The original meaning of the word woke deserves a resurrection. The seeds for it are in our activism, our art, and ourselves: in Colin Kaepernick’s public protest, in the work of Black Lives Matter and other black- and person-of-color-led organizations, in the art and music of Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Kendrick Lamar, and Solange. But wokeness has always begun with the self. I had lunch with a friend last week, and after we traded stories about jobs and marriages and the news, we switched, as is our custom, to the topic of police brutality. “Stay woke,” he told me at the end of our conversation. It was the first time in a while that I’d heard those words, but they still held their old power. An electric hit went up my spine.
This troubled modern history comes under careful examination in two powerful books, Chokehold: Policing black men by Paul Butler and I Can’t Breathe: The killing that started a movement by Matt Taibbi, the former deeply informed from a legal standpoint and yet in some ways still highly personal, and the latter closely reported by a veteran journalist, and yet historically informed and full of pathos. The two reach consonant conclusions. For both authors, a Supreme Court decision in the late 1960s, and revolutionary changes in the theory and practice of policing that followed a decade and a half later, combined to create a prison industrial complex in the US, whose cornerstone is the hair-trigger search and seizure of black men. This has led to a nearly weekly spectacle in which black men die in street encounters with the police. As this article was being written the latest of these incidents was playing out on American television screens, as black residents of Sacramento buried Stephon Clark amid angry street protests. Clark had been shot by police – who were following up on reports of someone in the neighbourhood breaking windows – in his grandmother’s back yard. He was unarmed.
The camera has made all the difference. A camera can mean that there is no ambiguity about what happened. Feidin Santana just happened to be where he was with his cell phone when Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4, 2015. We see Scott on the police car dash cam video getting out of that black Mercedes with the supposedly broken brake light and running. Then we see, on Santana’s video, Michael Slager firing eight shots into Scott’s back. We don’t see Scott trying to grab Slager’s taser, as Slager alleged.