Decriminalize Running, Fleeing and Free Movement for Black Americans! (Unlearning Oppression: Lesson 24)

Lately, I’ve been asking myself when open season on Black people will end. Hunting Black people is the longest running hunting season after that of Native Americans. Slavery lives on in this strange praxis, as a slow steady stream of oppression, rooted in a desire for free labor, that continues past the Jim Crow era into the policing free Black Americans. Hunting, lynching, and incarcerating Black people extends past legal slavery and persists with only small modifications and modernizations. Unfortunately, before George Floyd there was Oscar Grant. Before Ahmaud Arbery was poor Emmett Till. Before that, nameless countless Black People have died because of free movement or simply trying to run away from enslavement in the Peculiar Institution—the ultimate economic crime. The stories of Black Americans who mistake their status as free Americans, a status not yet implemented in the hearts and minds of White Americans, continues. We see that free movement—whether on foot, in a vehicle, or during recreational activity—is subject to police curtailment and punishable by death in all fifty states. It’s time to decriminalize the freedom and free movement by Black Americans and end the practices that uphold these outmoded beliefs. It’s time to stop valorizing White violence against Black people at the expense of the latter.

It is also possible for a person to infect others with his paranoid idea and for a sizable group to take up the erroneous judgement, until another group finally sets the matter straight. Witch-hunts, as examples of negative projections, or the veneration of Hitler as a savior-hero, as an example of positive projections, bear witness to the existence of the phenomenon of collective contagion.

Marie-Louise von Franz

It’s important to understand how and why these violent practices against Black Americans persist. Kens and Karens are the vigilantes of contemporary society, who uphold an invalid system of criminalized Black movement. They work to maintain the boundaries of separation in all domains. Ken is so ubiquitous and pervasive, his actions are normalized to the extent that these acts go largely undocumented, unseen and unnoticed—this is also why sexual misconduct and harassment have proven historically impossible to prove. Luckily for Black Americans, sexism does not grant White females the same good-citizen status as it confers upon White men, so we see so-called Karens more easily. This is evidenced in the aptly named BBQ Becky and Poolside Patty, the self- appointed protectors of the commons, with the most famous Karen tasked with protecting Central Park. The “collective unconscious” that grants White men hero-status for killing Black people also rewards them for their participation in policing and protecting the general White population from incursion by Black people. These behaviors are an articulation of White supremacy. Thus, Kens—simply White men—manifest in a positive projection: that of police and policing, while the role of vigilante White women, Karens, is to mobilize the entire system of policing.

Photo of the original American Karens at a Klan gathering; White women were defenders of White Supremacy and openly members of the Klu Klux Klan female flanks. Photo from Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore

“For Karen”: Footprints of the terrible are fresh all round us, the rattle of catastrophic grief coils in the dust of the ordinary day.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Getting regular yard work helped, but not enough to keep [the black male teenager] on the dime and out of the sight line of ambitious under-occupied police. His own [Black] boyhood had been shaped by fear of vigilantes, but dark blue uniforms had taken over posse work now.

Toni Morrison
1957 form of American posse from Gordon Parks The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957.

Ahmaud Arbery is only one of the latest examples of the unleashed posse: White vigilantes, men operating outside of a formal police force, who so strongly identify with the role of the posse that they act in accordance with the unspoken rules of violent White-against-Black engagement. The projection of White protector is so strong and deeply entrenched that these men don’t need uniforms to protect them; whiteness of skin color cloaks them and their intent to prevent all forms of Black mobility—physical, economic, geographic and so on. Case in point, in long lineage of such violent outrages perpetrated against Black Americans, Arbery’s assailants were not arrested for over two years, nor was anyone held accountable for his murder at the time of his murder. The entire incident—the virtual “recapture” of a runaway—literally, Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man, was running freely through the streets of his town. Fast-moving Arbery activated the posse response in the White men who hunted him down.

