Nothing to Lose But Our Chains

03/18/2015 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

One person involved in the Eric Garner case was indicted. Interestingly, it wasn't white NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner by placing him in an illegal chokehold for allegedly selling "loosies" (untaxed cigarettes). It was Ramsey Orta: the 22-year-old Latino onlooker who filmed it. The police department responsible for killing Garner in July of last year is the same one that not only failed to arrest any of the officers involved but succeeded in arresting and indicting Orta for weapons charges less than a month later.

So let's get this right. A white cop was filmed killing an unarmed black man in broad daylight. And what happens? Nothing. The officer walks free. Meanwhile the person who filmed it was arrested under suspicious circumstances just weeks later, only a few blocks away from where Garner took his last breath. And, as if things couldn't get any more ironic, the Obama administration responded by requesting $263 million dollars from the federal government for police training and body cameras.

Garner is dead. Pantaleo is free. Orta is incarcerated. And the first black president of the United States responds to a pattern of racist police violence by endorsing public policy, which -- if implemented -- will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on body cameras to the same institution that got away with killing an unarmed black man -- on camera.

These are dark times.

The U.S. racial climate is sweltering hot. The State-sanctioned death sentence on black life -- evidenced in the blood of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Mike Brown, Jessie Hernandez, Anthony Robinson, et al -- has become a broken record on the turntables of American racial politics. The Strange Fruit that Billie Holiday soulfully sang of in the heat of Jim Crow continues to grow in this "New Jim Crow," an age of mass incarceration and economic deprivation. The grandchildren of the Civil Rights Movement who mobilized in record numbers to vote and campaign for President Obama in the name of an American Dream fulfilled, have woken from our political slumber. We are living an American nightmare, and we know it.

Protesters refuse to allow death to have the last word. The children of America's chocolate cities are at the heart of a newly emerging people's resistance. Black youth, black women, and black queer and trans folk, in particular, are creating new life amid a deathly system that never intended for them to live in the first place. Whether this is a moment or a movement is unclear. But one thing is loud and clear: Black people have had enough. As the protest chant declares: "We're Fired Up, we can't take it no more!"

Still, the question remains: where do we go from here?

Currently, the narrative around race in the US is, at best, about police brutality. While police terrorism is perhaps the most visible example of institutionalized racism, it does not account for the insidiousness of racialized violence. To understand the monster that is white racial supremacy, the police brutality narrative must be contextualized in the concrete daily reality of anti-black State violence: a global system that, ultimately, subjects black people to premature death. That means we must understand Pantaleo's lethal chokehold within a broader deathly system of white supremacist capitalism that puts a chokehold on the life chances of black poor and working-class people on a daily basis. That means we must understand Darren Wilson's bullet in the context of a fundamentally violent and anti-black society built on indigenous genocide and slave labor.

As we demand justice for Eric Garner and Mike Brown -- and the countless other victims of blue-on-black violence -- what will we do about the countless black children whose names we don't know, whose imaginations are being chokeholded by a failing public school system, and whose dreams of living a full and free life are shot down daily, left to die on violence-ridden streets in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It's been alleged that a black person is killed by police or a vigilante as often as every 28 hours, but perhaps what's even more tragic is the fact that black lives are subject to a deathly existence every hour of every day -- from underfunded hospitals and over-policed housing projects to carceral cages of punishment and school classrooms that operate like them. It is the everydayness of racism that we must struggle to not only analyze but abolish.

The political chains of institutionalized racism and global anti-blackness are collectively chokeholding the very possibility -- let alone dignity and decency -- of black life. Eric Garner spoke for so many of us when he uttered, 11 times, "I can't breathe!" How will we breathe as the State continues to politically and economically suffocate black communities across this nation and world? The natural response to being choked is to fight for air. Abolition is the air that will rescue us from the political chokeholds of mass incarceration and chronic poverty. Like Garner, we must fight to breathe, physically and politically. As former political prisoner and self-described "20th-Century escaped slave" Assata Shakur reminds us: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains."

An inter-generational public dialogue, "Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Black Resistance and the Roots of Mass Incarceration," will be held in New York City on Friday evening, March 20, at the Malcolm X & Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center, at 3940 Broadway (just north of 165th Street). It will feature authors appearing in a special "mass incarceration" issue of Socialism and Democracy (edited by Mumia Abu-Jamal & Johanna Fernández), copies of which will be on sale. Come at 6 p.m. for reception and book-signing; program begins promptly at 7.