Two weeks ago, I started writing about the latest police killing of a black man. It was supposed to run that Friday, and in that faintly narcissistic way, I hoped it said something universal about the spiritual exhaustion of another such incident. But by midday Friday, there was already video of another black man shot to death by police — this time, supposedly accidentally, as the volunteer cop arresting him “reached for his taser” and, I don’t know, missed. By the beginning of the next week, there was video of one of the police responding to the man’s pleas of “I’m losing my breath” with, “Fuck your breath.”
By next week, it will probably be someone else. The “every 28 hours” statistic might be bunk, but waiting for the inexorable progress of the clock is not. The ugliest implication is that, if you’re busy today, you don’t need to spend too much time lamenting this body and getting to know the person that used to inhabit it; there will be another one soon enough.
There is no way to not be tired. You can be angry — and you should — but that only accelerates the exhaustion. Being angry is an investment, in coiling your body, balling your fists, feeling an incipient twitch at another incoming cruelty, all rushing toward the moment when you simply have no choice but to relent because you cannot maintain the energy of always being threatened and outraged. Besides, depending on your race, the act of being publicly outraged may be the excuse the forces of order require to make you feel threatened. So you are allowed a moment’s or a day’s or a week’s breath, because you need it — because if not this catastrophe, then the next, perhaps your own.
This most recent, most profound catastrophe is plain as day. Recorded by a man in passing, we see a police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back eight times. The officer, Michael Slager, pulled Scott over for a busted taillight, even though under South Carolina law only one working taillight is required. Slager’s stop was part of a larger, discriminatory phenomenon called an investigatory stop, wherein people of color are disproportionately pulled over for minor offenses on the assumption that doing so will inevitably lead to discovery of more nefarious crimes. Scott ran from Slager — he had a history of failure to pay child support — and Slager fired eight bullets into him. Slager then handcuffed the dying Scott. Afterward, he claimed that Scott reached for Slager’s taser, and on video Slager can be seen tossing a black object, presumably the taser, next to Scott’s prone body. When the video surfaced, contradicting almost every aspect of Slager’s original defense of his killing Scott, Slager’s own lawyer resigned from his case.
Here it is, that rare time in America where a cop killing an unarmed black person might be so indelibly a murder that it actually results in a conviction, and, still, it is so tiring. Not just because days later we learned about Eric Harris accidentally being shot by a taser-seeking sometime-cop, not because of “fuck your breath.” You don’t need those. Walter Scott and his aftermath is enough; not just for what his death is, but for what it will be perverted into being. It’s a bone-tired that should be worn in and on all of us, and that won’t matter, because someone will come along to describe it as an aberrancy while pardoning every other statistic, blaming you for noticing, then claiming that no one really cares.
That’s the first and most craven stage of tired — when you want to believe that, maybe, just this once, this guy shot in the back did some as yet unknown shot-in-the-backable offense. That maybe, please, O, Lord, this time the system was actually working. That you find yourself, all other loathing and institutional distrust aside, wishing the universe would reveal a detail signifying that the victim induced this nightmare. Not Fox News, but the actual universe, some rapidly spinning and expanding rule of cosmic law that you want to believe eventually coalesces around order and rationality. But there isn’t, and there wasn’t, and Walter Scott is still murdered in all but name.
Which brings only the second stage of tired — the constant weariness at hearing some invariably well-compensated performatively victimized white person trying to hammer a circle into a square to prove that Walter Scott shot himself in the back by some nefariously black means. And you know this will happen, because these are the same people who managed to conjure a good student like Trayvon Martin into a mesmerizing monster of inscrutable black art, who could lure a person allegedly concerned about safety to exit a lockable and drivable car over a 911 dispatcher’s objections and go in pursuit of “a threat.” So you will hear statistics about police killings of black suspects and detainees dismissed by statistics about black-on-black crime — a savagely cynical defense of racist thinking via racist thinking. And you know that you will go blue in the face trying to explain that black-on-black crime is no more dispositive of a racial predisposition to violence than white-on-white crime, because of course white victims of crime are overwhelmingly targeted by fellow whites. In an segregated society, we prey on our neighbors.
And then there’s the third stage of tired — the fear that creating a movement around one death can always backfire. If you want to describe the faults of complex systems via a single incident, the case itself must be perfect for the systemic indictment to hold. This was the secondary misfortune of Ferguson: that Mike Brown was moving toward Officer Darren Wilson, appeared threatening even to bystanders and probably wasn’t surrendering — that Brown may have been more than just “menacing” within air quotes, may have been impaired by high enough levels of THC to not register the risk, and may have run straight into an old racial narrative of a cop needing to “put down” the threat. That the facts of Mike Brown’s death harmed a larger, true narrative of police (and Americans in general) prejudicially perceiving black “brutes” as more threatening, monstrously strong and immune to pain leaves you with alternatives like dropping the argument, making it so nuanced and qualified that half the participants in the discussion won’t listen anymore, or ignoring the facts for the sake of a bigger picture. In so doing that last part, you dangerously approach the “Noble Lie” thinking of the ghouls who brought you Iraq Version II.
When you extrude the particular into the systemic, you amplify every little flaw into an escape clause. The tired and complacent want an escape from another depressing conversation; defenders and beneficiaries of the status quo only want an excuse big enough to escape through, impeach you and avoid the subject. There’s a reason why public policy wonks still hold up Loving v. Virginia as an ideally resonant example in the public consciousness. Any mixed marriage would, on the merits of human rights and equal protection, have sufficed to bring suit against a manifestly unjust and racist law, but the merits of fighting anti-miscegenation were just as important as the people involved — a white man and a light-skinned black woman (the optics mattered), with a committed marriage, healthy children and heartless exile from their hometown. The name Loving v. Virginia exhibited a heartbreaking perfection of nomenclature that reflected the heartbreaking near-perfection the litigants needed to exemplify just to make the court of public opinion consider injustice of greater concern than their biographies. Because that’s what we do: when we see injustice, we want to pardon ourselves by figuring out how the victim did it, and how anyone saying otherwise is selling something.
