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Dr. Joyce Watford is a Descendant of American Slaves.

July 19, 2016


Black martyrdom, in the wake of recent slaughter of black male victims of abhorrent police acts, in Baton Rouge, LA, and St. Paul, MN, witnessed on tape, is not the answer to culturally aberrant policing.  Why? 

The martyrs, Micah Johnson and Gavin Long, were both young black men of distinction who had barely lived long enough to know their true callings. They were (or could have been) the best of the best among us.  Their potential was apparent, but the cloud of possibilities before them seemed so impenetrable and threatening to their very existence that they were driven to bust through, even if it cost them their life. Each died a horrific death (before they caused multiple deaths) against something in our culture so historically vile and systemic which drove them to retaliate in kind and which made them willing to die as a consequence for their acts.  The defining moment of their retaliation grew from a cause to have racial dignity, respect, equality, tolerance, and recognition in our culture that black lives matter, too, the same as white and other lives matter in our culture.

A martyr is someone who, for the sake of principle, voluntarily chooses death over having to suffer and live without having access to something of great value to them, and for which renouncing it is not an option. Historic, systemic injustices, including racialized violence, are like a second skin to the black experience, which blacks have always protested against.  The more they protest, the more life for them seemingly remains the same. The ultimate act of protest against something so repugnant and threatening to one’s life and the quality thereof can understandably result in acts of martyrdom.  After all, what value does one’s life have, if one is unwilling to protest, fight, and die for it?  

Johnson and Long were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs about their life when they chose to die for it at the hands of the police, by attempting to do to the police what they believed the police were doing to black men. Perhaps, they thought they were showing the police that the lives of black men also matter just as much as the lives of police—in other words, “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth.”  But that kind of retaliation is never a viable solution to the police problems. No illumination or clarity comes from it. Though it may seem a justifiable means to an end and may have great appeal, it is flawed by time and position.  Dead men can inspire, but they cannot see or bite—only the living can see and bite and consequently can get done what dead men cannot. 

Johnson and Long could not envision themselves or their positions any different from the moment in which they found themselves.  There lies the tragic flaw of martyrdom. The martyrs take away their chances to be active players in forging the solutions they desperately desired. We will never know now what tangible, specific contributions Johnson and Long would have made to the solutions—what strengths, talents, courage, and leadership they would have brought to the table in carving out solutions to the historic, systemic problems of policing. Given their short lives and the outstanding accomplishments and qualifications they had under their belts, they were indeed extraordinary young men.  However, their total experiences and human worth are no longer available to us; and in that regard, what a waste are their deaths!

However, martyrdom does have another side to it, which can lead to productive outcomes by attempting to recapture some of what has been lost.  Martyrdom shines a light on what motivated the martyr to sacrifice himself/herself for a cause, in the first place. Usually, we are made aware of something so horrific that it caused someone to willingly die, as an act of protest, so that attention and concern can be given to it in order to bring about change.  Martyrs inevitably become unifiers and change agents.  Micah Johnson and Gavin Long, in death, can be (and should be) regarded as young men who believed that there was no other way to get everyone to stop and take note of bad police who murder blacks without any consequences. What is hoped for is that just and fair-minded people will see the folly in that kind of injustice and will want to put an end to it. Thus, if the hoped-for outcome happens, the life and death of Micah Johnson and Gavin Long can become catalysts for change and can inform us, while moving us forward toward reforming and transforming historically aberrant police culture into a culture of guardianship, reflective of fair application of laws and equal treatment and tolerance for all. 

We do not need to continue to lose black lives to police murder, without consequences, or to martyrdom because black lives are forced to believe they have no other way to protest against racialized injustices and inequalities they face every day. However, the answer lies neither in homicides carried out against blacks by police nor in black suicidal protests inciting death at the hands of the police, instead of by one’s own hands. In today’s aberrant police culture, black suicidal protests only lead to the same dead end the protestors are protesting about—police murdering blacks without consequences or accountability. Black suicidal protestors are inviting the police to do the very same things to them which they (the protesters) are protesting against. Therefore, both black police homicides and black suicidal protests are equally unacceptable and must be discouraged and spoken out against them. Nothing good comes out of either, for the suicidal protestors, whose energies, exceptionalities, and other personal attributes can be better utilized for the good of all.

To the would-be martyrs, you can do much, much more good by staying alive and actively participating in the solutions.

© 2016   





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