Burning For A Change

By M.C. Porter

The first time someone took a photo of me without my consent at Saturday’s Northampton protest was the most violent. I asked her repeatedly to stop; only after getting several shots did the woman comply, lowering her smartphone and turning back toward the speaker on the podium. The typical irritation of encountering inconsiderate strangers in public space was supplanted by anxiety that afternoon. Organizers of the rally had shared online resources in advance warning of the documented risks photography presents to protesters’ safety, with Black activists in particular targeted with harassment and death threats in the few weeks since protests began in Minneapolis. This didn’t seem to have much effect on the attendees or camera crew personnel snapping away, and the legal observers present seemed unconcerned.

When I demanded that she allow me to watch her delete the photos off her phone, the woman got belligerent, coming threateningly close, accusing me all the while of violating her space, then pushing into me and a white friend as I turned away. I cussed her out. I told her to step back. My friend grabbed my hand, rubbing my palm to keep me from punching this woman as she brought her face inches from mine. Years of defending yourself from potential assault makes the blood quicken at the first hint of threat; the mind blanks, words break down to bare sound, colors sharpen to startling hues. I was ready to let go, let the fist cut a sharp path in the air to meet orbital, to wipe the face of all expression; instead I laughed in it, at the malice in the eyes locked on mine, taunting the woman as she fled the scene. Once the threat was out of sight my knees sank to the pavement, and I tried not to cry as I felt the moment resonate with one six years earlier. The last time I had knelt like this on a city street, throat thick with tears, I was marching for Eric Garner.

I had been studying in New York then; it was the middle of Obama’s second term, and I was watching the world watch a Black man declare his own murder on camera. Millions of people, viewing and sharing online yet another lynching; was it for the gratification in consuming Black suffering? Was it out of a felt obligation to bear witness? The question was, maybe, ultimately, unimportant; the solution, we were told by the proponents of moderation and reasonability, was more comprehensive police trainings against implicit bias, more restrictions on the authorized holds and restraints officers could use on a person, more body cameras, more funding allocated to police forces to implement all these reforms.

As I knelt on the ground, trying to make sense of what had just happened, Ferguson and all its terrible parallels burned in my mind. How many Black activists of that uprising were targeted with death threats, brutalized, found dead under suspicious circumstances dismissed as suicides, or shot and burned in their cars? And the journalists who had spread these images of a Black uprising around the world: where were they now, and what did they do when they learned that in taking those photos of a city on fire, they’d signed the death warrants of its Black activists?

Ferguson, where Black people were executed for threatening to upend things as they were and as they remain still. A laboratory for police forces in how to kill a Black revolt, a horrific lesson for those fighting for Black life in a system maintained by Black death, terror, and exploitation. We learned that to be placated with reforms aimed at police misconduct — to compromise our hope of a world where no more Black life is taken — is only to let the genocidal policies of police forces become more covert, more entrenched, more total in their brutality. The threat of revolution is always met with a vicious reactionary effort to restore things as they were.

Looking around me, I took stock of all the people in the crowd: so many white, so many silent, or else repeating the speaker’s demands in a murmur whose reserve couldn’t be explained by the humidity nor required face masks. Were these people willing to sacrifice an ounce of comfort for Black lives? Many hesitated at the perimeter, reluctant to risk anything. Why were they here: out of voyeuristic curiosity, or the boredom of self-isolation, or to use Black death as a lens for their navel-gazing? Was it to make a show of solidarity, and then abandon the cause at the first sign of inconvenience or perceived threat? If things turned violent, would they continue looking on passively at the spectacle, until the cops came for them?

I thought about Eric Garner’s last words, the plea for his life repeated eleven times and ignored: “I can’t breathe”; I tried to remember how many times George Floyd gasped the same. I wondered how many times would finally be enough, how many more Black people would have to be added to the trailing list of the dead, written in ever smaller print to fit them all. The list, intended as commemoration, reads cruelly like an inventory in its length, in how it amasses names that seem to go forgotten as more are continually added. I thought about how the people around me seemed to only remember one or two, how their chants sounded subdued, careless. I shouted louder, from the wrong part of the larynx, too raw to sustain; the sort of cry one makes when all rage and grief outsize the body. So many names to shout, and I couldn’t make them count or give them voice, couldn’t get them anything like recognition in this city, self-contented as it is by its empty gestures at respectability.

The speakers voiced demands that they neglected to share with the public until delivering their list of proposals over the loudspeaker. I counted at least eleven, but lost track of the number as I struggled to hear what we were to repeat from the garbled words. Most propositions were specific addresses to curb all the sinister iterations of policing in performatively leftist places like Northampton, which cloaks its neoliberal ordinances in the identity politicking of, for instance, the city’s lesbian police chief taking a knee with protesters Monday, the first day of Pride month, as NPD officers maced four people — including a child.

No drones. No indirect collusion with ICE by allowing use of municipal surveillance databases. No hybrid electric police vehicles or other forms of “green policing”. No resource officers in schools. No mental health or addiction services tied to Northampton PD. All crucial facets of the push for police abolition, which made one of the demands — to defund Northampton PD by one-third — a bewildering proposal.

If we aren’t absolute in our call to defund and abolish police forces, and instead formulate demands with compromising appeals to “reasonableness”, in what ways have we already lost the fight against the structure of this anti-Black world? After all the talk of police abolition in the air — after the people of Minneapolis burned a police department to the ground, with the city subsequently disbanding its police force; after looters and rioters destroyed institutions powered by the exploitation and destruction of Black communities; after protesters nationwide have continued the push in spite of being tear-gassed, maced, shot, beaten, tracked, detained, and killed, urged on by the shared vision of a future in which there are no more Black murders to mourn — after all this, there is nothing to compromise for.