And that’s the fourth stage of tired — knowing how much your advocacy for justice will be dismissed as political, just as it collides with both the political and the self-exculpatory impulse to pardon the status quo. Even if Walter Scott’s killing is deemed an open-and-shut murder, it will be dismissed in many circles as an aberration, the exceptional crime to prove the rule of a functional system. Then, boom, on to the next one. Those still harping on it will merely evidence a particular obsession that is paradoxically “profitable” — viz. a conservative incantation of “race hustling” and Al Sharpton — and so unprofitable that it must be proof of society’s greater disinterest — viz. the recent ratings failures of MSNBC.
Conservative media crowed when an anonymous MSNBC source explained a recent spate of show cancellations with, “Going left…doesn’t work anymore…The goal is to move away from left-wing TV.” The joke being that, aside from a few anchors, MSNBC was never a leftist network and usually acted like the ‘Republicans R Dumb’ DNC Yuk-Yuk Hour. A left-wing network would actually be refreshing, and in any event, the ratings excuse doesn’t pass muster with anyone who knows anything about Morning Joe, starring Joe Scarborough as both Crazy Ira and The Douche, with Mika Brzezinski co-starring as his sidekick “A Girl.”
The thing MSNBC did to set them apart for schadenfreude from centrist and conservative critics — beyond acknowledging a vaguely center-left reality as legitimate — was go hard after the Ferguson story and be unafraid to let it lead many hours of its programming for months. And, inasmuch as these things can be won or lost, they lost. Mike Brown’s killing really wasn’t that innocent “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” moment, and their ratings went down anyway. It turns out that, for the seventh consecutive decade since television became broadly available, indicting white America and the status quo doesn’t move a lot of units. To date, nobody has figured out how to create mainstream profitability from a general condemnation of white America’s complicity in giving law enforcement a free hand to terrorize and murder minorities so long as the end result is keeping the animals from the gates.
That’s the real soul-crushing middle-American epiphany about the death of someone like Walter Scott: the idea that maybe you’ve traded your vote for anti-crime “security” for so long that you have incentivized a permanently paranoid state that has weighed the cost-benefit of another dead black man and realized that it can perpetuate and empower itself so long as the corpses fall outside your well-zoned, under-policed, ever-buffered, ever-secured neighborhood. All police conduct is political, and all police conduct can be politicized. The moment you engage it as political is the moment you start to engage the idea that these people are being shot before they can climb the fence into your subdivision, and they’re being shot with the understanding that you either won’t care that they’re dead or will thank the people with the guns and the post-mortem handcuffs. That, maybe, the problem you’re complaining about is the solution you asked for.
So it’s onto the next one. The next corpse, the next excuse. Those excuses will range from the particular to the general. Maybe the cop had a reason. Maybe the corpse belongs to a thug — just look at his personal life. Maybe nobody cares; if they did, more people would be watching. Maybe those low ratings are the market saying the problem is solved. Maybe this is the cost of doing business. There will be more.
After Walter Scott was killed, I thought about something my former colleague Cord Jefferson wrote, as he took his leave of “The Racism Beat,” the unofficial permanent writing assignment you get when you’re a black journalist in a country this prone to killing black people on the flimsiest of pretexts: “Imagine an editor asking a writer to passionately articulate why a drunk driver hitting and killing a boy on a bicycle is wrong and sad… When another unarmed black [person] is gunned down, there is something that hurts about having to put fingers to keyboard in an attempt to illuminate why another black life taken is a catastrophe.”
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and all the reasons above — they’re all reasons to be tired. Reasons, but not good enough. Not unless you’re one of the people with a target on your back—someone who realizes, as Deadspin‘s Greg Howard put it, that “it’s really not up to me… whether or not I make it back home at night,” when “such a big part of being a minority is waking up and REALLY hoping it’s not your turn.”
For someone like Jefferson or Howard, skipping another day’s portion of anger or despair is not only deserved but necessary. Going outside to catch a train to work shouldn’t have to feel like manning the battlements again; Jesus, just order-in from Seamless and watch Netflix until you pass out. But for most of the rest of us — certainly the palest of us — tired isn’t a doctor’s note, and no matter how our feet or spirits ache, we’re going to have to fill out that petition and march, if only to say that the next death cannot be in our names, is not for our protection and does not engender our relief.
For most of us, exhaustion is a metaphysical cloak, something that can be put on with as much commitment as a philosophical pose or as much transience as a style. At any moment, we can shrug it off and melt into the crowd, preserved from and unmolested by an anxiety that for us is ever optional. Justice is never more false than when being a target is a choice, and every time we choose to exempt ourselves from that process, we signal a willingness to abet its preservation. Even if our thought process is nothing more sinister than, “I’m tired.”
Feeling worn out is a joke when someone like Walter Scott has no choice but to rest forever. And I keep thinking about the weariness of people like Jefferson or Howard, who have it assigned to them both professionally and as penalty for waking up in a country socially on the wrong side of at least the 20th and perhaps still the 19th century. I keep thinking, too, about something I wrote months ago on Facebook, in the luxury of the distance and safety afforded by my heritage, before the Department of Justice report on Michael Brown’s killing was published:
“On several occasions over the last seven months, I’ve come very close to writing something like, ‘Ferguson makes my heart so exhausted.’ Each time, I pull back at the last moment, chastened by the thought of what it would be like if every living member of my family had felt that way for virtually the entirety of their lives.”