Depending on whom you ask, 2 a.m. is counted among the small hours of the day—when the world’s respectable are tucked into the sleepy fold where night meets morning.
But for others, 2 a.m. is when the air falls heaviest on the shoulders, thick with the threat of chaos. A threat known to anyone who’s stood in the ‘hood past dusk: these are the hours when black children disappear into the unmerciful night, at the risk of never seeing morning again.
It was in these restless hours on Tuesday, July 5, when a block still humming with life on Detroit’s lower eastside saw another of its sons lost to eternity. His name—a name now carved into a stadium’s worth of hearts swollen with grief—goes unpublished at the request of his mother. Here, I’ll refer to him, my beloved friend, as Red.
Red’s final moments were spent in an agonizingly familiar way: locked in a standoff with a man who looked like him. A man who, in all likelihood, had also known something of what it meant to be black, poor and terrified of the world beyond one’s door. And had learned what everyone in that perilous condition at some point must: that the way you outlived the vulnerability was to prove yourself more lethal than all that sought to destroy you. With his final gesture, Red reached out for that man’s hands—hands that cradled his entire life between the thumb and index.
By day’s end, another black man, Alton Sterling, would have his mortality offered as further evidence that black bodies aren’t forged from Kevlar. With the close of the next, Philando Castile would also be forced into those heartbreaking ranks. But unlike Red, these men found themselves not at the mercy of others caught in the unsleeping storm of black fragility, but of officers oath-bound to protect them from it.
By now, even the gods of irony must be tired of this shitty joke. Including its second act: a large chorus of well-credentialed bigots reciting the same corny ass sermon about black-on-black crime. It’s what pundits call misdirection, but more honorable conmen know as the old bait and switch—changing the subject just long enough for the uniformed bandits of black life to slink away unnoticed.
No doubt many still take them at their sacred word. But for black America at least, the jig is up. This stunt would get you laughed out of any black barbershop or hair salon and can never be taken seriously. American racism is durable as hell. Black life perilously less so.
But while we’re here, let’s explore the strange distance drawn between these two genres of violence. It’s something the peddlers of black-on-black crime miraculously manage to confuse—that in America, the violent loss of black life is a genre unto itself.
Consider the days after emancipation, when police stretched out across the old Confederacy to guard the spoils of the world’s most infamous slave empire. For the next century, police served as the state arm of a domestic terrorism campaign, laying waste to black political life across the South and much of the North.
It’s a story as old as America itself. Black freedom then, as now, came with an asterisk and a jackboot to the throat. And modern policing, as a matter of observable reality, is hopelessly bound to that legacy. A legacy that stains the concrete of every black metropolis with more blood than a million lives vanquished at the hands of their neighbors.
Remember that long before he took his last breath, Red lived and breathed on Detroit’s lower eastside. Where neighborhood joints ache from the wounds of history, and every salve is an inevitable reminder of the carnage. Here, life is standing in the eye of a hurricane, stealing joy where possible, but always waiting for one’s turn in the maw.
The origins of such a place are not mysterious. Racist housing policy forged our strife-torn ghettos, leaving black communities to suffer the fallout—recession-level unemployment, grinding and enforced poverty, lower life expectancy, and yes, higher rates of violence among neighbors. All old news to anyone familiar with the skullduggery of American racism—a kind of inferno that’s kindled at every level of government and torches everything in its path. In response, we’ve merely thrown the police at every social ill, fanning more flames than we extinguish along the way. This too ends, with horrific regularity, in the plunder of black life.
But to be clear: one of these is not on par with the other. Officers granted “the lethal power of gods and the meager responsibilities of mere mortals” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, is in a class all its own. And a community clobbered by the law for a half millennium will never make peace with it, and will act outside of it. But they spring from the same tradition: one, as I’ve written elsewhere, of sacrificing other people’s flesh at the altar of power.
There are those who’d see Red—along with all the sons and daughters of America’s despised minority—offered as tribute to preserve their way of life. And there are those of us who know the hurricane, and the awesome fragility of not only mortals, but of the worlds they build.