Human Error

Two days ago, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict the police officers who were involved in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in November of 2014. The officer who shot Tamir (I use his first name to remind us that he was a 12-year-old boy) will not be charged as he apparently had reason to fear for his life.

Many Novembers ago, James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis about the current state of whiteness regarding the Vietnam War and its harrowing self-destructive trajectory.

“Or, to put it another way, as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish (as we once put it in our black church) in their sins—that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us.”

As a young Black person in the United States, I am constantly confronted with the subjective value of my own life. Recent developments in social justice organizing – regarding #BlackLivesMatter, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, the murder of over 20 transgender women of color in 2015, and so on – have allowed a wide audience to catch a glimpse of the colossal shadow that haunts myself and many other Black people in this country. We are fighting for our lives, in our own way, together and separately, every single day.

I cannot write about the murder of a 12-year-old boy without bringing to bear a society that has enabled such an act to dismissed as “[a] perfect storm of human error”. Is something truly an error if it occurs within a set of parameters that were designed to provide it sovereignty?

The formulation of my adult consciousness about the social world has been immeasurably shaped by recent social justice issues. I am grateful for that. However, I am also acutely aware of the burden that engaging with this discourse becomes for a young Black life in America. I am my own best case study. Beyond my own personal experience, it takes only a few clicks to access the countless narratives that other Black people are writing about regarding this bitter type of warfare – a fight for our lives.

I refuse to stop writing about my pain and the collective pain of people like me. Sometimes I wish it were possible to turn off my critical lens and live in a world ignorant of the ways in which my body is valued differently. Four days ago, a Chicago police officer fatally shot 19-year-old Quintonio Legrier in response to a call regarding him having a mental situation and wielding a baseball bat. After all, this is a game of worth.

Entering the final act of my college career, I am starting to think about my own worth – as a Black person, a gay person, a writer, and the many other identities that have found a home in my body. In every death, I find myself wondering what will become of the Black body. A few months ago, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stunning meditation on the Black body (Between the World and Me) and cried for an entire afternoon. And then I got myself together and wrote a midterm paper. For me, life goes on. But for many, it does not.

I think that I refuse to give in precisely because it is so difficult to hold this truth in my head. Many Black people write because it keeps us alive, in the wake of so many other deaths. Forty-five years after Baldwin penned that letter, I am not certain that the distance that whiteness constructs between itself and Black life has really eroded at all. Maintenance of this distance is of supreme priority to the powers that be.

The bodies that must be destroyed to sustain it are not a casualty of “human error”. That sort of disembodiment – the extinguishing of life as some sort of cosmic mistake – allows blame to evade the shoulders of a system working exactly as it is engineered.

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