So many of us are afraid, or unwilling, to imagine the possibility of our own liberation, of what freedom could truly mean and entail as we glimpse its horizon. Unused to seeing the opening, inhabiting it, making it wider, pushing against the forces that aim to seal it shut. Afraid of the freedom of being left to protect and care for each other.

After the scheduled rally ended, protesters thronged in Gothic Street, moving up to meet the barricades punctuated by state troopers defending the police department from damage. Eventually the barricades were cleared, the troopers dispersed — but word quickly spread that police would maybe attempt to ‘kettle’ us; dozens of cops were in riot gear, several were armed with assault rifles, K-9 units were ready to corral us in the narrow side street. The crowd flowed out into Main Street, moving to occupy the intersection; for any protester, broad streets with plenty of offshoots and escapes are the best defense against a police force trying to herd, assault, and charge you. We hadn’t been in this intersection long when someone had a seizure. In seconds, street medics were on the scene.

It remains unclear to me how the next actions were decided; it seemed as though a few self-appointed leaders of the group made calls, unknown to the rest of the protesters, to allow six to seven police vehicles into the center of the activity. These leaders, self-selected largely by their megaphones, erroneously announced that an ambulance could not legally enter the protest without a police escort. As officers jumped out of SUVs, carrying dozens of zip ties on their belts and palming their holsters, I asked the ‘leaders’ who made the call; one responded, “Well, the police aren’t hurting anyone right now, are they?” Another, a self-identified EMT, miscited public gathering laws as they pertain to emergency medical services, then condescended, “It’s okay that you don’t understand,” after I challenged his claim. The work, however, was done: the police had effectively subdued the protest. Some people were directed toward City Hall, abandoned and dark at 8 pm on a Saturday; others were pointed to Pulaski Park for a “dance party,” an unwise place to congregate just after escaping the threat of a kettle. I headed home, heartbroken — and entirely unsurprised by the weakened and contradictory forms activism can take in the Valley.

In moments like these, I take note of who is quick to look for “good” cops, who performs outrage and then works with police when convenient. Who shares videos of officers taking knees and hugging Black protesters moments before tear-gassing, shooting, and beating the crowd. Who argues for reform, who makes justifications and excuses, who expresses concern about how sexual assault and domestic abuse and murder will be handled, even though at least 40% of officers are domestic abusers; even though we were rallying for the many Black people murdered by cops who have made it routine; even though police make a practice of mishandling rape kits and cases, of coercing assault victims into not pressing charges and doubting whether a crime occurred or was simply a “misunderstanding.”

I’m watching who claims each Black death as a tragedy, but then condemns the radical tactics employed in the fight to prevent more.

Sorting through the responses to looting and rioting as they fill the newsfeed, a narrow spectrum of opinion emerges. It ranges from sanctimony to patronizing pity: looting delegitimizes the cause, or rioting is the incoherent cry of the “unheard” America Martin Luther King Jr. championed in a suburban Detroit high school gym, three weeks before he was shot and killed. It’s a wonder, how and why people always cling to individual property rights as the testament of freedom, the principal value worth defending, the unassailable grammar structuring American civil society. There is, however, no secret to how the ghost of chattel slavery animates the whole of the apparatus today.

What is incoherent about destroying the stores and institutions that have made their profits by maiming, exploiting, criminalizing, and policing Black people and communities for centuries?

What is illegitimate about looting businesses big and small, when the wage theft bosses commit against workers in Minneapolis, in Northampton, in every city and every nation, outstrips all other forms of property damage combined? Or about taking to the streets to demand a different kind of world and, when the demand is unmet, making ruin of property, its protection the only objective of police forces the world over at the cost of human life and freedom?

What is unreasonable about demanding an end to all policing, when US police forces emerged as runaway slave patrols to recapture fugitive slaves and suppress revolts? What has changed from 1704 to now, other than the sophistication of the technologies police forces deploy to secure white property interests by brutalizing Black lives?

What is unclear about burning a police department to the ground?

M.C. Porter is from Western Massachusetts. She wholeheartedly supports police and prison abolition as fundamental elements of the fight for Black liberation, and hopes to see the dissolution of prisons and police forces occur as part of a complete anticapitalist transformation of all interlocking structures of domination — these include the education system and the medical industrial complex.

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Authority Collective, “Do No Harm: Photographing Police Brutality Protests,” May 31, 2020, https://bit.ly/DoNoHarm_AC
Greta Jochem, “Northampton Officials Assess Protest’s Aftermath ,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 2020, https://www.gazettenet.com/Northampton-Protest-Followup-34577543.
Sarah Cwiek, “Remembering the Day Martin Luther King Jr. Came to Grosse Pointe,” Michigan Radio, January 17, 2017, https://www.michiganradio.org/post/remembering-day-martin-luther-king-jr-came-grosse-pointe
Auandaru Nirhani, “Policing Slaves Since The 1600’s: White Supremacy, Slavery, and Modern US Police Departments,” The Rebel Press, January 7, 2012, http://therebelpress.com/articles/show?id=2.
Brady Meixell and Ross Eisenbrey, “Wage Theft is a Much Bigger Problem Than Other Forms of Theft—But Workers Remain Mostly Unprotected,” Economic Policy Institute, September 18, 2014, https://www.epi.org/publication/wage-theft-bigger-problem-forms-theft-workers/
Olivia B. Waxman, “The History of Police in America and the First Force,” Time, March 6, 2019, https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/