Luke, Caged: The Joy of Black Love and the Agony of Police Reform

luke-cage-daredevil

Lemme start this spoiler-filled review/hotpiece with the following caveat: I love superhero shows in general. Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage was good in most respects. While some reviewers worry about the conservative nature of Cage, you have to take into account that Power Man was no more going after “black-on-black” crime than Daredevil goes after “white-on-white” crime. By nature, superhero stories are inherently conservative in that they focus on the power of a select group of people fighting evil people (who tend to be poor, at least on the street level), rather than fighting evil structures, and rather than focusing the liberation and radical empowerment of the many. In this vein, LC is not any more so conservative than Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, and in many ways, much less so.

A few other thoughts I had while watching the series.

One, in the Black Lives Matter Age, there is a lot of talk about Black Death, particularly among fellow non-Black folks, but there is not so much talk about Black Life and what that means. The Harlem of Luke Cage, however, is unapologetically Black. It is breathing in the blues, jazz, hip-hop, sports-talk, trash-talk, barbershops, and shared history of Black people in Harlem and throughout the US. The show breathes love of Black people, Black business, Black culture, Black minds, Black ingenuity, Black sex (despite the awful coffee jokes). Black love. These are not just bodies in the street, but lived lives.

Add to the mix that the blackness experience is not singular here. Early on, we have three different perspectives for what it means to love Black Harlem in a White Supremacist Capitalist world: Cottonmouth’s with money, his cousin Councilwoman Mariah’s with political power, and Pop the Barber’s with interpersonal relationships (later we also hear from good-but-suspicious cop Misty Knight about protecting from bullies using the law, but, well…). Unlike later villain Diamondback, none of these characters is cartoonish in their perspectives. They all have redeeming qualities not only with their personalities, but also with their perspectives. They’re all trying with what they know and how they exceed.

Two, after the police conduct a racialized stop-and-frisk brutalization of Harlem youth culminating in one of them being beaten in an interrogation room, I felt abjectly cheated. There was no justice for Lonnie Wilson – who we mutedly met in the first scenes – despite his face being torn up and bloodied by the police. And while that one cop – a bad seed – was put on leave pending an investigation, the commanders and supervisors who ran and sanctioned this operation and who left this child alone in the hands of this violent man in a tight room were free to run about their day, making justifications for their racism.

Three, under the direction of Councilwoman Mariah Dillard at a rally in her nightclub, the BLM protests are completely undone. No, contrary to White imagination, they do not turn violent – at least in the sense of destroying property. Instead, politician-cum-underworld master “Black Mariah” turns their rage against the police force into one of empowering the police with even more deadly weapons. She reminds her audience that the real threat is not the police but Cage, whom in a bit of J. Jonah Jameson-inspired blurb she calls a superpowered “menace.” Councilwoman/gun-runner Dillard appeases the conscience of racist police by reassuring listeners that the police were merely shook up themselves because they too were afraid of LC. If only they had better weapons, the reasoning explicitly goes, they would leave us good people alone.

But that’s not how the police referred to the “blacks and Hispanics” of Harlem. “The good people in Harlem have no problem with me. Just the assholes.” But the police weren’t even shaking down known troublemakers (which should have been questioned anyway). Apparently, being a young black or brown male in Harlem makes you an asshole, worthy of being hurt. Blackness means not only should you be feared, but that you should fear.

By nature, superhero stories suspend disbelief. But only so far. We can never trust the physics put before us, but we want to follow the psychics – the characters’ believability – of these stories. We need to believe that these are human beings – that they are us in a world where Einstein and Newton are tossed out the window. The fact that these protesters sided with Mariah in arming rather than disarming the police was not just poor writing – it was a punch to the gut. Are people really this dumb? Can we bend realism that far?

Can a group protesting police brutality against black people really go to demanding that the police be given more resources for their victimization? And then I remembered that’s how most politicians are spinning the Black Lives Matter movement now – whether they support Blue Lives Matter laws or they tell protesters that they need to vote, not boo. Hell, compare what the neoliberal wing of the wider BLM movement did with Campaign Zero with the much more roots-deep Movement for Black Lives.

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16 Things to Look Forward to in 2016, Chicago

Vigil for Bettie Jones last weekend. Jones was a Chicago grandmother shot by police for answering the door during domestic dispute as cops were shooting through her to 21 year old with a bat.

  1. Rahm Emanuel’s resignation. And not just for the Laquann McDonald cover-up but for hosts of things, some of which will be covered here.
  2. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez getting booted from office. She was part of the cover-up as well and has been extremely pro-police and pro-incarceration in ways that rival Daley and Giulliani’s pre-mayoral runs as SA’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if she also was planning on running for mayor of Chicago. You can’t use the full weight of the state’s attorney office to cover you any longer, Anita!
  3. Fewer jails. Jail and jail time, with or without prison, lead to time away from work, from the community, from family. Thus they work against communities of color and lead to cycles of poverty and high-crime, particularly where
  4. More restorative justice hubs. The amount of money that Cook County spends on incarceration contrasted with restorative justice – where the person who made an infraction works within the community to make amends and learn how to deal with issues that caused the problem in the first place – is beyond absurd. It is a fraction of a percent, at around $0.5 million to the jail’s $360 million and we need to at least double it the next year.
  5. End cash bonds. These unfairly restrict poor people, primarily those who are charged with petty crimes. Cash bonds put undue pressure on poor people – usually black Chicagoans – and the justice system, including crowding jails and tagging innocent people with guilty pledges so that they can go home. They then have an adverse affect on poor communities of color.
  6. Restore community mental health centers.
  7. Abolish Broken Windows Policing.
  8. Disband the current, corrupt, ineffecient, police-caping Independent Police Review Authority and make it truly independent.
  9. Establish proper, completely independent (no police, no police connections) oversight of the IPRA.
  10. Disarm the police. No shots. No tasers. They must learn to deescalate using actual tactics of deescalation.
  11. National gun control laws that make it nearly impossible to sell large amounts of guns – which are then smuggled into urban areas like Chicago and make it likely to end up in a shooting of
  12. Drastically increase violence intervention and prevention programs such as CeaseFire.
  13. Reorganize the Chicago Public Schools Board. It is run by capitalists and for capitalists.
  14. Fully fund publicly-controlled schools.
  15. Remove Chicago police resource officers from schools.
  16. Insert violence prevention programs and training for all staff at all CPS schools in order to equip students with violence reduction & prevention tools and embodied practice.
Ash Wednesday protest against police violence. Photo by Nancy Stone for the Chicago Tribune

Ash Wednesday protest against police violence. Photo by Nancy Stone for the Chicago Tribune