“We’ll Hold The Police Accountable!”: The Useful Meaninglessnesses of Liberal-speak

Sandra Bland posted this photograph of herself to Facebook in March 2015 (Photo: Sandra Bland / Facebook).

It has been two years since Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s backyard. Two years since Rev. Al Sharpton took to the microphones and demanded that Trump and Congress should be address the issue of police killings and that it should be dealt with nationally. It’s been two years since he decried the “local authorities’ unwillingness to hold police accountable.Since then Botham Shem Jean was killed in his living room and Atatiana Jefferson was shot through her bedroom window–names now sand grains on the beach of Black people casually killed in this colony since 1619.

“Hold police accountable.” It is now expected that this phrase will be proclaimed publicly at a lectern or above jutted out microphones immediately after an instance of anti-Black mob violence is nationally reported. It is not clear when, but at some point in the postbellum era, a life-preserving cynicism was diluted, and it began to be said with a straight face that the “extrajudicial” killings of Black people would one day be halted in the land of sundown towns and Wild Wests. The national crime, now completely recoded by the corporate press as “racially tinged incidents” might one day, it is now thought, have its days numbered. This promise of eventual accountability has now become one of the most useful policing instruments, a rack torture device which stretches resistance until it is more supple and better suited to accept permanent, systematic assault against Black life.

“We will hold the police accountable” seems a perfect nothingness, striking exactly the right balance between meaninglessness and a stroking of the liberal ego. The threat moves no one, inspires no action, and comforts those who worry that some significant action might emerge from this or that incident. Incensed crowds are water-cannoned with promises of accountability, and the appointed spokespeople and colonized intellectuals are trotted out to teach the placard-burners to “go slow.”

The Reverend said that they were going to “make Donald Trump and the whole world deal with the issue of police misconduct.” It is two years later, and I have not yet felt the earth tremor under his charge. I have felt no groundswell. I expected none. Everyone expected nothing. Sharpton’s threat is striking not only because there is no person on the face of the earth that believes this liberal huffing, but even this empty threat itself is watered down to the gum-bite of “deal” and “issue” and “misconduct.” It is not even screaming menacingly into a void; it is casting bland nothings nowhere.

Still, it’s useful. One is always searching for room to pile the bodies. The promise and lie of holding police accountable keeps this space open. It does not matter how many bodies are thrown into the ditch, or that the killers are hustling back to get more on paths made easier; all is well: accountability is coming. And while its date of arrival is set in the indeterminable and unreachable future, the national pastime of publicly destroying Black bodies is always already historical. It is a “legacy of racism in this country that we still have yet to confront.”  “Still.” As if mass incarceration was a mere undesirable holdover of a better forgotten past. “Still.” As if white supremacist settler-colonialism were an event and not a structure. As if it were a well-intentioned but tardy gentleman who has not quite proved equal to his to-do list. Black people must contend with the “stills,” the “not yets” and the “one days” while peering up from our temporal bantustan at Now pinned under its Whites-Only sign.

“It’s an imperfect system,” the state apologist begins, unaware that his word choice betrays him. The words “imperfect,” and “flawed” being always evidence that the immensity of the historical record of anti-Blackness has not, for the apologist, registered as more than a blemish on the shining city. He fails to mention that the imperfection of the ever-perfecting nation is illimitable — no mass of leaden bodies is enough to stretch imperfection past capacity and on into bad. No amount of blood splatter is enough to void the blank check he has given the state. As Obama once chided Rev. Wright after the latter listed a few American atrocities: Reverend Wright “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” The violence of the setter-colony is balanced on the scale with what? We are rarely told. And when we are told we find that it is balanced with something called an “unfinished and perfecting democracy.” This being the liberal’s version of the lost cause myth. A revisionist history of the antebellum period which presents the genocidaire’s scalp haul, the slaveholder’s chase, and the post-slave revolution ethnic cleansing as mere hypocrisies during the “improbable experiment” of democracy rather than the definition of settler culture. Where George Washington’s pursuit of Ona Judge was a temporary and forgivable lapse in his otherwise unflagging commitment to equality and liberty for all.

The promise of holding police accountable operates in this world of systematic Black massacre being conceived of as an imperfection, as exception, as stain on an otherwise perfect or ever-perfecting national project. The weightlessness of the ever-immaterial “accountability” is perfectly suited for feather-dusting a blemish. It is a whiff of recompense never given the dog. It never cleans the stain. It doesn’t try. It beats radicals back into their boxes and caresses the liberal who — after the louder of the screams finally bleed through her shuttered windows — needs assurance that someone is saying that something should be done.

