Excerpted From: Naomi Murakawa, Say Their Names, Support Their Killers: Police Reform after the 2020 Black Lives Matter Uprisings, 69 UCLA Law Review 1430 (September, 2023) (239 Footnotes) (Full Document)


NaomiMurakawaPolice killings continue like clockwork. In fact, police killed more people in 2021 than in 2020, and more still in 2022. And how often do police kill? Abolitionists Craig Gilmore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore answer: “once every eight hours--all, we might say, in a day's work.” Every day, more names. Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, Rayshard Brooks, Jayland Walker: the names of Black men killed by police live on because people took to the streets in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Akron. Black girls, women, and femmes killed by police are less likely to be memorialized, and the extent to which this is changing is a credit to surviving family members and the Say Her Name Campaign, organizers of the March for Black Trans Lives, the Movement for Black Lives, and many more.

That elite lawmakers say their names, too, is a testament to the power of protest. But it is also a testament to crass opportunism. It was more than an insensitive gaff, for example, when, after a Minneapolis jury delivered three guilty verdicts in April 2021 to the cop who killed George Floyd, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took the mic at a Congressional Black Caucus event to deliver this gem of maudlin politicking: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice ... For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that.” What a tortured logic, as if George Floyd willingly submitted to his own murder to bequeath a jury the chance to find someone guilty of murder. In this telling, during Summer 2020 millions of protesters in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States risked exposure to COVID-19, and much more, to win the grand justice of sending one cop to prison. It is absurd.

To students of law-and-order politics, however, there was an eerie familiarity to the spectacle of politicians thanking murder victims and celebrating criminal convictions as a fulfillment of their wishes. My sense of déjà vu deepened as elites posed for photo ops at funerals, and as politicians proudly announced their contact with surviving familymembers. There is a canny similarity to the politics of victim rights that came to dominate the late twentieth century, when the “political imperative” was “that victims must be protected, their voices must be heard, their memory honoured, their anger expressed, their fears addressed,” as sociologist David Garland explains. And then there were all those state and local police reforms--proposals less prominent than the stalled federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. In the six months following the murder of George Floyd, state lawmakers enacted nearly one hundred laws addressing use-of-force standards and police accountability, a number that, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, reflects an “unprecedented high” in legislative attention to policing. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his “Say Their Names” police reform agenda that, like so many other reforms, restricted the police chokehold in the name of Eric Garner and George Floyd. Memorializing the dead with laws in their names is another trademark of the victim-centered political imperative.

The old politics of victim rights has another trademark: it has been reserved almost exclusively for white victims, especially white children and white women deemed respectable and innocent. But the cultural moment is ripe with scenes of aristocrats trying to feel the pain of their subjects, and so, like Bridgerton, the politics of victim rights is now open for colorblind casting. It seems like progress when politicians mourn victims of state violence and recognize Black murder victims by name, as if elites are heeding the activist instruction to “center the most marginalized.”

But lawmakers are tailoring this potentially radical lingua franca to make it fit a law-and-order playbook of centering the crime victim. This Article explores the recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) politics of victim rights, in which elites recognize Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and unnamed murdered Black people as victims of a not-yet redeemed criminal legal system. This politics attempts to co-opt and pacify the Movement for Black Lives with a sleight of hand twice over: once by swapping out structural oppression for stand-alone victims, and again by recognizing victims only vis-à-vis the criminal legal system. To be remediated, grievances must fit the size of a criminal charge and the shape of a criminal trial. That is, the criminal legal system--the locus of state violence and racism that prompted the 2020 uprising--is marketed as the site for redemption.

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In “Stop Hustling Black Death,” Imani Perry describes her conversation with Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice. In 2014 Cleveland police shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old who was playing in the park across the street from his home. In the weeks that followed, Samaria Rice explained, certain lawyers and organizers coached the grieving mother to hide her rage, to let them “handle everything.” Rice eventually challenged Shaun King, Al Sharpton, Ben Crump, and others who, as Rice put it, make a living “hustling Black death.” Writing with another mother whose son was killed by the police, Rice issued this formal statement:

Families of those who are killed by the police--and whose loved ones' deaths spark mass movements--continue to navigate political misrepresentations, battle zones of police repression, homelessness, and poverty, while Black “leadership” that has not been selected by the masses flourishes through celebrity status. These families must be provided the resources to sustain themselves, their families, and their work dedicated to building community infrastructures. Stop celebrity activism; stop corporate investments that support lobbyists for this norm; put an end to the political-economy's parasitism on Black death and poverty.

This dynamic is not new, as Imani Perry points out, but stems from a “fundamental tension” that undergirds all social movements. “Organizers need to solicit attention to bring people to their causes,” explains Perry, “but popular culture can't help but fixate on the spectacle of charismatic leaders, rather than the larger landscape of political organizing.” Fixation on the individual is what Ella Baker corrected when she said, as Barbara Ransby reminds us, “Martin didn't make the movement. The movement made Martin.”

Movements make history, but history prefers to make heroes and martyrs, angels and a few devils who redeem the system that condemns them to jail. History written for and by elites, that is, is well served by turning a few people into supernovas, glorious bursts that suck up all the surrounding energy. Nationalistic and self-congratulatory histories of the Black freedom struggle commemorate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. while forgetting that the work remains unfinished--and under renewed efforts to turn back the clock.

The history of Summer 2020, another chapter in the long freedom struggle, is being written now. President Biden drafts this history every time he broadcasts to the world a private moment with George Floyd's daughter. Gianna Floyd was six years old when she said to Biden before her father's funeral, “Daddy changed the world,” and she was seven when Biden used Chauvin's guilty verdict to reprise the phrase by saying, first privately to Gianna Floyd and then to everyone, “Daddy did change the world.” Amidst the steady pace of police killings, Biden's insistence that everything has changed feels like gaslighting of Shakespearian proportions--it is a tale told by the cop's best friend, full of sound and fury, signifying something too raw to be called nothing. Because who has the cold nerve to correct the president's history as he quotes a Black child talking about her recently murdered father? And this is the rub with the way elites address, at long last, Black victims of state violence: every commemoration, like a funeral, calls for bowed heads and silence. This is the politics of victim rights, DEI-style.

Associate Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University.