On the Question of Ethics in an Age of Mass Dehumanization

Vigil for Antonio Zambrano, Photo by Yeye Munera.
Vigil for Antonio Zambrano, Photo by Yeye Munera.

Pasco, WA – I was old enough to remember the dawn of the drug war in my community. It began with the locking of car doors, the decision to drive to a different park for a picnic, it began with anti-blackness; fear of another human being, seeking cops for safety.

Not very long after, we buried our first young person. My mother took me out of school that I could attend, we arrived directly at the burial and the air was thick, the family numb with grief as we moved through the ritual en masse, and repetition. It was only when the first fist full of dirt was tossed on the casket that we heard a single agonizing enunciation, “Joey!!!!” followed by hysterical sobbing and clawing for the casket by his teenage girlfriend. I often think of this broken heart when I hear of the disproportionate number of early deaths including the social deaths of Black and Latino youth in my communities and in those of other people. It is always the same grief.

I didn’t know Joey Ayala very well, but I knew his parents, they attended our church; I still remember his name.

Joey was a teenager riding in the back of his friend’s pick-up truck, he was not alone but he had the tailgate spot. It was a Friday night, and they were cruising Court Street in Pasco being youth in a town with not much else to do but drive back and forth on the same strip. Something not important must have happened, laughter and gestures that were taken way too seriously, so much so that when the pick-up turned down a side street, the conversion van’s side door, that had been driving next to them, slid open and produced a rifle that proceeded to spray the pick-up truck as it sped the other direction.

Black people disappeared from my community because of the drug war, and the only reason that Latinos did not was because of the waves of internal migrant refugees that fled even worse systems of repression closer to the Mexican border such as the Rampart Crash Division of Los Angeles.

City planners in the melee sought similar solutions, consulting those very members of the Los Angeles Police Department to enhance the areas Targeted Policing and Community Policing methods. Today Tri-Cities and Yakima Police Departments, trained by ex-Los Angeles Police Officers who currently live in white separatist retirement communities near Sandpoint, Idaho, now train new migrant stream destination communities such as the Lynden Police Department along Washington’s Northern Border. As my compa Simón once told me, “No nomas los buenos migran/The good are not the only ones to migrate”.

This essay begins thus as my own effort to move in or through my own blinding rage in the year after the #blacklivesmatter mobilizations across the country and the disappearance of 43 future teachers in Ayotzinapa, Mexico; on the day after Seattle’s County Council decided to build a new youth jail anyway; on the day I elected to move beyond a politics of respectability and speak truth to power to another researcher; in the evening after Antonio Zambrano-Montes was murdered by Pasco police department in a spray of 14 bullets for throwing rocks at cars; on the day that three muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were murdered in North Carolina; on the day that a transgender black woman Penny Proud was murdered in New Orleans for existing.

BEYOND FEAR

To move beyond the rage we must first begin with fear. Fear is what dehumanizes people in the first place; it is what makes us stuck or automatic.

I was raised a fighter, a young boy who worshipped the ground my mother walked on, I learned most from seeing her fight. As a result in the beginning I was fearless, bold, at just over a year old I took on the police officer that stopped my parents for speeding only to get them another ticket for not having me strapped in.

My first five years of life were lived in this way in a rural enclave community in Eureka, Washington, a community made up of mostly Mexican farmworkers, far enough away to require that we take control over our own community policing when it came to issues of Domestic Violence; I watched my mother pull a drunken man out of his trailer and maintain his attention long enough to encourage him to leave in shame of being outed for his domestic violence while the rest of the community witnessed along with me; we made sure no one else was harmed by witnessing.

Upon debriefing, I understood the courage of my mother was not that there was an absence of fear, she after all was shaking, but instead that it was a willingness to move through fear that allowed her to do the right thing in a situation where there were no other “authorities”; her strategy of empowerment did not stop there, as she taught most all of the farmworker women in the trailer park how to drive so they would not be without a means of escaping and could be self-sufficient in their own homes so far away from all they knew.

In my community the anti-blackness began at birth. Babies who were born with clear eyes and lighter skin were fawned upon, while those of us who were darker, not so much. It led to cases of my sisters covering themselves in flour, or me in the privacy of the shower scrubbing my skin so hard it was raw.

Anti-blackness began with erasure; my family had African roots that were only mentioned as a distant aunt with “kinky red hair” and though my grandfather could still remember Pureh’pecha and observed the customs of making gourd carriers, burning waste instead of wasting it, giving away excess “wealth”; and of course singing with his soul; we weren’t indigenous either.

Fear for my family began with genocide, it was continued by kidnappings, and engrained by endless wars, the rurales of the Porfiriato, the Agrarian reform (Villistas), the Cristeros, the United States. These traumas haunt us in the way we treat each other and treat ourselves; let alone how we treat another human being. Anti-blackness lives in fear, in erasure, in self-hate and trauma.

