In the early morning hours of October 2nd, relatives of 20-year-old Porter Burks called Detroit police because the young Black man, who was challenged by schizophrenia, wandered the neighborhood brandishing a knife with a blade slightly longer than three inches. He slashed his brother’s tires and was otherwise acting out in ways that concerned his loved ones. The specific request was that police assist with getting control of the young man so that he could be transported for treatment.
When five officers arrived, they took positions more than fifty feet away from Burks. As they shouted pleas for cooperation, they also offered words of assurance that he would not be harmed and that he was not in trouble. Supposedly, an officer trained to deal with persons having mental health emergencies was present and engaged in the exchange. Burks responded that he would not drop the knife, and that all he wanted was a chance to get some rest. He then began to move in the direction of the officers, who shouted for him to stop. The cops began to fire at will. When the smoke cleared the cops had fired 38 rounds in three seconds with at least 15 bullets hitting and killing Porter Burks.
In the aftermath of the killing, police made much of the officers’ supposed attempts to de-escalate a tense encounter. But missing from their evaluation of the event was the subtle, but unmistakable and unnecessary sense of urgency that police brought to the episode. Even though calming words may have been spoken, it was clear to all concerned that Burks was expected to comply with officers’ demands sooner rather than later.
Ending an encounter on the timetable of a Black “suspect” is not in the police play book. It likely never occurred to the officers to take a cue from Burks’ statement that he wanted to rest, and to simply disengage, and continue to follow and monitor the young man until his fatigue overcame him and he lacked the energy to resist efforts to take him peacefully into custody. In this case, as in other notorious police killings, it was the cops’ belief that the victim of police violence should follow orders on the cops’ terms and on the cops’ timetable.
This was also true in the case of Patrick Lyoya, the Congolese brother who was executed by a Grand Rapids, Michigan cop in April. Lyoya was stopped for allegedly having bad plates. When he tried to peacefully walk away from the cop, he was pursued rather than simply allowed to leave and to be apprehended later. The forced encounter became physical, and in the end, Lyoya was straddled by the cop, who drew his pistol and fired a bullet point-blank into Lyoya’s skull. Lyoya’s crime was not bad plates. It was noncompliance – “contempt of cop.” In more cases than we can count, Africans born or living in America are killed for this offense even when they otherwise do nothing or commit petty crimes.
Is this just a cop thing; or is it actually a white thing? Being the boss – specifically the boss of all folks of color is at the very heart of white culture. It’s understandable. They have a long history of using force to colonize and enslave dark-skinned populations. In fact, this tendency pre-dates conquest and the slave trade, and manifested even within their own communities. In his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, abolitionist David Walker explained:
General tendencies toward domination notwithstanding, there has been a special commitment to imposing white authority over dark populations. Art truly reflected life in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Consider the exhortations of the character Tom Buchanan and his companions:
“Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.’ ‘We’ve got to beat them down,’ whispered Daisy… ‘This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am and you are, and you are…And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization – oh science and art, and all that. Do you see?”
Gatsby may be a work of fiction but discussions like this no doubt occur regularly among those who attend MAGA rallies, and yes, such comments are made discreetly among white police officers. It’s a fact to be remembered when demands are made for reforms in policing. Concerned members of communities may be convinced that civilian review boards, better training, cameras, revised policies, etc. will make a difference, but none of that gets at the real issue. White men – particularly white men with badges – have been socialized to regard themselves as masters of the darker races. Those people of color who do not recognize that fact, and who manifest their disrespect through disobedience and non-compliance with orders will be punished and punished severely.
None of this is new or surprising with respect to white nationalists, but of what relevance is it to progressive and revolutionary white forces? Notwithstanding any purposeful and conscious efforts progressive whites might make to overcome white chauvinism, for many there is still a blind spot regarding these matters. It often shows up in subtle and undetectable ways. In her remarkable book The History of White People, Professor Nell Irvin Painter explains:
“At bottom, Marxism touted class conflict, rather than race conflict, as the motor of history. Such a substitution of class for race did not alter Americans’ social ideology, for foundational law and the organization of government data (such as the census) still relied on categories of race. The Russian revolution did not persuade Americans to think about labor and politics in terms of class; they continued to interpret all sorts of human difference as race.”
Thus, notwithstanding the Russian revolution’s class analysis, during the 1920s and early 1930s, the Communist International prepared various resolutions and proposals concerning “The Negro Question” in the United States. For a time, writer and Pan-Africanist George Padmore figured prominently in Soviet affairs, but after he parted ways, he wrote in his book Pan-Africanism or Communism:
Notwithstanding the alarm Padmore and others sounded about unwelcome white leadership, the phenomenon continued. By 1966, as the Civil Rights Movement was transforming into the Black Power Movement, SNCC leader James Foreman explained in his book The Making of Black Revolutionaries how white activists resisted the call to leave Black communities and take on the challenge of leading white workers.
“…[I]t was apparent to some of us that the whites in SNCC simply had to begin organizing white communities if we were serious about revolutionary change. By that time, however, a deep alienation from the white community was felt by the white field staff and they were very reluctant to tackle that job.”
Even since that time, many on the white left have spent their time in communities of color, while ignoring entirely the white workers. The consequences have been profound. Many of these white workers who, lacking the political analysis the white left should have given them, have become dupes of white nationalist demagogues like Donald Trump. In response, maybe as a matter of convenience, or perhaps as part of their self-delusion, white socialists have sung the familiar song that the end of capitalism will signal the end of racism. But many of us have what we hope is not a prophetic dream about the immediate aftermath of the triumph of the revolution. In that nightmare white socialists climb over the broken, bruised, and dead bodies of black and brown revolutionary cannon fodder to arrogantly pronounce themselves as the leaders of the new socialist state.
Africans are incapable of curing “White Boss Syndrome.” Even if we could, it wouldn’t be worth the bother. We Africans are our own best bosses, and to ensure that we can lead ourselves, we are, as we always have been, best served by uniting as a global family and fighting for independence, power and self-determination for Africa and all of Africa’s people wherever they might be found.