The following article was authored by Bretigne Shaffer for her blog On The Banks. I think the message she relays herein is important and needs to be heard, so with her permission, I’ve republished it here. (I was going to craft a similar piece myself, but she saved me the trouble; many thanks, Bretigne!)
I remember watching this scene when it first appeared, in the TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, in 1977. This scene was particularly horrific, as the two slave catchers offer runaway slave Kunta Kinte the “choice” between being castrated or having the front of his right foot cut off. He “chooses” the foot, and one of the men brings down his axe on it.
The scene was written with the intention of getting across the very real horrors inflicted upon people by the institution of slavery. And it works. It is a horrifying scene that I’m sure stayed with everyone who saw it for many years afterwards.
Watching it 38 years later though in the context of 2015 America, it isn’t horrifying, it is chilling.
When one of the slave catchers proclaims “…the man’s made his choice” before chopping off Kinte’s foot, I can see millions of Americans nodding along in assent and commenting that this was, after all, the man’s fourth attempt at running away, and running away from slavery was a crime. I can hear them tsk-tsk-ing: “If he didn’t want his foot chopped off, he should have just obeyed the law!” “He should have listened to his masters!” “He should have had more respect for authority!”
Because in 2015 America, we are told that it is perfectly natural, perfectly legitimate, to have one group of people who get to go around giving orders to everyone else. One group of people who can demand obedience at gunpoint, and who are free to inflict whatever punishment they want to on anyone who disobeys them. Or indeed, on anyone who they even suspect might in some way possibly pose a threat to them. Or, in reality, if they just feel like it.
None of this has anything to do with legitimate “law enforcement.” None of this has anything to do with keeping our cities and streets safe – just the opposite in fact. With very few (and surprisingly silent) exceptions, police in America have become little more than predators and revenue collectors.
So when Sandra Bland ends up dead in a jail cell because she failed to signal a lane change, and then questioned a police officer’s request that she put out her cigarette; when a sixteen-year-old girl is thrown across a classroom because she failed to obey her teacher and a police officer who asked her to leave – we are told that these episodes are part of a legitimate process, and more: that the violence suffered was the fault of the victims themselves, for not being more respectful of authority.
And I guess they’re right. If you don’t want to get beaten up or killed by big guys wearing uniforms, then you should keep your mouth shut and always do everything they say. Just like Kunta Kinte should have kept his mouth shut and stopped trying to run away if he didn’t want to keep getting beaten and have body parts cut off.
Only that’s not the world I want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society where a group of people gets to demand obedience from another group of people, and gets to beat them up if they don’t comply. And I don’t care that the majority of Americans think this kind of system is necessary to maintain “order.” It is not. it is not necessary and it only creates more violence. Anyone who is paying any attention at all can see that. And no thank you, I do not want to teach my children to “respect authority.” I’d rather teach them to respect humanity – and you don’t do that by beating up on them when they don’t do what you want.
It’s pretty chilling when you look around in the year 2015 and realize that a lot of the people around you would have been against the abolitionists. It’s pretty chilling to hear people over and over again defend the use of arbitrary authority, the doctrine of might makes right, the virtue of blind obedience. It’s pretty chilling when you believe that Kunta Kinte was obviously right to run away and that the slave catchers and the slave owners were obviously the aggressors – and you look around you and you’re not so sure everyone else sees it that way.