Non-rarity Documented by Rare Events: An Essay on Violence Against People of Color
"...the violence perpetrated on communities of color is represented now by rare-evidence of a ubiquitous and widespread event that has been happening for hundreds of years."
June 15, 2020
Like much of the world, the Miss Hall’s community felt called to action after the recent episodes of violence against People of Color, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but as Dr. Christopher Himes, Miss Hall’s Director of Engineering & Technology Innovation, reminds us in an essay originally published on the platform, Medium, these events are neither rare nor new and are representative of a more widespread epidemic that remains hidden due to the willful blindness of many.
Dr. Himes’ essay is published in full below.
George Floyd died in Minneapolis Minnesota with the knee of a police officer at the back of his neck. “I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe…”. Floyd’s plea became the mantra of several mass protests against police violence and the lynching of People of Color, especially of Black men and women. The words uttered by Floyd moments prior to his death are linked through time and space to Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe” was heard almost 6 years earlier in Staten Island, New York as a police officer held Garner in a choke hold. These deaths and others are, in turn, connected to a long history of the Government committing acts of violence against People of Color across the United States. The stories are many and only recently has undeniable evidence emerged to the public in the form of videos captured by the victims or bystanders. And yet this is still just a small glimpse into the daily violence that remains undocumented, suppressed, and hidden in the United States of America.
At issue is our limited ability to critically observe , which has left us thinking that these events are rare, isolated, and not interconnected. But there is a truth that remains willingly hidden to many Americans. As a child, years before understanding my racial experiences as a biracial Person of Color growing up in a largely white city, I was really fascinated by dinosaurs and other extinct animals. My toys tried to recreate some imperceivable past where animals roamed the planet. These gigantic creatures were documented by the fossils discovered in various global locations, including in North America. The last part seemed to add more magic and mystery to my imagination. These fossils could be outside in my neighborhood hidden under the concrete of the sidewalk or in the neighbor’s overgrown yard. At that time I believed that the order of events was that an asteroid hit the earth followed by the creation of the fossils when the dinosaurs’ bones turned to stone. An inevitable outcome of a singular isolated event.
Communities of Color in the USA know that police and state-sanctioned brutality and violence has been around for hundreds of years.”
Studying biology many years later and eventually earning my doctorate in Evolutionary Biology, I understand that fossils were created under very specific circumstances and the process took thousands of years. Each artifact represents a singular instance of the same process of fossilization. The occurrence of a fossil being created is rare. The organism that becomes a fossil must represent a large and widely distributed species. Therefore, existence of a rare fossil did not represent the extinction of a species, instead it represented a time where the specific species was abundant, covering a lot of geographic space and existing for a long time. A species has to be abundant in order for the chance of one to be in the fossil record. The current fossil representation in evidence is rare, despite representing more than one individual from the time period it represents. This is the curious nature of fossil evidence, fossilization is a rare event that represents a non-rare existence.
The use of artifacts as evidence can be correlated to the video evidence that has brought light to the violence and killing of People of Color in the United States.
Communities of Color in the USA know that police and state-sanctioned brutality and violence have been around for hundreds of years. The emergence of video technology and the expansion of our ability to instantaneously share this information have allowed for real-time spread of documentation. This has brought a number of murders to large news outlets and social media, while sparking public outcry, protests, and launching numerous new movements including #blacklivesmatter. That said, there are other instances that have occurred that remain undocumented, unobserved, and even suppressed. Ahmaud Arbery was lynched on February 23, 2020, and it was not until several months later that the video was released depicting how he was hunted and shot down by white men who until the video’s release had not been arrested.
…we need to acknowledge that a Person of Color is more likely to be a victim of brutality and racist policies in their neighborhoods simply for being present.”
The connection here is that the violence perpetrated on communities of color is represented now by rare-evidence of a ubiquitous and widespread event that has been happening for hundreds of years. The violence perpetrated on People of Color is not isolated and not rare. These are a result of long standing systemic racism that has been happening over large geographic space and for a very long amount of time. It is also worth saying that the numerous occurrences of these acts of violence does not and should not reduce our sensitivity to them or allow us to forget the individuals and their families.
A recent article highlights the frequency of these killings and acts of violence “George Floyd happens everyday”. Too frequent to capture national attention these lives are remembered in local communities. Even with video images, people remain divided if they depict improper use of force, or if they show murder. As if there is some missing link that proves that the victim of violence did not deserve it, and therefore seemingly diminishes the need for action. This is despite the frequent and numerous videos documenting the attacks. Regardless of the interpretation, we need to acknowledge that a Person of Color is more likely to be a victim of brutality and racist policies in their neighborhoods simply for being present. Now as an adult thinking back on my life and memories of false stories of Black male threat, protests against police/state violence and other events, I recall the instances of racist acts aimed at me. While this is my shared common experience with other People of Color, I still have not experienced my childhood dream of finding a fossil.
Clayton, A. ‘George Floyd happens every day’: activists seek justice for police killings that media forgot. The Guardian. 7 June 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/07/police-killings-california-george-floyd-oscar-grant> Accessed: 7 June 2020.