justify this heinous evil, the domination and violation of other peoples’ bodies (through ownership and exploitation) was projected by white men onto the bodies of black men.

Thus white men who, ostensibly, would be owners of black bodies, when prevented by the law from doing so, created the myth of black men raping white women (in this mythology the bodies of white women are seen as the property of white men being violated), in order to justify the heinous act of lynching black men. There were, no doubt, occassional historical accounts of black on white rape–but statistically the number can only be infintesimal in comparison to the enormous numbers of enslaved black women who were raped by white male owners. Again, in order to assert control, their own monstrosity was projected by white men onto black men’s bodies.

This white male identity based on ownership has similarly played out in the relationships of men over/against women through the abuse of religious language in the name of “headship.” Privilege to the owning male class has shaped pay inequality under the guise of paying more to a man who is a primary breadwinner. This same notion has played out in privileging through tax shelters the owning class of “job creators” rather than the actual laborers who generate the wealth of corporations.

In my own family history, I can trace every line of my family tree back to the civil war in USAmerica. All of my ancestors lived in the South. Some fought for the confederacy, and at least one fought for the union. We are all shaped by this history, and it is a family history. Before the war, I have seen records, naming human beings who were willed as property from one generation to the next in my own family. This is a deep-seated cultural problem that does not simply go away with abolition, or civil rights laws, or body cameras on police officers. What I am saying is that the notion of entitlement that grows out of the myth of white male ownership is a learned, relational way being that is passed on intergenerationally, and can only be stopped when it is deliberately interrupted and contradicted.

We have real work to do. Work that involves listening, believing that we are connected to one another in the fabric of time and relationships, and questioning the ideals, resentments, guilt, and fears that shape the way we look at other human beings.

Black protest and violence following the calm, rational, legal pronouncements of injustice are completely justified. Just because white violence has been cloaked in the civility of laws and systems that allow for the criminalization of black bodies, does not mean that we are not guilty of violence. Just because my violence through the myth of ownership is mediated by the police, does not mean that it is not my hands around the neck of men like Eric Garner.

The violence of clinging to an identity defined by ownership (cloaked in slavery, civility, capitalism, headship, or any other form) is a violence against others, but it is also a violation of ourselves. If we are to exist in a community that resembles anything close to equality, then we white men must undertake a long, deep rooted, repentance and undertake to pass it along for generations to come.