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The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea

Race/isms Book Forum

Race/isms Book Forum is a new series aimed at bringing established and emerging voices together in conversation around recent work that critically engages our world’s racial scripts, past and present. The structure of the forum is straightforward. We invite three to four thinkers to grapple with a book, highlighting a section of it, and then provide the author(s) an opportunity to respond however they see fit. Published over several days, we seek and encourage dialogue that traverses the forum’s boundaries. Our desire is to have these conversations, and the books they’re based on, grow from and exceed what’s been written. The pursuit is possibility, not conclusion.

For our first installment, we feature and discuss Christopher Lebron’s recently published intellectual history: The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea. The discussion includes reflections by Jenn M. Jackson, Marquis Bey, and Deva Woodly. Our focus is the book’s third chapter: “For Our Sons, Daughters, and All Concerned Souls.” We begin with an excerpt from that chapter.

FOR OUR SONS, DAUGHTERS, AND ALL CONCERNED SOULS

This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers and

its object is change. Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes
do not change.

—Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger”

ELEANOR BUMPURS WAS A MOTHER and grandmother. She was arthritic and diabetic. Additionally, she suffered from mental health issues when she was shot and killed in her apartment in the Bronx, New York, on October 29, 1984. Bumpurs was not murdered by an assailant attempting to extract sellable goods from her apartment. Rather, she was killed by a police officer while she was both naked and clearly hysterical.

Bumpurs owed her landlord four months of back rent totaling roughly $400. Over the course of attempts to collect, Bumpurs claimed the improbable, that people were trying to get into her apartment through the floorboards. She also lodged other unlikely complaints. At no point did anyone familiar with Bumpurs’s proclamations attempt to secure help for her. Bumpurs’s daughters seemed to miss her need for professional counseling and had suggested that she should refuse to open the door to anyone who came knocking. But, owing back rent as she did, someone was going to knock on her door eventually. On October Bumpurs allowed building maintenance personnel into her apartment. They found no problems, other than cans of human feces sitting in her bathtub. The city sent a psychiatrist to assess Bumpurs on October 25, the determination being that she was psychotic. The recommended course of action was to evict her and then have her committed to a mental health facility.

On October 29, an NYPD Emergency Service Unit was sent to Bumpurs’s apartment to try to talk her into coming out. Hysterical and distressed, Bumpurs refused. After drilling through her door lock to peer into her apartment, authorities observed that she was both naked and wielding a large kitchen knife. The police forced their entrance. At that point, Bumpurs struggled, and, despite the fact that she, a 66- year-old woman, was outnumbered six to one, an officer first blew off the fingers on one of her hands, and then unloaded his shotgun into her chest, fatally lodging nine pellets.

The Bumpurs case is tragically consistent with any number of police-related killings of black Americans, the crucial common factor being that in almost every instance the death seemed unnecessary; in each instance, it is clear that another outcome was genuinely possible. For example, in the Bumpurs case, it is painfully easy to imagine the police cutting a large enough whole in the door to facilitate shooting a tranquilizer at her. Clearly, her mental state did lead her to pose a potential threat. The pressing question in her case and in all cases of black lives being snatched by the state is this: why was the use of deadly force the required solution? Knowing that Bumpurs was both mentally troubled and at that moment dangerous, why did the police insist on aggressive tactics that were likely going to lead to a physical confrontation? A police officer making a physical threat against someone who seems dangerous is appealing to the aggressor’s sense of self-preservation. But this strategy is only reasonable and likely to succeed when the aggressor is in a more or less rational state of mind. Authorities initiated the engagement with Bumpurs fully informed that she was far from rational; thus it should have been clear to all parties that no such appeal, implicit or explicit, was likely to result in a predictable and appropriate outcome.

But the Bumpurs case also raises another, often over-looked issue for us. Why was Bumpurs, an elderly black woman, especially vulnerable? So far as we know, she possessed no criminal record and was not in any sense known to be a violent person. How, then, did she find herself extinguished at the business end of a police officer’s shotgun? The answer to that question depends on the historically and socially complicated relationship between race and gender. Bumpurs was a mother and grandmother who had entered her later years without adequate support for her mental health needs and, possibly, for her broader health needs. Despite the city’s determination that she was not of sound mind, no plan was put in place to ensure a safe and orderly eviction. Her mental health status failed to motivate anyone to take the proper course of action to secure her personhood, her humanity. Indeed, in the aftermath, her personhood was erased and replaced with the picture of a person turned beast, as a statement from the Policemen’s Benevolent Association grotesquely illustrated in a defensive media ad: “This 300-pound woman suddenly charged one of the officers with a 12-inch butcher knife, striking his shield with such force that it bent the tip of the steel blade.” But Eleanor Bumpurs was not a 300-pound force of nature. She was a black woman. This transformation of a black human into a dangerous beast was not the first, and eerily anticipated many other instances. For example, Eric Garner, a man choked to death by a New York police officer in public and on tape, was, notably, blamed for his own death because he was overweight. But Bumpurs’s death as a black woman in need of care rather than brutality predates a different and more recent case that also ended in an unnecessary death.

