Black Death and the Possibilities for Diasporic Solidarity

Democrats Abroad showing their banner at the Frankfurt Women’s March in 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of Mike Brown’s 2014 death, comparatively small Black populations in London, Berlin and Amsterdam spearheaded solidarity marches calling for justice. These protests and the rise of Black Lives Matter chapters in these and other European cities indicate Afro-Europeans’ awareness of the tragic events befalling Black people in the US, but the reverse has not proven to be universally true. Since 2016 Sarah Reed, Edir “Edson” Frederico Da Costa, Adama Traoré and Rashan Charles have died either while being detained by police or while imprisoned in the UK and France. These deaths speak to the long, violent arm of the police state, which has sometimes been framed as a distinctly American phenomenon. There has been relatively little press coverage, mainstream or otherwise, of Afro-Europeans who have died at the intersection of institutional racism and the aggressive policing of Black bodies in the West, and only sparse acknowledgment of these deaths within US activist circles. These many Black deaths are moments to reframe state repression and violence as a diasporic experience and build transnational solidarities. In a moment where technological advancements provide sites for Black people to bear witness to each other’s lives across the diaspora, what does it say that many African Americans do not often reach beyond our borders and offer solidarity? What does this say of future possibilities for diasporic solidary as praxis?

When Mark Duggan was shot by London’s Metropolitan Police in 2011 there were some parallels with the 2009 death of Oscar Grant, not just in the young men’s lives but in the ways in which their local communities rose up in protest seeking justice. Their names have become synonymous with the precariousness of Black life in each country which made, for instance, the lens through which Black British audiences viewed Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station richly layered with meanings not easily delineated across the Atlantic. For instance, during a panel debate after a 2014 screening of the film at The New Black Film Collective London, participants “question[ed] whether it is ‘lawful’ to kill Black people today in the wake of the recent controversial Mark Duggan and Trayvon Martin cases.” Stuart Hall argues that cultural identities are not fixed, but rather are always becoming. They “belong to the future as much as to the past… cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories… identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” Thus this screening of Fruitvale Station in London evoked the tragedy of (violent) Black death at the hands of law enforcement as part of the regular workings of law enforcement, as a point of connection between Black communities in Oakland and London (the US and the UK).

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave following the death of Freddie Gray. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is not to suggest that one should ignore the contextual differences of the individual, local and national realities to make comparisons where they do not exist, invoking a similarity of experience based on race alone. Again, Hall notes that diasporic identities are not homogenous, “Difference, therefore, persists – in and alongside continuity.” The 2016 death of Adama Traoré in a suburb of Paris can highlight the different routes through which the policing of Black bodies has historically occurred across the Atlantic. Traoré was arrested while police were searching for his brother and died within a few hours of his arrest. Parts of this story sound eerily similar to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, especially the shifting stories of law enforcement officials about the manner of Traoré’s death. Police said Traoré died from heart disease or drug use, but both were later refuted by a medical expert who cited asphyxiation as his cause of death, (re)igniting conversations about institutional racism in France.

“In January 2017, an investigation by the Defenseur des Droits, an independent constitutional authority, revealed that young men ‘perceived as Arabs or blacks’ are 20 times more likely to undergo an identity check in France than the rest of the population.” Anger at the use of identity checks to harass Black people mirrors similar sentiments about the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death in 2014. This public outrage built upon historical critiques of discrimination in American policing and echo Sir William Macpherson’s declaration that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist in their investigation of the 1993 death of Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson’s report was an about-face from the Scarman Report in the aftermath of the 1981 Brixton riots, which were fomented by the Met’s use of an ordinance nicknamed ‘sus’, which allowed the police to stop anyone they suspected was about to commit a street crime. And the Brixton riots, as Paul Gilroy and Gus John have noted, built on longer histories of conflict between the British police and Black communities.

Photograph showing police and marchers in Notting Hill, West London, 1970. (The National Archives UK)

These deaths, and the activism that has emerged around them, are strands that can be pulled together to build a transnational movement against state violence meted out to Black people, but it also must be inclusive. The tragic 2016 suicide of Sarah Reed in Holloway Prison seems to mimic the scores of African American women’s deaths in custody, whose mental health was neglected or compromised through the regular functioning of the carceral state. Reed’s death should immediately call to mind Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles or Korryn Gaines. As emerged in the aftermath of Bland’s death, the UK movement seeking justice for Reed noted that Black women have been marginalized as victims in narratives of state violence. Again, Afro-Europeans took up the terminology of the US movement as a point of solidarity and inspiration. “On the night following Sarah’s funeral, hundreds gathered for a vigil organized by Black Sox, a black-led social movement, outside the red brick walls of Holloway. Sarah’s name was marked out on the pavement in candles. Through the window of the jail, two prison guards could be seen in silhouette, peering out as crowds chanted ‘Say her name: Sarah Reed. Black Lives Matter.”

Gilroy notes that “the forms of black solidarity that were constructed during the era of black power and pride simply cannot be assumed to operate any longer.” Rather, we are now in a moment “where brotherhood and sisterhood should not be assumed to exist but are waiting to be re-created.” Thus, I have placed these deaths side-by-side to invoke the contemporary African Diaspora as a “‘production’, which is never complete, always in process” to highlight the possible foundations for transnational diasporic activism, which must be consciously sought out and created. Malcolm X speaking to Caribbean migrants at the Oxford Union; Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for an anti-apartheid and de-colonial agenda in London; and Malcolm, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. Du Bois and Stokely Carmichael attending Ghana’s independence celebrations were moments that situated Black oppression and struggle in one part of the world as bound to those same realities in another. But, most inspirationally, they were foundations upon which Black futures could be imagined beyond the limitations of oppression and while building Black communities across borders. The contemporary loss of these many Black lives can be opportunities for the same.

Scholars such as Hall, Gilroy and Hazel Carby have often focused on art as important sites of diasporic cultures and political action. But here I seek to consider Black deaths, and the activist movements that have emerged around them, on the same plane, inspired by Hall’s discussion of “positioning”; “there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position.” In his essay after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Teju Cole dissected the ways in which certain dead bodies are “unmournable” because they cannot inspire international outrage. Cole argues that the death of Black people, and other marginalized groups, do not receive international attention because Black life is under- (or de-)valued. I am not positing diasporic Black solidarity movements based on death alone. Instead, Cole’s work is an important reminder that the utility of a diasporic activist praxis allows Black people to see, and be seen by, one another. We recognize each other not based on race alone, but by recognizing and affirming our humanity. By making these, and other, deaths “community property,” mourning one another and seeking justice in the name of our dead, we affirm the value of Black life, an integral part of (re)making the contemporary African Diaspora.

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Nicole Jackson

Nicole M. Jackson is an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora History at Bowling Green State University. Her work focuses on Black social movements in the post-WWII African Diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @nicole_maelyn.

Comments on “Black Death and the Possibilities for Diasporic Solidarity

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    Powerful truth aligning the commonality of our struggle for justice and dignity, be in the U.S. or abroad. We are one and must unite and move forward as one.

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