Being brave means moving through that fear in its entire historical context instead of its erasure. Undoing anti-blackness requires that we move through this historic trauma and the new trauma of the United States simultaneously. Only then will we be able to live with fear without it controlling our lives.

Vigil for Antonio Zambrano, Photo by Crystal Torres
Vigil for Antonio Zambrano, Photo by Crystal Torres

BEYOND GRIEF

In order to move beyond the rage we must also sit with grief and proceed through it. Though it is true that the state dictates that certain lives are grievable while other lives become merely a number, a statistic; it is through grieving those very lives that are considered un-grievable, in naming them, in not letting them disappear, or become numbers that we undo that damage that was done to all of us. #Blacklivesmatter is not a hash tag; it is a war cry; one that demands that black people deserve fulfilling and bountiful lives. In saying so, it disrupts the hegemony of White Supremacy that says “what about me?”

We have to let our hearts break for those lives that are lost that we are not supposed to know intimately; that we are supposed to be numb to the same way that the young woman above, broke the silence, by screaming the name of the deceased and scratched and clawed her way to his coffin, we too must wail if we are to come through the other side of grief together.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore defined racism in the following way to allow us to make the connection between the idea of racism and death, “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (Golden Gulag, 247)

The deaths we are talking about that we must grieve are not natural deaths. They are indeed premature deaths whether state sanctioned such as the police murder of today, of tomorrow and extralegal such as the deaths of Joey Ayala, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Penny Proud and they are also the early deaths of the homeless, the unemployed and farmworkers for so many other health disparity reasons.

We are also talking about the social deaths experienced behind the confines of prisons, jails, detention centers, mental health wards, and solitary confinement. We are talking about deportation and the deaths along the US/Mexico border and the massacre of indigenous people all the way down Latin America and Africa and South Asia and the Middle East.

Joey Ayala’s death sparked the organization of parents in East Pasco to organize themselves and conduct their own community patrols. The efforts were led by Minnie Pesina whose own children were being targeted by Pasco Police as “gang members” after the Pasco Police Department had received targeted enforcement training by retired LAPD officers based in Sandpoint, Idaho. The organization was named Padres Ayudando Padres and their street patrols were not to watch out for the young people who were accustomed to playing in their neighborhood streets, but to watch the police officers who were reported to have accosted and roughed up young people for walking in their own neighborhood. The parents organized as best they could, engaged in a “Politics of Respectability” and had community liaisons establish relationships with the police department, a relationship that led to the hiring of more bi-lingual Latino officers and the parents also maintained a presence at Pasco High School as hall monitor volunteers, considering that the youth had also described being harassed at school. This practice and presence lasted all the way through my own schooling, I graduated from Pasco High School in 1999 and Mr. Morfin, still monitored the halls on behalf of Padres Ayudando Padres. Minnie Pesina died in 2006 and shortly after all of those community gains were abandoned and even though the demographics of the Pasco Police Department had changed and had more Latinos, they became even more repressive as the drug war waged on.

I tell this story because the actions of these parents was driven by grief, the loss of Joey’s life and the disposability of their own children’s lives by a Police Department learning to deal with urbanizing problems from a clearly white supremacist source of the LAPD in the early 1990s is the legacy we’ve inherited.

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ON ETHICS

Ethics is not civility; it is not the politics of respectability. Our communities are under siege by targeted enforcement and community policing practices.

In a recent talk by Walida Imarisha in Seattle, she described a “politics of respectability” as a politics of assimilation. It is a civility politics that reinforces racialized frames where people can be presented with facts and compelling evidence, but dispute them because “frame trumps fact” because “our perceptions of each other are filtered through white supremacy”, in other words we all are taught the same common sense that black lives are disposable. She argued that is why we need a larger cultural shift, that we needed artists to move us to another common sense, everything else is survival pending revolution, because in her words, “our ancestors deserve more”.

Ethics require us to be brave like my mother, to speak truth to power, to act without the reassurance that the community will be behind you and without the consideration of what the consequences might be for you if you do the right thing. It requires that we embrace our collective rage. For on the other side of rage is life.

We are confronted with opportunities to do the right thing everyday in our lives, in all of our different walks of life, in all of our occupations, in all of our quotidian activities, and within all of our own families.

While academics may try to intellectualize this as “relational ethics” or transactions or contracts between community partners and researchers backed by institutions and funding; ethics is so much more than that, it is more than a covenant between stakeholders; ethics, like dignity is your responsibility to have respect for yourself, for other people, and for the earth; anything outside of ethics, outside of dignity is death.

Ethics in the age of Mass Dehumanization requires that we move through the fear, sit with grief, undo anti-blackness and embrace the dignity of rage in a way that produces, nurtures and protects life.

The possibilities beyond are limitless, as they always were.

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