[Trigger Warning: This article contains unaltered use of the N-Word]
The title of this article is derived from the Sly and the Family Stone album of the same name, which — among other concepts — reflects the socio-political turmoil of its time. Works of art inevitably mirror the lived experiences of their creators and the social environment in which they were conceived.
Comic books have, for the most part, followed this trend, with creative teams often crafting their stories as beacons of progress. Despite this, there is an apparent cognitive dissonance between readers who have enthralled themselves with fictional accounts of revolution while simultaneously ignoring (and even condemning) actual revolutions being fought around them.
Police brutality, as well as race relations between civilians and law enforcement, are topics on everyone’s lips. Very little time has passed since the Ferguson grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown and a New York City grand jury also failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner — despite Pataleo’s illegal chokehold which resulted in Garner’s death being caught on camera.
Public outrage has erupted across the country, not only in response to the deaths of Brown and Garner, but at the culmination of seemingly endless extrajudicial killings of Black civilians. While the deaths of Black men and boys, including Brown, Garner, Akai Gurley, Darrien Hunt, John Crawford, VonDerrick Myers, Ezell Ford and Tamir Rice at the hands of law enforcement have become the central stories that epitomize racially motivated police brutality, the erasure of extrajudicial killings of Black women and girls such as Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Rekia Boyd, Shereese Francis, Aiyana Jones, Tarika Wilson, Eleanor Bumpurs, and Tyisha Miller among many, many others sadly underscores the fact that male privilege exists even beyond the grave.
Despite this long-standing epidemic of extrajudicial killings, #NotAllCops paraphrases a pervasive rhetoric that has been lunged down people’s throats as of late, and much like #NotAllMen, it is completely irrelevant. Disrupting the path of social justice to proclaim a rudimentary truth that not every single individual, who holds an institutionalized authority to kill if and when they deem necessary, is not evil incarnate is not only childish, it’s irresponsible. Pointing out the obvious serves only one purpose: to derail the national conversation on police brutality.
Historically, it has never been safer in this day and age to have a career in law enforcement. Conversly, police departments across the country pay millions of dollars in settlements from lawsuits alleging police brutality every year. As such, the mere suggestion unarmed civilians pose an equal threat to police who are entitled to automatic firearms as well as ever-increasing access to military grade weaponry is not only obscene, its sick. The onus — otherwise known as burden, duty or responsibility — is always on those who hold institutionalized power. Literally, always.
Desperate to criticize protestors and rioters alike, many white commentators revel in the opportunity to quote Martin Luther King Jr. out of context as our nation’s embodiment of non-violent resistance, blissfully unaware of the fact he stated “[w]e can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” in his I Have A Dream speech. People of color who adhere to the politics of respectability have echoed this fallacy, forgetting his life ended in assassination despite his commitment to passivity. Even within his devotion to non-violence, King perfectly articulated the realization that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” If you fail to understand why people riot, what recourse could you possibly have to prevent it?
What is most peculiar about the negative public reactions surrounding recent protests and riots is that they are occurring at a time when fictional accounts of state sanctioned violence and reactionary revolts are central themes in media franchises. The Hunger Games, Batman and X-Men films have generated record number at the box office in recent years, all of which recount civilians taking the law into their own hands in the face of a corrupt system. Though The Hunger Games may be a recent phenomenon, Batman and the X-Men have been romanticizing socio-political upheaval for decades.
As Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (2008) points out, “Batman always violates criminals’ civil rights, since he has no authority to as an agent of the law, and [Commissioner] Gordon knows that, but he does not place rights and the law above justice and order.”
However, it is not only the criminal element of Gotham City Batman retaliates against in his personal war on crime, but the agents of law themselves. His activities are as much of a rebellion against corruption within the police force as it is to the criminals who terrorize the city. Commissioner Gordon is typically portrayed as the lone trustworthy officer drowning in a cesspool of crooked cops on the take with Batman acting as a life preserver.
Cinematic Sociology: Social Life in Film (2012) observes: “Like preserves about police corruption, deviance within systems of social control has been an enduring paradox of social theory that examines how to best preserve and maintain the integrity of collective morality. Such a concern is perhaps best expressed by the classic question, ‘Who will guard the guardians?’ (Juvenal 1982) and illustrates one of the most complex issues related to sociology of deviance: how can we ensure that the guardians of the normative order are not deviant themselves?”
Why should we be expected to have faith in the system, when officers such as Daniel Holtzclaw use their position of authority to rape multiple Black women, knowing that rape even under more ‘conventional’ circumstances is an underreported crime which rarely results in charges being brought to trial, let alone conviction? How do we respect a badge which may unknowingly be worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan, as was the case with David Borst, George Hunnewell, and James Elkins? How do we digest the fact that Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts? Or that Black children are perceived as much as a potential threat as adults?