On July 10, 2015, in Texas, Sandra Bland was stopped by Brian Encinia of the Waller County police department for failing to signal a lane change while driving her car. What ought to have been a routine stop and ticketing escalated into a confrontation. Footage captured from Encinia’s patrol vehicle shows Encinia initially engaging Bland appropriately. After requesting her license and registration, Encinia reapproaches Bland’s vehicle. Following a pause, he asks whether she is OK, and notes that she is agitated. Bland responds that she is irritated because she moved lanes because Encinia was driving too close behind her, and he now was giving her a ticket for her lane change. There is another pause, this time longer. Encinia then, oddly, asks Bland to put out her cigarette, even though she is sitting in her own car. This is where the trouble began. Bland refused, stating that she was sitting in her car and was not required to extinguish her cigarette. After a couple of exchanges, Encinia, agitated that Bland is challenging what seems an improper use of his authority, demands that Bland get out of her car. Again, she refuses, insisting that he provide her a rationale — none is forthcoming, other than his assertion that his command is lawful. He then attempts to physically remove Bland from the car, and after she successfully resists, he pulls back, draws his gun, and points it at her. Encinia marshals Bland to the sidewalk, where she lets loose a torrent of profanities and asks if he feels good about himself for pulling over a female for a lane change and pointing a gun at her. At this point, Encinia escalates the situation by forcing Bland, now cuffed, to the ground. Though this takes place out of the visual range of the dashcam, you can hear that Bland is made to feel pain. She tells Encinia that she is epileptic. Encinia’s response? “Good.” Three days later, on July 13, Bland was found hanging by a plastic bag from the ceiling of her holding cell.

In this case, unlike Bumpurs’s and more recent cases, Bland was not killed by the hands of a law enforcement official. But, consistent with the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, neglect and the will to unnecessarily escalate a situation led to the death of a black woman. Bland had informed Encinia that she suffered from epilepsy and repeated this information when being processed after being arrested. Waller County prison did not have a mental health expert on hand, nor did it secure one over the days Bland was in custody. Why is this important?

Especially crucial in Bland’s case, persons with epilepsy tend to be at higher risk of depression. Encinia’s aggressive and violent escalation of what should have been a routine traffic stop introduced a trigger into Bland’s life — she was humiliated and threatened by an agent of the state. But even if Bland had other reasons to commit suicide, the fact remains, she did not belong in that cell. What is sadly poignant about the series of events leading to Bland’s death is that six months earlier, in January of 2015, she had begun to post videos in which she speaks out against police brutality in response to previous national stories of blacks being killed while in police custody and calling attention to the increasingly common fear among blacks that a person could die just by being stopped or confronted by a police officer. Bland, in effect, was a prophet of her own tragedy.

The internal lives of black women have been much more complex than media, social movement leaders, or patriarchy at large have allowed us to see. But many powerful and brilliant women have championed the cause of women’s acknowledgment and visibility. In doing so, they have pressed the case to white men, white women, black men, and even other black women that self-respect does not require women to deprive themselves of their emotional lives or intimate needs. Moreover, they have incisively challenged common and lazy understandings of identity formation and the political authority that is thought to arise from those understandings. A prevalent strand of thought in the black feminist tradition has sought to provide a vision of a better life for black women. One in which civil rights, freedom of sexuality, and economic liberation could all be front and center, for example. Of the many women who have done this, Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde are worth special attention. Though separated in their writings and activism by more than a half-century, both women had a clear sense of the difficult social, political, sexual, economic, cultural terrain that stretched out before women in general, and the special challenges facing black women in particular. They took it as their vocation not merely to map this terrain in the name of caution, but to master it in the name of self-love and self-care.

Chris Lebron is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hoptkins University. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. Follow him on twitter @lebron_chris

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