In 2022 America, Black men and women who step outside of the metaphorical slave enclosure and behave as if they are free and equal to Whites are ultimately targets of White violence and other forms of casual and formal policing. Many White Americans remain intoxicated by the collective contagion of American-style slavery, with its antiquated policies and white-supremacist ideologies. In short, many White Americans view all Black people as creatures to hunt for profit, which comes in the form of well-paid jobs in policing and incarceration.

The colonial world is cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.

Franz Fanon

Sadly, Black Americans are not strangers to constant violence at the hands of White men and women even after slavery has theoretically ended. Violence against Black people requires almost no justification, none if committed by police or white men. Like spousal abuse of previous centuries, it is considered a private matter. Enslaved people with the courage to run, were often hunted down my mobs or gangs who used violence to recapture these fleeing Black people and to use their recapture to instill fear in the general Black population in the region. This was and is important aspect that necessitates White violence. Let that sink in: Black people, technically emancipated in the United States of America in 1863, should now be able to run, walk, drive, cross borders, streets, state lines, walk through woods, cities and open spaces, without permission, without seizure and without harm. And yet, Black people’s movements are criminalized and violently enforced daily.

An example of contemporary “posse work” in this 2021 image of one of many Haitian migrants chased and assaulted by mounted White male posse members from National Geographic 01. 2022.

We have to delve into why Black people are still hunted with impunity by police and White vigilantes even after slavery has ended. It’s because America has failed to embrace its “shadow work,” and are instead fully invested in the “collective white projection.” According to Marie-Louise von Franz, our problem, the American problem, comes down to a collaborative societal projection onto the collective black skin,—a latent resentment of Black-people’s liberation from a paternalistic bondage that supposed us incapable as a premise for our enslavement—an illusion of their own creation. This “collective white projection” is now a social pathology, requiring the full and active participation of all White actors in order to maintain White supremacist social norms.

Therefore, the police posse is important to understand, as the posse represents the valued and lucrative work of poor White men, the non-landholders during legal slavery, who maintained the bonded Black workforce for slaveholders. These police and these self-appointed posse, kept enslaved Black Americans in their designated geographic location and even returned runaways to their slavers for pay. American police officers and their private White counterparts, Kens and Karens, guard society from incursion by Black people.

In an unfortunate twist, mobility is symbolized by the speed at which Black men, women and boys, move in and around society. Black movement itself becomes an activating force of the White posse: a fast-moving Black man, whether on foot or in a vehicle, literally activates the Pavlovian White posse or police. The drive to hunt is similar to the mechanical lure used to in dog racing to make greyhounds run their best during a race; the same adrenaline is released; the same salacious excitement; the same mindless bloodlust as a dog chasing fast-moving prey.

Contemporary self-appointed white posse members.

As a consequence, when Black People in America move, flee, drive, run, walk too fast, or appear in the wrong doorway, we become targets of White violence in the form of policing and by Kens and Karens. Black fleeing is a crime, and this is why the practice of hunting down out-of-place Negroes persists all over America today —even in states that never had legal slavery. Walking in a new area, running and driving shouldn’t be a crime punishable by death in all fifty states.

Lesson 24:

With your accountability group, friends, family, church and or social group, explore ways to teach, honor and dismantle the practices of surveilling, chasing, killing and policing Black men, women and children for being in public spaces that existed as taboos under the mantle of Slavery and Jim Crow. Use these activities to write, produce a film, or audio file to educate your community about the unconscious habits of viewing Black people as “out of place” in a variety of situations, settings and contexts. Draft a plan of action for countering unintentional acts that may do harm to people of color in your community.

Edissa Nicolás-Huntsman is an essayists and co-author in the award-winning Feminist collaboration Fierce: Essays by and About Dauntless Women.

2 Comments

  1. So important to think about the current ethos of fear and mistrust, violence and repression as the outgrowth and continuation of historic structural injustice. Not an easy read. Thanks for the work.

    1. Not easy to write, either, John. Many tears went into this shortened draft. May it open hearts and minds and begin the work of healing our nation. Otherwise, silence would feel like collusion to me. Blessings to you and yours!

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