Depending on whom you ask, 2 a.m. is counted among the small hours of the day when the world’s respectable are tucked into the sleepy fold where night meets morning.
But for others, 2 a.m. is when the air falls heaviest on the shoulders, thick with the threat of chaos. That threat is known to anyone who’s stood in the hood past dusk: These are the hours when black children disappear into the unmerciful night, at risk of never seeing morning again.
It was in these restless hours on Tuesday, July 5, when a block, still humming with life on Detroit’s lower east side, saw another of its sons lost to eternity. His name—a name now carved into a stadium’s worth of hearts swollen with grief—goes unpublished at the request of his mother. Here, I’ll refer to him, my beloved friend, as Red.
Red’s final moments were spent in an agonizingly familiar way: in a standoff with a man who looked like him. A man who, in all likelihood, had also known something of what it meant to be black, poor and terrified of the world beyond one’s door. A man who had learned what everyone in that perilous condition at some point must: that the way you outlived your vulnerability was to pose as if you were more lethal than all that sought to destroy you. With his final gesture, Red reached out for that man’s hands, realizing that they cradled his entire life in them.
By day’s end, another black man, Alton Sterling, would have his mortality offered as further evidence that black bodies are not forged from Kevlar. With the close of the next, Philando Castile would also be forced into those heartbreaking ranks. But unlike Red, these men found themselves at the mercy not of others soaked in black fragility but of officers who were oath-bound to protect them.
Even the gods of irony must be tired of this s—ty joke, as well as the army of well-credentialed bigots reciting the same corny-ass sermon about black-on-black crime. This is what the pundits call misdirection—known by more honorable con men as the old bait and switch.
The move is simple: Change the subject just long enough for the uniformed bandits of black lives to slink away unnoticed. But the jig is up. This stunt would get you laughed out of any black barbershop or hair salon, and can never be taken seriously. American racism is durable as hell. Black life, perilously less so.
But there is something strange about the distance drawn between these two types of violence that I want to explore. Something the peddlers of the myth of black-on-black crime miraculously manage to confuse: In America, the violent loss of black life is a genre unto itself.
Consider the days after Emancipation, when police stretched out across the old Confederacy to guard the spoils of that empire built on slavery. In effect, this meant mounting a campaign of terrorism aimed at decimating black political life in the South and much of the North. Black freedom then, as now, came with an asterisk and a jackboot to the throat. Modern policing, as a matter of observable reality, is hopelessly bound to America’s founding sin. A sin that stains Detroit’s concrete—and the concrete of every black metropolis—with more blood than an untimely demise at the hands of one’s neighbor ever could.
Long before he took his last breath, Red lived and breathed on Detroit’s lower east side—where neighborhoods still ache with the wounds of history. Here, life is like standing in the eye of a hurricane, stealing joy where possible but always waiting for one’s turn in the maw.
The origins of such a place are not mysterious. Racist housing policy forged our strife-torn ghettos, leaving black communities to suffer the fallout. That fallout—long-standing recession-level unemployment, grinding and enforced poverty, lower life expectancy, and, yes, higher rates of lethal violence among neighbors—is unsurprising to anyone familiar with the skullduggery of American racism.
In response, we’ve thrown the full weight of the criminal-justice system at every social ill, sending in the police to carry out the plan. This, too, ends, with horrific regularity, in the plunder of black life.
To be clear: The death at the hands of a neighbor is not on par with the death at the hands of police. Granting officers “the lethal power of gods and the meager responsibilities of mere mortals,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, is in a class all its own. A community mangled by the law will never make peace with it and will act outside of it. But they do have a common origin story: one of sacrificing other people’s flesh at the altar of power.
There are those who would see Red—along with every other son and daughter of America’s despised minority—offered as tribute to preserve their way of life. And there are those of us who know the hurricane, as well as the awesome fragility not only of mortals but of the worlds they build.
Eli Day is a Detroit-bred writer of policy and plunder, giving you “the news, with a twist—it’s just his ghetto point of view.” He’s contributed to the Huffington Post, TruthOut and the Detroit News, among others. Day thinks it’s a sacred responsibility that James Baldwin never knew a writer who didn’t drink.