As previously mentioned, the oppression of the Black community by the state is nothing new and neither is the process of turning our lived experiences into works of fiction for the sake of entertainment. According to Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film, and Television (2010) by Gladys L. Knight: “In 1963, when X-Men debut, the United States was reeling from the sight of harrowing protests against segregation and racism taking place and the civil rights movement came to a head. The X-Men represented African Americans, who likewise were subjected to racism, discrimination and segregation. In the 1960s, protests against such treatment and disparities climaxed with the emergence of two diverging movements among African Americans: the nonviolent civil rights movement and the militant black-power movement. Shadowing these true-life social movements were two of the mutant groups in the Marvel Universe: the X-Men, organized by Xavier and the militant mutant faction known as the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, helmed by Magneto.”
Despite the concept of the X-Men taking its roots from the African American civil rights movement, the central characters that popularized the series have been primarily white: namely, Xavier, Magneto, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Ice Man, Wolverine, [Arch]Angel, Rogue, Kitty Pride, Beast, Mystique and Nightcrawler (and while the latter may be blue-skinned or furred, they nonetheless descend from European ancestry). Among the hundreds of characters to be identified as X-Men only two—Storm and Bishop—are actual Black characters who have gained notable prominence. It is also worth pointing out that neither are founding members of the group.
White experiences being centered over those of Black and non-Black people of color extend across multiple movements. Despite the bulk of social and legal strides in equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people having been initiated and fought for by Black and non-Black people of color such as Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major, the public consciousness of the LGBT culture and community is envisioned as an exclusively white phenomenon.
This is no doubt in part to films and television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, But I’m a Cheerleader, Queer as Folk, The Birdcage, Brokeback Mountain, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Boys Don’t Cry, Glee, and Will & Grace among others featuring predominately white characters. As inconceivable as it sounds I have met college level students so mired in ignorance that they literally believe same-sex attraction and gender variance is a modern invention of western (specifically white American) society. Casual reminder: I’m from California.
Black and non-Black LGBT people of color feel the impact of racism as deeply as we do homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Statistically, we are the primary targets of the latter specifically because of the former, yet we are often treated as non-existent by cisgender heterosexual communities of color as well as white LGBT individuals. Black trans women account for the highest percentage of homicide rates among LGBT people, even though the topic of violence against our communities often centers cisgender white gay men.
Facing numerous axes of oppression, we are often forced into the most radical revolutionary acts to make the world around us more accommodating, only to be deliberately erased from history in favor of those far less crucial to our shared movements once a new status quo has been established. This perpetual cycle of appropriation, erasure and misrepresentation is precisely what has sustained the myth of post-racial America.
As such, white LGBT people have felt disturbingly comfortable on social media condemning acts of rioting in response to police brutality, conveniently forgetting that not only did the LGBT movement start because of the Stonewall riots — a particularly violent outburst against police brutality — but that the riot itself was initiated by a trans woman of color (Rivera). Revolutions are messy. They are violent. Property gets destroyed. People get hurt. People die. This is reality and if you refuse to observe history, you’ll read it in the fiction you pay $3.99 to read on a weekly basis.
While the X-Men may be framed as non-violent, they have certainly engaged in plenty of violent confrontations since their inception. Xavier’s training facility which hones his students mutant capabilities is literally called the “War Room,” where student learn not only how to defend themselves but also to fight against a militarized police force that is specifically designed to annihilate them. There has never been a point in their publication history when they did not engage in the destruction of both private and government property on a regular basis, intentionally or not.
Most readers will overlook these grievances as an inevitable causality of a moral crusade for equality, yet condemn the same actions taken by real people in response to police brutality. Interestingly enough, riots which have resulting in looting of goods specifically in connection with Ferguson and other police brutality cases are minute in comparison to the number of peaceful demonstrations across the country and internationally. Even if they weren’t, loss of property is not equivalent to loss of life. It is yet another false dichotomy meant to derail.
When I took Introduction to Cinematography, I remember my professor discussed the power of symbolism and indoctrination using the US flag as an example. She lowered it towards the ground without actually allowing it to touch the floor. She stated “I can see your reactions. Your hearts are about to leap out of your chests. WHY? This is—LITERALLY—felt on a stick.”
Her point being: we are better conditioned to have emotional reactions to inanimate objects than to the sanctity of living people those objects represent. While I do not advocate for the destruction or desecration of sacred objects (political, religious or cultural) I will not allow myself to be emotional swayed—to any significant degree—by inanimate objects either. It is idolatry and a waste of energy; energy better spent in pursuit of the preservation of human life.
Ultimately, I hope my fellow geeks from all walks of life will check themselves the next time they have something to say about police brutality, Black life and resistance. To those who already have, be wary of those who will weep over dead bodies in The Hunger Games and praise Katniss for dismantling her government, those who worship Batman and family for spitting in the face of the Gotham City Police Department, and those who are enthralled by the X-Men revolting both peaceably and violently against a militarized police force, who will nonetheless look at protests and riots across the country and have nothing to say but “thugs,” “niggers,” and “savages.”
For more J. Skyler thoughts on the state of media representation today, head on over to ComicsAlliance for her essay on “Batgirl And The Perpetual State Of Transphobia“