Before Malcolm Shabazz, 28, the grandson of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X), was assassinated in 2013 in Mexico City, he, like his entire family—and like too many black people in the United States of America—had been hunted and harassed by law-enforcement officials.
It had gotten so bad that Shabazz spoke about the recipe for public assassinations two months before his death:
The formula for a public assassination is: the character assassination before the physical assassination; so one has to be made killable before the eyes of the public in order for their eventual murder to then be deemed justifiable. And when the time arrives for these hits to be carried out you’re not going to see a C.I.A. agent with a suit and tie, and a badge that says C.I.A. walk up to someone, and pull the trigger. What they will do is to out-source to local police departments in the region of their target, and to employ those that look like the target of interest to infiltrate the workings in order to set up the environment for the eventual assassination (character, physical/incarceration, exile) to take place.
I immediately thought of young Malcolm’s words when, on July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was killed in broad daylight by St. Anthony, Minn., Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez. I thought of his words not because I believe that Castile was specifically the target of a CIA plot, but because the public assassination of black humanity—and the character of black people—has been an ongoing project in this white-settler colonial project that flag wavers call the greatest country on earth.
The way we look, the way we talk, the way we attempt to live free in a country founded on our violent oppression, have all been reasons successfully used to render us “killable” in the eyes of society and to justify our state-sanctioned lynchings.
Black people are born into this world with targets on our backs and often leave this world the same way. Castile had already been pulled over an estimated 46 times before Yanez claimed that the 32-year-old man’s “wide-set nose” made him look like a criminal suspect. Further, he was a legal gun owner in a nation that weaponizes blackness and steals black lives but loves steel weapons.
When Castile calmly and respectfully explained that he had a gun in the car, the trigger-happy Yanez “feared for his life” because a black man with a gun has always been viewed as a clear and present danger. This nation assigns us to that category so that state-sanctioned executions will be deemed necessary. And for those scarce times when blackness alone does not give officers a license to kill, marijuana smoke conjures up the rest.
The Washington Post reports:
“I thought, I was gonna die,” Officer Jeronimo Yanez told investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension fifteen hours after the shooting. “And I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.”
A wide-nosed black man in a car that allegedly smelled of marijuana had the audacity to carry a legal gun; that made him an enemy of the state.
“The war on drugs has been used to escalate a general sense that black people are beasts and that our communities are urban jungles,” asha bandele, senior director of Drug Policy Alliance, told The Root.
“Throughout so many of these horrific police shootings, drugs have been used to justify the slaughter of innocents,” bandele continued. “We saw it with Michael Brown, we saw it with Trayvon Martin, we saw it with shootings throughout the country, including that of Philando Castile. All you have to do is raise the specter of drugs, and supposedly no other question is supposed to be asked.
“Sometimes when drugs are not the issue itself, the criminalization, the use of drugs, drug selling and drug use—a criminalized feature in our nation—is used to justify killing,” bandele continued.
Bandele points out that the war on drugs is a living, breathing manifestation of the hatred this country holds for black people, and a cover for police hypermilitization and the occupation of black and brown communities.
“Once you declare something a war, you got to declare someone an enemy,” bandele told The Root. The drug war has been used as a justification for police killings of 92-year-old grandmothers in their homes, where all they had to say was, ‘Oops, wrong house.’ It’s been used to justify the killings of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
“This declaration of war and the continuous war crimes that shape this war directly led to the lynching of Philando Castile,” bandele said.
Bandele, like Malcolm Shabazz, was also clear that sometimes skinfolk are used to weed out members of the black community that some people find disposable.
“We need to understand how we contribute to deaths like Philando Castile’s when we contribute to stigmatizing people, or determining who’s a decent black person and who’s not a decent black person,” bandele said. “We may have, in progressive communities, a broader idea of who matters and who doesn’t, but until we accept that every life has value and we see that in our communities, then we’re almost participating in who they say they can kill, and who they can’t.”
This is why, bandele says, ending the war on drugs, dismantling white supremacy brick by brick and eradicating stigma is the necessary foundational work we need to engage in if we are ever to be free.
“If we want to begin to roll back police militarization significantly, we have to work to end the drug war,” bandele said. “If we want to disrupt a major tool that they can wield against us, in not only killing us, but them not being held accountable for killing us, we have to end the drug war. If we want to begin to disrupt extraordinary levels of black poverty, then we have to begin to end the drug war.
“In doing that,” bandele continued, “we will say, ‘We’re not going to spend money on over-incarceration or over-surveillance, or any of the other facets that make up mass criminalization. We’re not going to have one more Philando Castile. Not on our watch.”
Bandele gets to the root of the matter.
Black people have been shamed for financial poverty in a nation that is morally bankrupt; still, reparations for theft of our land, our labor and our lives is considered too much to ask for.
We are told that our lives come with white supremacist conditions. Young black men, women and gender-nonconforming people are corralled into deep pockets of destitution, then shot to death for trying to hustle their way out to some semblance of security and safety.
The so-called gentler war on drugs—a necessary shift from draconian drug policies to something focused on health and humanity—is not for us.
We are still under fire from heavy enemy artillary. We are still living in occupied territory. We are still considered “warm bodies” to fill cold prisons and balance bloated budgets. We are still lynched in broad daylight in front of our children, and the allegation of marijuana smoke is more than enough for killers with badges to walk free.
Because in the United States of America, to lynch a black person, state-sanctioned killers don’t need a reason; all they need is an excuse.