Fights Reveal Utilities

By Jameel Mohammed

M
artin luther King Jr was assassinated, and Malcolm X was assassinated, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and Steve Biko was assassinated, and Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, John F Kennedy was assassinated, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

What was the purpose of this?

We so readily forget the long list of assassinations which dot the emergence of new American power relationships and the ends of self assured textbook paragraphs. This violence is still shown to us in grainy loops, the stuff of nostalgic moodboards, inflected with the better parts of yesteryear. It is presented often as the precursor to a wise peace, a new understanding, a moment of reckoning, a needed change. Not, per se, justified, in fact terrifying, a marker of the difference between who we were and who we are now; how good we have it.

But new days bring shattering new images, flickering across tv screens, the building of power unconstrained by agreements long thought settled. A hunger for some version of this place, of every place, unmarred by the complicated negotiations of power that characterize a functioning democracy.

And as a student, however informally, and perhaps incomplete, of the Black political canon, I cannot with any seriousness say that their tactics hold little hope of characterizing what the years to come will look like for us all. While I do not welcome violence as a contributing factor in political change I would be a fantasist to not acknowledge the ways it has shaped the life I know and largely enjoy.

As a Black American, born fewer than 130 years from the end of our last Civil War I cannot avoid the differences my life has from that of my own ancestors, who were brought to this country against their will by actors stridently committed to wielding violence toward the very political project of constructing an empire, a financial system, a cadre of industries, an ever growing influence globally, and soft power to match. A difference I would underscore that was not the result of charity but of the grisly shot by shot establishment of an army comprised substantially of thousands of formerly enslaved Black people; a contingent of the force that new clearer perhaps than any other the meaning of freedom.

But like all of our repeating tendencies, the wheels we turn around and around to some short lived effect, if not some ultimate solace, fights reveal futilities; edges they cannot push beyond, ever fleeting horizons of a better next time, ever better, purer ways to wield the same old tools to the same old ends that never seem to go to plan. 

Perhaps most notably; There is always greater violence, that can be found, leveraged, subtly and overtly, sometimes in states redubbing the same colonial relationships in postmodern terms, sometimes in the books and crannies of a society thought to have moved beyond its most literally fatal flaws. Those spaces untouched and unmotivated by an appeal to a propriety so unyielding as to potentially include everyone and yet include no one at all.

The simmer of generational resentment prevents any battle from being finished for too long. Instead old fights are driven merely underground, for long enough to make a claim of victory and leverage it for whatever political currency it will yield.

Nat Turner Understood violence, its efficacy in liberating the bodies however briefly, of some Black people.

Martin Luther King understood violence, the swiftness with which it can discard the veil of its own pacifism when challenged with truly radical change. The opportunity in uncovering it, showing it to itself.

And 1 year, 1 month, 1 week and 21 hours week Why does the specter of political violence still loom so large in America today? 

Why larger for me perhaps, than you? How are we to accept a peace so fragile, that it feels instead like a prelude to war? Has it always felt this way? A slowly and persistently heightening terror, a bubbling of irresolvable tensions, a yawning yearn for some new age to emerge, and some final, swift disjuncture which makes imaginable what was not before?

Is this the fear that met nat turner the night before the first neck was slit?

If so which side of this disjuncture do we sit on today? Are we at the end of history or does it lie waiting for us still?

As I see it, what stands between the sure destruction that a minority of people would readily wage over me, over many of us here, is the willingness of others among us, who we would hope to count among our allies, to put their bodies between us and them. To determine it worth risking, really risking themselves, risking the peace they could readily recede into, to be in the project of equal citizenship with us. It is a zeal I have not seen as often as I would hope, but hope still persists.

And who knows, maybe I am speaking from within a perspective that no measure of education, exposure, or carefully accumulated knowledge can allow me to see beyond. Perhaps there is a vulnerability, so implicit in Black existence in this place, that I cannot see the ways some secret power might insulate you from what may come here, but I exhort you, there is not strong historical grounding for this belief.

So to the space in you, so thoroughly inculcated by images of revolutionary change, so evinced by the whole of our culture and perhaps the way that we would all like to see ourselves in an exceptionalism one cannot readily find on the streets or in the schools or in the courts or in the neighborhoods or in the industries or in the small hidden places shared only with friends, so absolutely certain you can maintain a tender distance from the violence you so often ignore, that so often seems to work out in your favor, so ready to believe in the fabulous potential to wield old tools to new outcomes I caution, fights reveal futilities. 

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