UPDATE: After I wrote this piece, news sources revealed that the attack on Sharmeka was almost certainly self-inflicted. However, for reasons I’ll explain here, I’m not going to “retract” this post.
First, though I’m sure more details will emerge, so far the only reported evidence that the attack was self-inflicted is the connection of fingerprints to a lighter. In and of itself, this evidence does not compel me to certainty. But I am sure more evidence will or will not emerge as time goes on.
That is, however, secondary to my next point, which is that the overall argument of the post remains valid. Racism is very real, and it needs to be confronted. The very plausibility of the initially reported attack adds force to this argument.
That this attack was likely staged does not mean that all, or even most, reports of racist violence are fabricated. Historically, racist violence is severely underreported, and this continues to be the case. The knee jerk reaction of so many people to this attack is something to praise, not to condemn.
So instead of me retracting this post, I invite you to a “search and replace” with the name of any of the 120 Black people who have been extrajudicially executed this year alone.
Sharmeka Moffitt, a twenty year old Black woman, was burned alive by three men in white hoods on Sunday night in Winnsboro, Louisiana and now clings to life as severe burns cover more than 60% of her body. Police found “KKK” and racial slurs smeared on her car, but still refuse to call the incident a hate crime. Fortunately, most people who came across the storyknow better. As of this writing, more than 53,000 people have liked a Facebook page calling the incident a hate crime, and the racist attack has spurred on the anger that has continued to grow around American anti-Black racism over the past year. And the people who have responded to the story know that without pressure from below, there will be no justice for Sharmeka. That’s the way the racist capitalist system works.
Already, officials and the media have tried to back peddle on the story. They are trying to downplay the racist nature of the attack, suggesting that the incident is not a hate crime because Moffitt was not, in fact, wearing an Obama t-shirt. Again, fortunately, people who live with the reality of racism everyday know better. Racist violence against Black people in the United States long predate Obama’s presidency. From 1882 to 1968, there were 391 reported lynchings of African Americans in Louisiana alone. The real number is likely much higher as Klan intimidation and a racist criminal justice system worked to prevent reports of such activity from emerging, especially after the anti-lynching campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And that is only one form that racist violence has taken in US history.
Police terrorism and the death penalty are two ways the lynch mobs of not-so-long-ago recreate the same violence today. As the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reported in July in its Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 120 Black People: “A human rights crisis confronts Black people in the United States. Since January 1, 2012, police and a much smaller number of security guards and self-appointed vigilantes have murdered at least 120 Black women and men. These killings are definitely not accidental or random acts of violence or the work of rogue cops…the use of deadly force against Black people is standard practice in the United States, and woven into to the very fabric of the society.”
That’s not to say what was done to Sharmeka Moffitt wasn’t horrific. It clearly was. But it’s simultaneously critical not to lose sight of the fact that this horrible act of racist terror was not atypical. It wasn’t a one-off incident. This is the day-to-day reality of racism. It’s the sort of thing that happens in a society with apartheid schools, mass incarceration of Black men, discriminatory voting laws, legalized lynching via the death penalty, racist attacks on welfare programs…and the list goes on. The differences between the racist attacks on Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, and Sharmeka vary in form but not in substance. They are merely different heads of the same beast.
The racist attack on Sharmeka also takes place in the context of the rise of the far-right. From Greece, where the fascist Golden Dawn target immigrants and left-wing activists, to the apartheid settler state of Israel, where “The majority of the Jewish public, 59 percent, wants preference for Jews over Arabs in admission to jobs in government ministries. Almost half the Jews, 49 percent, want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones; 42 percent don’t want to live in the same building with Arabs and 42 percent don’t want their children in the same class with Arab children.” (Source: Haaretz), to the US, where more than 1,000 far-right hate groups operate across the country. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports:
Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
These factors also are feeding a powerful resurgence of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.
This growth in extremism has been aided by mainstream media figures and politicians who have used their platforms to legitimize false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities and spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive.
The reality of racist hatred is not a memory of the distant past. It’s frightening reality that needs to be confronted right now. In North Carolina, the Klan began open attempts at recruitment this spring, spreading flyers for public cross burnings and meetings, and even though we succeeded in stopping them in the spring, the Nazis plan to hold a rally in Charlotte in early November. And though here I’m concentrating on anti-Black racism, other examples of hate crimes abound. Whether it’s an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the arson of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, or the murder of Latinos on the US-Mexico border, racist violence is used as a way to instill fear, to “justify” to continuance of racist and imperialist policies, and to divide people who should be working together against a common enemy.
For anti-racist activists, this presents a daunting task, but not an insurmountable one. We got a taste of how to confront it when masses responded to the murder of Trayvon Martin, forcing the arrest of George Zimmerman. Families of victims of police terrorism have been leading the fight against the killer police who operate with impunity. The people who operate the Prayers for Sharmeka Moffitt Facebook page were right when they said we need to “apply the pressure for justice.” What was true in the 1950s, when Emmett Till’s mother fought for the story of her son’s lynching to be told to the world, what was true when Martina Correia fought for her brother’s life as she battled cancer, and what was true for Ramarley Graham’s parents as they demanded accountability from the police department that murdered their son is true this week too: any measure of justice Sharmeka receives will only come because we have fought for it. History has shown us that racist killers–would be killers in Sharmeka’s case–are never held accountable unless the inJustice Department feels it has no other choice. That is our task now. To make it clear that there is no choice but justice.
And we must remember that the fight against racism is crystalized by moments like the attack on Sharmeka, but they also go beyond it. When we fight stop and frisk, we are fighting for Sharmeka. When we confront fascists with a united front, we are fighting for Sharmeka. When we demand the racist killer cops be jailed, we are fighting for Sharmeka. When we fight apartheid schools, we are fighting for Sharmeka. And when we fight for Sharmeka, we are fighting for all of us.