If Our Freedom is Criminal, We Must Change the Laws

Original artwork by Taijhet Nyobi

Original artwork by Taijhet Nyobi


Originally published on Black Youth Project and cross-posted here with their permission.

I remember the night that Troy Davis was lynched.

I remember the anxiety I felt – the sadness and the worry.

And then I remember thinking that I had no right to feel so much. I imagined what Davis and his family must have felt, and I wanted to respect and honor that.

Just before the lynching, I went for a jog around my neighborhood in South Los Angeles. I remember running, sprinting, trying to rid myself of all that “so much” that I felt.

I was running towards a freedom of my mind, spirit and body. But my stride was halted when a police car crept up beside me.

I had to remember that I was a Black man now. And a Black man running on concrete could easily be the death of me in the United States. So I stopped and walked slowly instead.

I made eye contact with the officers. I didn’t smile. I didn’t frown. I stared.

There was nothing in my eyes that would make them see me as anything other than a Black man running on a night when we were all being reminded nationally that Blackness makes you guilty, criminal, not worthy of life, and all the evidence needed – your Black skin and feet crossing the road.

It didn’t matter that I had grown up a Black woman. I didn’t matter that I was a PhD candidate at USC. It didn’t matter that I had a family and friends who loved me. My bright smile didn’t matter because they would never be able to see it.

None of those things that would need to be pulled out in some courtroom after my death to prove me a “good” person mattered in that moment.

The officers glanced me over, and I feared if I had kept running, they might shoot. I knew then that Troy Davis would certainly be put to death. And he was.

I remember riding the BART the night Oscar Grant was murdered.

I remember watching the film, Fruitvale Station, last week with friends in New York. I remember my tears. I remember the deafening silence that lingered in the theater as the credits rolled.

I remember the last scene. Daughter looking up to mother in shower and asking, “Where is Daddy?” They were alone now and what was missing, the silence between them would never be able to fill.

What this film did so brilliantly was to show the spectacular violence that Black people are subject to from everyday living. Yes, Oscar Grant was an everyday brother from Oakland. He was struggling to make ends meet, struggling to stay out of prison, and struggling to be a support to his family.

His mother, like many parents in the Bay on New Year’s Eve, told him to take the BART because that would be safer than driving with so many after party people on the road.

But public amenities are not always safer for us Black people, people of color, queer people, transgender people, women, and poor people.

What is designated public is not always safe or adequate for the people who use those services.

The recent gutting of The Voting Rights Act and the dismantling of public school education all across the country are but two examples of the ways in which peoples’ indelible rights are constantly being revoked or revised to obsolescence.

If one can’t afford private school or a car service on New Year’s Eve, there should be no risk, but it is apparent that there are for Black people, people of color, and poor people.

We must continue to demand that our public systems benefit the people who need the education, health care, transportation, and job services the most. We must not allow our public expenses to be spent on building more prisons and policing regimes that do not benefit us.

We must begin to ask ourselves hard questions. What does safety look like if it does not come in the form of more police and incarceration?

What is Freedom?

After watching Fruitvale Station, my friends and I went to a bar to decompress. We went to Slide, a restaurant in Greenwich Village (the place I had dined for lunch earlier that day). I went to the back of the restaurant and asked one of the workers if he could tell me where the bathroom was located.

With his arms folded he looked at me and asked, “Why? Are you a customer here?”

I responded, “Yes,” a bit perturbed by the question.

He replied, “Well, where are you sitting? I haven’t seen you in here.”

I pointed out my group of friends.

I couldn’t believe I was being questioned in this way.

He pointed his finger in some direction that didn’t give me a better idea of the bathroom location, so I walked back to my group.

I was angry. I was the only Black man in our group, and I think the only Black man in the restaurant at that time. I told my friends what had just occurred and someone brought it to the attention of the bartender.

The bartender apologized and offered our group of six a round of free shots. I felt cheapened by the gesture.

I had to leave the bar.

Later, one of my friends told me that she talked to the man who questioned me. He happened to be a manager.

His response: “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong. It is our policy to not allow people who aren’t customers to use the bathroom. I didn’t do anything wrong, but if your friend feels like he needs an apology, then I can do that.”

The thing is, he didn’t do anything wrong. He was following a policy.

It just so happens that this kind of policy, just like the stop-and-frisk policy and the Stand Your Ground Laws, are inherently racist, grounded in a fear of the Blackened criminal – an image that has remained a constant in white supremacists imaginaries.

These policies are based in logics of policing that rely on the normalization of Blackness as embodied criminality.

This criminality or the policing tactics used to put these criminalized populations in their place may differ when examining race alongside gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

For example, a Black woman’s experience of state policing might be different from a Black man’s experience. However, a Black woman who is also gender queer might experience identical policing from the state because she fits the description of that young Black hyper-masculine criminal.

As long as there is a category of Black male and criminality is normalized as essential to that definition, there will be all kinds of bodies (Black, Brown, Poor, Middle Class, transgender, cisgender, female, male) subject to racist state-sanctioned violence under the guise of “safety” and “law” or “standard policy.”

As long as there is a ruling ideology that Blackness is inherently criminal, we will always be fighting to plead the case of Black humanity.

 As Sylvia Wynter writes, the codes governing who gets to be considered human “also govern…the locking in…of…captive populations (in ghettoes and prisons).”

 Today, we must rethink our governing codes and our laws. If they do not work for us, then we must change them.

 I am emboldened by The Dream Defenders who have been a conducting a sit-in in Governor Rick Scott’s office in the Florida State Capitol since Tuesday, July 16 demanding a legislative enactment of Trayvon’s Law, a repeal to The Stand Your Ground law, a ban on racial profiling, and end to the school-to-prison pipeline.

 Some people may look at these demands and the demands of young Black people and allies across the country as crazy. But we want a new world because this one is not working for us.

And we are not alone.

In 1851, they called this insatiable desire for freedom drapetomania.

Drapetomania was deemed a mental illness by physician, Samuel A. Cartwright. It was a condition that described a slave obsessed with her/his freedom — the runaways, the ancestors who refused to remain silence and still despite the risks.

The recommended prescription for those ailed by drapetomania was more whippings.

If slaves were still too stubborn after the beatings, the suggestion was amputation of both big toes or sometimes a foot. The goal was to remove the possibility of escape while still keeping the slave alive and working in the service of the master.

We must continue to run to freedom.

We must continue to raze institutions that do not service our freedom.

A police officer may see my jogging stride as criminal, Fox News might call The Dream Defenders crazy radicals and also criminal, but we must continue to call it freedom and justice.

It is the knowing that we are running to freedom that causes so much anxiety and anger.

It is the fear that we might know ourselves powerful and fierce, greater than any chain that tries to keep us bound or gun aimed in our direction to shoot us into submission.

We must continue to rise, like dandelions.

We must continue to run, like slaves ailed with drapetomania.

We must seek freedomways like Harriet Tubman.

We must demand a new world in the name of our ancestors, our futures, and ourselves right here and right now.


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Kai M. Green is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is a  filmmaker and a spoken word poet who examines through film and poetry questions of gendered and racialized violence and a PhD candidate in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. Learn more about him on Youtube and his blogs, Kai’s (Bi)Weekly Jams and In The Darkness: My Dissertation Journey. Follow him on Twitter @Kai_MG. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.