During a pandemic the economy is ripped up like carpet, military might is summoned, resources and information is sourced from enemy nations — at least until the white and wealthy are airlifted out, and it is certain that only the ghettoes will be wasting away. At this point the words “unfortunate” and “sad” are raised like champagne glasses, and when the virus is quarantined with the poor, the second-class solutions of “beginning to have the difficult conversations” and “making people feel ‘uncomfortable'” are dusted off and rolled out of storage. Then the news anchors listen with wandering eyes to smiling pundits as they speak about “racial health disparities in our Black and brown communities.” However, during this five-century-old Black Plague of anti-Black normalcy that sits on the continent like a dead cough, the only vaccine searched for is a guarded wall and watchtower to keep the dying at bay.

The promise of holding the police accountable presumes the benevolence of the violent. “The Blacks” are a population whose systematic elimination does not arouse suspicion. To think this is deliberate is unthinkable. To consider whether this is calculated is out of the question. Despite their bloody gloves on display like knuckles in a butchershop window, the state and society cannot be suspected of murdering Blacks. The fight, where there is one, is a fight to accuse it of negligible homicide, police over-zealousness, a term that transforms anti-Black state violence into selfless dedication to a “difficult job.” The state does not merely possess the benefit of the doubt — it cannot be doubted. One feels the charges of reverse-racism spinning in the barrels if one clutches one’s purse when the heaving, lurch of American history embodied in a cruller-breathed Jordan Peterson acolyte follows you home down a well-lit alley. A gun in the hand of a policeman is not really a gun — you are wrong to worry. It is not a cellphone or a toy or a nothing in a Black hand — you are safe. We must put our faith in and be convinced of the moral infallibility of the paramilitaries and increasingly space-age occupying forces of the white supremacist state. All Black death before this point and into the future are errors, regrettable casualties of some unnamed war or grand project. But if you are Black you must believe in this project; you must love it. You must bear the American cross and be burned atop it. You cannot put it down. The faithful shall be rewarded with accountability in heaven, whether that be beyond the clouds or beyond the finish line of American racialism where all of God’s US children are forever enlightened.

Around sixty years ago people used to imagine the end of all forms of racism in the era of flying cars. Today, Uber is working with NASA on flying taxies and there hasn’t been a dent in lynching. Instead, every fourth page photo of a hunched over corpse is greeted with the same Henry Louis Gates, Jr. faux surprise as we claim to be astonished that this could happen “to any citizen in the United States.” We must recite the pledge: I believe in accountability. Repeat the lie and continue the spell that is America. Like the alcoholic-in-denial swaying with drink in hand assuring himself and others that he could quit anytime he wants to, the end to racist murder is always around the corner. The slave state has always been the liberator in disguise. The police will always one day be accountable. “We need to have the conversation” the drunks belch out instinctively at the dropping of another dark corpse. As if there was any slow massacre in the history of humanity that has ever been adequately addressed by a town hall panel discussion.

What would we do without the fantasy of accountability? We would have no other option other than to examine this strange refrain of Black body destruction dispassionately. We would have to ask whether America has truly been all this time befuddled. We would have to admit that we are not being lied to, but that we are the liars. And that it is a bad lie. Nobody is surprised by another body hitting the ground, and nobody is surprised that no one is roused by any calls of “no more.” The collective shaking of our heads in the wake of anti-Black violence is not testament to progress on race issues but to the capaciousness of our funeral homes. It is liberal culture, which is always the same as to say white supremacist statolatry. The state can grind to a halt at the drop of a virus-contaminated dime. It cannot, however, seem to summon the strength to heave back a baton-strike. Or deter lynching.

The notion of police accountability arrests the imagining of a different order. It wins over and so corrals would-be abolitionists. It is the overseer’s promise to do right by the enslaved. It is the master’s word on eventual liberty given to the field hands so that they do not run off and join the insurrectionists.

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Yannick Marshall

Yannick Marshall is assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College. His dissertation is on policing in colonial Kenya, and he teaches and writes about settler-colonialism, anti-Blackness, and police power. Marshall has also published poetry and short fiction. Follow him on Twitter @furtherblack.

Comments on ““We’ll Hold The Police Accountable!”: The Useful Meaninglessnesses of Liberal-speak

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    Greeting family
    It bother my soul to read article like this, but police is the gate keepers for white supremacy . Remember when Obama had a beer with one on the White lawn. We get killed they go home. We must still fight, appreciate the article.

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    Great writing, a student of Fanon no doubt. illusatrative and moving?

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    An excellent analysis and beautifully written. And we need to extend the analysis to the notion of holding politicians accountable, or “holding the politicians’ feet to the fire.” The police are only the system’s pit bulls and it is vital to identify who is holding the leash.

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    What do you say to a thoughtful, well-composed, beautiful and scathing analysis?

    This quote, like many other piercing statements, renders Professor Marshall’s analysis poetic:

    However, during this five-century-old Black Plague of anti-Black normalcy sits on the continent like a dead cough, the only vaccine searched for is a guarded wall and watchtower to keep the dying at bay.

    It (still) begs the question, “What is we gon’ do?”

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